Durham staff survey

I filled in the Durham University staff survey yesterday, which got me once again rather miffed about the way that postdoctoral positions work within this university, but also more generally. A good number of the questions were of the "can you do your work within normal working hours?", "do you have enough resources to do your job?", "do you feel stressed by work?" and so on. Answers: no, no, and yes. But while this "dialogue" is all very well in principle, there's nothing that can actually be done about these things: research positions are funded to do research in a particular area and if that's a lot of work for one person, tough. And if you don't manage to do it, also tough: no permanent position for you, matey. So hurrah for the new touchy-feely Durham University, but if they stump up University funds for the needed extra manpower to make my post a full success, I'll eat a hat of anyone's choosing.

The other major annoying aspect of working for the University is the complete lack of institutional incentive to work hard or well. Except for the fact that I'm actually a reasonably intelligent and self-motivated person who doesn't like to turn out slack or shoddy work, my "best strategy" would be to work as little as I can without being fired (or, since I have a fixed term position, without failing to get my contract renewed). My pay will increment by about 800 a year as long as I'm there, regardless of whether I (continue to) work my arse off. What's more, there's no meaningful system for hopping up that ladder a bit faster: allegedly such a scheme exists, but I'm told that it's not worth applying because it's a lot of paperwork and anyway the University has put a moratorium on such accelerated progress. Now, I can understand that being older is likely to be correlated with having kids and big houses and the accompanying expenses, but nevertheless it burns to do more or better work than someone who's been around for ages and to take home half their wage: maybe I want that house or kids right now. I don't even regard myself as much of a materialist: I just like to think that what I'm getting given is proportional to what other people doing the same work get. This is by no means a problem unique to university posts, but Durham's pay and promotion system is remarkably geared towards maintaining a status quo of age-coupled mediocrity. A mediocracy, if you will.

Anyway, I get the distinct impression that this review is not for the benefit of academics. I hope it's for the benefit of someone other than just the HR section. It's institutionally accepted that academic life is underpaid, overstressed and under-resourced, and getting a few thousand surveys back to confirm it won't change any of those factors. Unfortunately, academic life is also wonderfully flexible, informal and interesting: we're our own worst enemies. So go on, drop out and go work for a bank: the fewer applicants for those stressful, undervalued lectureships the better.


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