Can we still enjoy university life?

Today I had a conversation with a young Irish academic who was troubled by the choice he had made of planning his career in the academic world. He had made this choice believing that he would be able to lead a life of intellectual challenge, good conversation and stimulating debates. He would see students develop their skills and would find his feet with his own research.

What was troubling him was that the reality was, in some sense, as he had hoped it would be, but there was in his words a ‘constant dark under-current’. He loved his work, he found himself being stimulated by some very bright students, and he had managed to publish his first two articles in refereed journals (the gold standard of university research output). But beyond that he felt there was doom and gloom, a sense that what he did was not appreciated by society, and the constant threat of the next bureaucratic hurdle.

I have some sympathy with this colleague. But more importantly, I think that we need to do better in motivating and supporting people like him, particularly as they embark on their careers. No matter how hostile the environment may seem to be, we must give people a sense of optimism and hope,m and we must give them the assistance of a supportive community.

I suspect that many people still believe that academic life is rather easy. As in any profession, we do have some under-performers. But the overwhelming majority of academics are dedicated and idealistic people (although we sometimes manage to beat the idealism out of them), who want to live up to and who do live up to the expectations we have of them, and who work exceptionally hard. Their concern is that the rewards (and I don’t mean money) are scarce.

Academic communities have historically often struggled not to let ideals be smothered by cynicism. Right now we are facing challenges that some may think threaten to defeat us altogether. We must not be mesmerised by these – right now is the time to plan boldly and to act decisively, and to convey a sense of purpose. We must also allow ourselves the occasional celebration and fun.

Nobody can pretend that an academic career is going to be all plain sailing, nor should we become too defensive when external stakeholders raise questions about how we teach and research; but we can work together to ensure that it remains a uniquely satisfying career.

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6 Comments on “Can we still enjoy university life?”

  1. Jilly Says:

    Can we still enjoy university life? Hmm. Depends on the university, and depends on the day, frankly!

  2. So how about today, Jilly?

  3. Jilly Says:

    Today was good – as most of mine are because I like my university. And the main reason I like it is because it lets me get on with what I’m supposed to be doing: teaching and research.

    I have enormous sympathy for people in the position of the man you described today. I’m slightly more advanced in my career, and one of the many reasons I’m glad of that is because right now, I can hear the drawbridge going up behind me. You don’t say whether this individual is on a permanent contract yet; if not, I have even more sympathy. There’s a very chill wind blowing through the junior sections of university departments, as dedicated and talented members of staff on fixed-term contracts see total unemployment looming. And that after spending so many years doing their training on SUCH a hand-to-mouth income. It always makes me laugh when we’re criticized for our ‘security’ and lack of ‘risk-taking’. For the last 10 years, one of the riskiest things you do was decide not to work in the private sector, but to commit yourself to all those ultra-low-paid postgraduate years with absolutely NO guarantee of work afterwards. As it turns out, my personal risk paid off, but those a few years younger than me are going to pay a high price for their sense of vocation.

  4. Yes, I agree with that. I don’t know whether the man I referred to is on a fixed term or permanent contract; but in the light of his age, very likely it’s fixed term. And I agree that those who, these days, enter the academic career are taking an almost incredible risk. When I became a lecturer in 1980 I went straight from my second year doing a PhD to a permanent lectureship. Who could possibly expect that today? So I salute those who make such choices, and I hope I’ll be able to raise just a little awareness about these problems.

  5. ultan Says:

    Why not revisit past glories and and enjoy a reminder of the halcyon days of academia (albeit in the UK): The History Man is back on telly – BBC4 if you’re still actually using a telly (! Actually the Howard Kirk character reminds me of two TCD lecturers from the old “ESS” days (both of whom are still there, and one of which still has the same leather jacket and trousers as Kirk).

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