On academia, precarity, and the word that changed everything about how I see myself and my work
As I write, the largest strike of academic workers in US history is taking place in my home state of California. Some 48,000 tutors, graduate researchers, teaching assistants, and postdocs working at institutions affiliated with the University of California (UC) have taken to the streets to protest unfair labor practices.
At the same time, major university strikes have been occurring in another place I used to call home: the United Kingdom. These strikes over pay, working conditions, and pensions have rallied over 70,000 participants from 150 different universities, and are being described as the biggest to ever hit UK higher education.
Similar movements are afoot here in Switzerland. An appeal was recently launched in response to precarious working conditions in academia, urging the government to create more permanent posts in Swiss institutions.
As someone who has been precariously employed throughout my academic career, I can’t say I’m surprised by any of this.
I received my PhD and secured my first temporary lectureship just before the financial crisis of 2008. I was lucky: those who didn’t secure a position before the crisis hit were soon faced with a frighteningly shrunken job market. Some of those who managed to secure interviews or job offers that year saw these opportunities evaporate without warning as institutions cancelled hirings. It was disastrous.
And things have only gotten worse. The academic job market hasn’t recovered. Nearly every application for an academic post is a crap shoot. Pensions are being slashed, pay is not rising at the same rate as inflation, and many contingent faculty around the world are criminally underpaid and overworked.
Since 2008, I’ve held temporary positions in four countries, and endured one year of unemployment. My current post cannot be extended or made permanent once it concludes at the end of 2024. My future in academia is uncertain, to say the least.
As anyone in my position will tell you, precarity takes a toll. It makes it difficult to build a life in one place, to save, or to plan for the future. It affects your personal life, your finances, and your physical and mental health. This is true even in the best of circumstances. One of the most wonderful periods of my career required me to commute between two countries by plane, living and working away from my family for weeks at a time. Every time I waved goodbye to my three-year-old son I felt like my heart was being ripped in two. I developed a sudden fear of flying—every jolt of turbulence made me panic (What if I never see my family again?).
My future in academia is uncertain, to say the least. And precarity takes a toll.
As the ongoing strikes make abundantly clear, thousands are struggling to navigate the world of precarious and underpaid employment in academia. Many of them are entirely qualified, more than qualified, for a permanent position. And my guess is that most of them are struggling to reconcile the fact of their achievements, experience, and expertise with the fact that they have so far been unable to secure a tenure-track job: Does this mean I’m not good enough? Does this mean I’m a failure?
I struggled with questions like these for a long time. It took me years to realise that, despite how I felt, I wasn’t failing. Far from it: I was succeeding in building a career for myself through my teaching, research, and writing. It’s just that the way I was doing it was not how I’d thought ‘academic success’ would look.
Part of this had to do with language. We all love titles like ‘Assistant/Associate Professor’. Few of us love to be called ‘adjunct’, ‘independent’, or ‘unaffiliated’.
Ultimately, a shift in language is what made the biggest difference in how I saw myself—not as a ‘fixed-term’ or ‘non-tenure-track’ scholar, but as a ‘freelancer’. I’m forging a career via a constant flow of pitches, proposals, and applications. So far, I’ve published five books, along with numerous articles and book chapters, and I’ve been awarded nearly CHF 2m of research grants from major funding bodies in five countries. If that isn’t success, I don’t know what is. And it’s thinking of myself as a freelancer that has helped me put those achievements into perspective.
I soon learned I wasn’t the only one to have made this discovery. In 2014, Katie Rose Guest Pryal published a blog post titled ‘What does it mean to be a freelance academic?’ She has since published a book on the subject: Freelance Academic (2019), an account of her own journey towards claiming her identity as a freelancer.
A shift in language changed how I saw myself—not as a ‘fixed-term’ or ‘non-tenure-track’ scholar, but as a ‘freelancer’.
Other scholars have weighed in on academic freelancing. In 2016, Heather Mendick published a piece in Times Higher Education titled ‘What does a freelance academic do?’ In 2020, Alicia M. Prater published ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Academic Freelancing’. These publications were a sign of something that could no longer be ignored: the fact that more and more highly qualified postdoctoral researchers were struggling with the crisis of identity that comes with precarity.
Thinking of myself as a freelancer has not been a cure-all. It certainly doesn’t change the fact that academia is over-reliant on contingent labourers, often exploitative, and marred by poor working conditions. The system urgently needs to change. And while I take heart from how hard colleagues in the UK and the UC system are currently lobbying for that change, I’ve long been aware that it will be slow in coming.
This is why I have personally found the freelance mentality so helpful: it acknowledges the reality of my situation, and in terms of my mental health and professional outlook, it has provided me with immediate relief. To be sure, the freelance life isn’t easy. I don’t always know where my next paycheck will come from (or when it will arrive). Things like illnesses, family emergencies, and holidays can have an immediate and serious impact on my income.
But thinking of myself as a freelancer has lifted a tremendous mental burden. I no longer think of myself as ‘less than’. I’m focusing more and more on what’s most important to me in my work. And perhaps most significantly, calling myself a freelancer has helped me to claim my achievements more fully, and to value my work and my time.
All of this is what prompted me to launch Page by Page. I wanted a space where I could offer support to those whose professional futures were uncertain, and to those who needed support beyond what their institutions could give them. I also wanted a space where people who valued my work could support it through small paid subscriptions if they were in a position to do so.
Over the next two years, I plan to lean more and more into my freelancing identity. As I do so, I’ll depend even more on initiatives like Page by Page for my income than I do now. But I’m looking forward to sharing my experience with you along the way.
If you would like to support the strike fund for the ongoing UCU strikes in the UK, you can contribute via this link. If you would like to support those striking within the UC system in California, you can donate here.