Weekend Reading: Academic Motivations

I’ve been thinking lately about why people go into academia.

In part, that’s because I see a lot of people at this time of year who are at a turning point. Some have completed a Master’s Degree with me and are asking my advice about PhDs – which I find both exciting and dispiriting at the same time, because my job description doesn’t allow me to supervise PhDs, so I have to turn people down, even though I’d love to help them move forward.

(If you’re at that point, or think you may be in a year or two, do read this new post from OU PhD student Adam Parker, about his experience of a part-time distance PhD: My PhD: A Retrospective. It’s a really useful and detailed account, and might answer a lot of questions you haven’t even thought of yet.)

I see other people who are near the end of their studies and are thinking about looking for employment in academia. Again, that’s both exciting and dispiriting to watch. It’s lovely to write references for people who have done amazing work and have great potential; but it’s depressing to see how narrow the job market is. There have been times in the past when I’ve sent nearly a hundred references for just one person (there’s always a lot of copying and pasting, obviously!) before they finally secured a job; and even then it’s often short term and not what they really wanted.

(A post this week from Amy Coker, On Leaving, sets out the employment situation starkly, but also points to the value of a non-university career. On a similar note, I was reading an interview with Mary Beard this week, in which she argues, ‘There are many reasons for doing a PhD, and we should think of it as a more varied pathway, and be open about that’. Indeed, even for those who do secure ‘permanent’ employment in academia, there are risks, as this interview with Aven McMaster shows. There’s also been a lot of rather alarming talk this week about new government targets for universities, focused on employment, which try to reduce courses to a ‘value for money’ proposition that will definitely not go well for Classics.)

In part, too, I’ve been thinking about accessibility: who gets to go into academia and who doesn’t? Where are the barriers, and who are they stopping? I’ve been writing a few things for blogs over the last couple of weeks about Asterion, including this interview with brilliant MA graduates Hilary Forbes and Tony Potter for the OU Classical Studies blog, and a piece for the Society for Classical Studies blog in the US. I’m also editing a few pieces for the Asterion blog. And they’re making me wonder what we can change, to let more and different people in, when even people with every advantage struggle to find and keep a job in academia.

All of this makes me wonder why people do it. Why do we want to be in academia, and specifically in Classics? We’re not making loads of money, and we’re not benefitting humanity by curing deadly diseases. So what motivates us? I came up with a few answers…

  • Some people are clearly in it for the glory. Academic glory is difficult to explain to people outside academia, since it’s not always linked to money; but promotions and book contracts and visiting professorships and invitations to speak are powerful motivators.
  • Some people are in it for the service. They seek opportunities to help people. They mentor and take on pastoral duties; they focus on pedagogy and make improvements; they go above and beyond to see their students succeed and to champion equality. The really great ones often go unnoticed, by anyone other than the people they help; but they’re the backbone of every department.
  • (Which reminds me: if you know a brilliant Classics teacher at a UK school or college, please consider nominating them for this year’s Classical Association Teaching Awards. It might mean a lot to them!)
  • Other people are in it for the academic interest. They’ll do the research anyway, whether they get paid or not, whatever hardships they have to put up with, because they’re driven by questions that need answering. They often end up with side jobs because academia exploits their commitment without giving them enough to live on.
  • Other people, I think, are institutionalised. They’ve been in a university for so long that they don’t know what else exists out there in the world, and wouldn’t even know where to start if they had to apply for a non-academic job. They accept some pretty awful working conditions because they can’t imagine leaving.
  • A few people seem to stay because they’re looking for some abstract ideal. There’s a vision out there, I think, of academic life as some kind of rarefied existence of intellectual enquiry, where people sit around in leather chairs, debating philosophical points over wine as the sun sets behind the dreaming spires… It’s a shock when those people encounter retention targets and paperwork and REFs and TEFs and the VLE – but maybe they hope that those things will disappear if they just wish hard enough.

So what about me? What am I doing still lurking around the fringes of academia? What’s my motivation? That’s what I’ve been wondering today, while ploughing through a pile of Latin marking.

Am I here for the glory? Yes, absolutely. If you happen to have a documentary in production or a book contract in your back pocket, count me in! But don’t worry – I won’t be holding my breath in expectation of fame and fortune showing up at my door.

What about the service? Well, yes. I see problems and I want to fix them. There are lots of people I would like to help, and I’d like to leave the field a bit more welcoming than it was when I found it. But this kind of work is tiring and usually unpaid, and for me it comes from frustration at the inequalities I encounter, rather than being an intrinsic motivation.

Academic interest? Yes to that too – and in fact, since I’m not employed on a research contract, every bit of research I do is done on my own time and out of my own pocket. I don’t really resent that: I just wish there were more hours in the day!

Am I institutionalised? Embarrassingly, yes. I’ve been either a university student or a university teacher (often both at once) continuously since I turned 18. My sister and brother-in-law are academics; so was my ex-husband, and so are most of my closest friends. I’ve worked in other places too, of course, but never for long. I may have been the first person in my family to go to university, but I didn’t do it by halves; and the rest of the family weren’t far behind.

Am I following a cosy ideal of academia: leather-bound books, stained glass windows, library stepladders, tweed as far as the eye can see? Don’t be ridiculous. Nothing to see here… move along…

I came to the conclusion that I tick all of the boxes, or I would if I had the chance. But I was still wondering what my main motivation is. Then of course I realised it was staring me in the face.


Always has been, always will be. I’m here for the books. I get to talk about them, and people pay me for that. I get to read them and write about them, and nobody tells me I should be doing something more useful. I follow people on social media who talk about books, and translate books, and write books, and illustrate books, and commission books. I go to lectures about books. My friends and family write books, and they send me copies. I get sent books to review, and I can keep them. I do drawings for people, or peer review work, in exchange for books. The other day most of my name and address was missing from the label on a parcel, but the postman said, ‘We knew it would be for you, because it’s a book’.

If I were to go back in time and talk to 10-year-old me about my career, she wouldn’t be interested in most of what I do. But if I told her that I get so much book-post that the whole neighbourhood just assumes that all books belong to me, she would be Proper Impressed.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

3 thoughts on “Weekend Reading: Academic Motivations

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