I have been thinking about precarity a lot in recent months, both in relation to my research on international migration and in relation to my own livelihood.
The notion of precarity has always featured prominently in migration studies
Precarity (also precariousness) has been defined as precarious existence, lacking in predictability, job security, material or psychological welfare. The social class defined by this condition has been termed the precariat.
In migration studies, scholars have focused on precarity of the most vulnerable – low-wage, poorly trained migrants – whose precarity is often associated with ‘illegality’ and ‘deportability.’ I have written before about the precarious situation of undocumented youth in Paperless and Jobless.
However, one does not need to be undocumented and fear deportation to feel that they lead a precarious existence. My colleague and I have recently written about Polish nurses in Norway who experience periods of precarity. As health professionals and citizens of the European Union, they are neither low skilled nor without appropriate authorization, but yet they find themselves, especially at the beginning of their migration journey, in precarious situations. You can read more on their situation in Norway here.
Precarity at different stages of academic careers
Lots has been written about precarity in academia. Graduate students worry about precarity and lose confidence as a result, but so do junior academics and adjunct faculty. But what about seasoned scholars? Do they also experience uncertainty of employment? You bet you!
I have been living in the United States for over 30 years. Of those thirty years, I spent five years working for the U.S. Federal Government where as my husband, a fellow anthropologist and a federal bureaucrat, says “Direct deposit continues.”
The remaining 25 years, I spent working on soft money. My employment at the Refugee Policy Groups, Howard University, and Georgetown University depended on grants and contracts I managed to secure from a variety of sources: federal and local government, private foundations, and fellowships.
My success depended on my tenacity, willingness to work overtime to be able to do the research that I had support for and plan months and years in advance to anticipate when my money would run out and when I would need the next grant. I often felt that I wasn’t doing justice to the funded projects, because I had to chase after the next funding source.
My success greatly depended on my colleagues and research assistants who worked hard writing these dreaded proposals with me. My success also depended on the rain-making abilities of my bosses who hassled as much as we did to secure funding for the team!
Few tenured faculty who sit on Search Committees understand what kind of skills directors of soft money centers and institutes need. They look mainly at the academic achievements of the applicants—do they publish in the “right” kind of journals, were they able to secure prestigious fellowships—but they do not examine their fund-raising and managerial abilities.
To add insult to injury, the research professors and research associates who work for the soft money outfits do not have a voting power when it comes to the final selection of the director. They have to retire or search for grants solo when the new leadership does not understand the precariousness of grants-based research centers.
So when my tenured colleagues bemoan the fact that they have not gotten a raise in several years, I empathize, but always remind them that they have a steady paycheck.
The precarious life on non-tenure lined research faculty continues!