Some thoughts on precarity

In October I spoke at History UK’s plenary event, which this year focused on mental health, on the early career researcher perspective. Much of what I focused upon was the structural issues that impact upon ECRs, and I decided to write up and expand upon some of what I talked about, as for the last 8 days many colleagues across the UK have been participating in the UCU strikes on issues including pay equality and casualisation. Many have been sharing their precarity stories, and the below draws upon my experience, in the context of the observations I have gained in working with many ECRs in similar positions. I write this now from the privilege and security of a permanent position, of which I am very aware of how fortunate I have been; I offer this in solidarity with those who are currently precarious, in the knowledge that it is important that permanent staff speak about these issues, and in the hope that it might help in a small way towards developing understanding and thinking about effecting change. At the end I have some brief suggestions for what permanent staff can do, as well as links to the resources mentioned throughout.

Last Saturday (30th November) it was 9 years since I submitted my PhD; nearly 6 of those were precarious. For the first 2 years I had something in the region of 12 contracts of employment, including hourly paid teaching, academic writing tuition, separate contracts for marking and invigilating, one-to-one tuition, proofreading, work in the library, and anything else I could find. I then spent a year on a 0.6 FTE contract focusing on public engagement and ECR support, topping up with additional hourly paid teaching; a further 2 years in which the 0.6 contract went to 100% FTE; a relocation across the country for a ten-month teaching fellowship; and then, during that year, I was fortunate to get my current position and moved to Surrey in August 2016.

My experience is not uncommon: longer than some, shorter than others. For those finishing the PhD and going into an academic career, a period of precarity is common and increasingly longer, involving successive fixed-term and/or multiple simultaneous contracts within/across institutions; these are often teaching-heavy; often hourly paid or short fixed-term; and can leave gaps in employment e.g. vacation periods. A report this year by UCU on “Counting the costs of casualisation in higher education” found that 70% of research-only and 37,000 teaching staff are on fixed-term
contracts, many hourly paid, and a further 71,000 employed as “atypical academics” often as “casual workers”. There are no easily available consistent figures on the numbers of permanent jobs available or number of people applying for them, but my sense is, and I think many would agree, that there are fewer permanent jobs available and competition for them increases every year.

But what do we mean when we talk about “precarity”? It is a state of mind; an embodied feeling; a constant, impacting upon and intersecting with every other aspect of one’s life. A non-exhaustive list is as follows:

Structural: lack of job security/proximity of unemployment; lack of payroll continuity; limited or
no access to annual leave/ sick leave/parental leave; employment overlaps and constant start-up
time invested in learning new systems and structures; uncertainty over whether contracts will
be offered/extended/renewed until close to term time; lack of workspace or other infrastructural facilities.

Academic impacts: impact upon research continuity; time spent on securing employment rather
than research; disrupted access to research resources e.g. library Journal access; disruption to
academic networks and continuity of mentors/supportive figures; limited or no resources to
fund research trips/conferences.

Personal impacts: difficulty in making long-term plans for personal life e.g. family plans and
financial commitments; expectation of mobility as practically and financially possible/viable;
financial insecurity and impact upon e.g. housing; disruption to personal networks and
relationships; impact upon existing family and care responsibilities; disruption in accessing continuous healthcare.

And then there is the impact upon mental health: the UCU report on casualisation recorded 71% of respondents stating that mental health had been affected by working on an insecure contract, and 43% reported impact on physical health. Again, a non-exhaustive list of these impacts might include:
◦ Imposter syndrome
◦ Isolation and loneliness
◦ Anxiety, panic attacks
◦ Sleep disruption/deprivation
◦ Depression
◦ Physical health impact
◦ Exacerbation of previous/existing mental health problems
◦ Reduced capacity for dealing with difficult life events – bereavement, supporting and caring for family and friends.

The transition from PhD to ECR can be particularly disruptive in regards to mental health and for my own part, it was the aspect I was least prepared for. I had experienced significant issues with mental ill-health during my PhD, including a period of treatment for an eating disorder. I was fortunate to have professional, personal, and institutional structures in place to support me through this: access to health care, understanding supervisors and departmental systems in place, and personal support networks of friends and family. But as an ECR, these networks can be fractured, disrupted, or fall away completely: the intersection of aforementioned issues can introduce a range of impacts: the issues of disclosing mental health problems while in precarious work; access to mental health services can be difficult when waiting times are longer than precarious job contracts; and personal friendship and family support networks are disrupted by mobility.

As well as the immediate impact of precarity, there is the intersection with other pressures such as the REF. Work by Rosamond Gill and others identifies the impact of audit culture on mental health, and how constant assessment and monitoring creates a system in which metrics are internalised as “privatised anxieties that are understood to reflect on the value and the worth of the individual… A psychic landscape in which not being successful is mis-recognised… in terms of individual (moral) failure” (Gill 2010, 10-12) leading to stress, anxiety, exhaustion; as Maddie Breeze succinctly puts it, “how quickly and easily ‘my research isn’t good enough’ slides into ‘I’m not good enough’”(Breeze, 200). These effects are felt by many at whatever stage of one’s career, and in talking about the REF and ECRs I’ve often been met with responses along the lines of “but the REF is stressful for everyone”. It is: but how much more so when you are precarious; how much more so, when you don’t know if you will be employed in a few weeks time; how much more so, when the feeling of “I’m not good enough” is being reiterated on a weekly, daily, sometimes hourly, basis by repeated rejection emails.

In my report on the impact of REF 2014 on ECRs, it was evident that the REF had a huge impact on ECR mental health and wellbeing. Many respondents experienced high levels of anxiety, insecurity and uncertainty, and mental health problems stemming from REF pressure; people also noted feeling isolated and unable to articulate concerns within highly pressurised and competitive
workplace culture created by the REF; and a lack of/conflicting/mis- information from institutions was also problematic, as is navigating different ways of interpreting or advising on the REF guidelines if you are moving across institutions regularly.

The above is of course only a partial glimpse into many of the issues faced by precarious ECRs, and there is much more to say about the intersection with other factors such as health, caring responsibilities, financial situations. Solutions themselves aren’t easy, requiring sector-wide changes of the kind that UCU are campaigning for with the current industrial action, and so joining and supporting union action is one way to start to address these issues (and if you are able to, consider donating to the fighting fund which will help support precarious colleagues on strike). On a smaller scale, there are actions that can impact upon individuals within your reach: helping new ECRs to navigate institutional systems and provide resources to ease transition e.g. teaching materials, access to clear information about the REF; mentoring to help with things such as long-term strategising, supporting on job applications and interviews, publication proposals, and so on. Listening to ECRs without trying to minimise concerns or offer platitudes can go a long way, as can simply looking out for the well-being of those around you and signposting access to services for further support. Facilitating ECR networks and peer support, including ECRs in department activities and meetings, and looking at the provision and availability of training to those who are in precarious positions, can also be helpful. At the very least, trying to understand the issues involved and taking action that is within your reach, is the responsibility of everyone in permanent positions, and  I hope this may encourage a few thoughts (and action) along these lines; below are some further resources for reading more on the issues involved.

UCU “Counting the Costs of Casualisation” June 2019 report:

The New Academic by Nadine Muller: personal accounts of mental health in academia:

The many-headed monster: a collective blog including Brodie Waddell’s posts discussing the history job market:

The impact of the REF on early career researchers: summary of my 2015 findings:

Maddie Breeze, “Imposter syndrome as a public feeling” in Yvette Taylor and Kinneret Lahad, Feeling Feminist in the Neoliberal Academy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) .

Rosamond Gill, “Breaking the silence: the hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia” in R.Flood and R.Gill, Secrecy and silence in the research process: feminist reflections (London: Routledge, 2010).