My Academic Diary: An Anonymous Member of the Academic Precariat

Image: Julian Lozano

Sunday 20th May, 2018

I am what some call a ‘portfolio worker’, a ridiculous managerial term referring to those who make up their working week with a variety of different jobs. In my case, I work part-time as a university tutor, and part-time as a researcher. There are also significant elements of my ‘portfolio’ that I undertake ‘voluntarily’: a great deal of student-centred admin, writing articles and presenting papers based on my doctoral research, being part of a research ethics committee and various research centres all make up a hefty part of my work too. What this means is that, day to day, my work pattern changes, and likewise it changes from month to month (outside of term time, the composition of my ‘portfolio’ changes, as does my payslip accordingly). Rather than taking a particular working day as the focus here then, this diary entry attempts to reconstruct my working life, representing what ‘a typical day’ might look like if I had one, in order to try and capture some of the things that make up the working life of an early career academic and researcher working on various contracts. 

Though I wake up at around 7am, my day really begins at around 8am, with two buses. One into the city centre, and one back out the other side to the University, which takes just under an hour. I tend to buy travel cards in advance: whereas a one-day bus pass is £3.70, if I buy a ten-day pass it is £34, making travel 30p cheaper a day. If I can afford it, I buy a one month pass, which makes daily travel cheaper still, but the initial outlay is greater. If my pass has expired, towards the end of the month, I have been known to scrape the barrel, or rather the back of the sofa and the bottom of my backpack, in order to find money for the bus, so that I can wait until payday to top up. Whilst for some it is uncouth to discuss personal finances, this is a discussion that needs to be had. Financial worry shrouds my days from start to finish. This is exacerbated by the fixed terms of these various contracts. I am not a portfolio worker, I am a member of the academic precariat.

This financial worry aside, I enjoy riding the bus to work. I tend to listen to music, which quells stress and grants me serenity as I make my way through the city. Though I try to resist doing this, I answer emails whilst on the bus too, particularly those from students. I do this for free, as it doesn’t fall under any of the contracts through which I am employed. When I get off the bus, I have a short walk to the office. I make sure I pick one last song to listen to during this walk, to savour the last moments before the working day really starts. 

Depending on what day it is, I work in different offices, in different buildings, and undertake different tasks. My backpack has therefore become a mobile office kit, containing all of the items I might need for my portfolio for any given day. Regardless of what role I am in, I begin by unpacking my mobile office, checking my diary, and then checking my emails again. Whilst I check them, this is not to say that I answer them all there and then: there are always some which fall outside of the remit I am working within at that point in time (i.e. as a researcher, or teacher, or volunteer), and these emails will have to wait. I then try not to check my emails until around lunchtime, so that I can get a good amount of work done from 9am until 1pm. Recently, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, this morning stint of work has involved preparing teaching, and on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it has involved writing papers for the research project which forms the majority of my employment. If I work particularly efficiently on Tuesdays and Thursdays, after I have finished teaching preparation, which alwaystakes longer than the paid allocation (2 hours prep, for 1 hour teaching is the allocation, which in reality takes at least double), I might have time to work on an article of my own for an hour, though I find this compartmentalisation of time stifling in terms of creativity, and the time I occasionally claw back is rarely very productive. 

I often use my lunch break to reply to those emails that have been put on hold for the morning, and to catch up on other administrative tasks. For instance, I might have received a research ethics application, and I will begin to read this. If it is a good application, with no problems, then I might be able to sign this off during my lunch hour. If not, I will finish it in the evening. This practice is ultimately the product of worries about money. I am a voluntary member of this committee, not purely because I wish to ensure that research is ethically-conducted, but also because I am told that in order to get a stable, permanent job as a lecturer, wherein administrative roles are accounted for in contracts, experience of university administration is ‘essential’. This is not the case every lunch time, and once or twice a week, I meet with friends. Conversation here is usually of a sociological variety, and often reflects upon the state of the university, and the experience of being an ECR at this point in time. Equally it might relate to other aspects of sociology, and these conversations help me maintain my vigour for the discipline, which is otherwise often, and increasingly, sapped. 

My afternoons, again depending on what day it is, are either made up of teaching, conducting research or writing as part of my research post. Like my mornings, I try to cordon off this time so I don’t answer emails again until around 5pm. 

Two days a week, my day ends by teaching from 5-6pm. This is a nice way to end the day. One of the first year modules I teach involves group presentations based on set readings. I would never have been able to make it through these readings as an undergraduate, let alone present on them, and hearing students speak so proficiently is wonderful. I want to encourage them to pursue their studies further, to do PhDs and become sociologists. But then I think to myself: would I really advise pursuing this career, made up of a mish-mash of fixed-term contracts, perpetual instability and constant financial worry? Would I have chosen this career, knowing what I know now? There is possibly no future. I can barely bring myself to think about this, but it follows me around everywhere I go. I also wonder whether the students know of the precarity of teaching staff like me, and how they feel about it, though I wonder this less now, after their support during the recent strike.

The commute home is much like the commute to work: music, emails, also the news, and Twitter. Except this time everyone on the bus is looking weary, and I think I must do too. I get home at around 7pm. I like to sit down for about 30 minutes with a cup of tea when I get home, and sometimes my partner and I will play a game of cards to unwind. ‘Right then’, one of us will say, ‘better crack on with work’. My partner works in academia too. I open my laptop. What’s most urgent now? I’ve got this paper, based on my doctoral research, which I really need to finish, but I’ve also got that ethics application I’ve not finished reviewing, a conference abstract due, that other paper that needs finishing, that proof-reading I said I’d do for a friend, and more emails have dripped in relating to teaching, and all of these must be addressed. More often than not, my articles are pushed to the bottom of the pile – they can wait until the weekend, or some other modicum of my ‘spare time’ – and I’ll work on one or more of the immediately pressing tasks a night, interspersed with doing household tasks. Working, with food simmering away in the background defines my evenings. Though this is not always the case, I often work until I physically can no longer see or think straight, and then go to bed, usually at around midnight. Just before I get into bed, I lay out my clothes for the next day, to save time in the morning, in order to repeat this exhausting process, for much of which I do not get paid. 

Whilst some of the above is individual to me, I am all but sure I am not alone in the broader contours of this experience.

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