Just Because

The Human Cost of a Life of the Mind

A very dear friend of mine has recently moved universities and states in order to secure a three-year contract. Being witness to the adjustments she is undergoing right now brings to mind many of those my family and I experienced in moving from Perth to Brisbane for my current position. Most academics are aware that ours is a privileged occupation with the opportunity to pursue myriad research interests, albeit with increasing pressures to account for every second of the working day and publish incessantly. There is, however, another side to this getting of privilege.

In a piece on The Conversation, Jenni Metcalfe mentioned the survey conducted by the Australian Council of Learned Academies in which a respondent talked of ‘three contract jobs across three different states in two years”. Such is the appalling truth of where the pursuit of a life of the mind leads. There is no question that landing the first academic job is the major hurdle that await the end of doctorate degree studies in Australia. There is a huge human cost that research as well as teaching academics pay.

What does it amount to? If you are single, a lot of isolation in the beginning once you have wrenched yourself away from friends and networks based around the city or town that you’ve built up through the years of postgraduate study or postdoctoral work. I don’t want to be melodramatic but there is nothing like being a stranger in a sea of people to make one feel truly, deeply and sometimes, madly (I love that movie!) alone. And unless people in the new environment let you into their shared spaces or you dig yourself into newly discovered ones, life is lonesome.

It is ironic because these are exactly the connections that, as postgraduates, you are encouraged to build and nurture. They are also the networks that sometimes facilitate professional collaborations, a vital part of academic work today. The academic term is social capital.

Of course, I can hear those who argue that with the internet, Facebook and Twitter, you are never really far away from these connections. B***S*** I say! I’d rather share a cup of coffee with a friend any day over a social media update. Friends lighten your days and freshen your mind with their chatter, laughter and arguments. It’s just not the same when it is digitized, mediated and asynchronous. When it comes to friends, social media comes a poor second to face-to-face in my book.

What other costs are there to speak of? There is that familiarity with your surroundings, institute and city/town that allows you to locate the right person to push things along, the right shop to find a book, catch a movie or even, simply the best place for a quiet moment. Your social milieu, constructed out of many days and nights of getting to know the place where you live. And the older and more set you get in your ways, the harder it becomes to settle into a new spot and make it your neighbourhood. People are adaptable, some more than others but life experience means, if nothing else, that you know what you like and what you don’t. Nothing is cast in concrete if one remains open but you do get to know your own mind better as you age.

Those of us with partners and children have different costs and compensations. Having family means there are others to share the pain of departure with. They do part of the packing and unpacking, finding schools and new jobs to go with the new homes. They take away some of the pain of social isolation and join in the discovery of new links in the new environment.

However, making the decision to move a family is complex. And the more individuals it consists of, the more divergent the range of needs and wants are likely to be. Does the opportunity outweigh the cost? Whose needs within the family rank as priority whilst another’s take a back seat for now? And what happens when the contract ends? The prospect of move after move after move in pursuit of contracts is not one that anyone, let alone families with children should ever take lightly.

The question that haunts us over-analytical intellectual types just before sleep overtakes at night is: what if things don’t work out? With all the will in the world there is no telling if the new environment will be one where productive work can be completed. There aren’t that many universities in Australia and on paper, each one of these institutes are primed to look their best. You could ask around but opinions will inevitably vary.

There are, of course, those who take even bigger risks and move to a new country to take up an opportunity. I can’t speak to that because I haven’t undergone that experience as an academic but the upheaval of uprooting oneself with family or sans is no laughing matter.

So maybe the answer is not to work in academia and look to industry, the public service or enterprise as the way to create the right space for the work oneself. Maybe…but people who live in their heads don’t often possess the qualities needed for a life wherein profit and loss are measured in dollars and cents before a triple bottom line kicks in.

At this point, I don’t see life outside academia as a solution so perhaps the answer is that there is always a price to pay, whatever life you choose. The trick is to understand what value you seek for that price.


I'm a research fellow at an Australian university where I work on a number of projects. These include projects to do with new media and migration and the Chinese diaspora in Australia, projects on the Malaysian internet, ethno-religious issues in Singapore and Malaysia. And, before I forget many of the photos I use on this site were taken by my sister, Jessie and myself. All rights are reserved.