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Sessional Academic Challenges—Part 1

‘What are we going to do with you?’ said my supervisor, tapping at the table with his pen. ‘There’s no job for you here.’ I stared at my hands. I knew there was no job, nor the likelihood of a future job. In fact, I didn’t know if I even wanted a job at my alma mater. I too was privy to the emails about an ever-tightening budget, staff cuts, redundancy offers and restructuring.

I sought an interview with the dean from another university. ‘I see CVs like yours come through every week,’ he sighed, in the five minutes he’d allocated to me. ‘I wonder what we are going to do with you?’

I wondered too. Why had I bothered to put in the hours, days and weeks, working as a casual academic for the six years during and after my PhD if there was no job at the end?

What was I going to do with me?

It’s a pretty common situation. PhD scholarships aren’t well paid, even if you are lucky enough to have one, and academics go on sabbatical or maternity leave, or simply need another hand teaching their course. Since forever, PhD students have helped with teaching working as casual academics, often continuing this work after completing their PhD. It’s been mutually beneficial … but has it reached a point of no return?

In line with trends in casualisation of our national workforce, casual academics are a growing part of the university teaching sector. From 2005—2015, the proportion of full-time equivalent academic staff employed casually has increased from 19 per cent (2005) to 23 per cent (2015). Similarly, limited term contracts have increased from 32.5 per cent to 34.7 per cent, while tenured staff numbers have decreased from 48.5 per cent in 2005 to 42.4 per cent in 2015. In fact, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) estimates there are now approximately four times as many casuals as permanent full-time staff in Australian universities (National Tertiary Education Union based on data from the Department of Education and Training).

A Foot in the Door

There’s some positives to undertaking casual work as an academic. The work is usually on campus, even within your faculty, handy if you are already there undertaking study. The pay is better than menial labour. Well, marginally. In 2017, demonstrators without PhDs are paid approximately A$48 per hour, while those with a PhD are paid A$58 per hour. House cleaners, who obviously do not require tertiary qualifications, are upwards of A$30 per hour.

Undertaking casual work can help you get your ‘foot in the door’ as one anonymous casual academic states. In particular, networking and a mentor can help generate more casual, and hopefully, eventually, permanent work. But this may be quite dependent on whether you have someone to champion your cause, throwing work your way and introducing you to the right people, and whether you can find time for these meetings. Rather than feeling part of the faculty, one past casual academic, choosing to remain anonymous, described the experience as ‘isolating’, another as ‘very bad for the ego’.

Dr Anna Hopkins, a lecturer in conservation biology and environmental science at Edith Cowan University, worked as a casual research academic for several years prior to securing a contract. She found this period of her life very stressful. ‘I really cared about the projects I was working on … I made the most of every single hour … It was exhausting. I took only a few very short breaks and didn’t really get to do any of the networking with colleagues that is so important for academics. I didn’t go to seminars or group meetings much, as I wanted to get the work done,’ she explains.

Undertaking casual research work also can lead to publications—crucial for securing academic positions and grants for early career researchers. In my case, working as a casual academic after I had completed my PhD has led to a number of publications. Dr Hopkins agrees, but this has led to its own problems for her, ‘I have had some publications from that period which is good. But, I also have many projects still left to write up’. Due to necessity, Dr Hopkins said yes to any project offered, but was only paid to perform laboratory work, not the analysis and writing, which is fairly typical. ‘I worked on about 10 different projects, often simultaneously,’ she says, ‘I’ve still got (unfinished) papers from about half those projects … This is stressful and difficult to fit in to the workload of my new academic position’.

Although it is fair to say that most permanently employed academics probably worked as a casual at some point, it is definitely not a pathway that guarantees permanent full-time or even permanent part-time employment. ‘There is no status to teaching’ says Dr Rhiannon Davis, who worked as a casual academic at the University of Sydney for nine years. ‘I was warned not to waste so much time taking tutoring work and concentrate instead on getting more conferences or publications. And in hindsight … I should have. But teaching seems like it should be more important because it is the students who we need to support and excite about our subject’.

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