PhDs, Precarity & Me: A Tale of Arrested Professional Development

PhDs, Precarity & Me: A Tale of Arrested Professional Development

“If it is very important to you how clean your house is, you will not make it through this course” the tutor announced. This massive news, delivered a quarter of the way through my Access to Higher Education course, was fairly derailing to me. While producing a good piece of coursework was a great feeling, in no way did it come near the pride I took from having a gleaming, perpetually Zoflora smelling, home. Subsequently, during my sociology degree, one of my most profound moments was being directed to Bev Skeggs work on how working class women become ‘respectable’, spoiler alert, a clean house is inherently more valuable than a well-referenced essay.

Nonetheless, I did manage that course, and I confirm also the clean home, as well as the consequent degree course. I worked at the latter not only through symbolic but great physical and emotional violence, as well as having my second child. I always made classes; I met deadlines; I ensured I read what was on the lists; and most importantly to me, I got my head down, no matter what, and did what I needed to do. Durham rewarded me for that determination with a First Class degree, which was fantastic, what I did not expect was that that was not enough. I went straight back to being a Secretary, the job I had had previously, after that four long years of fitting study around cleaning. Keeping my head down, what I thought demonstrated the industrious spirit and determination that would make me an indispensable employee, was exactly not what I should have been doing.

In 2002, Donald Rumsfield delivered his wonderfully quotable answer to a question at a White House briefing, wherein he stated that there are various knowns and unknowns, as well as variations on both. For me, the professional development, by which I mean CV building, network building, and additional skill short courses, the things that are required to be undertaken alongside a degree were an unknown, unknown to me. As such, I quite literally dropped off the end of my degree with a bump. My fellow Access students had gone into nursing or teaching degrees, they had a vocation, a thing they were and could do. I could put together a fairly good argument around social divisions, but most jobs I was interested in would require a further degree, one that made you that thing. For those in a similar academic field to me, who also didn’t have that, they or their parents knew someone, somewhere, that got them around that, and into jobs, I never knew even existed.

I made an attempt to put this right a few years later; choosing a Masters at Teesside, this time I deliberately selected a degree that was identified as a ‘professional qualification’ in the field I was starting to work in- youth work, but with a particular interest in youth justice. Unfortunately, the year I qualified, 2008, was the beginning of the end for much youth practitioner funding. Ultimately, as programmes closed and redundancies decimated the field, I realised I had still missed the point. My clean house and neatly dressed children were difficult to write up as useful transferable skills on my CV, and youth justice was making a deliberate move from professional youth workers to probation officers, a different thing.

I’m now doing my PhD, and I have tried to turn this on its head. I keep my head up: I’ve spoken to people that terrified me; joined committees; organised conferences; attended the dinner and drinks; reached out and furiously put myself out there. I am not part of this in my ‘real’ life, I am not related to, or know, that someone, somewhere, that is required to build connections. Furthermore, this does not all come naturally to me, it is work, and it costs in every sense. As well the social cost (it is emotionally and physically exhausting to be a fish out of water) it has cost me vast amounts of time and money, neither of which I have abundantly available, and so require a deduction from other places. If I do not have the funding provided for a conference or training that money comes from my tight household budget, meanwhile, making contacts from nothing takes time, time which then does not go into my PhD. I also am now very aware I could do all this and still not be successful in finding employment in academia. So, I volunteer on the side to keep my practitioner skills up to date.

Precarity grows from an absence – a sense or lived experience of uncertainty, instability and insecurity that is felt on a practical and emotional level. As the music speeds up on the game of academic musical chairs, the precarity I have always felt appears to be increasingly shared by my fellow PhD students. Including those who may have been safe from it in better economic times. While I now know what I need to do to keep up, and will try and shut out the ironing pile and mucky windows to fit it in, this is not without cost. If you were not one yourself, ask a working class mam, that’s also a student, near you how many times she’s lied to keep guests away, isolating herself, because her house is a calamity due to essay writing.

I pass every lesson learnt on at every available opportunity. I deliberately look for undergraduate and postgraduate students like me, and I fill them in on the gaps; I tell my children, and I tell all their friends. There are still unknown unknowns in professional development for me, I can only hope I have done enough to find them and address them. Wish me luck!


Katy McEwan
School of Social Sciences Business and Law, Teesside University, Middlesbrough, UK

Image taken from video – ‘Drinking Carling out of Stella Glasses: Youth, Class & Precarity in the ‘Missing Middle’

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