Why I'm not on strike

Yesterday and today see a strike action calling for fair pay in Higher Education, initiated by the University and College Union. As well as the dispute over the substantial decline in pay in real terms for staff while vice-chancellors' pay packets are soaring, this action challenges persisting gender inequality in earnings and the casualization of teaching labour. I happen to be one of the 75,000 or so individuals working on fixed-term contracts with limited prospects of more secure employment and little stability in any area of my life, who is expected to produce work of the highest REF-able/TEF-able quality. Something has to give, and increasingly that something is my physical and mental health.

However, I am continuing to mark exams, read PhD work, do peer reviews, check emails, and think about how I can improve my job applications and interview skills instead of taking part in the action. My reason is that faced with at least three months without wages in just over a month I cannot spare two days' pay, and I cannot spare the union membership fee. By the time tax, national insurance, student loan and pension contribution are taken from my salary, there's not all that much left, particularly when one year's worth of debt rolls into the next. I've also reached that very anxious time of the year when my current contract is about to cease and I have no paid employment lined up - and it most certainly is not for want of trying.

To give an example of what this kind of life can be like nearly five years post-PhD, let me tell you about last week. Please bear in mind, I am not complaining about any of this and I know I could be much worse off, I'm just telling part of my story. Last week I attended and presented at a conference I had been looking forward to for months. During the three days over which the conference was taking place, two job interviews came up. Very exciting, but also incredibly stressful. Three very different but important presentations to prepare and deliver in three different parts of England in three days. And I'm already struggling with anxiety-induced fatigue. But you know what? I bloody nailed it. Because I'm awesome. But not awesome enough to get a job.

In one interview it was very clear that I was not what they were looking for, and what they were looking for had not been stated clearly in the job description. They shortlisted me and brought me in for an interview - without reimbursement for travel - in which I felt like I was being interrogated for not being the very rare and specific thing they desired that was not apparent when I applied. I missed a day of the conference and they left me hanging for the rejection for a week. Somehow, my under-researched paper went fairly well at the conference, but I had to leave again when my panel was over.

The other interview went as well as it could. I was exhausted, but I was pleased with my presentation and felt much more confident about my ideas and how I articulated them. I could have responded to some of the interview questions better as a few threw me, but I held my own. In my rejection phone call I was told I'd done nothing wrong and performed well, but that my research trajectory wasn't as strong that of some of the other candidates. Particularly coming from someone outside of my field, I found the whole process demoralizing. If I had not been told during an interview at the UK's top film department (as judged by REF2014 and the 2015 league tables) three weeks earlier that my research is impressive and they're sure I'll do great things, I'd have been about ready to throw in the towel. Incidentally, I didn't get that one because I performed badly due to nerves, lack of time to prepare, and my old friend, over-tiredness. The worst part of the rejections is hearing the person dishing out the rejection telling you they're sure you'll get something soon. I might not. The job market is so lean this year and around 70 to 120 strong candidates are applying for each job. I really might not, and I'm very worried about what I'm going to do if I don't.

I've been shunted around the UK for four years now, working on precarious temporary contracts, having to give intensive pastoral care to students who, bless them, don't realize we're human as well, and having to move away from family and any friends and research connections I make year after year. I'm 31 years old and feel like I have no real place in the world, and can't even consider big life decisions the way other grown-ups do. Jeez, there are 20-year-olds with more of a clue than me. I wish I could embrace the nomadic life and the excitement of not knowing what's coming next, but I'm not built that way and it only heightens my anxiety.

I feel absolute solidarity with those striking for #fairpayinHE, and I am grateful that they are including people like me in their reasons for industrial action, but I will not join them in striking. This is a crucial and urgent time of year for people like me who are trying to keep our heads above water. I cannot spare the time or wages.


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