‘I can’t plan for the future. I don’t have security or finance’

Sinead Pembroke is one of a rising number of academics reliant on precarious work

Sinéad Pembroke (31) used to think precarious work was a brief rite of passage for academics in the early stages of their careers.

Now, she says, she realises it is her career.

After more than a decade at third level, she has measured out her time working in academia in the form of tutoring hours, short-term work and fixed-term contracts.

“It means I can’t plan for my future,” she says. “I can’t think about buying a house or starting a family. I don’t have the security or the finance. It’s the source of a lot of anxiety. Many others in the same boat are constantly thinking about applying for the next job.”


Staff numbers in college departments have fallen significantly since the downturn, with a much greater reliance on internships, staff paid hourly or short-term contracts.

On the dole

Hourly wages, she says, don’t include the preparation and research work involved. It’s like working 12 hours and only being paid for two. Many also end up on the dole because they don’t have enough hours to make ends meet.

For those “lucky” enough to get a contract, these can range from a few months to a few years.

Sinéad is on a three-year part-time contract at Trinity College Dublin. She would like to work full-time. Permanent positions, she says, are few and far between.

“Young people are told that a PhD is the route to academia,” she says. “But they’re not told that they won’t get a job or their only option is emigration . . . the idea that, if you can keep your head down a job will come in time, is a myth.”

Right now she’s sharing a house with three others. She’d like to have her own place, but with the way rents are going, it’s the only way to keep things affordable.


Sinéad also says she believes the casualisation of university work is counterproductive.

"Ireland's universities occupy a disappointing position in world rankings; if Ireland wants to become an international hub for teaching and research excellence, it needs to invest in both through secure, long-term posts and solid career paths," she says.

“I’m doing research into epilepsy. It’s high quality research which could benefit a lot of people. But if this keeps up, we’ll be repeating history with yet another brain drain.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent