Here is the careers advice I will offer if I ever find myself talking about future career prospects in academia with an undergrad. I’ll ask them to watch one video. It is a hypothetical discussion between a humanities student and their professor. The bright young student has decided she wants to go into academia. It's funny and sadly very reflective of what academia looks like.
SlowStreaming was always designed to try and provoke thoughtful discussion on conventional career advice for undergraduate students. I’m speaking now directly to those who are considering a career in academia, because what I always thought would be a reasonablystable career has meta-morphed into a precarious rat race.
But I would never dream of telling you to not try to become an academic. If you feel that a love of your subject, of thoughtful discussion and of communicating and teaching is a career you’d like to pursue, then this is definitely one to try. But know that academia is rumbling down a path that doesn’t value these skills, nor does the modern university seem to prioritize the welfare of its staff they way it used to.
The problem is instability. Short term positions, particularly teaching fellowships, certain types of post-doctoral positions and the rise of ‘adjunct’ positions in the USA are increasingly the sorts of jobs that are open to early career researchers (ECR’s) and post-doctoral students. These might be positions that are predominantly teaching based, which last for a year (often to cover maternity/paternity leave, or another member of staff's teaching that has been ‘bought out’ by a research project elsewhere).
There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea that Universities should offer short term roles. Such positions can be useful and allow flexibility when juggling the stresses and strains of being a human being. They can also sometimes be great springboards into longer term contracts, but not always. Eventually, most people want something permanent. You get older, life gets in the way, and suddenly you find your spouse doesn’t want to move to Leeds for 9 months.
But these sorts of jobs are now the bread and butter of early academic employment, and make it increasingly hard to step onto a career ladder which is smothered with araldite on the bottom rung.
If you’ve landed a job as a teaching fellow, that might be all you’re employed to do. Yet, surprisingly, academics quite like to do research. Unless you teach in an institution that doesn't do research, you usually have to do research to progress in your career. As an undergraduate, I remember mumblings about unfriendly staff who saw teaching students and offices hours as a burden, an unnecessary and onerous responsibility that got in the way of the ‘real’ work. I hated that attitude, and I still do.
You could be the best academic lecturer in the world, the most responsive and thoughtful seminar leader to ever grace campus, but if you don’t have a proven track record of research, most academic positions will be closed to you. Even teaching jobs. In the social sciences, PhD students are expected to have authored at least one publication in a respectable journal by the time they submit their thesis. That's not unreasonable, but 2-3 would be a better estimate of what a successful job applicant can be expected to have. My first publication took nearly a year, from inception to publication to be completed. It's roughly a publication a year.
And it never stops. As a member of staff, you are expected to publish a certain number of articles every year to keep your job. Sometimes it’s explicit, sometimes it’s not. You’re also expected to win money for the University from big funding organizations. At a recent workshop, I was encouraged to start considering applying for ‘research grants’ (big pots of money to fund projects usually designed by researchers, we can often be talking sums of over £100,000). In these projects, budgets, salaries, equipment, time off teaching and a whole host of other factors have to be considered). These are the sorts of skills that many younger PhD students simply don’t have. I’m 23. The biggest budget I ever dealt with was 3000 quid for the GeogSoc Winter Ball. But increasingly I’m expected to apply, successfully win and manage hundred thousand pound projects? Go figure.
Teaching positions and other post-doctoral positions are increasingly competitive (particularly the ones that do factor in some time for your own research). Like most occupations, there are less jobs but more work and smart people. As universities seek to cut down costs, flexible, short term positions are favorable as they often mean universities don’t have to offer the same sorts of benefits they offer tenure-track or senior staff. And this might only get worse with the introduction of a ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’.
But, if as a newly qualified post-doctoral researcher you do land yourself a teaching fellowship, which is 100% teaching (teaching is a deceptive term, it actually encompasses module creation, teaching, preparation, administration and most importantly, marking) where do you find the time to do the ‘research’? How can you take the time write academic articles, book chapters and blog posts, when you still need revise a previously written article, send off two grant applications and mark 150 scripts form GEO 1001 and take an exasperated girlfriend to dinner? Somewhere, something has to give.
What’s more, this problem is now permeating the higher echelons of university life. The Critical Geography Listserv is a platform for academic researchers to discuss research, advertise future conferences and generally have a bit of a well-earned whinge. The recent story of Stefan Grimm, a professor of Toxicology (read senior member of staff) who was found dead on the 25th December 2014 has sent the forums aflame with discussion. He had been suffering from extreme stress at work after he had failed to bring enough money from research grants despite having the highest application rate in his department (this actually militated against him as his record of failed applications apparently causes ‘fatigue’ among those who reviewed his applications). He had been told, effectively, that he would be sacked within the year if he did not secure at least £200,000 his boss, Professor Wilkins, had emailed him with following;
“I am of the opinion that you are struggling to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post at Imperial College which include maintaining established funding in a programme of research with an attributable share of research spend of £200k [per annum] and must now start to give serious consideration as to whether you are performing at the expected level of a Professor at Imperial College.”
You can read the whole story here. I would particularly ask you to pay attention to the email that Professor Grimm sent to various colleagues detailing how he felt about the situation.
But metrics, KPI’s and a high score on the Research Excellence Framework are what are driving the successful contemporary University professor. You’ll notice teaching didn’t feature anywhere in Professor Wilkins assessment of what is the ‘expected level’ of a professor.
This is not a post about locating blame and working out where and how we look to resist the system. Professor Wilkins was doing exactly as any manager in higher education would. The system we have is not right, and something needs to change.
Which is where SlowStreaming comes in. Alison Mountz, is a geographer who has pioneered the idea of ‘Slow Scholarship’. You can read about it here. The paper is co-authored with a lot of pissed off feminist geographers. It’s an insightful look into how the Slow Movement can and will slowly change the University from the inside. For them, the essence is good quality research (and of course, teaching) requires time. Time to think, to deliberate, to discuss, to relax, to talk to students, to enjoy the process of research. There are small, everyday strategies we can take in the university to claw back time, dignity and the respect we deserve. Writing this post instead of working on my publication (and indeed this website) is just one I have opted for.
After the student is thoroughly depressed by the video I've shown them, I'll point them towards the rousing and heart-warming responses that are appearing on the thread called ‘Sadness and Virtual Solidarity’ on the Crit Geog Listserv, and try and explain why academia is a thing worth fighting for.
If you decide to stay for the long haul, I hope you’ll slow down too and join us.