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Careers Café

The problem with “opportunities” and the devaluation of academic labour

This column is being relaunched, the first post takes a unique look at some of the issues that affect contingent faculty.


Hi folks! My name is Andrea and I’m your new Careers Café columnist! When I was first approached by University Affairs to write this column, I was pretty surprised. While I’ve been in academia for over a decade, my career has been anything but typical. But I suppose that in this day and age, that is actually increasingly the reality as the number of precarious and underemployed academic grows. This version of the Careers Café column is also something of a departure from previous iterations, since I am not a career coach, and am therefore speaking from my own experiences in the field of history. But regardless, I hope that you will find this column useful and occasionally entertaining! And without any further ado, on to the first column.

Stop me if you’ve heard any of these before:

  • “This would be a good opportunity to add another line to your CV”;
  • “Book reviews are a great way to get some publications under your belt”;
  • “I know the contract is only for a year, but maybe it will turn into a permanent position.”

Are you starting to see a trend yet? Given the realities of the current academic job market, most of us precarious folks are willing to do anything to get ahead. Despite the fact that graduate students are supposed to be focusing on their theses or dissertations, they are often encouraged to do free or underpaid academic labour, labour that is often encouraged by the use of the term “opportunity.”

For instance, we are told that writing book reviews is a great opportunity to learn about academic publishing and to get our name out there. We are encouraged to pay large sums of money to attend conferences to present papers, since these are great opportunities for learning, networking, and getting feedback from our peers. After defense, these calls, and the pressure that comes with them, become more frequent. We’re encouraged to take one-year teaching contracts, often in cities that are entirely new to us and far from where we currently live. We’re told that these are good opportunities to learn how the academic world works, and maybe these jobs will eventually turn into permanent positions. Sometimes the same is said even when we are hired to teach a single course.

While all of these examples do offer valuable learning experiences, are we really correct in calling them opportunities? Because this begs the question, who exactly is benefitting from all of this labour?

I came to rethink the idea of “opportunities” when I was chatting with a colleague a few months ago. This colleague mentioned her hatred of the word “opportunity” when used in the context of academia. When she told me this, I was puzzled. After all, what’s wrong with opportunities, right? When I asked this question, my colleague explained that, many times, academics are encouraged to accept un/under paid labour because it is an opportunity for them to gain experience. Much of our labour, whether it is teaching, research, or service, requires highly specialized skills. And it is clear that these skills are valuable. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be in such high demand. But when we offer experience and future opportunities/potential/employment are often offered as a substitute for fair wages, we devalue these same skills. Because the truth is that experience doesn’t pay the bills and we can’t count on the future to help us in the present. What’s more, often the only ones who benefit from this arrangement are the employers themselves or our communities at large.

Take book reviews as an example. Book reviews are essential for many academics. They can be important guides for graduate students undertaking comprehensive exams, and they can help researchers keep up to date on the latest publications in their field. University libraries pay exorbitant fees to digital repositories like JSTOR and EBSCO to enable students and faculty to have access to these book reviews. But does the author of the book review really gain anything? I’m not so sure. We may tell graduate students that book reviews can count as publications, but we all know that isn’t really true when it comes to the academic job market.

The same problems exist with limited-term contracts. Early career academics are often encouraged to apply for these. These kinds of positions are generally for sabbatical or parental leaves, where an institution needs someone to fill a full-time position for a short period. But these contracts have no guarantees for future employment. Once you are no longer needed by the department to fill this position, they have no requirement to offer you work. And while they offer better salaries and benefits for early career academics than regular sessional positions, they too come with high costs. Some of these are monetary (moving is not cheap and moving expenses for these kinds of positions are rarely reimbursed for limited-term positions), while others are emotional and physical (often from the stress that comes with living in a precarious position).

There is a greater concern that arises from the fact that these experiences are not just harmful, but they are unnecessary. Many of us still seem to be in denial that while up to 90 percent of graduate students hope to become professors, the majority (up to three-quarters) of doctoral students will end up with careers outside of academia. This has resulted in increasing numbers of precariously employed (or underemployed) academics. This has created a huge pool of individuals who are highly skilled, but vulnerable to exploitation. Further, the devaluation of academic labour is not just a problem for graduate students and precarious academics. Tenure-track and tenured professors, and even departments, are under increasing pressure to do more with less.

I think that it is time to start pushing back. Because we are valuable.

Special thanks to Sarah Nickel, Krista McCracken, Shannon Stettner, and Funké Aladejebi for their feedback on previous drafts!

Andrea Eidinger
Andrea Eidinger has worked as a sessional instructor at a number of universities in British Columbia, and is the creator and author of Unwritten Histories, a Canadian history blog.
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  1. Stephen Rader / October 30, 2019 at 15:47

    Great column, Andrea. Part of the problem is societal: government (at all levels) has pulled back from funding academia as the latter went from an elite (and therefore inexpensive) pursuit, to a society-wide requirement for everyone from scientists to baristas (well, almost). CAUT has great numbers on this, but it is something like a drop from 80% of university funding to 40% over the last few decades. Many “public” universities now get less than half of their revenue from public sources (the rest being tuition and private donors). Until voters elect governments that are properly committed to supporting education for all who want it (and, yes, this would mean raising taxes), universities will remain under enormous pressure to cut costs, including by exploiting grad students and other precarious employees.

    Another part of the problem is with the university-industry interface, or rather lack thereof. Many of the students you refer to in the last paragraph probably have little idea what they can do outside of academia, as those career paths are rarely presented in a program of study. Yet they do exist, and the statistics for the fraction of PhDs with good jobs 10 years out from their grad programs are very encouraging (although certainly not tracked well enough). So somehow academics and business people and people in government need to do a better job of helping grad students to find those non-academic career paths. Grad students themselves also have an important role here. After all, nobody has a stronger interest in helping grad students to find non-academic careers than the students themselves, at least once they realize that they might not be one of the lucky few to get a tenure-track position.