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Back to NTEU National Office

The addiction. By Inger Mewburn (Advocate 23 01)

Posted 21 March 2016 by Paul Clifton (NTEU National Office)

I have a friend, let’s call her Helen.

Helen recently completed a PhD and is now in the post-post-post doc stage of the academic wilderness. Helen is not a scientist, so her academic life now consists entirely of three-month sessional contracts and guest lectures (most of which are unpaid). If you have done this for any stretch of time you will know it’s not a great way to make a living. The November to February non-teaching months are particularly hard. Just when everyone else is out shopping, your wallet is empty.

Helen rang me to tell me how, as usual, Christmas had precipitated a financial crisis. She sobbed as she told me how behind she was on the rent and could barely afford the other necessities of life. She told me she looked to me as a role model of a successful academic, because I did 11 years as a sessional. 

What should she do to be more like me?

It’s not the first time I’ve taken this call from a friend doing sessional teaching. People in Helen’s situation want to know how I made the seemingly impossible leap from tenuous periphery to associate professor at a prestigious research university. 

Getting a proper job, one that enables you to start climbing the academic ladder is a bit like trying to get inside a moving car with three locked doors. Sessional teachers who want a ‘proper job’ often find themselves in a vicious, chicken and egg situation. You can apply for everything for which you are qualified for and still not be shortlisted because of the premium Australian employers put on experience. You can be a great researcher, but this doesn’t count as much as having already had a job as a researcher – and these jobs are certainly in short supply. Unless you get a lucky break you might never be in a job that lets you evidence skills you already have, so you will never be truly competitive. 

This, as you can imagine, the chicken and egg situation can make you feel powerless. People like Helen want to take action. The assumption these people make is that it was something I did that made me different. They want to do something too. What they fail to take into account is that academia is now structured with very few entry points and some people start closer to the finish line. They are inevitably disappointed with my advice. Yes, blogging is a really good idea – if you like it, and you can do it. Yes, building networks is essential for any professional career. Yes, developing a clear and useful specialty, like research education, is helpful. 

But I had to tell Helen the truth. The difference between her and I was… a husband.

Yes, my secret career weapon is Luke, my beloved spouse and well-paid computer scientist. For nearly 20 years now Luke’s ‘unstable’ private sector job has counterbalanced my ‘stable’ public sector one. Luke’s income meant the Christmas never caused a crisis in our household. Crucially, Luke supported my long periods of study and had faith that it will all pay off eventually. 

Helen quickly ruled out the husband option, so we started casting about for other solutions. What is the adjacent possible? I asked. Can you get a job in a university with many of the features that you enjoy without the perilous pay-check situation? 

Helen hesitated.

‘It’s like this Inger… I love teaching’ she confessed, almost shamefully. ‘I love to see the light come on in their eyes.’

My heart sank. 

Helen, like so many, many other people I know, is addicted to teaching. 

The addicted sessional teacher is willing to endure the low pay, uncertainty and knock backs because they are hooked on that classroom experience. This teaching addiction explains why there is such a ready supply of people willing to do casual sessional work, when it clearly doesn’t pay their bills. I know exactly how this addiction feels because I was once addicted too. In fact, I probably still am, but, ironically, the more stable my employment becomes the less classroom time I have.

Our sector needs to take responsibility and recognise its role as an enabler. Teaching addiction is real and it is severely affecting the well being of Helen and many like her. Yes, teaching is fun. It makes you feel like you are making a difference. But universities should not implicitly rely on teaching addiction to make sure there is a ready and able workforce. 

It’s literally wrecking lives.

Gently I told Helen I thought it was time to stop. I told her she deserved better from her employers. That she should be valued and paid a decent living wage for her labour. But, just like many addicts, she just didn’t want to hear. 

She hung up on me. 

Dr Inger Mewburn does research on research and blogs about it. 


This article appears in the March 2016 edition of Advocate:

(36 MB) - PDF

Advocate, March 2016

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  1. Ruth Wallace said on 9:48 Friday 25 Mar, 2016

    [ 0 ] I have been, and still am, in the same perilous situation as this for the last 6 years. At least I had a meagre scholarship to tide me over the long semester breaks, but alas that has stopped now. I am on the 'promise' of a contract next semester. I love teaching too, but will make that move elsewhere in search of permanency if I have to.

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  2. Linda Kirkman said on 16:43 Thursday 24 Mar, 2016

    [ 0 ] Your anger is justified. Our teachers deserve better. In the USA the wealthy department store Walmart has a huge government subsidy because the cheap prices are funded by such low wages that the staff qualify for welfare. In the teaching stakes it is supportive family members or partners who subsidise the tertiary system, or careful management of Centrelink demands. This needs to change, for the sake of the teachers and for the students who are shortchanged in the process as well.

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