Drinking Habits of the Academic

Do we, poor misguided academics drink too much? I am sure many of us could do with drinking less but I was surprised to see the Guardian’s Academics Anonymous complaining that Russell group universities ply everyone with too much alcohol. In my experience – as a scientist so I cannot comment on whether other disciplines do the same – there is actually rather less alcohol available in the course of a working day than used to be the case. This is probably just a question of age since the writer (describing themselves as both PhD student and staff) is almost certainly considerably younger than me.

Many years ago I remember reading a JB Priestley novel and being struck by just how much the protagonists drank. Any time after about 11am. Instead of sitting down with a cup of coffee for a discussion, beer seemed to be the chosen fluid to consume. Of course, pubs didn’t serve much in the way of coffee until relatively recently and Costa and Starbucks were decades away when Priestley wrote. But, for men at least (goodness knows what women drank on such occasions. Babycham? Port and lemon? Or perhaps simply lemonade) beer was drunk almost as if one was worried the water was undrinkable . By 1930– the time he wrote Angel Pavement which was, I think, the book I was reading – this was unlikely to have been the case. I don’t think I know anyone who would toss off a pint of beer or two for elevenses now.

So much for pre-War drinking habits away from academia. Perhaps Dorothy Sayers Gaudy Night gives us a glimpse into the academic customs of the 1930s, but since it is focussed around a woman’s college where drink was barely more than a medicinal sip, it isn’t particularly informative. I think it is clear a female SCR consumed a lot less than Priestley’s cast of characters.

When I set out as a young researcher what I do recall clearly, though, is the lunchtime tipple. When I went to MIT to give my very first research seminar I was offered a drink over the lunch before I spoke. I had no hesitation in saying no, but the professors I was with were willing to crack open a bottle. If I had been male I wonder how much offence I might have caused by declining, but certainly as a young woman it didn’t seem to raise eyebrows.

Once I moved to Cambridge and the Cavendish Laboratory a group of us – usually chauffeured to the village pub by Sir Sam Edwards – would take the seminar speaker out for lunch before the seminar itself. The group collectively tended to drink beer but I always stuck with orange juice. Again I could get away with this as a woman but I suspect people would have looked askance at the male lecturer who opted out. This was in the early 1980s and in the decades since then it is clear that drinking at lunch has become very much the exception not the rule. I have watched a steady decrease in take up of beer or anything else. Even if, at a formal lunch for a visiting dignitary, wine is provided very few academics take it up. Drink at lunchtime and a clear head to think in the afternoon just don’t mix. Sparkling water is a much better bet.

So why does the Anonymous Academic think we drink too much? I suspect it is because of the inducement some departments offer to get students to turn up to talks. My own departmental seminar, designed for the whole department not just sub-field specific, is (just in the last year or two) followed up with a reception where wine is on offer. As is juice and food! No one requires the students to guzzle large quantities of cheap Chardonnay but if its availability acts to encourage them to tear themselves away from their own focussed research and listen to something from a wider field then it is thought to be a good thing. I don’t believe it is provided to bolster the courage of the young so that they dare to approach the visiting prof, I believe it is there to act as an almost literal lubricant to encourage social cohesion in the department.

The Cavendish Laboratory is a huge enterprise, with about 60-70 PhD students starting each year. They come from all parts of the world and carry out research in wildly different topics. Spread across a number of buildings they may never see each other unless they come to such departmental events. Gone are the days when we all congregated in the canteen at narrowly set times for tea and coffee. That habit too served effectively to permit casual interactions. By now most groups run to their own Nespresso machine – or at least a kettle – thereby keeping research groups to themselves. So, the small inducement of tepid alcohol, plus the excitement of a sausage roll or a slice of green pepper and dip seems a small price to pay to facilitate knowledge exchange and social integration. If you are from a remote part of the globe it may be encouraging to find that there are others who are likewise suffering from culture shock. For minorities of all kinds knowing you are not alone can be valuable in confidence building.

So, I for one am not going to knock the availability – and that is all it is, certainly not a compulsion – of a little alcohol at the end of the day. It has to be at the end of the day, of course, or students might be prone to breach health and safety regulations by ‘driving’ delicate machinery after consumption. I haven’t spotted much peer pressure if a student (or staff member) opts for the soft drink option. This is certainly far preferable to the availability of beer at lunchtime, let alone elevenses, and might just bring about some fertile new collaboration or at least some broadening of horizons.

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5 Responses to Drinking Habits of the Academic

  1. saskia says:

    I cannot imagine these days at any US state university or national lab to see alcohol being served on the premises (the only exception I know, is the few receptions for faculty and some important outsiders). In Europe, a toast at the end of a successful PhD defense is normal, here I would have to take everybody off campus to go to the pub. I have yet to give a seminar at a place that uses alcohol to get students to show up. US they prefer to use: Cookies, donuts, pizza + sodas or coffee.

    Now, on the other hand, I will say that at conferences, in the evenings I would describe some of the drinking behavior as binge drinking (whether it is free or people pay for it). Maybe this is what physicists need to be loose enough to interact socially? I don’t know if these people drink in similar amounts in their own homes at the end of the day or on the weekends. I would say it is a little bit ‘fraternity’ (at least I have never been part of a fraternity, so this is based on what I read about fraternities and it reminds me of student club in Europe) like behavior. I personally mostly only drink in social settings (I can go weeks without touching alcohol) and then depending on the company it might be a little or a little more.

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  3. Tara says:

    I think that the argument put forward in this blog post is an example of Fallacy of relative privation. Just because things were worse in the past doesn’t mean that there is a not a problem now. Furthermore, the Cavendish is certainly not representative of all science. You assert that there is no compulsion to drink but to give an anecdote from my own experience in the biological sciences I have seen visiting academics being bullied and pressured to drink in interview situations. I think that is wrong to bury ones head in the sand just because we don’t personally see a problem. Dismissing the concerns of other academics because it doesn’t match your personal experience is insulting and is not useful for promoting open debate about how to improve the culture of academic science. There are many links to other problems- Indeed, you bring up a difference in expectation linked to gender in your post. This issue is linked to the closed, male-dominated and elite culture of academic science.

    • anon says:

      In order to promote the debate that you think we should have hear are my own experiences.
      The original Guardian post comments that younger people are drinking less, which I have found anecdotally in my own day to day conversations with undergraduates and postgraduates. However it mentions that older middle class drinkers are drinking more in the population at large. In terms of the academics in my own department I agree with Athene and think we are all drinking less. Partly I ascribe this us all leading busy lives and wanting to spend time with family after work and possibly drive, cycle, run or climb after a days work. I have also had the experience of going for lunch on numerous occasions with the invited speakers to our soft matter seminars (both male and female speaker) nearly all of them have chosen not to drink and no one has batted an eyelid amongst the lunch party. I certainly would not dismiss the concerns you have about bullying or bury my head in the sand. I would find it very odd in the 21st century for someone to be ridiculed for not having a drink and in all honesty I am not sure if I would want to talk with them.

  4. Anon says:

    Until 6 months ago I would have classed myself as a heavy drinker. I’m teetotal now. Most of my drinking and binging was around the workplace – particularly conferences and receptions. While I can say I had met many people who drank moderately and some not at all, my group tended to be rather self-selecting. In my experience heavy drinkers gravitate to each other and will inevitably be the last to bed after a meal. I have had colleagues who have died from alcoholism, who regularly self-medicate for stress reasons and who can share some pretty sad stories of a drunken night at a conference. So, in short, there is a problem (I think) in the UK academic circle of drinking. It may have diminished since the good old days of ‘sherries in the afternoon’ but still present. Now I enter an even smaller sub-class of the ‘non-drinker’ at a conference and the experience is very illuminating indeed…,