From The Guardian, 8 April 2016. Words by ‘Anonymous academic’.
Last week I submitted a paper to a top journal in my field. I have another two in the pipeline, a request from an editor to referee an article and a conference talk to prepare. So far, this probably sounds like the typical life of an academic.
But I’m not employed as an academic. Actually I’m not employed at all. I have a chronic illness that has left me almost completely housebound. So am I still an academic?
Until a few years ago, my status was undisputed. I held a fellowship position which would have led to a much coveted permanent academic position. After years of short-term post-docs I had, finally, made it.
Then overnight, my world collapsed. A relapse of severe ME left me housebound. I lost my job and my income, my independence and my social life – but probably the worst loss of all was of my identity as a science academic.
As the weeks turned into months and then years I came to terms with the fact that I would never again publish a paper, talk at a conference, or even discuss research with colleagues.
My health has barely improved in all this time, and I’m still not well enough to work. I particularly struggle with concentration and cognitive processing. I can’t read, write or use a computer for more than 30 minutes at a time, and I don’t know in advance how much I’ll be able to do on any given day.
Yet, to my great surprise, I’ve been doing research again. It hasn’t been easy, but I’m now an academic who is not an academic – and it turns out that I’m not alone.
I’ve discovered that up and down the country there are others in a similar situation. Some, like me, have switched subject area. Others have stayed in a discipline where they already had a reputation and contacts. Our paths are different and our solutions vary, but the reasons are the same: we love doing research, we’re good at it and we want to continue despite illness and disability.
It could be argued that we are working for free – even being exploited – so why do we do it? Of course, like all academics we are drawn by a love of research and a fascination with our subject area. But there is more to it than that. Being able to contribute to a body of research is rewarding and gives us a sense of achievement.
One friend with a progressive neurological condition told me that academic research and writing keeps her brain active; others talk about the sense of purpose it gives them. For me, it’s a way to connect to the outside world (something that is surprisingly hard to do when housebound). It is also a fantastic antidote to the sheer boredom of life with a chronic illness.
Returning to academia was not something that I intended to do, it happened by accident. I started a part-time MSc in a subject quite different to my original discipline.
After my dissertation, I realised that I wanted to continue doing research, but as I was too ill to apply for jobs I didn’t think it would be possible. Visiting research fellowships are an option for some, but tend to be limited to the humanities. Instead, I have an informal arrangement with my research group and they’ve been incredibly supportive. They arrange access to electronic journals and we meet regularly to discuss my research.
As I’m not a university employee I don’t have an academic email address or access to internal events or meetings, so it can be hard to feel part of the community. Some people do not even count me as an academic: a popular online magazine refused my pitch for an article purely because I’m not employed at a UK institution.
Another big challenge is the isolation – but technology has really helped. I have found Twitter essential as a way to connect with others in the field, and most of my meetings are via Skype. I’ve even given a conference talk remotely when I was too ill attend in person.
Despite the challenges, my research is going well: on top of three papers, I’ve given three conference talks, refereed numerous papers and continue to write an academic blog. Maybe one day I will rejoin the ranks of the employed. But until then I’m very happy just to be still counted as an academic.