By Fraser Raeburn |

If I had to pick the most common topic of conversation amongst lecturers that I’ve overheard this past year, it would have to be about how terrible academic life is. Students are stupid, bureaucracy baffling, exams exasperating and the constant alliteration over the top and unnecessary. Inevitably, this pessimism seeps into how senior academics talk to us PhDs: no one is going to get a research job ever again, the REF is going to lead to the collapse of human civilisation as we know it, the Germans are invading, and so on.


I don’t doubt that this grumbling is at least partly based on truth. I’m sure that academia is flawed, and that as PhDs we probably get shielded from some of the worst of it, and that attempting to find our way into an academic career is going to be difficult. I feel, however, that the time has come for someone to stand up and point out to the huddled scholarly masses that academic life, when you get right down to it, really isn’t that bad.

Exhibit A: All the gripes I just mentioned? While often true, they’re symptomatic of the world we live in and not unique to academia. Wherever you work, there will be colleagues you dislike, clients who are idiots, pointless bureaucracy to deal with and arbitrary performance measurements by which your worth is judged. Worried about increasing competition over limited jobs? There’s practically no field left for which the competition for decent positions is not incredibly fierce. Don’t like your boss? Be glad that you work in a field where you barely have to interact with them on a daily basis. Concerned about the Germans invading? We’ll fight them on the beaches. Possibly for the use of deckchairs.

Pas de Calais, Atlantikwall, PanzersperrenEarly models of deckchair were considerably less comfortable.

Exhibit B: As researchers in history (and the humanities in general really), we pretty much have carte blanche to pick the single thing that most interests us out of the whole of human existence, and make that into a career. In my last job, the definition of a good day was if I could convince someone to buy a couch via email and avoid having my boss yell at me. The job before that, it was when I was assigned to sell laptops rather than vacuum cleaners (they all suck). Now, I get to spend all day learning more about a topic that I’m passionately interested in, deal with my rather more sympathetic ‘boss’ once every few weeks and am rarely if ever required to have an opinion about furniture. Let’s face it: it’s a hell of a lot easier to ‘do what you love’ in academia than in almost any other profession, and we’re shielded from a lot of the mundane drudgery that many others need to put up with. More than that, there is something about the thrill of discovery – the creation of knowledge, no matter on how small a scale – that provides constant excitement and encouragement.

Exhibit C: In lifestyle terms, being a researcher in the humanities offers more flexibility and balance than just about any other mainstream career. For the most part, we set our own hours, meaning we can often work when- and wherever we feel like it, and no one cares whether we turn up in a t-shirt or a tuxedo. We also don’t have to put in pointless hours beyond what we feel is necessary. True, we might end up working more hours than in a 9 to 5 job, but only because we owe it to ourselves (and our topic), not because anyone is holding us accountable to an arbitrary standard – I’ve yet to see a department which requires researchers to clock on and off. Travel is also a massive perk, especially as we often get to choose where we go either directly (I want to go to that conference in Majorca!) or indirectly (I find Spanish history fascinating, so I work on Spanish history topic, so funnily enough I need to visit Spanish archives. Which are in Majorca).

the-sea-651655_1280On second thought, I’ll fight the Germans on Spain’s beaches.

I don’t want to imply that academia is perfect, and that we shouldn’t constantly be trying to improve the institutions in which we work to make them fairer, more pleasant or more functional. I’m also not delusional about how hard it is to get an academic job these days, or the real stress and pressure that many researchers struggle with. All I’d like is a little more optimism. In the grand scheme of things, we’re still incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to pursue a career in research.

Fraser is in that akward part of the PhD where you’ve gone through the First Year Review, but haven’t chronologically started your second year yet, leaving you unable to describe your progress succinctly. Which probably shows. He does not yet have a Twitter account like all the cool historians, but you can follow him on

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(Cover image ⓒ, Image 1 ⓒ, Image 2 ⓒ, Image 3 ⓒ