The economics of research

I just received an email from our Graduate Research School.  I had applied for, and been approved for, funding to support my attendance at a conference in China in a few weeks.  The funding wont cover the whole trip, mainly my airfare, but it was a reasonable level of support.  I consider this conference my potential academic swan-song.

It turns out, which I probably should have known, that you cannot receive funding if you are in the examination period. This means I will not receive the support that I had expected and budgeted for.  This isn’t a criticism of the Uni/Faculty, I should have realised, by reading the fine print, that this would be the case and based my application to attend an international conference on a realistic financial picture. I have finally got the time and the content to really showcase the outcomes of my research but ironically I lose the support I had relied on to go because I’m too far into my degree (it’s 2 weeks away so I can hardly withdraw now.)

All this has me thinking about the economics of undertaking a research degree. Other than my scholarship (which covered 2.5 years of a 4 year degree) I haven’t had any financial support from the government or University. I’m very grateful for this support, don’t get me wrong. Unlike many, I did a Masters by coursework that cost under $10,000 (significantly less), but most of the courses I see know in arts management are well in excess of $30,000.  My PhD technically cost me $300 per year (UTS admin fees.) I’ve personally paid to attend two conferences prior to this, one international and one interstate. It was through those events that I managed to secure contacts here in Melbourne that lead to a research assistant gig.

During the past 4 years, however, I was not supposed to work more than 8 hours a week.  I was fortunate enough to have a casual teaching position which gave me $10,000 a year (which I worked out equated to $5 per hour given the workload) , 2-day a week part time job for 6 months that paid less than what I earned when I went to Uni the first time (and that was the early 90s) and a RA contract that I’m still working on even though the money stopped in February.

Yet I’m in a very fortunate position.  I’ve had a secure career outside the arts/academia for a number of years and this has provided me with a buffer.  I’m also married to someone who works a corporate job. We are very privileged.  It is that privilege that has allowed me to spend 4 years doing this.

But now that my PhD is almost over (let’s not discuss results and revisions as I’m currently in a state of peak anxiety) I’m contemplating my future – vocationally, academically and financially.  The Uni that I have been engaged with here in Melbourne has expressed the idea I should apply for a post-doc.  Leaving aside the question as to whether this is something I want to do (and I’m not sure I do), it means I need to spend at least 12 months attempting to get solid publications out of my thesis in the hope I can then obtain a grant for a post-doc place.  That’s 12 months of work with no salary or wage of any kind and no guarantee of a job at the end of it. I’m not academically strong, I’ve worked damn hard to get this far, but I don’t see myself as having the stamina to aim for an academic career long term.

To build an academic career you need to publish.  You need to go to conferences.  You need to work outside your PhD (unless independently wealthy).  But even for someone as secure as myself this is a huge financial ask. For those who do not come from the same social-economic background as myself it is basically untenable (and I know the people in my cohort, so I know how narrow the economic background is.)

Being in the arts makes this even more challenging.  In this excellent article Becca Varcoe discusses the privilege of “doing what you love” and the impact economics has on the make up of arts organisations.  I know that gaining a PhD  in the arts has probably decreased my earning potential, not opened the door to a whole new career like it might if I’d been in business or technology. But at the same time the arts has to STOP EMPLOYING PEOPLE LIKE ME as the last thing it needs it another middle-class, white, middle-aged, Gorman wearing, statement jewellery buying person with a higher degree.

The system is just wrong. And the impact it has is broad.  Not only does academia suffer, students suffer for lack of good teachers, the arts suffers as it doesn’t reflect the community in which it operates, those in the system suffer economically and, increasingly, psychologically.

I don’t have the answers, other than to stop cutting higher education and a complete economic overhaul to reduce precarity of employment (a strong creative sector union option for those not in secure employment would be nice.)

I’ll just go back to writing my journal article that one day might secure me a job…..

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