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Posts Tagged ‘early career researchers’

There’s been a lot of discussion on the Twitter this week about an advertised vacancy for a fixed-term teaching position that expects the successful candidate to devise an MA module related to their own research. I’m going to out myself as an Old Person, and possibly bring a shower of condemnation on my head, by confessing that my feelings about this are more mixed than the prevalent judgement that this is obviously and unacceptably exploitative. In my day, when I was applying for such positions, I was far more attracted to positions that offered such freedom rather than defining the job in terms of which pre-existing courses should be taught – and, yes, it’s entirely revealing that I think of this in terms of ‘freedom’. (more…)

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It has been suggested that one possible, partial explanation for aspects of Michael Gove’s educational reform programme is his biography; we all have a tendency to generalise from our own experiences, and so it must feel quite natural to him to assume that what worked for one bright working-class boy – Latin, old-fashioned pedagogy and discipline, school uniforms etc. – ought to work for everyone. This is brought to mind by the publication this week of the results of a survey on how to tackle the problem of PhDs without permanent academic jobs (see http://hortensii.wordpress.com/). There must always be a concern that those with some power to make a significant difference to the insecure lives of would-be early career academics, i.e. established scholars, may not be best placed to grasp or address the problem. After all, we are the ones who have made it, somehow or other; assuming that we don’t simply take the self-serving line of “I made it, so clearly it’s a matter of inherent brilliance and hard work, and if the weak fall by the wayside and get eaten by jackals that’s their problem”, we may make unhelpful extrapolations from out own experiences (which are, if nothing else, likely to be several decades out of date) – and however much we emphasise to our research students that there are relatively few academic positions, the competition is fierce and there’s no guarantee whatsoever, we are sitting there as proof that it is nevertheless possible to get a permanent academic job (especially if our research students are less over-awed by us than we might believe or wish, and so are quietly thinking “well, if he can do it…”).

One of the most impressive aspects of the survey, and particularly the discussion and recommendations, is the sensitivity to this potential problem, above all through the careful distinction between respondents at different career stages and in different positions. For example, one question asked whether the stigmatisation of failure to get a permanent position might be reduced if the role of luck as well as merit in academic success was emphasised (something with which I thoroughly empathise; looking back over my own career, it’s difficult not to see it as the result of a whole series of contingencies that happened to work in my favour at a particular moment); 75% of academics without a permanent position thought that it could help, only 44% of ‘prominent’ academics agreed (how far some of them might have felt that it would devalue their own achievement is not recorded…). There is greater agreement that we could do more to disabuse PhD students of any illusions they might retain about the academic life, even on a permanent contract – so, all the occasions when I’ve let off steam to my supervisees about university bureaucracy or the iniquities of the REF were actually valuable career development support, rather than self-indulgence…

The basic problem is unavoidable: academic is an attractive profession, even now, for certain kinds of people seeking certain kinds of satisfaction (even if these days it can feel like a constant struggle to make space for those aspects of the job), and there will always be more applicants than positions. What we can do is help prepare PhD students for the possibility of failure, and work to alleviate the worst aspects of their situation in the meantime – which means above all not exploiting them. Not always easy, given the financial pressures on departments and the eagerness of some of them to be exploited in the expectation that such experience will be to their advantage… If I can do one decent thing, as I get ever closer to the point when I take over responsibility for the department for a couple of years, it will be to think properly about this report and the issues it raises, and then actually do something about it locally.

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