Academic Research May Be Invisible, But It Is Work

Research is often not seen as ‘work’, precisely because of the invisible nature of academic labour.

It is rather difficult to fit someone sitting in front of a computer apparently doing nothing within the common visual imaginations of ‘work’. An individual venture, research lacks clear visibility and in general, fails to be acknowledged as ‘real work’ in India.

A professor at a reputed university in New Delhi recounts how while doing his PhD he was told by an acquaintance that he should instead follow the path of said acquaintance’s son, “who was drawing a monthly salary of Rs 10,000 then!”

According to him, Indian academia, unlike in the Europe and US, has failed to generate respect for research as work.

The popularity of the concept of ‘work from home’ (WFH) during the pandemic has meant associating ‘work’ in the public imagination with at least an overt ongoing interaction that is readily visible. However, academic labour lacks this visibility and exhibitory nature.

At its most rudimentary, research is reading up, comprehending and writing down what one can make of it all. The constant investment of mental labour by academic researchers – that demands coherence of thought – is also easily ignored.

A male PhD student from Kerala says it is palpable that people think that research is a very easy task. “Chumma vayicha madi lo – ‘you just need to read’ – is a commonly said thing in my family. However, though my immediate family is now aware that it is a lot of work, even they don’t seem to understand the nature of the work. A PhD is seen as a lacklustre path to take and there is a general lack of awareness of careers in research,” he says.

The dissolution of a separate and distinct workspace, and the merging of it with domestic spaces due to the pandemic has deeply affected PhD students and early research scholars in India, still hoping to build a career in academics.

The announcement of the first lockdown in India led to academic institutions and hostels closing their doors to students. Spaces officially designated for academic work, such as libraries and reading rooms closed too, owing to imposed restrictions.

A female PhD student from Presidency University in Kolkata says that she struggles with convincing her family that she is at work, at home. “Just because I am at home doesn’t mean that I am not working. Even after reading something, I’m thinking. So, that itself is labour. Intellectual labour is a continuous process,” she says.

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Another male PhD student from Delhi has had to use the same space at home for caregiving and his studies, since universities closed. This predicament is shared by most PhD students and early academic scholars that I spoke with, especially those belonging to a humanities or literature background.

Like many professionals who are struggling to strike a balance between work and domestic responsibilities, particularly women, the work-space crisis has sharply affected research scholars too.

Research students in their late-20s and early 30s are usually faced with a lot of familial expectations, responsibilities and social pressures accruing due to the non-acceptance of research as work. They are also categorically denied the status equivalent to someone who does a typical paid job.

The dismal state of research funding in the country – steady, regular funding is a rarity – makes the situation all the more precarious. Whereas men face pressures to procure a ‘job’ and settle down, female PhD scholars are expected to first get a job to justify their educational credentials and also to get married at this time.

Since domestic responsibilities are not equally shared among men and women in India, as also elsewhere, the current situation only invites more challenges. A report published on September 30, by The Hindu, states that women’s participation in unpaid domestic work was 90% in 2019, compared to only 27% for men across all states, based on data from a National Statistical Office survey conducted between January-December 2019.

Owing to the non-acceptance of research as ‘work’, a lot of my female PhD colleagues find it difficult to tackle both home and work, irrespective of whether they choose to get married or not.

The crisis of the dissolution of the work-space brought about by the pandemic has only aggravated the issues researchers suffer from due to the invisibility of academic labour.

It is important to challenge common assumptions about the apparent ‘inactivity’ of research scholars, who look like they are sitting in front of computers ‘doing nothing’. If anything, the pandemic revealed how we have failed with flying colours with regard to our initiatives to encourage optimum research in every field.

Anakshi Pal is a doctoral student at the Department of Sociology, South Asian University (A University Established by SAARC Nations), New Delhi, and tweets @pal_anakshi.

Featured image credit:StockSnap/Pixabay