Unsettled lives? The personal relations of precarious academics

Lara McKenzie, University of Western Australia:

It is common to hear about academics’ personal lives in terms of a lack. We know, for instance, that academics have fewer children and work longer hours than those in other ‘professions’ (Mason et al. 2013; NTEU 2015). Other matters are summarised in the recent TASA Working Document on contingent labour. The growing population of precariously employed academics is understood as especially afflicted, with couples and families needing to move or separate for work, and living with low, irregular pay and limited or no paid leave. Yet these narratives failed to fully account for my own experiences as a precarious academic, so in 2015 I began an interview-based study of ‘aspiring academics’ in Australia, who were seeking (more) secure academic research and/or teaching roles.

Here, I discuss some of my interviewees’ accounts (using pseudonyms), focusing on how personal life and career insecurity interact. To date, I have carried out 17 interviews in Perth and Adelaide, mostly with graduates from the humanities and social sciences. There were twelve women and five men, and they were mainly in their 20s and 30s, reflecting that most precarious academics are generally young and female (May et al. 2013). Most had finished their PhDs a few years ago, and were working at universities in short-term roles with limited paid hours (see McKenzie 2017).

Those I spoke with used words like ‘unstable’ to describe their current employment, career prospects, financial situation, the location of their work, and their relationships with others. Katie, for example, drew direct links between her academic career prospects and personal life. She was in her late 20s and had finished her PhD a few years ago. Since then, she had undertaken casual teaching, research, and administrative work at her university. We spoke about the financial implications of her casual employment, and she said:

The money is a big thing… I’d like to be able to afford to move out of shared housing. I’d like to be able to afford to have children before I’m 70, buy a house, all that very white-picket fence kind of stuff. I feel like I didn’t realise what I was basically signing up for [pauses]… You think this is what happens when you go into the creative arts. It’s like, ‘No, I did a sensible thing! I did lots of university! I was going to become a teacher!’

The inability to buy a home, to settle in one place, have children, or to manage mortgage repayments were common themes in people’s accounts. A particular concern of women was the impact that their financial situation had on their ability to start a family. Many women noted that they and their partners ‘would love to have kids’, but were unable to afford it. The search for stable academic employment was thus understood to restrict personal relations. This is not surprising: stories such as Katie’s are common and often talked about. However, alongside this was an understanding that ‘unsettled’ academic lives were supported by and fostered personal relationships. This is an area that has yet to receive much attention.

Those I interviewed, and particularly the women, often mentioned receiving financial support from family or partners, enabling them to pay their rent or mortgage and to continue their academic job search. Interviewees also described their partners as sources of emotional support. For instance, Perry was in his early 30s, and had finished his PhD a few years ago. Since then, he had been employed in casual or part-time, fixed-term academic positions. Perry spoke about how, to counter his sense that his life was ‘unsettled’, he cultivated a collection of portable plants and objects that he carried from rental home to rental home. He referred to his long-term girlfriend as a much-needed source of stability.

Meanwhile, women often spoke of their partners as tying them to their current locations, especially if they had children. Janine, for instance, was in her early 30s and had finished her PhD a few years ago. She and her partner had had a baby shortly after she completed her thesis. She told me that her partner was very ‘bound’ to their home city, which prevented her from seeking work elsewhere. She added that he had supported her for years during her PhD. As such, it had been necessary for her to find work outside of academia immediately after submitting her thesis. Towards the end of our conversation, she spoke about how this affected her academic aspirations:

It’s really challenging, not just working, but having a baby as well. Because time is really limited and I’m trying to write, to manage a household, to look after my son, to spend time with my family, and to work. And I’m doing some quite serious work here as well, so it’s not just like I come in and do my work from nine to five. So it’s quite challenging once you kind of throw a family in to the mix.

For women like Janine, having a family or partner while seeking an academic career was experienced as both productive (enabling her to complete her PhD) and restrictive (preventing her from moving). Here, people’s experiences were clearly gendered. Women more often discussed receiving financial support from their families or (generally) different-sex partners, while men spoke largely of emotional support.

Those I interviewed spoke at length about the impact that precarious work had on their personal lives. Issues raised included the need to relocate to find work together with financial difficulties, which prevented people from buying or renting a house and having children. Yet interviewees also identified their partners and families as playing supportive roles, both emotionally and financially.

With ongoing, full-time employment becoming less and less common in academia, there has been a growing interest in how career precarity is experienced by aspiring academics. Much of this research focuses on how personal relationships are unsettled by such circumstances, yet it is important to also consider how such relations are fostered by and even support precarious working arrangements. In short, we need to acknowledge that current, unequal relations within academia are facilitated in part by our personal lives: unequally and, particularly, in gendered ways.


Mason, MA, Wolfinger, NH, & Goulden, M 2013, Do babies matter? Gender and family in the ivory tower, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. McKenzie, L 2017, ‘A precarious passion: Gendered and age-based insecurity among aspiring academics in Australia’, in Being an early career feminist academic: Global perspectives, experiences, and challenges, Thwaites, R & Pressland, A (eds), Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan: 31-49.

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