In Defence of Unpaid Academic Positions?

*N.B. This story is the result of a conversation on Twitter debating the casualization of academic posts. I fictionalized the conversation in order to explore the issues it raised about a controversial topic without it becoming a personal attack. The wizard does not in any respect represent my views. 27/12/12*


Once upon a time in the far away land of jobs.ac.uk, bordering the almost-mythical Avalon of academic employment, the University of Birmingham advertised an academic position in the Department of Psychology. Required was a research assistant, who would be an ‘excellent graduate’ with a PhD and access to a car, commit to working in the department two days a week and contribute significantly to a study into mental illness. The position would be ‘honorary’. What a nice term, so positive, so optimistic – how valued this research assistant must be! And the expectations of the department – so high, they expect this honorary research assistant to be among the best in their field. And self-sufficient too.

But there was something wrong. Peeling back the overgrown thorns that covered the entrance to the departmental palace revealed a horror: the honorary research assistant role was a sham. It did not allow that precious access to the isle of academic employment, for it was unpaid. No money. Nada. Nothing. Working for free.

Naturally when the postgraduate and early career princes and princesses heard about this they were furious. ‘Expect us to work for nothing?’, they cried, ‘that’s unfair!’ They were naturally concerned that all of their effort and hard graft during their graduate study was not being valued by academic departments expecting them to take on unpaid positions to contribute to studies that would ultimately benefit said department when the evil REF monster came to make its judgement on their impact (and eat all first born children). The outcry became such that the University of Birmingham publically withdrew the post. But the cat was out of the bag and the debate continued. Moreover, there were dissenting voices – ones that claimed that, actually, unpaid internships could be beneficial. Really? Could it be true?

One of the voices, an aged wizard with a long white beard in which fairies lived,  got in touch with a group for postgraduates in sociology and the claims he made were fascinating. The wizard pointed out that actually this practice had been going on for decades and, if nothing else, the openness with which Birmingham were acknowledging the unpaid aspect of the position represented a step forward in being honest about the state of the academic job market. It also opened up the opportunity to a much wider field – beforehand, according to this wizard, the unpaid research assistant roles were all in-house, a closed shop, and only those who been tipped the wink from a mischievous elf would be in the running for the work. So really, this was quite an enlightened move forward – equal opportunities and all and because, as the wizard maintained, unpaid research assistant positions were standard practice, par for the course and so on – simply something we live with and accept as normal (a bit like wasps at your picnic, or rain in a British summer), we should see this advertisement as something of a move forward. Heading in the right direction. And, there were benefits too. This wizard pointed out that the prospect of publication greatly increased by taking on such an unpaid role, and that he himself had gained his first position in High Wizardry because of a publication stemming from his own unpaid research assistant position. It was a good thing in his view, to take on this sort of work. Though it was hard going at first it would undoubtedly increase one’s likelihood of gaining suitable access to that long wished for academic position.

Well, the postgraduate sociologist sprite who had been chatting to the wizard thought long and hard about this. It seemed inconceivable to her that a culture in which graduates worked long hours on their thesis, often supplementing this with low paid teaching in a system designed to move work away from highly paid senior wizards to the far more affordable graduate teaching assistants, and then demanded that they work for free so that the senior wizards could ready themselves for the REF monster, could ever be anything other than deeply exploitative. To her it didn’t matter that this situation was as old as the hills that surrounded the Ministry for All High Wizarding – just because something had been going on for donkey’s years (and donkey was extremely old) didn’t mean that it should continue. Especially not when the system of postgraduate research and training had changed. The fact was that lots of the postgraduate princes and princesses had enormous amounts of debt that were unheard of in previous generations. They had been made to pay far more for their undergraduate education than the current senior wizards and now, very often, in the struggle for the piecemeal funding that was available in wizarding academia (for wizarding was not so highly regarded anymore), many postgraduate girls and boys were supporting themselves through their study and worked long hours in other lowly jobs to supplement their living. Because of the REF monster and lack of money in wizarding (and let’s face it, the successive Grand High Governments of Philistinism were largely responsible for many of these problems), even postgraduates and early career researchers needed to have a wealth of quality publications and presentations in their sack of golden goodies. Like everything else, it was just the done thing.

The sprite began to wonder where wizarding institutions would end up if the cheap labour of postgraduates and early career researchers dried up. She feared that actually the poor underlings of wizardry were colluding in their own downfall – but also that if they didn’t, there wouldn’t be any wizarding left to be done, that it would all crumble into so much dust and debris. She could see how, even if one railed against such positions, that they were still very tempting to take up. Better inside the ivory tower than desperately clinging to the mouldy ivy that wrapped itself around the bricks. And these fears and expectations played on each other and kept things exactly the way they had always been with no one daring to make changes. So maybe the aged wizard was partially right and the advertisement was A Good Thing. Now that everyone knew what was happening it couldn’t be secret anymore and maybe, just maybe, things might not carry on the way they were. After all, no one was really happy with the state of play, not even the Grand High Wizards. So even in all the misery, despair and rage there blinked a little sparkle of fairy dust hope and everyone fixed their gaze upon it and wished.

But of course, that wasn’t the end of the story….

15 thoughts on “In Defence of Unpaid Academic Positions?

  1. Did they ask for a PhD? I also thought it was a MINIMUM of 2 days a week?

    In my opinion, if this advert had been allowed to go unchecked I think other academics would have followed this path and the (paid) research assistant post as we know it may have become obsolete. Why would academics even try to seek funding if they can get people to work for free?
    It just wasn’t acceptable, in my opinion, and I’m glad the advert was withdrawn. I can only hope we don’t see its like again.

  2. My sister was looking into doing this kind of post. It was for a graduate who has aspirations to get a much coveted Clinical Doctorate in Psychology which are nigh on impossible to get these days. So not a post-doc or PhD; a step before this really, although I’m sure people with those qualifications would apply too. My sister has a first class degree in Psychology, a Distinction for her Masters (mental Health Nursing) and was told her application for one of these was inadequate because she didn’t have this kind of voluntary experience or any publications. I spoke to her about this and the reason she didn’t do this voluntary work is because she simply couldn’t afford too unless she lived at home with my parents and worked long hours elsewhere for the rest of the other days. Renting is expensive and my parents wouldn’t particularly welcome any of us back home (not because they don’t love us of course!). I think this is only going to get worst for academically able (young) people who don’t have the capital to fund it. That is why I rallied against it.

    There are already 25 year olds concerned about ‘moving backwards’ (to quote a Guardian article I read recently) into their parents home as a result of Devil Cam’s proposals to stop housing benefits for under-25s and this was a guy whose parents don’t mind. There are so many people out there who don’t have that option at all so no job, no home! It’s a real problem for social mobility and this is why I don’t see job adverts such as this as a ‘Good Thing’. The only ‘good thing’ to come out of this is that the open, blatant nature of the advert highlighted this apparently deeply ingrained practice and gave us the chance to question it.

    Rant done….P.S. Loved the post by the way. Always good to hear different perspectives!

    • I should point out that I’m completely against the idea of working for free – the wizard isn’t made up, nor is he me. Someone tweeted the BSA PG Forum account to defend these unpaid positions on the terms I laid out above and I thought it would be worthwhile exploring the value of their claims. Personally I think the only productive aspect of this *is* the openness of the institution. It’s an utterly retrograde step in social mobility to restrict higher degrees and access to specific job markets to those who have private incomes or who can live at home with parents.

      I have complete sympathy with your sister – I’m looking at doing my second masters this autumn to move into sociology. I need to self fund which is a massive pain, because working whilst keeping myself available for classes is nigh on impossible. I could save myself money by going to my old uni, getting my alumni reduction in fees and living with my mum but I really don’t want to. It’s not a good move career wise – I want to be at the university I intend to do my PhD at, I want to be mixing with those people. I want to be meeting new people, not spending time with the same (albeit lovely) crew from my previous institution. There’s not a lot of academic worth in doing that. I think the fact that so many of us muddle through, make ends meet, burn the midnight oil to get paid, voluntary and degree work done masks the scale of the problem.

      • I am honoured :-)

        But it’s not a retrograde step. It’s not new. Social mobility won’t suddenly be damaged because of it, because it’s always been like this. It’s a long-established factor in the status-quo. Argue against it, by all means, but let’s not pretend it’s a new development, because it simply isn’t.

        And you know, it’s a fine line, isn’t it. Undergrads doing third-year projects for free….actually, undergrads *and* masters’ students *paying* the university to do their supervisor’s research for them….where do we draw the line…?

      • If you use your project students purely as a way of getting research done, instead of offering them the choice of what to do, that will both interest them and offer them the opportunity to perform to the best of their ability, then you’re being equally exploitative.

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  4. And hey, what about ‘Honorary Psychotherapist’ positions in the NHS? Have we forgotten about those, or is that different somehow? What about PSCOs? The Lifeboats? Cruse Bereavement? This really is the Me Me Me generation, isn’t it?

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