I Introducing the Early Career Experience

A Precarious Passion: Gendered and Age- Based Insecurity Among Aspiring Academics in Australia

Lara McKenzie

In recent years, a significant interest in the career prospects of aspiring academics has emerged,1 with articles and studies frequently appearing worldwide, especially in the online news media (Kendzior 2013; Luzia 2014). This has led to a growing research interest in the lived realities of this group. Yet while some of the research undertaken in Australia has been qualitative (Brown et al. 2010; Laudel and Glaser 2008), or has included qualitative elements (Bazeley et al. 1996; Gottschalk and McEachern 2010), the majority has been quantitative (Bexley et al. 2011; May 2011; May et al. 2013a, b). Moreover, these studies have focused almost exclusively on casually employed academics,2 or academics on short-term contracts, with a particular emphasis on those in teaching roles (May 2011;

My heartfelt thanks go to all the people who participated in this research. I found it both profoundly comforting and deeply disturbing that your experiences so closely mirrored my own. Thanks also to those who read and provided feedback on earlier versions of this manuscript, especially the editors of this volume. This research is unfunded, and was not conducted as part of my paid (part-time, fixed- term) academic work.

L. McKenzie (H)

The University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia © The Author(s) 2017

R. Thwaites, A. Pressland (eds.), Being an Early Career Feminist Academic, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-54325-7_2

May et al. 2013a, b). There has been little recognition that aspiring academics might seek employment beyond academia, albeit temporarily.

In this chapter, I consider aspiring academics’ gendered and age-based precarity, offering qualitative insights into their understandings and experiences of seeking academic careers. Yet, rather than specifically addressing feminist early career researchers, as others in this volume have done, here I adopt a feminist approach to academic precarity, which encompasses the experiences of both women and men. I draw on 17 semi-structured interviews, carried out in three universities in Perth, Western Australia, and in Adelaide, South Australia. Interviewees were primarily educated and worked within disciplines encompassed by the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. Some were, or had been, insecurely employed by universities to undertake academic work, while others had not.

The vast majority of my interviewees used words such as ‘unstable’ and ‘insecure’ to describe their work and lives. In particular, they referred to their job security, career prospects, financial situation, the location of their work, and, as a result, their relationships with others, as characterised by uncertainty. Interviewees’ shared understandings and experiences of this precarity were informed by gender- and age-based expectations and practices. In this chapter, utilising scholarship on gender, employment, and higher education, I explore how precarity had different consequences for men and women, as well as according to age.

I begin by outlining the current context of Australian academia, including research on the academic workforce, as well as trends towards casu- alisation and how they relate to gender and age. Although my focus is not exclusively on casually employed academics, a high proportion of this group aspire to permanent employment in academia (Australia. National Tertiary Education Union 2012; May et al. 2013a). Therefore, I find it necessary and useful to draw on this literature.

I then elucidate my interviewees’ common features, as well as where and how the research was carried out. Next, I explore interviewees’ understandings and experiences of precarity in relation to job security, career prospects, time management, financial considerations, the location of their work, and their relationships with others. Here, I pay particular attention to the dimensions of gender and age. I contrast interviewees’ notions of and encounters with academic precarity with their ideals of permanent academic employment as potentially flexible, family friendly, and fulfilling, highlighting the tensions, contradictions, and complexities in their accounts.

I argue that the pursuit of academic employment renders domestic and personal life extremely problematic for both genders, yet men and women, and people of different ages, experienced this differently. The women I spoke with in their twenties and thirties frequently expressed concerns about how their unstable employment prevented them from having children, buying a house, and ‘settling down’ or about how their families and relationships impacted their academic career prospects. Although my male interviewees also expressed a number of these concerns, as did my older female interviewees, they were for the most part less concerned about having children and the possibility of moving for academic work. Yet, regardless of gender and age, notions of instability and precarity created conflicts with interviewees’ passion for academic work and its possibilities.

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