who enjoys academic work? (sshh, I do)

I found myself this week wondering if it is acceptable to come clean about what’s good about being in higher education. And just as I was thinking this three other things happened.

The first was that I hung around #ecrchat, because it’s both in my job description and my research interests to be curious about what academics early in their careers think/need. This particular tweeting was about motivation, and you can find the storify of it here. What struck me at the time was that a number of people tweeted about how much they love, yes that was the word, love, their scholarly work. This was – and is – not to deny all of the multitudinous crappy stuff about early career working conditions, but rather is to acknowledge that being in HE requires a real passion for teaching and research.

The second was a chat held by The Guardian about improving working life in higher education. The panel consisted largely of people who do the other half of university work, and included some marketing and HR folk. At one point someone tweet-asked if staff should be surveyed like students to see if they were satisfied. I was very irritated by this and immediately tweeted that I didn’t want to be treated like a customer in my own institution. Another contributor clearly had something of the same feeling and commented that she was proud to work in a university because it was about education. Both of us I think were moved to suggest that intrinsic motivation and philosophical commitment were pretty important when thinking about university as a work-place.

The third was a blog post in The Guardian by Jeannie Holstein who came to doctoral research after a successful career. She began her post saying

Very early in my doctoral journey, I was fortunate to experience that moment when you know the decision you have made was the right one. It came with the realisation that I was being paid, not very much admittedly, but nonetheless funded, to sit down every day, to read, think and write, and occasionally talk, freely – and about something I was interested in.

Now Jeannie’s story is not entirely dissimilar to my own. Coming late to doctoral research after an entire lifetime working in schools and education policy-making, I had a big chip on my shoulder about academics who thought they knew more about education than I did. However, like Jeannie, I chose my location and supervision arrangements carefully and found that, contra to my fears, what I knew from practice was actually valued and respected, and that it would take me a long way in scholarly activity.

My revelation was how much interesting stuff there was to read and find out about – truckloads of books and papers that I had no idea existed. Entire libraries of it. Multiple disciplines and perspectives and ways to come at things. Why didn’t I know about this?? I kept saying. It wasn’t that I wanted scholarly texts rewritten or predigested for me. I simply wanted to have had access to it earlier, and most of it was at that time shut up very tightly behind paywalls and membership cards, and plain old physical access barriers.

I have to say that I loved every minute of my PhD, save for about twenty four hours when I wrestled with exactly how to get the thesis text into the best working order. After twenty seven years working, it was an unmitigated pleasure to have time to think my own thoughts, to spend as much or as little time as I wanted on particular topics, to engage with all kinds of ideas that were new and exciting. That’s Jeannie’s point too, she talks about “academia as a well kept secret”.

And indeed, it’s the legitimacy to think and write and talk to others that is what I most value about higher education, as opposed to my previous working life. Having been a headteacher for a long time, it was always the needs of the school and community that came first. However there was a great deal of autonomy in that post and I guess that’s why, when I went to work for a little while as a senior civil servant, I hated and loathed having to consider Ministerial opinions and needs at all times. Moving from being on call, day and night, to being a humble, broke but ‘free’ doctoral researcher was bliss.

Now I’m a proper, or perhaps improper, academic I also take considerable delight in making connections with others. My previous working life was more mobile than most and I’d been fortunate to travel around Australia and well beyond, but this was nothing compared to the regular interactions and voyages I am now able to make. And it’s legit – this is what makes my scholarship international. And maintaining and building connections with practitioners is OK too – that’s about impact and relevance. What’s not to like about this?

Now, I’m not being Pollyanna here. I can be as critical as the next person about the marketization, audit and privatization of higher education. I hate some of the practices that happen in HE, not the least of which is the overdeveloped will to critique each other and do each other in through the peer review process. And I am really and truly cognizant of the fact that I’m in a highly privileged position as a professor with tenure and I don’t have to put up with five or six stressful years or more of being in the academic precariat.

It’s just that I do think we ought to be able to say what the job means to us. We don’t do it for the money, although those of us with tenure and no student debt are certainly comfortable by comparison with lots of other people. We don’t write just for institutional benefit. We don’t do research just to get funding. We teach and research because there’s something about working with the mind that we care about, and we enjoy. It’s surely this that keeps us hanging in and wanting to be in universities, despite all the things that need fixing.

If that’s so, then I just think we ought to say that more often. And LOUD.

And for me, this week, it’s all power to the early career and doctoral researchers for leading the way in coming clean about the pleasure of academic work.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic life, motivation, pleasure, time and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to who enjoys academic work? (sshh, I do)

  1. Hi Pat, I love your patter bog, but i must admit i found this particular blog indulgent and wanting, and in need of a check, particularly for all of us who have spent the years working and striving for continual education to end up with a PhD credential that is truly worth nothing in respect to gaining a foothold into the academy. Nothing, not because the work produced in a postdoctural mode is not good, not because of lack of innovative endeavour, not because of trying to produce published papers, and not because you have nothing to contribute to student learning. But because the institution itself is undergoing change, is under performing in research funds, puts nothing into supporting development of early career researchers, sees local home-grown staff as not good enough, and only sees the academic staff as opportunities for bringing money into the university. In this institution tenure and the joy of an academic career is only for those who have weathered a lot of old storms, for new ones who are relatively young, or for those who have a bit of a post colonial bent.


    • Anthony Haynes says:

      I can see that you’re unhappy: I can’t see why Professor Thomson, if he enjoys his work, shouldn’t say so (though I can see now why, sadly, he felt the need to add that ‘sshh’). Telling us that he enjoys his work,and why, in no way makes the post ‘indulgent’.


      • Anthony Haynes says:

        PS Just read the ‘About me’, see I should have written “if she enjoys her work” (my apologies to the Prof. Thomson).


  2. Anthony Haynes says:

    A much needed post. I’ve just cancelled my subscription to the Times Higher because I’m fed up with reading people moaning! I keep wondering about the people concerned, if it’s all so bad, why are they still doing it?


  3. @Anthony Haynes, The moaning that I hear is from people who want to keep doing academic work but are forced out of the “academic market” for the wrong reasons. Most of the people I know do love academic work for all the reasons Pat describes, but think about if any other profession was experiencing what higher ed is at this point. What about if engineers were considered unhireable if they took 2-3 years off for child-rearing, or if they worked part-time for a year or two, and companies started hiring adjunct engineers to do the same work but with short-term contracts and no benefits?

    I’m a PhD candidate and love to be paid to read, think, write, and teach about big ideas and the world around me. I hope I’m one of the lucky ones to land the elusive TT position but I wish there were more ways to enter.


  4. Love this post. I’ve also felt like it’s more socially acceptable to moan about being a PhD student/academic than to admit we picked this path because we love it! A few months ago I finally came clean in my post “Enjoy your PhD, don’t endure it” http://ksoanesresearch.wordpress.com/2012/08/13/enjoy-your-phd-dont-endure-it/ and found the response was overwhelmingly positive. Yes, our work is sometimes (or often) hard, and the setbacks can be absoloutely heartbreaking. But they shouldn’t define our outlook.


  5. M-H says:

    I’ve done my PhD part-time while I worked full-time, and have absolutely loved about 95% of it. However, I’m older (over 60) and unlikely to get an academic position. I work at a Uni doing what Pat calls the ‘other side’ of Uni work, but I really wish I could get paid to think and research and even maybe teach – I haven’t done that for a while – not to do solely administrative work.


  6. Alison says:

    Thanks for a lovely post Prof Thomson – it was lovely to finally read about someone else who admitted to enjoying their PhD experience! I think coming to a PhD after being in the workforce tends to lead to a much improved PhD experience, as the concepts of project managment and self direction are second nature, and the joys of being able to spend time exploring ideas and focussing on your particular interests are fully appreciated.


  7. Jenni says:

    I confess I did NOT love my PhD – I was constantly aware how privileged I was to have time and space and support to think about my ideas, but struggled to marry this with the day to day difficulties I faced.

    Now, however, I have a research job I love (just research, no teaching) in a department VERY supportive of early career researchers. Yes, I’m on a short term contract, with no guarantee of anything at the end, but I know the department has invested in me (in terms of training and encouragement and support) and will do its best to keep me on. Yes, I’m working on someone else’s project not my own, but I’m also being encouraged to develop my own ideas, and put in research proposals with a lot of support.

    Some days I feel almost guilty at going to ‘work’ in a job I enjoy so much. It feels very far from the ‘isn’t it dreadful being an academic’ experience people often talk about. But yes, we should be able (and encouraged) to say how much we love it – if the ‘isn’t it dreadful’ voices are all that’s heard, will we put future academics off choosing it as a career?


  8. Mike Walton says:

    This is a long awaited and much needed post. I started my PhD in September (Part-time) and I totally agree, I love my PhD and I’m proud of it. I have had some complications and I’m not expecting it to go smoothly, but I hope I don’t stop loving it. I agree with Anthony Hayes, I am tired of reading about the horrors of PhD study – although they have helped prepare me for the future, it can be off putting. At times it has made me think that if I am enjoying my PhD, am I doing it wrong?

    Posts like these demonstrate how to enjoy your PhD, and certainly provides a second – much nicer – side to PhD research.


  9. Kate says:

    I find it a bit disingenuous that loving your PhD is conflated with loving being an academic – they are incomparably different experiences. I am a tenured mid career academic and my research takes up about 15% of my official job hours during semester. I adore teaching and curriculum design and building my industry networks. But I loathe the ignorant managerialism that is destroying so many of the craft practices of our work. The whinging and moaning, or negativity, that everyone complains about is often just frustration that the great, fulfilling exciting work of academia is less and less what fills our days. Dealing with appeal regulations, budget spreadsheets, federal quality authority ‘diktats’, senior academics’ fleeting policy whims and endless outsourcing of all support and service functions pull us away from what academia is meant to be, let alone the joy it offers. This so called whinging is actually a serious industrial issue.


    • pat thomson says:

      Having now been called both disingenuous and self indulgent, I need to note that it is quite possible and in my view preferable to disagree without being personal.

      My own view is one of with/and, both/against rather than either/or and I don’t find it a contradiction to both enjoy the scholarly work then and now (not a conflation in my case, but a continuity, although I understand it may be different for other people), and at the same time loathe the kinds of changes that are occurring in and to the sector and which frame the possibilities for scholarly work. I understand that these are industrial issues and also highly gendered raced etc. I also recognise that different institutions, countries, disciplines, histories and politics position people differently.

      However this is a warning that I am going trash comments from now on that offer personal comments in addition to a view. Im happy to put up differences of opinion.


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  11. Thanks Pat. The response to my ‘well kept secret’ Guardian post has been really interesting. I have had lots of direct messages and comments via twitter which have been overwhelmingly positive. I think on the blog itself there has been a more negative debate. On the strength of numbers – more have been positive than negative. The notion that the PhD is not ‘real’ academia seems to have taken hold on the blog, a sort of ‘just wait and see’ which I think you nicely dispel in your post. I’m with Aung San Suu Kyi on this one … “When people have chosen a certain path, they should walk it with satisfaction and not try to make it appear as a tremendous sacrifice.”

    Liked by 1 person

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  13. Yahui Zheng says:

    I feel excited because there are people who have passion on academic indeed. Actually I am doing a research about people especially students and professors and I find this article. I am a student and preparing for a non-profit organization among America and China in academic field. Would it be possible that we have more conversation about academics? Thanks for your time!


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