Critiquing the culture of unpaid and underpaid work in academia
Yes, you deserve to be paid more.
I recently came across a Twitter thread that argued that alt-academic career coaches were exploiting vulnerable graduate students and early career scholars by charging for their guidance and expertise. The thread was in response to a new career coach's tweet about deciding how much to pay for her services. The coach wanted to have an affordable price point while not underpaying herself. The critic argued that instead of paying exploitative "coaches," who were all out to make a profit on insecurities, people should learn how to navigate the alt-academic career job market on their own and through alumni networks.
This exchange struck a nerve with me, and I responded on Twitter, something I very rarely do. I took issue with the assumption that all alt-academic career coaches exploit people for profit and that they are the problem.
First and foremost, this vulnerable state exists as a result of the academy's neoliberal structures, which have depleted the full-time academic job market over time. Precarity and its associated emotions exist as a result of academia exploiting workers for higher profit margins, and it is critical not to blame individuals who are attempting to address these issues on a one-to-one basis. People are looking for alternative careers, and coaching others is one of them.
Second, in my anecdotal experience, many coaches begin this type of work because they have struggled to figure out their own career paths and want to help others. They are passionate about their work, but that does not mean they should not be paid for it.
Third, if PhD-granting institutions hired alt-career coaches to provide training and guidance, nervous graduates might not have to pay for it out of their own pockets.
The idealized academy and its aspirational labor
Many of us are aware that academia has a labor problem. We are caught between the idealized notion that knowledge production should be a free and public good and the cold, hard reality that many of us are overworked and underpaid for a "public good" that benefits from our labor. (And because much of our research is paywalled, could we even say its a public good at all?) Many of us believe that we are in this profession not for the money but to disseminate knowledge through research and teaching, so we are skeptical of those who deviate from this idealized, but faulty, image of academia and charge for their services.
Another major issue is the aspirational labor that is all too common in our profession. According to Brooke Erin Duffy, aspirational labor is a form of work that is primarily unpaid and motivated by the desire to someday receive compensation for pursuing one's passion. She focuses on influencers and other creators online but sees connections between these creative industries and academia.
For many of us in graduate school, on the job market, or in tenure-track positions, volunteering for committees, events, journal boards, or any number of other activities is a way to build our reputation, which we hope will increase our chances of getting that academic job or tenure. Consider the fact that "building one's CV" is frequently just a string of unpaid labor done in the hopes of eventually landing a secure position.
This phenomenon brings attention to the pervasive problem of exploitation in academia, where people are frequently expected to give their time and knowledge without being compensated for it. Perhaps this gift economy model worked better when there were more tenure-track positions available and graduate stipends were higher than the cost of living, but we have stuck with this model even though the academy employs far more contingent and low-paid workers.
The pressure to accumulate unpaid experiences in order to secure imagined future opportunities perpetuates an inequitable system that undervalues the labor of early-career and contingent scholars.
Let’s think through an example
Picture this: Farah is a visiting lecturer making $40,000 a year who is eager to add to her CV so she can apply for tenure-track positions with more confidence. Her institution only pays her to teach classes; they do not pay her to conduct research or do service work. Yet, Farah invests a great deal of time and effort into improving her resume in terms of research and service because all of her mentors tell her to do so in order to be competitive on the market.
The following is a list of some of the free work she has done this year, along with an estimate of how much she would charge for it if she were paid a going rate for similar work. (Note: not all of these estimates are equivalent or totally fair, but I’m just trying to open the conversation here.)
Farah conducts research and writes an 8,000-word journal article that is accepted for publication in a Taylor and Francis journal. If academic journals worked like freelance journalism, doing investigative pieces, Farah could expect to be paid 50 cents per word for a 3,000-word piece. Applying that rate to Farah's journal article would result in her receiving $4000. (Now imagine how much more research goes into an academic piece than a journalistic one.)
Farah peer reviews two journal articles, which takes her about 5 hours in total. If she were a developmental editor with a $125 hourly rate, she would earn $625 for this work. (Developmental editing is usually more robust than a peer review, but you get the idea.)
Farah volunteers to help plan a conference in her field, which requires approximately 25 hours of labor. An event planner makes about $23 an hour, so this means Farah would make $575 for this labor.
Farah decides to mentor a graduate student who is not receiving support from their advisor. She meets with that mentee about three times per semester to discuss dissertation completion strategies. If Farah were an academic life coach, she might be paid around $150 an hour or more, so that’s about $900 of her labor.
If we add up all of these missing wages, Farah is missing slightly more than $6000 in uncompensated labor. She freely agreed to do this because she genuinely enjoys some of the work and hopes that her extensive CV will make a difference on the job market.
The challenge inherent in aspirational labor lies in the uncertainty of whether the work she puts in will yield her desired outcomes. Due to the scarcity of full-time academic positions, there is no assurance that her efforts will yield the job she wants. As per Duffy's observations, there are numerous content creators aspiring to secure full-time work within their respective fields, far outnumbering those who actually achieve such feats. So while I’m critiquing the academy here, our broader culture has become much more comfortable with underpaid creative work online and the gig economy more generally.
If we consider the fact that around 68% of faculty in U.S. institutions are contingent workers, that means there is much aspirational labor being performed that is benefiting universities and publishers. (Here’s a great article that goes into the ironies of the academic publishing industry.) This system continues to function because we have a culture of passionate workers who police one another when someone wants to be fairly compensated for their efforts. This is simply a characteristic of dominant ideologies. We become complicit without always critically considering these systems.
In academia, the pursuit of knowledge and a passion for one's field of study or teaching are frequently cited as motivating factors for choosing this career path. Academics' dedication and passion for their work are comparable to the enthusiasm and commitment found in the creative industries that Duffy describes, where people are “not getting paid to do what they love.” However, because stable jobs are in such short supply, much of the work we do to make this career a reality is just aspirational.
My argument here has focused on contingent workers being compelled to do unpaid work, but this could also be applied to the increasing workloads of tenure-track or other full-time faculty who are underpaid in comparison to other industries performing similar tasks.
And let's face it, women are doing much of this service work and scholars of color are doing so much invisible labor to support junior scholars of color who face marginalization on a daily basis. Women and people of color are declining in number as people advance through the professorial ranks, which means we make less over our lifetimes in academia while doing much of the service work.
Because many of us are passionate about our work and care about our students and colleagues, we take on this extra labor without proper compensation. And because we have assimilated into the academic culture of unpaid and underpaid labor, many of us don’t challenge this culture at a structural level. We just quietly burn out in the process.
So what happens to Farah?
Let’s return to Farah for a moment. Despite her hard work and talent, she spends three years trying to secure a tenure-track job by bouncing from visiting position to visiting position, exhausting herself. She is tired and deflated and doesn’t have the energy to invest in learning how to apply for jobs in other industries, so she decides to hire a coach because she needs some support after trying so hard for so long. She must pay for those services because, outside of academia, it is often more culturally acceptable to be compensated for the types of labor academics do for free.
If any of us feel the urge to criticize a career coach who found a path outside of academia that can pay her bills, then remember to return to the root of the problem instead of the coach. Since we know that many of our PhD graduates go on to work outside of academia, then their institutions should be paying for career coaching for them. Think that $150 an hour is too much for a contingent faculty member or graduate student to pay for career coaching? Then demand your institution pay the coach instead.
I would also encourage all of us to think more broadly about the value of our labor to our institutions instead of just passively accepting that it is our job to work for free or for low wages. It is counterproductive to continue ignoring the fact that we have been culturally conditioned to avoid discussing money because it appears to devalue our idealized notions of academic work; however, this does not change the fact that our labor of love benefits institutions in bed with capitalism, white supremacy, and the hetero-patriarchal status quo.
We need to resist the culture of unpaid and underpaid labor in the academy at the structural level, but we cannot fight the system if we don’t first believe our labor, even the labor we love, should be fairly compensated.