The Academic Careers Arms Race

This post has been brewing a long time, and it comes from an angry place: I am worried about how academic careers have changed, and continue to change.

I would argue there is something like an arms race going on at the lower levels of the academic career ladder, and this is most definitely a Bad Thing.

You must have a top article.

You must have teaching experience.

You must have prestigious postdocs, awards, prizes, even grant money.

You must have progressed quickly through your career stages.

You must have demonstrated a focus, never deviating from your One True Calling to be a historian of eighteenth-century money-laundering.

You give an excellent job talk, more akin to TEDx than a seminar paper.

And let’s face it, you are well-dressed at this talk, sociable, and chatty, knowledgeable about your future place of work, and the general state of the discipline and academia.

You are The One.

Let me say that I am by no means a nostalgist, pure and simple. I am fully convinced

1. that many of these problems have been building for a very long time and

2. there has been no ‘golden age’ of academic work, when all was well in the university.

But from what colleagues tell me, from what I read, and from my own experiences, I think the arms race is getting worse.

Nor – I want to point out- am I averse to professionalisation. I actually think that being more formally trained as teachers, as writers, as researchers, and as colleagues can only help academia. I am often saddened by the self-doubt in academia that fuels  oversensitivity to vocational training: we should want to learn about pedagogy and inclusive working practices. Do we really think we know it all?

But what worries me is the way that some forms of professionalisation are deployed in the academic careers market.

By turning competence into an ever-lengthening series of boxes to tick (article in high-ranking journal? PhD from place we recognise as ‘good’? track record of winning grants? social media presence?) we are inviting a whole series of problems, many of which are now well known:

-This is a system which prolongs and normalises precarious employment, as ECRs are caught between the heavy demands of underpaid teaching, and the individual aspiration to publish in the best places and win grant funding. Many in this situation remain passionate and brilliant teachers, but could we blame anyone for internalising an idea that teaching is the millstone preventing them from getting on with their careers?

-This weighs especially heavy on anyone with caring responsibilities, or with different needs. Without ever having to openly discriminate, by choosing one candidate over another, a system that prolongs precarity simply forces young parents and other carers out of academia.

-This has fuelled a secondary market in academic career coaching. However grateful I am as an individual for the good advice I gleaned from blogs and from colleagues, I think it is extremely worrying that some individuals may be getting the upper hand in the jobs market simply by paying for it. And even among those who can’t or won’t do this, the academic arms race encourages a stratification that is clearly based on privilege. Who gets the most support at this difficult stage? Who is allowed, and allows themselves, to fail, over and over again, in the vain hope that success is around the corner? Who gets in the room? Whose voice is heard once they are even in the conversation? The arms race will continue, I believe, to damage the diversity of academia.

-And it clearly stigmatises different ways of coming to, and being an academic. What were you doing for those five years between MA and PhD? Why would you want to be an academic if you already publish in this field for a popular audience? Tell me, in all honesty, that you are not more impressed by a top article from a twenty-two year old, than you are by one from a forty-year old, who may be at literally, exactly the same stage in their careers?

I’m not here to throw stones. I’m not here to blame individuals.

Many of us, I believe, are doing our best with a messed up system. Many people kindly helped me navigate the job market, and I continue to offer advice to people who ask me (and sometimes those who don’t).

But we need to think collectively about whether we want to participate in a system that is so clearly moving in the wrong direction.

So do I have any suggestions?

At the moment, I have just a few.

I would love to add to them, and am open to criticism of any of them, so please do leave a comment below. But, for what it’s worth, here are some things I think we can try to do:

  1. Get rid of the tick-box elements of your next hiring process… if you can: I know that much of this is now governed by formal procedures. But those procedures could also be challenged. Ask yourself: is the best person for the job always the one with the top article? Do you see promise and potential in a candidate who has not ticked formal requirements? The problem here is obviously one of reintroducing implicit (or even explicit) biases, by allowing the hiring process to become so obviously subjective…
  2. But there are possible remedies to that as well. You could read the written work submissions anonymously. Indeed, you could anonymise large sections of the application process, and attempt to score individuals based on what is in front of you, before adding up and comparing the different elements of their application.
  3. Is the presentation (or the written work) a case of style over substance? I don’t know how I feel about this problem, having long thought (and argued) that style is substance… but I do increasingly wonder about this. Academics have sensitive bullshit detectors, and I’ve seen colleagues deconstruct over-ambitious claims, but we do still have to wonder, I think, about this problem.
  4. Consider whether paint for/or doing paid work as an academic careers consultant benefits the field as a whole, or you as an individual. I am sure there are arguments that suggest careers coaching is good for academia in general, so let me know if you’ve got them.
  5. Reach out to other people in your fields to offer advice, and don’t turn down requests for help. Think about people you have helped recently. Is there a pattern to who approaches you, and who you help? Solidarity remains paramount.
  6. Along similar line: don’t offer to do for free what someone else is paid to do. One paradoxical effect of what I have called ‘professionalisation’ and the arms race is that getting ‘experience’ is so necessary to getting full-time, open-ended work that universities can use untrained and un(der)paid staff to do work that should really be done by full-time academics. I do not think it is victim-blaming to remind ECRs that we should not volunteer for systems like this, and we should do our best to avoid perpetuating them.

There is, no doubt, much more I could have said, and I suspect that many people will object in strong terms to how I have characterised the situation, and the solutions I am proposing.

So let’s have that conversation, in the interests of building an even better academic community.

19 thoughts on “The Academic Careers Arms Race

  1. Thanks for sharing this. These are a lot of the reasons why I never stayed in conventional academia. Excessive specialisation amongst ECRs particularly worries me – the greatest historians, it seems to me, are people of diverse (even eclectic) interests like Duffy, MacCulloch and Walsham. Extreme specialisation is also the surest way to turn the general public off history. Being outside academia gives me the freedom to research and write about whatever interests me (although it was crucial for me to have been in academia to gain access to the libraries I need).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Appreciate the blog point and i agree – largely. however i think we may be at risk of romanticising the game of poker we call academia.

    In my opinion what we face is the expansion of the education sector, fundamentally a good thing, but the sector is made up of individual kingdoms and city states – the sector is more like the HRE than a single department in which we can all reside peacefully.

    As much as i may disapprove, the sector needs to be change to meet this reality – it means i likely won’t get funding or even a job, yet here i am doing what i am fascinated in and my plan is to leave and go abroad if possible. The problem with individual universities is there is no incentive to be nice – whom ever drops their guard will be destroyed and frankly with TEF becoming more a leviathan than prop it is likely we will see a similar process to what happened in schools with trusts, chains and other forms of organisation changing and adapting current universities and their departments.

    If wishing made it so i would love to go back to a time when this wouldn’t be the case, but equally the change is needed if things are ever going to improve. What we need is better support for those of us doing the postgrad thing – so that we can take these skills elsewhere. in my opinion we cannot simply hope for change, we can only work with the change that is happening too us.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a fantastic post! While I would have loved to stay in academia, I finished my MA in History and then joined the work force because of many of these reasons (main reason being a lack of opportunity, though). I remember seeing pages like The Professor Is In thinking, “I can’t afford this service but it seems to be more and more necessary to succeed”. It appears that these people are simply teaching others how to play the game best, so to speak. Yes, I would have loved to go on to my PhD, but not at the price of horrendous debt and time wasted on “acquiring skills” that don’t necessarily add to the value of my work. Thanks for posting this

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a wonderful piece. With the caveat that I’m not in the UK, I’d only add/amplify that at every stage, from hire through promotion and with every requests for internal support along the way, “academics” are being turned into bundles of numbers for university administrations to claim: articles in top journals, citation scores, publications per head, external research dollars per head, new centres/programs started and — reproducing the whole — numbers of doctoral students recruited (not necessarily guided to completion, of course). It’s no coincidence that effective control over assessment, whether of new hires or tenure/promotion files, is at the same time slipping from faculty to admin for whom qualitative content is not only irrelevant but illegible. I wonder whether in some fields the most interesting work being done 20-25 years from now will still be emerging from universities — or whether the work being done just won’t be that interesting at all.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am afraid this is almost entirely conditioned by relations of supply and demand, and the solution will only come through changing those relations. In the unlikely event that you manage to use moral persuasion eliminate some of the things you (rightly) dislike, then the competition will take other forms, and possibly less public ones.


  6. This is a very timely blog and in fact I think it doesn’t even go far enough. I am a late-starter academic having been a broadcast journalist for over a decade before returning to do my MA and PhD in literature, and despite breaking my neck (and almost my family) to tick every box, and being fortunate enough to have had one fixed-term contract, I am not optimistic about my chances of getting a job. I have family commitments and the break-neck labour required without question now even to scrape by as an early-career-academic make it almost impossible for me to continue. I was never happier than studying, researching and teaching. I have won prizes, been nominated for teaching awards, published and organised conferences etc… but it’s still not enough.
    And the saddest thing is, that as you very astutely point out, with the way things are going, the profession has become far less appealing. It seems you have to be an obsessed workaholic with no family to get into a tenable position.
    Do we want our universities peopled only by this type of individual?
    I embody diversity for the profession. And far from being embraced I am being elbowed out.

    I don’t have a solution, but unless academics (and ECRs themselves, I agree) start to push back and fight the pressure coming from ALL directions (student-consumers, management, faculty, research bodies, the academy itself), things are going to get far far worse over the next 5-10 years.

    The university should NOT be an elitist machine so self-obsessed that it becomes severed from the world. And that is what it is becoming.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Thanks for this, Will. I think I agree with most of it, but a couple of observations.

    First, I was wondering about the ‘tick box’ issue. I’m not sure I quite understand what you are proposing as an alternative to the current process. (Disclaimer: I’ve only been on one hiring committee, though I’ve see a lot of job talks too.) Currently, there are 50-100 applications for every permanent post, of which at least 10-20 will ‘tick all the boxes’ (i.e. peer-reviewed article(s), book forthcoming or published, awards/prizes, teaching experience) AND will have an interesting/persuasive ‘story’ about their research/teaching in their cover letter. Are you suggesting that committees start doing positive discrimination and picking candidates who specifically do not have those?

    Second, maybe I’ve just be lucky so far, but I haven’t noticed any priority given to people who have progressed especially quickly (though this could just be because Birkbeck is used to mature/part-time students) or to people who are especially ‘focused’ on a particular topic (if so, I wouldn’t have been hired as my publications are fairly eclectic). Again, maybe I’ve just be lucky (or privileged), but these don’t strike me as significant problems with the current process.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for this, Brodie. What I am suggesting is that committees could focus more on the writing samples, proposal, research narrative than perpetuating a system where the number of publications needed is just going to keep increasing. There are, I think, other possible weeding mechanisms, of which my preferred ones would include ‘fit’, ‘originality’ etc. Now obviously this raises problems of implicit bias and subjectivity, but I wonder if it would be better. As for the focus point, fair enough. I haven’t been on any hiring committees (!) so this was written v much based on my own frustrations applying for jobs. I’d love to hear from others who know if this is or isn’t a thing.


  8. I’ve been out of academic post for 11 years now (took early retirement). I worked as an archivist for 18 years before achieving an academic post (and then only a research position for a specific long-term project, so tightly circumscribed – so much so that the teaching and learning was more interesting and stimulating). After that digression, I return to the issue. My period in archives extended from the early 70s to the late 80s. During that time, I encountered a m,ultitude of researchers with books published by OUP/CUP already in the past, who had no expectation of an academic post – and most accepted careers outside academia. In the 80s, HE contracted so badly that departments barely managed. I appreciate that the competition is fierce now, but I would add a (hopeful) comment (it may seem ironic) that we have been here before (and so I hope for a period of expansion in the future).
    As to the potential for subjectivity in the process, that danger is real, I’m afraid. Inconsistency towards candidates has resulted in damage in interviews as part of the selection procedure. Some flexibility could be introduced if the process becomes too rigid, but with extreme caution.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I think part of the problem is student fees. Because funding is linked to student numbers there has been an explosion in graduate students in the last 20 years. The university presents graduate degrees as a qualification which will stand you in good stead for a range of professional careers. But students still see them as the entry to academia. So there are too many people for too few jobs. We can do our best to hire more fairly, and more transparently, but there will still be a huge number of perfectly capable people who never get those jobs.

    In Sweden, PhD’s are recruited for in the same way as other jobs, and students are employed to do them. This reduces the number of people who have wasted years of their lives hoping for a job that doesn’t exist.


  10. Interesting to read this, alongside a paper by Bryony Enright and Ker Facer on the ‘four types’ of ECRs – Disciplinarians, Activists, Worker Bees, and Freelancers. (pdf available from

    My experience is that certainly within risk-averse organisations and largely conservative disciplines, that it’s the ‘Disciplinarians’, those who can present a clean, wandering-free, CV and who inherently tick all the boxes on the way, who represent the least risk – and so get a more favourable reception.

    Except in less conservative organisations – where things like ‘entrepreneurialism’, or ‘industry experience’, or ‘community engagement’ or ‘influence and impact’… are prized.

    But, of course, the organisations that are higher prestige, and so more desirable to work in (not for ££, but for how much better our work is supported, the ring-fenced research time, and the ease of penetration of our work into knowledge networks) tend to be more conservative.

    As something of a ‘Freelancer’ (at least in my background)… the system just looks like it perpetuates itself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is fascinating, and confirms my suspicion that ‘purity’ of research interest/drive are often highly valued, even though many academics recognise the value of diversity in individual research trajectories…


      1. I nearly used the word ‘purity’ myself.

        Certainly it appears that those recruiting at ECR level, would rather that you adopted inter- cross-disciplinary approaches and a diversity of approaches *after* they’ve employed you rather than before.

        Maybe it’s that old fear about employing, and then quickly losing, someone who is overqualified. If you can demonstrate your ability to stick at a pure-as-driven-snow discipline even if you think it’s as boring as a stick, they can count on you to satisfy the UGs clamouring for courses on 19th currency markets.

        If, on the other hand, you’re more of a ‘butterfly’ (as I was once called – I think it was a term of praise)… then the chances are that you might end up telling them to shove the Victorian coins, and go and try and teach on something utterly uncontainable and unmarketable, like Patagonian Welsh Dialectology.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. What a penetrating post! I’m an internal coach in HE as well as being an academic, and it worries me that so many academics are running on empty into various brick walls that seem to be erected in front of them with heart-sinking regularity. Endless fixed-term contracts for researchers feed the insecurity and tendency to lack of solidarity. Young academics have so many pressures on them – but so do more mature ones! It would surprise no-one to be told that even hoary old professors who should be beyond worrying about such things bemoan how few peer reviewed articles for A1 journals they may have written in any one academic year. If it depresses them, what of those who are just starting on the bumpy road? It seems to me that you are right to point out how unfair it appears to be that some academics can pay for coaching in this difficult world whilst others can’t. I suppose an internal coaching pool in a university is a great idea, but from my experience such provision can more often geared to support staff and students/postgrads than established academics. The problem with academia is the huge range of roles and people types that coexist within institutions, and each one requires a different approach. I hope more universities develop insightful coaching pools because with the storms that are brewing out there on the horizon, everyone’s going to need all the help they can get…

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I loved and fully appreciate the thoughts you’ve put together. Here in Canada the ‘tenure race’ is very similar. Although it is said that boomers will retire in droves, leaving space for those who wish to enter the race, the evidence does not favor this opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

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