On working for free (Academic labour – part 1)

I seem to be having the same conversation over and over on twitter and am in danger of being a one trick on a particular issue – that of academic labour and working for free. 

I never do it*, something will have gone seriously wrong if I ever have to do it. I’ll point out that my current employer Edge Hill University has never asked me to work for free so none of the examples I’ll discuss applies to them.

Let’s get the caveats out of the way first:

  • If you are happy and comfortable to work for free, more power to you, we need to change the underlying systemic issues not snipe at each other
  • I’m a white heterosexual man with no disabilities and have all of the advantages that occur in a system where people’s default idea of the academy is a white hetrosexual man with no disabilities. In general I never suffer from the micro-aggressions that many people have to deal with multiple times a day. I’ve never detected any problems with coming from a working class background. I know this stuff goes on because people tell me (and if you want to debate that it goes on – this is the wrong blog for you) but its invisible to me. 
  • You really think that your career would suffer – then go for it, I’m not you and thus why this makes sense to me might make no sense to you
  • You have a passion project that will not happen without free labour

With that in mind, why don’t I work for free? 

  • There is the opportunity cost – every time you work for free you commit time that can used for something that actually pays.
  • By working for free, you send the signal that either your time isn’t valuable or your expertise is worthless. 
  • If you are already working for free, why pay you? 
  • If you are working for free, why not ask you to do more – because the marginal cost of asking you to do more to the person asking is… zero
  • There is the multipller effect – I once was asked to attended a conference and was expected to pay for it myself, it came to about £800. This was ten years ago, I stuck the money into my investments and got a average return on that £800 (even during the financial crisis) of about 12% – I cannot even remember what the conference was. Working for free is stealing from your future.
  • Every time we agree to work for free, we make it harder for all of us to be paid.
  • I’ve been poor, I didn’t like it – it was the most stressful experience you can think of and is even more stressful now given the language of ‘scroungers’ – “oh my god, what if they invite me to join them for coffee, I’ll have to do without dinner” (if you’ve never been poor that might make no sense to you, if you have been it makes perfect sense to you).

Now at this point some of you are disgusted:

what sort of academic is this guy who is concerned about money? aren’t we all suppose to be doing it for love?

Doing it for love is fine if that floats your boat but I don’t plan to be eating dog food on retirement or if I get ill or if my job disappears and I don’t want my family to have to do that either. I also don’t trust in Govt. to provide. To me sound financial planning is the same as regularly exercising and not eating kebabs every evening – it just makes sense.

There is a secret about the academy, there is money, they just don’t want to give it to you, I’ll return to this but some examples to finish with on that theme:

  • Along with some other graduate students, I was invited to mark some dissertations for free that needed to be done quickly – I promised to turn them around fast but needed to be paid, the others did it for free. There were some uncomfortable conversations later… 
  • I did a post-doc where I asked the salary and we talked about what they were going to pay me. I found out later that rather than spilt the money between me and two other Post-docs, they paid me at the top and then at the bottom of the grade, simply because they hadn’t asked. 

We’ll return to this again.

* OK I likely do it in ways that I’ve hadn’t thought of – but before someone suggest working at weekends and evening – I do neither – if it doesn’t get done in the day it doesn’t get done. 

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