Who Would Want to Work in a University?

Many people like to be self-employed – they don’t have to defer to a boss they might not like, they are independent, and they can make their own decisions. But make no mistake, they pay a high price for these freedoms – people working independently earn about 25% less than matched counterparts in employment.[1] Those who leave their companies to start consultancies likewise experience a drop in earnings. And the freedoms they gain are only partial – they are heavily constrained by their clients and the commissions they can secure. Of course, they have to do all their maintenance – IT, pension, legal advice, accountancy, etc. Working as an academic in a research-intensive university provides the best of both worlds. Considerable discretion over which projects to pursue. Opportunities to make strategic and tactical decisions and to display entrepreneurship. The opportunity to secure funding and build a small team. Opportunities to make discoveries and a name for yourself, and to work in an intellectually rich and not-that-badly paid environment. What’s not to like? Yet academics often seem discontented. Why? First, fear of failure. The freedom to make the calls on what to study comes at a price – the ever present risk of failure. Publishing in top papers and securing grants is a tough, competitive business. Most of us encounter difficult patches and some scholars start to panic or slowly sink and become disaffected. Second, success takes a long time to build – the delay between an idea and a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine is about five years on average, but can be as much as two decades. Gone is the immediate gratification that comes from a well-executed procedure or a skilfully conducted consultation, for example. Third, the administration in all universities is very tricky because academics and administrators are managing different risks – for the academic, the risk is failure to secure or deliver on a grant, while for administrators the risk is bureaucratic or legal challenge relating to contracting employment, finance, and so on. The more remote (centralised) the management, the worse the problem. My fourth reason is speculative and I hope it does not cause (too much) offense. Academics, being a non-random sample of the population, may be quite brittle people, tending towards introspective and somewhat narcissistic personality types – or maybe I am just describing myself! In any event, having tried the health and civil services, and lacking the courage to start a company, I plan to stay in a university for as long as I can cut the mustard.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director


  1. Dellot B, & Reed H. Boosting the Living Standards of the Self-Employed. London: RSA Action and Research Centre. 2015.

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