WARNING: contains mild misery.
In academia, we are often comfortable with talking about class in the abstract without fully getting to grips with the ways in which income disparity influences our profession. Fixed term and part time contracts are being increasingly used to conserve departmental budgets, but this sort of precarious labour has been a fixture of academia for many years. Most of us have several years of these sorts of contracts following at least 7 years in full or part time education. Unless you are independently wealthy, this can take it’s toll on your credit rating. And, if you are wealthy, I think you need to stop reading as the chauffeur missed a spot when he was cleaning your Bentley. You just can’t get the help these days.
I’m all too aware that these situations exist in many other career pathways but it was a shock to me that academics can stick their head in the sand, as if they were never a struggling postgrad living on store-cupboard stew and post-seminar wine. The post-PhD period is a particularly financially difficult one, given that you need to keep a first month’s rent and deposit, as well as interview money, in your back pocket in case you’re lucky enough to be selected. At this time, when you should be networking like a champ, you’re trying to decide between conference fees and your electricity bill.
This financial pressure doesn’t go away when you get a job: I often bristle when I have to pay hundreds and hundreds out of pocket then tussle with multiple different financial departments in order to get my coins back. At one point this summer, I was out of pocket £875 from three different institutions and I’ve only managed to get half of that back. I’m very lucky to have a permanent job that allows me to tap into an overdraft if the expenses and the repayments don’t tally, but I remember how heartbreaking this was when I was a Teaching Fellow, paid during term-time only. I will never forget how kind my friends were to me during that period.
But, while we are doing what we can to work for fairer conditions in academia, I think there are a few practical things that might help alleviate the dire financial circumstances that keep so many people’s voices out of the debate and lead to real misery for some.
1. Don’t be clueless
This first one is for anyone in stable employment. So, you go for coffee or a conference pint with a PhD or ECR: buy them a drink. You organise a dinner that they might like to attend: consciously pick a budget-y place. Put a bit extra in and don’t let them put their hand in their pocket too much. They might want to buy you a drink because you are the big cheese and you might like that, but it is crass to let people who are precariously employed shout your round all night when you’re on a plum salary. No one will ever say ‘I can’t get this round in because I’d like to buy my baby some books and my husband got put on a zero hours contract’. Be kind when you can, all my favourite academics are.
2. Start Early
It really gets my goat when reading lists don’t take into account the potential poverty of students. Yes, it might not be the edition your mate edited, but this one is cheaper and your students have six modules to take this year. It breaks my heart when students have to drop out due to being unable to afford books, transport etc. So, start with your students: show them that even though they didn’t grow up in a home where people use a soup spoon that you will work with them to help give them access. Get your library orders in early, digitise where you can and don’t leave it to the last minute to decide they need to buy something. You could have just made someone choose between a book and a gas bill. Extend this to MAs and PhDs: as we move through academia we are often more reluctant to admit that we need help. Educate your students about hardship funds if they open up to you, and any pots of money that you hear about.
3. Networking for Free
The hardest thing for anyone concerned about money is academic conferences. We think that in order to make the connections that lead to the job, we must get out there and present. Conferences can be horrifically expensive though. I do have some sympathy for organisers, though, given the fees that most venues charge. But, there needs to be another way when there are horrendously difficult choices to be made. Try to be as strategic as possible: think about where you are positioning yourself and where you have the greatest chance of meeting new people. Go to as many free events as possible: check out other institutions in your city and see if they have a seminar programme. They will be so delighted an external person showed up to make up the crowd, you’ll be welcomed with open arms. Try your best, even if you’re not entirely comfortable, to introduce yourself. Ask an interested, polite question and thank the speaker afterwards. Do what you can with the resources available to you and don’t think that if you miss one thing you’re doomed: you can come up with new ways to meet people and get your ideas out there.
Here’s the heart of the matter: it can be really impossibly difficult to manage financially as an ECR. This is compounded by a culture of prestige and acquiescence that often doesn’t say when something is unjust. But, I really do urge you, when you get a stable job: think about the less well off when you organise events. Do reduced rates. Set budget reading lists. Buy that wan postgrad a sandwich. People won’t tell you when they’re having a rough time, and a little bitta kindness goes further than you’ll know.