I was chatting with a senior colleague a couple of weeks back and was surprised by his view of academic work as a hobby. He suggested that participation in academia is a privilege because it permits us to be professional hobby-makers.
It’s not secret that I’ve had a bit of hard time in my second postdoc. As a result, I’ve been a lot crankier than usual and more willing to launch into feisty rants about the perils of postdoc-ing. In this particular conversation, I baulked at the idea that academia was essentially a richly rewarded hobby.
Most higher education workers would probably agree that a financially motivated person would be ill placed in academia, compared to another industry. In general, academia is poorly rewarded, both in terms of recognition and financial gain. In my second postdoc with considerably greater output and increasing responsibility, I feel no more valued and am no better financially rewarded than those just having graduated from PhDs.
What’s the point then? As compensation for modest opportunities for recognition and reward, academics often proclaim great work satisfaction. It sometimes seems that academics believe that our industry has a monopoly on both intellect and enjoyment.
However, I expect that intelligent people thrive in many industries and that participants in many sectors have a great enjoyment of work. I’m sure that many GPs, teachers or tradies, for example, are intellectually satisfied by their work. Would these high achieving people in other sectors willingly trade job security, feeling valued and opportunities for career development for the sense of doing ones hobby? It seems like a particularly lopsided trade.
I agree that participating in academia is a privilege. It is indeed a great privilege and responsibility to consume taxpayer funding in the pursuit of ambiguous research goals. It is also a great privilege and responsibility to stand up in from of a class of first year undergraduate students and be part of their navigation of the adult world.
However, to claim the job poor security and opportunity are a fair trade-off for enjoyment of work merely legitimises a culture of exploitation in the industry. We can simultaneously enjoy our work and be valued (albeit modestly paid) participants in the workplace, but not while we reduce our industry to these simplicities and perpetuate this myth that we are categorically lucky.
I love science, and working as a scientist is a great source of spiritual and intellectual fulfilment. But it is not a hobby. My hobbies are running and bird spotting and being irritated by my somehow ever-expanding menagerie of pets. I also love being an academic and identifying as such. But I’m sure I would love it more if we invested in making it better rather than settling for an academy intent on glacial cultural change.
For me, it’s important to disambiguate work and non-work. Otherwise it’s far too easy to perceive dissatisfaction with academia as a personal failing. That is, it’s easy to start thinking that an academic career is hard because I’m not strong enough, or that maintaining work-life balance is merely a personal, rather than a personal and collective, responsibility. Let’s start seeing academia work as a precisely that, work, and then let’s start working to make it better work.