Saturday, October 27, 2012

Being anti-social

You may have noticed from my previous posts that I am not enjoying the company of my new colleagues (well, not so new now really) particularly. That may have been my fault for being shy and not knowing what to say when I first started, and it also may have been their fault for being assholes not overly friendly.

After enduring many an awful social event, I have now reverted to avoiding them altogether. Time will tell if this strategy will be ok, or if it's going to cause no end of grief.

Unfortunately, I am not a very good liar. I really want to be able to say the truth "ugh, hanging out with you guys in my time off is my idea of hell", but some instinct for self-preservation makes me make up a feeble excuse. I am already worried about how I am going to keep all my lies straight.

Admittedly, it does help somewhat that no-one has shown any interest in my life outside of work, or even my life before I started work, or let's face it, what they hell I am doing at work in the first place. One would think then that it would be easy to invent glamorous weekends away or fancy cocktail parties that I am attending with such regularity that I can't possibly take time out to go to a mere work function. But alas, my lying skills are just not up to scratch.

Perhaps I will get better at it in time? When I run out of mundane "family functions" to attend I might be bold enough to switch it up and say "Oh no I can't - I am going on a wine tour. Oh what a shame! We booked it ages ago! No I don't think I can change the date without losing my deposit". Or something else that sounds far more interesting than the sad fact that I would rather stay home watching crappy TV than hang out with people who clearly don't care for my company.

The funny thing is, I am actually much better at socialising than these awful work functions demonstrate. The awfulness lies in the company that I have to go with. If I went to the function on my own, I would have a brilliant time meeting new people and generally hobnobbing. But no, if I go with my colleagues, we all sit together in awkward silence while they laugh at and mock the other people there. It really is most uncomfortable. To my eye, when they point and mock, all I see are ordinary folk going about their business - eating, drinking, dancing and being merry. And I long to join them, because after all - they look like they're actually having quite a good time.

Once I did do that - I went and chatted and danced and carried on in a way that I thought was a perfectly enjoyable affair. Then I discovered at work the next day that I am the one to be mocked.

WTF?? I can't believe that anyone would take themselves that seriously that they can't relax and enjoy themselves. From that moment on, I vowed to avoid any future work functions, less I do something terrible like, oh, have a good time.

Pass me the remote.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A disturbing new job market trend...

I have been keeping tabs on the local academic job market. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes just out of curiousity, sometimes just because I haven't yet taken the leap to unsubsribing from all those academic mailing lists.

Just in case you were wondering, the job market in Australia is terrible. Think about it: a nation of only 24 million (or thereabouts); an ageing population; and a post-school qualification rate of less than 60%. Post-school includes an incredible robust "vocational" (tradespeople and the like) eduction sector. It is also a well known fact that you earn more as a tradie than many a university graduate.

I digress.

So, we have few people going to university in the first instance and this number is declining over time. There are approximately 40 universities in Australia, each covering largely the same material. Think Law, Medicine, Arts and Social Sciences, Engineering, Science, and maybe a few other specialty areas. Pick you discipline and do the maths.

No wonder there are so many Australians skulking about in universities abroad - it's what you have to do if you ever want to get a job. Some ex-pats are happy to be free from the shackles of parochialism and live happily ever after in their new locations. Others pine for the summer sun and the decent coffee and apply for every  job they can back "home".

Now, added to the mix, is an even more alarming trend within the higher ed sector here - teaching only positions. Teaching-only positions have been the scourge of workplace negotiations for some time. The union has fought the encroachment of this as best they can. And rightly so. Teaching only positions are a death knell when you operate wihin a promotion system based on research success.

Let me explain: a standard academic position in Australia is roughly (depending on which institution you work at) meant to be (by which I mean, rarely is in practice) 40%  teaching, 40% research and 20% administration. There are many complex workload formulas around to explain how this division might accomodate the diverse practices of academics. I don't know anyone who is really happy with the way their workload is calculated. It would seem as though administrators are always overburdening academics, and academics are always pushing administrators. In a perfect world of course, you woud simply have teaching days and research days and one day a week to attend meetings and do committee work all within the standard 35 hour week (yes, I did say 35 hours - it might be up to 38 hours in some places though).

The reality of course is incredibly different. Academis work around the clock on teaching preparation, responding to student emails/requests for extensions etc and marking. What little research they do is squeezed in outside of the working week, when they feel they are "allowed" to ignore the demands of students and other administrative requirements. Needless to say of course, the demands of administration, under the typical workload model, involve long and tedious commitee meetings and endless rounds of paperwork.

Yet when it comes to promotion, academics are usually judged by their research output. While some promotion processes have recently introduced different categories (ie teaching, research, administration) to their promotion criteria (after the union insisted), it remains to be seen what a "teaching only" promotion would look like. Just how much "approval" would you have to get from your students to pass muster? What "innovations" must you introduce into the classroom? How would performance really be judged, and by whom?

Yes folks, teaching only positions are a minefield. Yet they are becoming far more common.

The general gist is: universities are trying to get away with highering "cheap" staff ie lower level staff on teaching only contracts, and because of their teaching focussed role, they will never cost the university more because they will never get promoted (I am paraphrasing somewhat...I am sure the union is more subtle and eloquent in their analysis). Insidiousness at its worst.

Despite years of hard fought negotiations over the use of teaching-only positions, workload calcuations and the promotion process, I have noticed that there is a new "teaching-only" position advertised ever week. Universities here are also increasingly using "teaching-only" options as part of redundancy packages. That is, if you agree to go quietly (or in some cases, are forced) you can still have a job - you just won't be doing any resarch.

The irony of course is that, whether this is mentioned in selection criteria or not for any advertised teaching only positions, is that you will still be expected to have a track record of research in your field of expertise. If the university doesn't mention it, the selection process itself will make it a default category - there will be so many candidates with outstanding track records that only the best will get interviewed. I also believe that having a PhD (or other postgradaute qualification) in the area is also a requirement.

So you have to have a research qualification for a teaching only job. Now there is some fucked up university logic for you.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The lies we tell ourselves

I have been reflecting lately on what it is that makes wanna be academics cling to the idea that if we just ... (insert whatever academic activity you like) ... then all our dreams of a full time permanent job will come true. I think I am mulling over the same general theme that JC at "From Grad School to Happiness" ( calls "magical thinking".

Now that I am out of the whole hoopla that perpetuates some of the more demented myths around academic job hunting, I can see with a cold detachment how wanna be academics develop a kind of Munchausen syndrome when it comes to thinking about their career prospects. It's a really complicated psychological trick that enables so many people to put up with terrible circumstances in the hope that all those years invested in their career goals won't turn out to be a total waste of time*.

(*please remember that "by total waste of time" I of course mean "profoundly edifying yet with no meaningful improvement in one's employment prospects". It's just easier to use the short-hand version.)

I have heard of some of the most outrageous circumstances that people in unsecured academic employment will put up with. And thinking back on my life up until this year, I realise I have been pretty much guilty of doing the same thing. In general, it all boils down to not being able to earn a viable living and convincing yourself that it's ok that you don't because one day - ONE DAY - you will get a "proper" job.

The question is: how many years are you going to keep convincing yourself that this is an acceptable way to live?

Part of the complex pyschology of all of this is that you will have also bought into the idea that it takes time and sacrifice to get one of those jobs. Repeated failure to get a job will have been reinforced by your networks which say "oh, the next one will be yours, keep ...!". This of course enables anyone who diviates from this trap to be classified as not committed or serious enough to be an academic. Which is clearly not true. It also enables those within the trap to make the most ridiculously complicated justifications for why what happened to their no longer academic colleagues won't happen to them. In effect, they will do anything within their power to ignore the very obvious evidence in front of them about their actual job prospects.

As I am sure everyone who has decided that enough is enough has discovered, when dealing with those "on the inside" so to speak, you will find yourself being told why you should jump back in. And I am sure I don't need to say - just IGNORE THEM. Don't be seduced by the rantings of the delusional. You've made the break and you're on the road to normality. While your post-academic life might not be rosy all the time, it is DEFINITELY better than living the compromised existence that you were.

It can be hard to not feel judged or defensive about the choices that you have made when faced with the absolute certainty of someone who has not yet been able to accept the truth that you have, but don't get sucked in to justifying yourself - it's your life - to someone who is still living a lie. You will never convince them of the truth.

My tip in these situations is to instead grab an adult beverage of your choice and then ask them about their research: that way you can occupy your mind with more interesting things while sipping your beverage and letting them spout some nonsensical words for a while. Then, depending on your level of general appreciation of the said individual, when you notice them running out of puff, you can either say "Oh, how interesting - good luck with your next grant application" and hope that they stop talking about academic stuff or "What do you think about the recent funding cuts to higher eduction...?" and watch them turn green as they are forced to come up withe more convoluted explanations of how they will survive. Then get another drink.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Things I have learnt about surviving in the post-academic workplace

1. Don't be shy. Say hello to everyone, no matter who. Being shy will only make people think you should be avoided.

2. You don't have to try so hard. Sure, you need to pass your probation period, but generally speaking, NOTHING you do is going to require the work ethic that surviving adjunct-land requires.

3. Learn how to make small talk. Academics are notoriously bad at this (in my experience anyway!).

4. You don't have to pay attention to what EVERYONE is saying. This will be especially useful in meetings. Unlike class, you don't have to worry about supporting and encouraging everyone in the room.

5. Prepare for meetings in advance. Know what you want to acheive before going into a room and you will be ten steps ahead of everyone else. This is somewhat like class and a good skill that post-academics already have.

6. Learn when less is more. Another thing academics are bad at. Sometimes, it really doesn't matter if someone is talking a pile of crap. Let them carry on.

7. Pick your battles. You are now working with an entire organisation. You are not solely responsible for everything that happens (ok, maybe if you run a small business you are).

8. Don't get involved in workplace politics. Who cares if one department isn't talking to another because of something that happend ten years ago? Don't play those games. They're not helpful to anyone.

9. Develop a poker face. If someone throws a curve ball at you or is stamping their little feet over something, stay calm and focus on the task at hand.

10. You don't have to eat ALL the free food.