The university sector in the UK is in a shaky state at present. Several universities across England, Wales and Scotland have each announced over 100 redundancies, sometimes with the closure of a school or campus, and it seems likely that others will follow suit. Brexit is the reason most people give, though there may be other reasons too. The uncertainty is unsettling for mid- to late career academics, and very worrying indeed for early career researchers and doctoral researchers with academic ambitions. It’s also worrying for independent researchers, like myself, who work with academia.
There is a four-panel comic strip at PhD Comics called Things You Can Do In Academia That Would Get You Fired In The Real World. The ‘things’ listed are:
- Abandon personal grooming
- Be a jerk at other people’s presentations
- Not reply to emails
- Sit around and do nothing all day (quote: “it’s called writing”).
I would add a fifth ‘thing’:
- Continually make promises you don’t keep.
The income of independent researchers depends on established academics keeping their promises. Given the number of imminent redundancies forecast in the UK higher education sector, there are going to be more independent researchers looking for work in the months and years to come. This post is a plea to established academics not to make promises, to colleagues in more precarious positions, that you can’t or won’t keep.
I have had many, many promises made to me by established academics, and I would estimate that over half are not kept. These kinds of promises have come through social media, at conferences, during my workshops, even at one-to-one face-to-face meetings specifically set up to explore how we can work together. I’ve never been an academic, so I don’t know for sure, but I would guess this is common, perhaps normal, within academia. When both of you have a secure salary, it probably doesn’t matter so much; perhaps it’s just a small irritation or disappointment when plans don’t come to fruition – or maybe sometimes it’s a relief. However, it’s a whole different deal when one of you depends on the other to follow through.
Unkept promises that come to mind include:
- “You must come and teach my students. Send me your CV and we’ll fix a date.” I send my CV, and never hear from the Professor again.
- “I’d love to write with you. Let’s do a journal article.” This is someone I would love to write with, too, so I say yes – then nothing happens.
- “I want to allocate some time in this funding bid for you to work with us on the project, is that OK with you?” Yes, I say, and agree to give input on the draft bid – then nothing happens.
- “I want you to come and speak at my event, and I have a budget to pay for your time and your expenses.” Great! Yes please! Then, guess what? Nothing happens.
- “Thanks so much for your workshop/seminar/class. The feedback was great. We’ll have to get you back next year.” Sometimes this does happen; mostly it doesn’t.
- “I’d be happy to give feedback on your draft article.” That promise is kept, and then, “I think you need to include a section on X,” which is the specialism of the academic in question. I agree. The academic offers to write the section and become second author; I accept with pleasure. I never hear anything further AND I ALREADY WORKED ON THAT ARTICLE FOR A WHOLE YEAR.
- “I’d like to give you an honorary position as Visiting Professor, which will mean I’ll be able to pay you to work with our students.” Sounds great, yes please. Only, er, it doesn’t happen.
What’s worse is that, while numbers 6 and 7 were one-offs, numbers 1-5 in the list above have each happened several times. I spent a couple of decades working as an employee in the private, statutory, and voluntary sectors, and I can tell you this doesn’t happen there. It didn’t happen in my independent research work, either, in the 2000s, when my clients were local and central government departments and charitable organisations. I’m not saying every professional promise made outside of academia is kept, but unkept promises are usually acknowledged, and the promisee kept up to date with reasons for the change of plan. At times I’ve had to chase by email asking for an update; I have always received a full reply outside academia, while within academia I have rarely received a reply at all. To be fair, some academics do communicate about their unkept promises, just as some manage to write, answer their emails, be courteous at presentations, and maintain a good level of personal hygiene. But too many do not.
Established academics, with a steadily increasing number of your colleagues in ever more precarious positions, you really need to be aware of this. Each of the promises above made my day and raised hope and excitement in my heart. Then, as the days, weeks, months went by with no further communication, the creeping feelings of disappointment, frustration, and disillusionment were sometimes hard to bear. And I’m an old hand at this. I think it’s going to be much more difficult for younger people who are desperately working so very hard to try to make a career in, or with, academia. So I beg you, established academics, please think carefully about the promises you make, and stop making promises you can’t or won’t keep.