Academic writing, or how not to make a living
£270 was my income from writing in the year 2017-18. I received a cheque from ALCS for £120 and I gave a lecture to MA students for which I earned £150. Before you think I am completely hopeless, let me explain: I am an academic writer; my profession is as an archaeological researcher. This combines my love of archaeology, history and writing, and for which I receive editorial/peer review comments along the lines of ‘[this is] a very scholarly and original piece of research…’ but only within the last two years have I finally worked out how to pursue this while still being able to eat and pay rent (incidentally I’m 48).
But first some background: I live in London but I’m originally Irish. My BA and MA degrees and ten years as a fully employed archaeologist were in Ireland until I moved to London in 2002 to do a PhD at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL. I finished that in 2008, and since then, I have had published one book (said thesis), five academic papers/chapters and one forthcoming (all in peer-reviewed journals/books), one magazine article, one newspaper article and one professional newsletter piece. I was only paid for the newspaper article. Having said that the forthcoming paper has a grant attached, paid on delivery of the paper (more about this below) and I do get the small cheque from ALCS.
I’ve been an archaeologist all my life and failure, somewhat ironically, only happened after I finished my PhD, from which point everything started unravelling. I only managed to haul myself back onto a flat surface about two years ago. The reasons for this are many but one of the main ones is my ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). I was always aware that my brain did not seem to quite function as it should but put it down to poor self-confidence and being a little eccentric. Various events post-PhD and a glass ceiling reflecting the sense that I was failing, drove me to get a proper diagnosis. Eight years of doing all sorts of jobs, of trying to get myself to a place where I could do what I loved and survive and not be in a constant state of high stress, has led me to the particular position I’m in now.
My main focus is to ensure and protect the time and resources that allow me to do my research and writing as this is the work that gives my life purpose. Consequently I have three jobs: my own research, office manager for a heritage charity, and I work in a small, independent bookshop (which gives me a particular understanding from that side as well). Last tax year this earned me £270, £8,271 and £10,998 respectively, so a total of £19,419. I should add that my extremely generous godmother left me some shares a few years ago that give me about £2000 in dividends every year. This pays off the overdraft and allows me a holiday, and gives me the luxury of knowing I have a safety net if and when things go horribly wrong (which they have done at least three times in my life so far – I have a great book called ‘Failure’ by Colin Feltham that I highly recommend).
So how it works is, I work three days in the bookshop and three afternoons a week at the charity, which leaves me three precious mornings a week (when my brain functions best) for my writing. People do occasionally wonder how I manage but I have ADHD which means not only do I have lots of energy, but I’m much more suited to this kind of variety and unless I’m doing work I really love full time (which hasn’t been the case since I left Ireland; even while doing my PhD full-time, I worked part-time), five days a week doing the same job kills me.
Very occasionally I am able to secure some funding for my research and writing. Last year I was awarded a grant by the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society (LAMAS) to do some research and produce a paper for their journal. It was a small grant of just over £3500 but £1000 of that is for a translator for help with some archive documents. I won’t be paid that until the paper is finally accepted and ready for publication. LAMAS is a rare academic funding body in that they allow your work to stand for itself, so no references required, and allow you to put in to pay yourself. Most research grants are aimed at those in universities with paid positions or only offer to cover specific research-related expenses that assume you somehow transform into an other-world creature that does not need to eat or pay rent while you research and write. (It is one of the reasons I am a member of SoA – an organisation that understands the material requirements of time to write is a great comfort!).
Academic publishing is an equally peculiar world; arguably academic publishers abuse the issue of the ‘be published or be damned’ aspect of academic work, where it is important to get yourself published in peer-reviewed and well-respected journals. Firstly, not only are you not paid for your work, in some cases you are expected to pay for the privilege of being published (which I refuse to do; I also refuse to write essays & dissertations for other people – a burgeoning and insidious industry that should be stopped). ‘Open access’ and the notion that somehow you, the writer, are in a well-paid academic job and have already been paid to do the research are the excuses for not paying. Certainly this is the case for some researchers, but it is not the case for many. Nowadays many people are not in paid academic positions, they are what’s euphemistically called ‘independent’ or have poorly paid, insecure short term contracts.
This all skews what research is done and published, and is without question incredibly discriminatory against those who are not in paid academic positions on the one hand, and dictates what is published and accessible on the other. I appreciate that publishers have to cover costs of editing and publishing, and need to make some money, but why the astronomical costs to download single papers (often at least £20 each) that are not open access, and for academic books, with print on demand and e-books reducing the need for speculative print-runs, storage etc.? And you can be sure that most authors (or funding bodies for that matter) do not receive a penny from this (and often academic books are on very short discount for booksellers, also limiting their availability and therefore sales). It really is about time the major academic publishers explain themselves, with the facts and figures, on these issues.
Thankfully I am not materialistic, once I have enough coming in and something aside for a rainy day, I’m reasonably content just so long as I have the space to my research and writing – without this my life rapidly descends into dark what-is-the-point-ism. What I do not think about (after all there is more than enough to be frustrated about in the wider world) is the fact that I am paid for two jobs I can do with one hand tied behind my back and for which I need no qualifications what so ever, but that I am essentially not paid to do the job that I have four degrees in (including the PhD), umpteen years of varied experience and which, judging by feedback when I get it, I am best at….An accountant in Ireland I consulted once said to me, ‘the problem with you people is that [your work] is a vocation and you will be exploited for it’. Quite.