Surviving (early career) academia

Over the ‘summer’ (I’m sure I can recall a couple of days when it didn’t rain back in June) I’ve been spending a bit of time reading some of the research on early career academic work. Although the national interest in contract research has only really gathered momentum fairly recently, there’s a surprising amount of literature on the pressures of fixed-term research from a variety of perspectives.

John Hockey’s work is particularly interested in how researchers use and experience time as they juggle work on a current project with learning about academia and trying to secure further employment (see ‘Capturing Contracts: informal activity among contract researchers’ (1998) in the British Journal of Sociology of Education or ‘Occupational time: the case of UK social science contract researchers’ (2002) in Research Papers in Education). In these two papers Hockey argues that there is a great deal of ‘wastage’ of talented researchers, partly because learning how to ‘do’ contract research is often achieved through informal and tacit channels that not all researchers have equal access to, and partly because of the complex ways in which researchers are required to manage their time if they are to succeed in academia in the long-term.

Valerie Hey is also interested in how research staff experience time in her article ‘The construction of academic time: sub/contracting academic labour in research’ (Journal of Educational Policy, 2001) but, as her title implies, she also takes a pseudo-Marxist look at the ownership of the researcher’s labour. She argues that the status-quo is maintained because experienced academics are ‘time poor’ but ‘status rich’ whereas researchers are conversely ‘time rich’ but ‘status poor’ and therefore it makes sense to combine their labour. However, that combination does not take place on even ground and can be seen as perpetuating the appropriation of the researchers’ labour. As a result, Hey argues, a successful researcher has to overperform in order to achieve visibility and improve his/her own reputation.

In her article, ‘”Dim Dross”: marginalised women both inside and outside the academy’ (Women’s Studies International Forum, 2000) Diane Reay offers a socio-analysis of academia in which she also debates “who is entitled to a sense of ownership in relation to research but also who owns the researchers”. Like Hey, Reay draws attention to the division(s) of labour within academia, with the gathering of research data often attributed to the contract researcher, and the more ‘high-level’ theoretical work being done by the project leader. Not only does such a division imply that analysis and theorisation can be detached from the data collection, but it can bring the added risk that the work of the researcher is subsequently subsumed by the voice of the Principal Investigator.

Each of those articles is fairly old now, and I’d hope that things are at least beginning to change for research staff (most of it was written before the legislation to prevent the less favorable treatment of fixed term employees came into force in 2002, for instance). However, the articles above do still seem to reflect some of the concerns and challenges that many researchers at Manchester report trying to deal with and they raise some of the same issues as Louise Archer’s 2008 article, ‘Younger academics’ constructions of “authenticity”, “success” and professional identity’ (Studies in Higher Education). Archer asserts that academia “is a contested territory” where “questions of authenticity and legitimacy are central to the formation of identity”. Her study focusses on how gender, ethnicity, age and class impact on her interviewees’ ability to feel ‘authentic’ or ‘successful’, but she also draws attention to Higher Education’s “demands to constantly produce particular ‘products’ within narrow timescales and with few resources”.

Also written in 2008, Gerlese Akerlind’s ‘Growing and developing as a university researcher’ (Higher Education) investigates academics’ conceptions of their own development as researchers. Based on interviews with 28 academics, Akerlind employed a phenomenographic approach to identify four different ways of understanding growth and development as a researcher:

  • becoming confident as a researcher (typically during a PhD),
  • becoming recognised as a researcher (through publication and conference presentation),
  • becoming more productive as a researcher (via more publications, research funding research supervision, etc) , and
  • becoming more sophisticated as a researcher (becoming more theoretically aware, understanding more deeply, greater sophistication in thinking – moving beyond doing more of the same research into producing qualitatively ‘better’ research).

Akerlind concludes that, while it is possible for academics to believe that most development as a researcher tends to take place early in the academic career (for those who believe developing as a researcher is about learning how to research or about simply about being recognised as a researcher, there may seem to be little room to develop after the PhD or first few years within an academic post) there are others who see developing as a researcher as being a process that continues throughout one’s academic career. There is no end point at which one has either done enough research or has become the best researcher s/he could possibly be. According to Akerlind, for these people, “the potential for ongoing growth is seen as endless”.

While none of the writers mentioned above offer clear-cut answers to dealing with the stresses and demands of early career research (that would be far too easy!), they each offer slightly different perspectives on the place of contract research within academia. Some, especially Reay and Hey, are scathingly critical, while others, like Akerlind and Hockey, offer slightly more optimistic accounts of how people manage themselves and their time in order to negotiate the demands placed on them.

I found all of the articles really revealing (they’re all accessible through JRUL electronic resources) – if you’ve read any of them, or find that you have the urge (and time) to do so, I’d be interested to hear what you think.

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