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:
- 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…
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.