In Defence of Occasional Desk Jobs

Have you had to fill out a form recently?

Given that you’re reading this blog, I’d guess that you’re involved in some way with tertiary study. And given that you’re involved with tertiary study, I’d say yes. You have almost certainly filled out a form recently.

Universities are full of paperwork, and accordingly, so are academic careers. The Thesis Whisperer recently published a fascinating post about the time-consuming business of assembling an academic career by cobbling together fixed-term appointments. Each job you apply for comes with a lengthy application process, and you have to customise a letter and CV for each role. In this age of casualised academic jobs and myriad short-term projects, the time demands of just applying for jobs can be enormous – particularly in the early stages of an academic career. That got me thinking about the admin demands that academics have to deal with.


The casualisation of jobs is not the only cause of admin headaches for emerging academics. In many countries, individual researchers must submit portfolios of their work for assessment (in NZ, the process is called the PBRF). Building a strong portfolio is a massive undertaking. It’s not a matter of simply filling out a form; you have to learn how to use the software programme that tracks your research information, keep it updated with details of your outputs, write descriptions and reflections of your research, describe non-output contributions to the research environment, and so on.

Plus if you need money for your research, there is the crushingly time-consuming job of applying for grants; then the task of regularly reporting on your progress if you do get funded.

Not to mention, all this writing is much easier if you can type fast.

Plus if you work with research software, you have to learn how to use it (and relearn as it is updated). At the very least, you have to be comfortable with the Microsoft Office suite of products. Anyone who’s ever tried to format a paper according to highly specific journal requirements will attest that decent Microsoft Word skills go a long way in academia.

Then there are all the little everyday admin tasks facing academics: requesting conference funding, planning professional development, dealing with HR processes, and so on.

All of this means that the modern academic’s life is a bit easier if they possess an array of admin skills.

I paid my way through my undergrad degree by working as an office junior for a year after secondary school. It was an eye-glazingly dull job – I filed papers, ordered stationery, drew up documents and spreadsheets, kept track of budgets, wore a delightful vomit-green uniform, and fantasised about popping my deskmate’s annoying Swiss ball office chair with a staple gun. I was only there for the money. But I think that job was more useful to my academic career than I could have envisioned at the time. I learned the MS suite inside out, got a handle on email etiquette, figured out how to write reports, and became a master typist. With every part-time office job I’ve had through my postgrad years, those skills have been reinforced, enlarged, and updated.

If I’d never had a desk job, I would have had to learn to type while studying, which would have been frustrating and slow. I would have no idea how to handle a spreadsheet, which would make it very difficult to itemise conference costs when I apply for funding. I wouldn’t be as computer-literate, which might have prevented me from using software-based methodologies in my research.

I also mightn’t have had the same opportunities in the tertiary sector. That dull office junior job helped me to get more interesting admin jobs in universities, which led to increasingly academic project work, which led to great contacts and references.

Of course, admin skills by themselves won’t open any doors to an academic career. Research track records and teaching experience are still the main things that employers look for in academic candidates, with service experience a plus. With that in mind, its important that anyone aiming for an academic career prioritise their research and teaching experience. But admin skills could make life inside the academy a little easier.

So many postgrad students have to take on side jobs to pay the bills. It’s a financial fact of life for many of us, and I have sometimes thought of these jobs as irritating distractions from my research. (Some of them were, to be honest.) But if those jobs help to build up skills that will save us time and stress in our future academic roles, then they are valuable for more than just paying the rent.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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