Sometimes academia is far from being cosy vibes and historical libraries. When I decided to become a professor in academia, my mind was full of romantic visions of myself reading and discussing with high-minded people in some warm library corner, maybe in front of a fireplace. Then, the reality hit and after almost 10 years of this job, I find myself still in a precarious position, with a very high amount of uncertainty in front of me and the perception of having “finished the time”.
Being a researcher for 10 years now, but also an independent woman, a mum and a wife, has allowed me to reflect multiple times on the type of job I am doing. On its positive and negative elements. I know many people experience the same but very few talk about it. I think we should.
Academia is not a simple place to work in. Let’s say it out loud.
In this blog post, I reflect on my personal path. Everyone has his own experience that can be very different from mine. I do not claim my experience as universal but just very -very- personal. I hope that this perspective will be interesting to you and maybe it will comfort someone in acknowledging that you are not alone in this path.
2 things I hate about working in Academia and some mitigation strategies
Expert or fundraiser?
Academia is a very competitive world. You are asked to be the best in your field quite soon in your academic career. And to some extent, this is fine as you should become an expert in your research field. If you manage to become “the best expert” in your themes -if this exists-, you are probably doing this work very well.
However, many times you are asked not only to become such an expert in many other skills and activities, such as writing proposals, finding funds for the research group, working on projects of other researchers, managing budgets, and many more.
That’s part of the work! You would probably say and I would agree with you if these “additional skills” were effectively additional.
In 10 years of research, I think I have spent more time in writing high-valuable (I hope) proposals for seeking grants and funds than reading and researching for my personal research. And, in my opinion, this is not healthy. I of course see and understand the need of grants to then have the opportunity to do the work, but how can you do this if the funds you get, cover your contract for just 1 year? You will soon find yourself spending your time researching for the next grant than for writing a research paper!
Additionally, it is also important to consider that international and national calls for research projects are not necessarily aligned with your proper research line. Sometimes, you will find yourself working on projects that deal with your research interests but are somehow not completely centred on them.
How can you become an expert in your field if you have to read, write and do real research work on your key themes at the weekends because on weekdays you have to run behind many proposals?
My mitigation strategy? Two of them:
- I have learnt to calendar block times during the week for reading research papers and books, writing reflections and thinking about my own topics of interest. I usually try to block entire afternoons, and when I can days (but this happens very few times), for this purpose. At least I try to block 4 hours of personal research work per week. Sometimes it happens, sometimes not, but the intention is there.
- Build a reliable Second Brain for your research reflections and reviews. It happened that I have found time to read papers and books, even within intense weeks, but after some days I forgot my reflections and even what I read. A safe and reliable space where you can write down all these things, while you are working on them is necessary.
Work uncertainty and salary
The second major aspect that I hate about academic work is the uncertainty of the work and the salary compared to working hours and results. It has always been known that working in academia is very uncertain, especially in the first steps of the career. But what is the timeframe of these “first steps”. In Italy, at least, but also in other countries, you can stay around 10 years with yearly contracts not knowing if you will work the next one and where.
When I started, as a PhD student, I had the chance to win a grant for three years. This allowed me to put the basis of my entire career and to fall in love with research. After these three years, however, I continued to collaborate in the same research group without any grant or salary for 9 entire long months (for the sake of it – may be my first mistake), during which I had to cover my expenses with other types of jobs during the evenings and also very early mornings. I was also in part supported financially by my husband as well. I will always be grateful to him for his support. But I have been lucky.
After these terrible months, I won a grant for a 1-year research position. And this happened for the 5 consequent years after this first one, reaching the maximum of 6 years of research contracts allowed under Italian legislation. This is the point where I am now: in my last 6th year of yearly-renovated research contracts as a post-doc.
I thank God every day for having a salary and a job that I love. But what are the results that I have reached within these 10 years? How many hours I have worked outside the “normal schedule” foreseen in my contract? Are these correctly awarded with the actual salary and with this continuous uncertainty?
My answer is definitely NOT. The salary is quite low, in comparison with European standards and very similar to non-highly-skilled types of works. However, you are expected to do this work at the best of your possibilities, with a lot of personal commitment, to have the chance to follow this type of career. And, in many research groups, you are not encouraged or well seen if you complain about these working conditions, especially because sometimes your supervisor is already doing what he can.
What will I do next year? I do not know. I have to win a stable grant in Italy or I have to go abroad, with all the difficulties it entails with a family.
My suggestions for young researchers? Two of them:
- Be prepared for the long run, economically and mentally. Try to have a plan B, especially for the financial aspects, and consider your wellbeing and mental health first. Team with valuable partners and get support from people you trust. The actual world is full of opportunities and many times I made the mistake to do not speak loud about working conditions. I have also been scared of going outside -even for a few years- as I thought this would not have been seen well. It is possible but many times it was just fear.
- Speak out loud and be honest with yourself about the quality of your work and your personal life goals. I would have liked this advice 10 years ago, and maybe I would have had a healthier work experience. But, you know, we learn while doing.
Why am I still doing this work? Because despite the negative elements (that are present in all jobs), I love being an academic researcher.
2 aspects I love about working in Academia
I can write and read as part of my job and for me, this is enough for considering this work valuable.
I have had the opportunity, in the last years, to teach my class of students with my own course. I could define the entirety of the course: the structure, the lessons, the readings and many more, and this was a very important objective for me. And I enjoy every minute of it.
I love to teach, I love to discuss themes I am passionate about, and I love to read.
I had the chance to write and publish a book on a subject that I love. And I am planning to write a second one.
That’s my job and I think I will continue doing what I can to follow this dream.
The second valuable aspect I really love about the work is the community you can build around you, of other researchers, mentors, professors and students. However, let me say that you should always be very careful. Trust is a sensitive issue. And academia sometimes is very -VERY- competitive. But, if you are able to detect these aspects well -and I get it wrong many times-, the bonds that you will have the possibility to build are really valuable.
I still remember with joy many work trips at conferences and EU research project meetings with very nice and supportive people I had the chance to work with in the past.
I hope that this long post was interesting to you. I had to delete many points to make it readable but I have many more positive and negative aspects to talk about. Let me know in the comment below if you would be interested in reading more of these.
Do you recognise yourself in these experiences? Do you have any other suggestions that can be valuable for the community? You are free to share your thoughts.
For today that’s all. Good luck!