Looking Out For Yourself in the Academic Gig Economy

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When you have a salaried academic job, your tasks could fall roughly into two categories: Things you must do, and things you should do. When you’re surviving off of pay from adjuncting, your list and their list are not going to be the same.

When salaried, I know I must do: Teach. Research. Publish. Go to mandatory meetings. Conferencing. Attending department events and participating.  If I don’t do these things, I likely won’t keep my job. It will be noticed almost immediately.

When salaried, I know I should do, to ensure the health and longevity of the field: Peer review. Book reviews. Mentoring graduate students.  Guest lectures for colleagues. Public outreach and activism within our larger communities. Administrative tasks necessary to invite scholars, arrange symposiums, help out with conferences, etc.  Taking academic guests out to dinner. Driving guests to/from the airport, and generally being a good host. Closed-door chats with concerned colleagues. Grant writing. Creating and sharing educational materials. Office hours with students.  Supervising student workers. Committee work.  Maintaining listservs. Twitter. Volunteering when the local public needs a professional opinion. Responding to email requests from unknown scholars and grad students who want to share resources or research. Collaborating with centers on campus that correspond to my research interests. Teaching others how some program or equipment in the lab works. Probably more things I can’t think of right now. All of this takes time, and I don’t really get rewarded for doing it. If I don’t do it, people will eventually notice, and I won’t be considered a team player. The field will suffer from the lack of people putting work in.

The problem with these Must Do and Should Do lists is that everything on them takes a certain amount of time. Everything on them also occupies a certain place on your CV. All the things I must do take up about 40 hours of my week, if I do them well. Anything additional that gets added on from the should do list, comes out my personal time. It’s a constant calculation – is task x worth spending y hours of my personal time on? Do I like doing it? Would I rather go on a hike, or have that line on my CV? How will I be perceived next to all the people who chose to forego the hike and add that line to their CV?

And back before I was salaried, when I had just finished grad school, I pieced multiple jobs together to keep afloat. I adjuncted (paid per class), I tutored (paid per hour), I translated (paid per word), I freelanced (paid however I could get) and I did some administrative tasks for the department (paid per hour).  As I supported myself, my first priority was ensuring I took enough paying work to keep my finances in order.  I needed to pay bills, and that took at least 40 hours per week. In my little spare time, I strategically chose things from the Must Do and Should Do lists, making CV and time calculations in my head. Which tasks were most worth it? Which tasks had the biggest payoff for the least amount of time investment? To who was I beholden?

Most of the things I did came from the Must Do list. Choosing from the Should Do list was a calculated risk, because many of those things would only matter if I stayed in academia. I don’t have to tell you that the chances were, and still are, against me. If I couldn’t find an academic job, like most people who graduate with a PhD nowadays, many of these tasks would be close to useless on a re-tooled Resume for the corporate world. So to be very strategic and yes, mercenary, about my time and my life (You only get one, after all, and no one knows how long that will be), I prepared myself for alt-ac.  I chose to do the tasks that would best translate from a CV onto a Resume. That means choosing the tasks that would push me to learn skills that are valued outside of academia, such as collaboration, organization, giving presentations, grant writing (and all writing in general), high-level administration and management, and digital skills.

So for the purposes of this post, maybe instead of dividing these tasks up by Must Do and Should Do, I could divide them by helpful only in academia, and helpful in both academia and alt ac. They would look very different then.

The point of this blog post, is that you shouldn’t feel bad for getting by however you can. The Must do and Should Do lists were created long before you were born, back when nearly everyone with a PhD and a baseline mental stability got a tenure-track job, and was salaried. As the work model changes, and universities hire more contingent labor that gets paid per gig, a lot of these tasks on the Should Do lists become greater and greater risks for the untenured. They are risks you do not have to take.

Repeat after me. You do not have to take these risks.

You do not have to perform service to your profession until your profession has let you in, and invested in you. It is exploitative to perform this work for free, when you are getting paid (usually quite poorly and less than what your labor is worth) by the hour or class. Right now, only do those things that you love and will help you get ahead, however you are choosing to define that. Once salaried, you can start giving back.

Until then, practice saying no. Be strategic about the unremunerated labor you perform for the profession. Make sure it benefits you, too. It’s what any salaried academic would do if their job security were threatened and they had student loans to pay off while making adjunct-level money.

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