Dispatches from the precariat

When I started this blog, I promised it would be academic cum personal. For the last few months, I’ve managed to write posts that reflect my range of historical interests and expertise. However, this past month, I’ve had to take a break from my academic self because of continued chronic illness, which will be discussed later. What follows here are some of my dispatches from the precariat, which gives you a taste of my challenges, personal and professional, as an early career researcher (ECR) in 2021.

Um, what’s the precariat?

First things first, for those unfamiliar with the term ‘precariat’, it is a portmanteau of two words: precarious and proletariat. It’s used in sociology and economics to refer to a social class or group of people experiencing precarity, meaning that their needs (financial, material, etc.) suffer unpredictability and instability. This instability often leads to decreased welfare.

The term has gained increased popularity amongst ECRs in academia because of scarcity and increased competition for jobs in the higher education sector. Because of this, many people experience mental health problems, burnout, and exploitation at the hands of universities that profit from precarious and short-term, hourly hiring, allowing them to contract the ‘best and brightest’ without paying fairly for it. I won’t even get started on the ‘opportunities’ that are ‘good for the CV’ but are expected to be done for free.

How it feels to find out you’ve gotten an interview in 2021. (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

This also means that ECRs are left to wear many different hats. I, for one, am an Associate Staff tutor. I am also a waitress. The hospitality job is the one that actually pays my bills right now as I cobble together ‘opportunities’ and hourly contracts to hopefully get me an interview for the next J-O-B. I’m not saying this to complain and I don’t want this to be taken as me being ungrateful. I am extremely grateful for everything that has happened for me academically in the last eleven months. I merely want to shed light on the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult for people like me to make a go of it in academia because of the fact that we have to continue working part-time or full-time minimum wage jobs to keep the academic dream alive. Working 20 to 40 hours a week on your feet is tiring enough without also juggling thinking critically and analytically about your research in your scarce free time.

That time I had another surgical procedure during a global pandemic (if you want to read about the first time I had surgery in a global pandemic, click here).

On top of managing conferences, post-PhD research and work, job applications, and waitressing, I got really sick. Again. About a month ago, I started feeling rundown. I assumed it was a bad night of sleep. Two days later, I had an episode of biliary colic which saw me back in my GP’s office, wincing as she performed a Murphy’s sign test. The verdict: it could be a duodenal ulcer; sludge in my bile duct; or a gallstone. Roughly 36 hours later, I was in A&E with worse pain and a distended abdomen. Two days after that, I had a MRI that confirmed it was a gallstone. The first surgeon consulting on my case seemed to think it was new, and that my body had, in true over-achieving fashion, managed to block my common bile duct again without having a gallbladder. I was put on the waiting list for an ERCP (a specialised endoscopic procedure) and told to come back in if the pain got worse.

The next two weeks would see me back in hospital two more times. After my third visit to A&E, I was admitted for observation and moved up the ERCP list for an emergency removal of my gallstone because I was at risk of developing life-threatening complications. Luckily, it was easy to remove and it looks like it was a stone left behind from my surgery last October (not a new one), so hopefully my days of chronic illness are numbered and I can get back to a normal(ish) life. 

Another pre-surgery lewk. You’re welcome, again, internet. Also, hospital gowns are the best thing for a UK heatwave, I expect to see them on all the SS22 runways.

I have spent the better part of the last 4 weeks on my couch or in my bed. I had to pre-record my IMC Leeds paper because my pain levels were too variable for me to deliver it on the day. I missed the intensive training week to certify as a yoga teacher, which would have been another way to supplement my income. Pandemic-related online teaching means I was able to continue to teach without disruption. I also wrote three job applications. But how insane is it though that I had to be in a hospital bed to have singular focus on teaching and writing job applications?

There’s also something to be said for the toxicity of academia and the pressure of being a member of the precariat that I wasn’t able to sign off for 4 weeks and focus on my physical health. Instead, my illness became yet another thing to juggle alongside my attempts to make it as an academic.

So here’s to being alive. Here’s to keeping the dream of an academic career going. And here’s a message of solidarity to all the other ECRs out there that are struggling in their own ways.

Onward and upward.

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