An ECR's Guide To Escaping The 'Sessional' Trap


Earlier this month the Times Higher Education published an opinion piece by Luke Brunning about the increased willingness of junior academics to accept ‘deteriorating working conditions’ in the university sector.

Though many factors are at play, Brunning believes that a key problem lies with the ‘gratitude culture’. Long the currency of exchange in higher education, graduate students and early career researchers (ECRs) have forcibly had to ‘internalise’ the gratitude economy, according to Brunning. To survive, more and more junior academics now subject themselves to prolonged periods of workplace exploitation.

Stories of early career academics being over-worked and under-valued by universities are not new. As Sharni Chan, a Sydney-based politics and public policy academic said last year, insecure and casual contracts are becoming more not less prevalent in academia.

Speaking at a media conference last year, Chan said: “I have neither a career to speak of, nor a family. I’ve spent a decade training and building up teaching experience and a research profile. I’ve done all the right things and at the same time there is high demand for my work, however it is always on casual contracts. I’m very committed to my work and I think the work I do is important – it is just completely unsustainable.”

Chan’s is just one of a growing number of accounts of ECRs ‘trapped’ on the wrong side of a sector increasingly demarcated by a two-track workforce: one for academics with continuing Teaching and Research positions, and the other for academics who find themselves stuck on the sessional (i.e. insecure, short-term, contract) track.

With more than half those employed in Australian universities now falling into the second track, it’s plainly obvious that we – as early career and sessional academics – need to have a more concerted discussion about what we can do ourselves to escape the sessional trap.

For many, this begins with voicing their complaints to university administrators through the NTEU. This is an important step, and for a simple reason. While university administrators may not be blind to the situation facing sessionals, it’s safe to assume that few who lead our universities and enforce their policies have had to live pay-to-pay and often months without pay for some time – if they ever had to in the first place that is. Reminding them of what it’s like to be an ECR or sessional academic today is something more academics should involve themselves in. Each university should have a group like Sydney University’s The Casuals Network to speak for sessionals who really are the invisible workforce in today’s university.

But there are other important steps we should be taking to avoid the sessional trap in the first place. In particular, there are three steps which we think vital for any ECR and sessional academic wanting more secure employment within academia.

But before we proceed, we probably should say that we’re not sessionals ourselves. We were, at one point. Though we now have steady academic appointments, we’ve had recent experiences with what it’s like to compete in a saturated marketplace for what few positions there are. We’ve taken short-term contracts and visiting or honorary positions which came with no pay and very little benefit just to get a foot in the door.

Of course, our experiences are in no way indicative of what other ECR and sessional academics go through. And what we have to say does not come from the perspective of ‘someone who has made it’ and ‘beat the sessional trap’. Far from it.

Instead, what we say is in the spirit of generating more public discussion about the sessionalisation of academia and what steps we might take to avoid this. We also think it’s important that ECRs and sessionals – rather than established professors and university administrators – be at the forefront of this discussion.

Do no more than what you’ve been paid for

The first step for those employed as sessional lecturers and tutors is to do no more than what you’ve been paid for. This sounds simple in the abstract. Sessionals are typically paid to give lectures, take tutorials and grade assessments.

And on the face of it, they’re paid pretty well to do all this – that is, of course, until you factor in the actual number of hours of preparation needed, the student emails and consultation times, the time it takes to familiarise yourself with university procedures and administration semester to semester, and the fact that most sessional contracts are only 12-weeks in length.

As such, most sessionals know that the pay they receive will often not cover the time actually required to write good lectures, plan tutorials, consult students, assess and comment on student work, and deal with university administrative matters. According to the NTEU, for example, “at Sydney University, casual academics are paid to mark 4,500 words per hour. All tutors know that this is unrealistic. In real terms, this means casual tutors receive around $15 per hour.”

Sessionals thus need to be pragmatic and where that fails they need to be strategic. Do no more than what you’ve been paid for means exactly that. If you’re getting paid to mark 4,500 words per hour, then make sure you’ve marked at least that in 60 minutes. The rest of your time needs to be dedicated to research, which must be as important as teaching is – even during the semester.

But this isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially when you meet students who are genuinely in need of guidance. The unfortunate reality to being realistic in the face of unrealistic demands is that students will likely pay the price.

Faced with this dilemma, we need to remember that what we can do is limited – especially when we’ve been employed in a limited capacity only. Universities realise this better than we do sometimes. It’s a balance that needs to be struck, precarious and unjust as it can be at times, if we’re to move beyond sessional work.

Write to publish

There’s many facets to this second step. Not surprisingly, the best way to avoid the sessional trap and secure ongoing academic appointments is by producing regular research output. ECRs who find themselves stuck in the sessional track are those who do not publish regularly or enough – especially during the final stages of their PhDs and in the immediate months after submission.

But it’s not just a numbers game. Increasingly, Australian universities are driven by quality in research outputs which can be assessed through the ERA. It’s not just the Group of Eight research-intensive universities that are becoming research-minded.

ECR and sessional academics need to familiarise themselves with journal metrics – not just ERA journal rankings, but with international measures as established by Thomson Reuters’ Journal Citation Reports or SCImago for example. Aim to publish only in a select number (six to eight) of well-ranked outlets that are respected in your disciplinary area.

ECR and sessional academics also need to know what the H-index is. As problematic as rankings and self-rankings are, universities will use these measures to assess applicants for ongoing Teaching & Research positions.

In the end, writing to publish means only researching and writing pieces that have a good chance of being published in a reputable ranked outlet. Given that most academics will be short on time, this means not wasting the limited time you have by writing conference papers, working papers or opinion pieces unless they lend themselves to being reworked into a refereed journal output in a timely manner.

Even better than writing a conference or working paper, which may or may not lead to publication, is to not write them at all. Only present at conferences or workshops papers already accepted for publication. This not only avoids the danger of writing something which may not be published. It is also a good way to get feedback and inspiration for the next publication.

This isn’t advice we give based on practical experience. A look at our own research outputs will show that all this is easier said than done. But this is the model which we, and the successful ECRs we know, strive for.

The best offer is not always the best on offer

We know a number of colleagues who have remained faithful to their universities and schools for longer than they perhaps should. Especially at Go8s, where prestige plays a key role, sessionals hang around and do more than they’ve been paid for, thinking that their contribution will be recognised eventually.

This does happen of course. Departments do recognise talent and dedication. There are stories where talented sessionals are converted into ongoing Teaching and Research faculty.

However, this is the exception, not the rule. For the most, Go8s know they can pick and choose from the best international talent. If they see you subject yourself to ‘deteriorating working conditions’, as Brunning put it in his Times Higher Education piece, they will keep you there for as long as they can – or for as long as you allow them to.

When this happens, sessionals ignore or miss out on other opportunities, especially at what are perceived to be less prestigious institutions. While these universities may not feature in the Academic Ranking of World Universities or the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, they have their own merits. For one, they can give junior academics greater authority and offer them a fast-tracked ‘apprenticeship’ that would take years longer at the more elite universities.

Knowing when and where to jump is scary and difficult. What makes it even scarier and more difficult is that it’s often not when and where you think. The best offer, in this regard, is not always the best on offer.

* Mark Chou is a lecturer in politics at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. He has authored three books, including Democracy Against Itself: Sustaining an Unsustainable Idea (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). He is also co-editor of the international journal, Democratic Theory, published and distributed by Berghahn.

* Jean-Paul Gagnon is a university postdoctoral fellow at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. His latest book is Democratic Theorists in Conversation (Palgrave, 2014). He is also co-editor of the international journal, Democratic Theory, published and distributed by Berghahn.

* Nicholas Osbaldiston is lecturer in sociology at Federation University. Previously a lecturer at Monash Gippsland, he is the author of The Culture of the Slow: Social Deceleration in an Accelerated World (Palgrave, 2013).

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