It’s an academic’s life for me…

I came across an article recently in the Guardian Professional Network for people working in HE. Note that’s administrators and academics. The article referenced a piece of ‘research’ in which it was claimed that, of all the professions, academia is the least stressful. The ‘research’ was published in Forbes magazine. Predictably, a lot of academics got quite cross about the assertion, but it got me thinking about why people might have a misperception of the profession.

We come into contact with teachers throughout our lives. It is easy enough to extrapolate from primary/secondary experiences of teaching to the teaching undertaken in HE. But that’s lazy and does a disservice, both to primary/secondary teachers (contrary to popular belief, most do not work only from 8 – 3 pm and take copious holidays throughout the year), and the academics. In HE over the past couple of decades (at least), the burden upon academic staff to take on more administrative responsibilities, to increase and enhance their research output, to be more accountable to the public by demonstrating ‘value for money’ through impact studies like the REF, has all contributed to a much increased workload. For the majority, teaching constitutes a small proportion of an academic’s workload. However, because of lazy conclusions like the above, the general public seem to believe that the academic’s life is one of relatively high freedoms and low levels of responsibility.

It’s true that the profession does have freedoms not open to other professions like law or medicine. That it, intellectual freedom is a basic part of what it is to be an academic: to choose the subject of one’s forthcoming publication, to spend time debating principled issues with fellow academics, to present oneself and one’s institution at conferences internationally and so on. But that intellectual freedom is nonetheless bounded by the responsibilities that are ‘unseen’ or the less glamourous parts of the job: the admin, seminar and lecture preparation, marking etc etc. Again, it is lazy to draw the conclusion that the intellectual freedom is necessarily conducive to a stress-free profession.

So why would anyone want to go into academia? Well, I can only speak from my own experiences, and my aspirations rest on the sense that academia is a vocation. To me, the opportunity to do what I love, what I would do anyway in my own time, and to get paid for it, is a real privilege and sometimes I think that academics can come off badly when they are perceived to be complaining about the additional responsibilities that the profession entails. So not only do I get to write and research about what I love, I know that, in time, I will also get to teach and come into contact with equally intellectually curious students. I will continually be enriching my experiences of the world and of other people, questioning what I take for granted and being open to change.

Maybe people who have been in the job for a number of years will smile or sneer at my naivete, but I don’t care: I think they should be reminded of their own reasons for entering the profession and to be thankful that they have such rewarding jobs. If they can’t see that, then maybe it’s time to look for something new.