This article focuses on the lived experience of practising academics as part of an inquiry into the vexed question of ‘academic identities’. Identity is understood not as a fixed property, but as part of the lived complexity of a person's project. The article reports on data from a small study in one university. The data suggest that academic identity is complex and that, moreover, it cannot be read off from descriptions of teaching, research, or management roles. Respondents in all roles were able to maintain highly distinctive, strongly framed academic identities. Experiences of class, gender and the significance of family are reported as having continued salience in respondents' lives. Moreover, despite all the pressure of performativity, individuals created spaces for the exercise of principled personal autonomy and agency. The article concludes that paying detailed attention to how changes are being experienced is an important element in theorising trends in the sector.