Prestigious Precarity

Not long ago I was attending a dinner with some colleagues in a western European city, where I was a visiting scholar for the winter semester of 2019-2020. I had just gotten the exciting news that a post-doctoral proposal I had submitted in the State Scholarship Foundation (IKY) of Greece was accepted. Joyous for my success, a Greek colleague – tenured social sciences professor abroad – shared the news to the company. After the first couple of beers, he made a toast congratulating me for getting, in his own words, "the most prestigious post-doctoral fellowship in Greece". Impressed, everybody wished me all the best for my new research. To me, however, calling this fellowship "the most prestigious one in Greece" sounded funny, if not disheartening, making me feel frustrated and a bit depressed.

The following days I found myself pondering in my office, wondering why I felt this way. What was odd about calling the IKY scholarship prestigious?

As the only public scholarship foundation in Greece, IKY could be considered as the most prestigious on a national scale. Indeed, my Greek colleague, once a beneficiary of IKY himself on a post-graduate level, was definitely right.

What do we exactly mean by the word prestige though? Does it refer to the importance of the foundation or its state character alone? I would answer negatively to both. Ascribing prestige to an institution ought to also consider the conditions in which scholarships and fellowships are given as well as the conditions in which researchers are required to do their work.

Here are some more details in brief.

The current situation in Greece does not allow IKY to fund post-doctoral projects on a regular basis. The financing of the post-doctoral program in question is secured by European funds made available by the previous government in order to support early career researchers, preventing the so-called "brain drain" that turned into a great political issue since the Greek debt crisis. With this program, IKY offers two-year fellowships to about 600 researchers in research institutes or universities in Greece. On the one hand, this scheme gives incentive, managing to keep young researchers in the country. On the other, the scholarship falls short compared to the equivalent European ones and, most importantly, does not do justice to the researchers’ basic rights. Estimated 1000 Euros per month, this funding does not include health insurance or pension, offering no coverage for research and travel costs or (laboratory) equipment, even though such costs are implicated in the proposals and deliverables (for instance, conference presentations, publications). Making matters even worse, payments are made every three months, if one is lucky. In fact, a term in the contract anticipates payment delays: since such programs are funded by EU schemes, payments, they note, will be made only after funds are transferred to the foundation. In other words, delays are to be expected.

A thousand Euros might not sound bad for Greece given that the basic income is 600 Euro at present. However, this is not a scholarship that allows researchers to do serious work. It is rather a charitable gesture to young scholars resonating a neoliberal political agenda that favors mobility, production and symbolic status. Because such kind of remuneration is not enough to sustain a decent living, cover health insurance, and the research and travel expenses entailed in research posts. Indeed we will be getting the most prestigious scholarship from the country; yet this is solely meaningful as another achievement added to our CV. In reality we will still be in an underpaid and precarious position, yet a prestigious one!