Academic concubinage

For several years, before they get access to tenure and those coveted lazy summers, academics are unpaid concubines.

First, the academic spends years in the limbo of graduate student life. Depending on her area, she could easily spend up to a decade in a PhD. During most of that period, s/he will usually be discouraged from working full-time–a factor which has very real consequences for marriages, families, health, children, and overall life chances.

Still, worldwide, a PhD remains the Holy Grail for the educated classes. A PhD is a long haul. It is a frighteningly long haul. Don’t romanticize it before you jump into it. In some ways (though not all), higher education is a strategy to delay the entry of people into the job market. It’s a good way to keep people spending money while NOT getting paid. It stretches your resources to the ultimate.

Once the Holy Grail of the PhD has been reached, the process of lowering expectations begins. So, from expecting a tenure-track faculty position in the same metropolitan city where your spouse is employed, you whittle prospects down to a contractual or post-doctoral position in a small semi-rural town three hours away from one’s spouse/family. In a state that offers depressingly poor assistance for children of low-income families.

Unless you’re a) an academic star b) with ALL the potential teaching/research/service experience AND c) lucky, your application may fade into the dozens of PhD applications on the search committee’s desks.

In the graduate student community (an exploited underclass if ever there was one), you fight each other for scraps of unpaid labour. Before and after you land your dream job, you continue to work and produce like a demon if you have any plans of getting a steady income.

Much of this work is unpaid.

Endless hours and hours of top-quality intellectual work in the academic profession go unpaid and unrecognized, – and often don’t even see the light of day. You spend endless hours of working on article and book manuscripts – that “build” your career so you can land a good job.

Sometimes you keep building and building and building and one day you get the feeling that you are building castles in the air. Castles of words, that remain just that, in an ‘intellectual’ profession, where – well, did you expect to be paid for brain-work? When you don’t produce a single brick, a single latte, a single hamburger, why should you expect to be paid? From being a member of a supposedly elite profession, you feel like the most useless professional who expected to hold down a job, the person with the most *imaginary* skills possible.

You are ever the concubine, for the longest time – never a bride. Journals, professors, colleagues, projects, contractual jobs, – you are available for everything and never rewarded. Like a lady of the night, you wait by the bus stop, flashing your cerebral personality, your sparkling words, your deep ideas, waiting for a university, a community college, – hell, a broke nonprofit, – to come pick you up, use your amazing skill at crafting words and ideas, and leave a note on the table. – Not cash, but just a note that recognizes your quality as a scholar, just a line in your curriculum vitae.

Some day, you dream, after being used again and again in this way, some day, they will leave a check on the table. You beg them to use you. I’ll work without insurance, you plead. Sometimes I’ll work without a salary or even a wage, just so I can remain “current” because my credentials depend upon affiliation with names of prestigious – no, ANY institutions and colleagues.

Once you are (shudder) an Independent Scholar (insert name of cheap town), you’d better start worrying.

You put your family on hold, you protect and nurture this relationship you have with an exploitative fantasy. And you ask for more time so you can do more and more to “build the career.”

20 thoughts on “Academic concubinage”

  1. You make me scare🙂 After all, I am just going to start my PhD course work this Monday. I wish that Sheeza might miss your last 3 lines.

    After all, that is what good writing is all about; you articulate eloquently what spouses struggle to throw at each others face🙂

    wassalam
    PS. Love to Raihana.

  2. You should really write a book. Fiction that touches on that very subject, with the lecherous Professors thrown in, the mix of foreign students, etc. A best seller would go a long way to making you a star🙂

    I mean it. Write a book.

    Ya Haqq!

  3. Hey Irving, check out today’s Guardian G2 – an article by Blake Morrison (he’s big over this side of the pond, dunno about the US). He pointed out that literary fiction is one of THE worst paid jobs around, unless your name is Martin Amis (and who wants to be Martin Amis?).

    Well, I might have been starting to write my proposed thesis by now (the tiny University I applied to has to have submissions approved by another big, important University who also award them). But all the insane wrangling and waiting about and kissing bottom, even before I’d done any official work, so put me off I told them to hike it!

    All I can say is, you must really want it BAD. Open University is doing an MA in Religious Studies beginning 2009 (not official yet, heard it on the grapevine) so I’ll do that and be happy. And while I’m doing it, I will teach Religious Studies at sixth form college. And after I’ve done I’ll teach at sixth form college.

    I prefer the quiet life:-)

  4. Sorry, passerby and Abu Muhammad. Maybe you should take Ahmed’s (gloating) advice and go for engineering🙂 Abu M, to be honest, I think that in Pakistan, itna bura haal nahin hai, you can get a decent living and a campus house and you can even work while you do a PhD. PhDs are in relatively short supply, and if you have one, the country is your oyster (relatively speaking).

    I agree with you, Julaybib. You have to want it badly – so that you’re willing to live with the consequences. or that you have a plan (e.g. you combine technology with ethnography in your degree).

    Irving, writing a book will probably not yield me much of an income unless I become the next Rowling. I’m hoping my Cousin will become that, and I can live as a hanger-on.

    Abu Muhammad, why don’t I forward this post to Sheeza myself … ?🙂

  5. i totally agree with you. but with projects such as Education City in Doha, Qatar the poor western academics/graduate students can come work here for astounding salaries. the unthinkable has happened: academia marries rich oil gulf states. consider teaching in the gulf for a year or two. they’ll even find jobs for the spouses. and for your kiddy, you’ll find first class day care/nanny care. no bills, no stress. america sucks.

  6. ah hah, so that’s your secret plan!!! no pressure, huh? i suppose you ought to be pushing me to write a book harder than my mom did to be a doctor – wait, that didn’t work…🙂
    anyway, yeah, this post scared me too. it makes the road sound so lonely… if poets (were) the unacknowledged legislators of the world, what does that make academics? aw, well, anyway you’re a poet too. i’m tellin ya, just compile some of the poems you already have into a book… then _I_ can hang onto your fame (which i already do on the blogosphere) until i finally get inspired to write the next Harry Potter (i’ll keep my old male characters heterosexual, most likely…)
    miss you as always!

  7. My friends and I often discuss PHDs, and many of us have kinda reached consensus that maybe multiple masters wud be better than a PHD?? I dont know, i sorta like the idea of multiple masters instead compared the a PHD.

  8. Engineering? Yuck. Despite the concubinage (ehem), I’ll take the Humanities any day. We must be nuts. Maybe it just takes a certain type?

  9. Frustration.
    It reminds me when I passed MBBS and finished my house-job (Internship), there were a lot of positions open but I did not start ‘working’ till after almost 6 months. The red-tape of each institution cost me that time but that was most frustrating as I wanted to start working without losing time (There were for instance needed 10 ‘senior lecturers’ in Peshawar Medical College and we were 6 being interviewed for the jobs).
    I frankly told the interviewers I’ll join the Army unless you offer me job first. (So, I missed joining the Army but I would have retired now as a ‘no good’ Major General, hahaha)

  10. I know this is going to sound stalkerish but I hope you don’t take it that way. I attended a lecture today given by you at the college of W&M. It was very insipirational! I wasn’t abe to talk with you personally but I want to study Sikhism through the field of anthropolgy. I know that Sikhism is not widely studied (if at all) within any field of academia, and being a Sikh myself I really want to further the understanding of who Sikhs are. I was hoping that you could give me some advice in pursuing this line of academia. Anything would be appreciated..thanks!

  11. Kaur, welcome! It’s not stalkerish but flattering🙂 The lecture Thursday wasn’t my best work but I’m glad you liked it anyway. I don’t know much about the anthropological study of Sikhs but I do know of two books, “Accommodation & Assimilation” by Margaret Gibson about American Sikhs (which helps me think of Muslims in the disapora a lot too) and “Lives in Translation: Sikh Youth as British Citizens” by Kathleen Hall – both great books. Take a look and then drop me a line here to tell me what you think.

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