Academic careers: survival of the fittest?

December 10, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Disability and a scientific career

And yes, I do mean physically fit, not fit as in RateMyProfessors’ hotness scale.

For a profession which involves so much sitting in meetings and staring at computer screens, academics are an amazingly fit and healthy bunch. I have figures from the UK which make the case. Take a look.

According to the latest statistics from HESA, there were 181,185 academic professional staff employed in UK higher education institutions in the year 2010/11.

Of these, 65.2% were full-time, 44.2% were women, and 38.6% of full-time staff were female.

For comparison, there were 71,125 clerical staff employed in UK institutions.

Of these, 60.5% were full-time, 81.3% were women, and 79.5% of full-time staff were female. Lots of male professors with lady secretaries, quelle surprise.

No, the real surprise is the numbers of staff with one or more disabilities, according to another table from HESA. For academic staff, the figure’s 4795, or 2.6%. For clerical staff, it’s 2605, or 3.7%.

Great stuff! Go into academia to raise your chances of staying fit until retirement. In the UK working-age population as a whole, according to government figures from the Family Resources Survey (p. 79), the proportion of people with disabilities is about 15%.

Even allowing for statistical differences and the fact that the overall figures are estimates, 3% vs. 15% seems like a big difference. I seriously hope I’ve overlooked something here, because I’m finding it hard to believe that these figures are for real.

Having said which, and resorting to anecdote — I can find very little research on this for science careers — when I was a postdoc we weren’t exactly tripping over mobility aids.

What’s going on?

Is academia especially difficult if you have a disability? Or do senior academics think it might be, and make their hiring choices accordingly?

Do students dislike being taught by disabled staff, or do colleagues find them difficult to work with?

Is there a culture of not admitting to having a disability? The profession’s journal, Times Higher Education, recently reported on ‘secret suffering’.

Are the kinds of people likely to be academics also likely to be more physically healthy?

Do disabilities impose additional cognitive burdens such as fatigue (chronic pain is extremely tiring, after all) which make the heavy workload simply intolerable?

Does the type of disability matter? HESA gives a breakdown of the kinds of disability cited in its data. The largest proportion was physical (e.g. mobility impairment or long-standing health problems), at 36%, followed by ‘other’ disabilities (23%), cognitive or mental health problems (e.g. dyslexia or depression, 22%), sensory problems such as blindness or deafness (11%) and multiple disabilities (8%). Does poor health in itself put people off attempting academic careers, or are some disabilities more of a deterrent than others?

Or is there some other reason, or reasons, why academia is so poorly-supplied with the alternative perspectives offered by disabled people?

Surely we’ve gone beyond the assumption that physical impairment necessarily implies some kind of mental incapability (er, Stephen Hawking?) or that a mental health problem means lower intellectual ability (some of the greatest thinkers in history have had mental disorders).

Even with cognitive disabilities, surely it will depend on the person whether or not they can be, or want to be, an academic? Dyslexia, for instance, might once have ruled you out of contention in many disciplines, but these days, with technology and better understanding, it can be a surmountable obstacle — and even, in some fields, a possible advantage.

So if Professor Hawking can do it, why are there so few other disabled academics?

Or should I quit fussing? After all, I’ve assumed that academia would benefit from having more disabled people, if only because it increases diversity. I believe that the more varied the voices, the better the discussion — especially in the era of the brain supremacy, when science is likely to change our views of what counts as ‘normal’ and ‘disabled’. But perhaps I should just keep quiet, and accept that academic work is too challenging for all but the physically fittest.

Is disability a minority too far? Or should science be encouraged to include more disabled researchers in its ranks? What do you think?


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  1. Just to add, I’ve come across an interesting paper (abstract at which may be relevant to this topic, via Eric Horowitz’s site ( The title: Forty Years On: Childhood Intelligence Predicts Health in Middle Adulthood.

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