Deferred time

Image: Untitled (Clock), Stuart Ringholt, 2014

My colleagues Lilia Mantai, Vanessa Fredericks and I have a new paper published: Deferred time in the neoliberal university: experiences of doctoral candidates and early career academics. It appears in a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education on the timescapes of teaching, with several articles that I have added to my to-read list! (Free copies of our paper are currently available here; once these expire, if you do not have access via an institutional library, you can request a pre-print via Researchgate).

It was written before the outbreak of COVID-19 (although we snuck in a mention during the final review stage), but our argument about the experience of time, uncertainty and anxiety is prescient. (This paper has been a long time coming: Lilia and I took a reading retreat towards the end of 2016; I presented an early version at the Academic Identities Conference in 2018; and Lilia, Vanessa and I spent a day writing together and eating vegan food in October last year. Take heart if you are writing something slowly!)

The article brings together two studies: interviews with 64 PhD candidates from two Australian universities on their doctoral experience and researcher identity development; and a survey of 522 self-defining ECAs from three Australian universities on factors impacting work experience and career trajectories. We analyse these data using Ylijoki and Mäntylä’s (2003) ‘Conflicting Time Perspectives in Academic Work’:

Scheduled time refers to the accelerating pace of work, timeless time to transcending time through immersion in work, contracted time to short-term employment with limited future prospects and finally, personal time to one’s temporality and the role of work in it.

Theorising with Derrida’s Specters of Marx (1994), we emphasise the experiences of doctoral candidates and early career academics as political subjects in the neoliberal university, and add a category of deferred time.

In Enduring Time, Lisa Baraitser (2017) describes deferred or suspended time as marked by “modes of waiting, staying, delaying, enduring, persisting, repeating, maintaining, preserving and remaining – that produce the experience of time not passing.”

Here is how our research participants describe it:

In the immediate future, I am trying to secure a permanent position and/or postdoctoral position. In the longer term, I am hoping to remain in academia … I am not ruling out a career outside academia. The longer it takes for me to secure an academic position, the more I will explore other options (though this is difficult).

Quite frankly it is impossible to make [career] plans … I have become some kind of Universal Academic that can be called in at short notice to teach: Mathematics, Statistics, Finance, Business, Marketing, Engineering, Media Studies, and lately even Music Theory. This situation is clearly absurd, and I know I am not alone.

My greatest desire at this point is to secure permanent employment and no longer be on ‘6 month’ or 1 year’ contracts (as I have been for the last two and half years). The instability of my current situation is quite stressful (I have no idea if I’ll still have a job in 6 months) and doesn’t allow me, or my family, to make any plans into the future.

I would like to get an ongoing teaching and research position in a university … I recognise that I am likely to work in a number of casual and short-term contract positions before that becomes a reality (if ever). As I have a family to support, I am aware that I might have to face the possibility of abandoning my plans and take work in another area or even a different sector.

Following Derrida’s line of argument, as political subjects of the neoliberal university, whose temporality is externally driven, doctoral candidates and early career academics are in a deferred state of waiting for the ‘messianic promise’ of secure academic careers and balanced working conditions. The dominant affect of deferred time, which contaminates the experience of scheduled, contracted, timeless and personal time, is anxiety.

We ended our paper on a hopeful note: PhD candidate and early career participants are active agents in managing the temporalities of academic work, defending their personal time and planning potential futures within and beyond academe. (If this is you, as a starting point I recommend Inger Mewburn’s work on post-PhD futures and ImaginePhD).



Beginnings, endings and lifetimes

The past few weeks have reminded me of the importance of rituals to mark beginnings, endings and the lifetimes in between.

At work, we have celebrated new jobs and roles, baby showers, reunions, farewells and retirements.


With family and friends, we have celebrated my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary (pictured below, the tie my father wore to get married in 1969), birthdays, winter solstice and 100 days of learning for the Kindergarten kids at school.

These celebrations has been a break from ordinary routines and an opportunity to acknowledge successes, transitions and milestones.

The event that sparked this post was the retirement of my PhD supervisor, Professor Nick Mansfield, who first taught me as an undergraduate student nearly 25 years ago. In the University’s recent Higher Degree Research newsletter, we reflected on our relationship (thanks to Sally Purcell for organising this):

HDR Dynamic Duos
Agnes Bosanquet

How did you come to know each other?

Nick taught me as an undergraduate student in Cultural Studies. I’m surprised to say that was over twenty years ago! He was an inspiring teacher, bringing complex theory to life in relatable ways – so much so I made Cultural Studies my major.

What was a particular hurdle you worked through, together?

In 2006, Nick became my third PhD supervisor. I had previously tutored on his units, but I think he was the Head of Department who took on the troublesome students. I had a sick baby and had gone AWOL from my thesis. Nick saved my thesis from what Inger Mewburn, the thesis whisperer, calls the valley of shit.

What do you appreciate most about Nick?

I had not realised supervision could be so engaging, generous, thoughtful, reliable and compassionate. My greatest obstacle to completion was my daughter’s illness. My thesis focussed on the philosophy of Luce Irigaray, and I wrote my experiences into the thesis. It became a way of testing the weight and resonance of feminist philosophies on motherhood, which I found wanting. I know the approach of my thesis was challenging at times – in fact, Nick annotated ‘This makes me very nervous!’ in the margin. We had wonderful conversations.

You have known each other for many years now. What have you learnt from Nick?

I have learned a lot from Nick. I submitted in 2009, and graduated in 2010 with my partner, daughter and parents in the audience. Nick wrote a reference for my first academic role, in the Learning and Teaching Centre at Macquarie. My manager at the time said it was one of the most well-written references he’d read. Many people told me I was committing career suicide by taking on a part-time, teaching-focussed academic role; Nick was positive and focussed on the possibilities.

I’m still at Macquarie, now Associate Dean (Curriculum) in the Faculty of Human Sciences. My daughter is now a teenager, and Nick has also trodden that ground before me. He told me of the many things he enjoyed about parenting teenagers, and some days I need to remind myself of these. Nick has been a role model for how I supervise my MRes and PhD students. In a way, the skill is similar to parenting teenagers – getting the balance right between providing support and encouraging independence. My slow PhD has been a useful learning experience to support others.

Nick Mansfield

How did you come to know each other?

I remembered Agnes from her undergraduate years and when she as a tutor so when she approached me to be her Supervisor, I felt that I knew her quite well already. I had already worked with a number of candidates who, through no fault of their own, had multiple supervisors and Agnes had the additional issue of an interrupted candidature because of her child’s illness. My first impressions of Agnes as a PhD candidate were that she was witty, reflective and a sophisticated thinker.

What was a particular hurdle you worked through, together?

There were a couple of hurdles that Agnes and I worked through together. Agnes had already done a significant amount of work when I became her Supervisor and her project was a very original take on a prominent and influential philosopher which was intellectually risky because it challenged the orthodox thinking. Additionally, Agnes also had to cope with her daughter’s serious and unpredictable illness. Agnes attended a conference led by the philosopher and raised views that were considered unorthodox. I was impressed with Agnes’ courage to pursue new ideas in the face of resistance.

What do you appreciate most about Agnes?

Her courage and her strength. I admired her perseverance to continue with her project when there were so many personal challenges. Agnes’ determination never faltered in pursuing her creative and inventive approach to her PhD project. The personal and intellectual excitement for her thesis meant that our discussions were buoyant, engaging and we were both passionate about her ideas.

You have known each other for many years now. What have you learnt from Agnes?

How to maintain composure in very trying circumstance. Often our meetings followed a period where Agnes had been at the hospital with her daughter and had meetings with Doctors and I was always impressed with Agnes’ capacity to reflect on the experiences and share anecdotes in an almost light-hearted way. I observed how Agnes continued to maintain her commitment to her PhD which is a difficult undertaking even when there are not additional challenges. The word resilience can be over-used and yet it describes Agnes well. Agnes has a mature attitude and has a great life-force. There is a lot to learn from Agnes’ natural wisdom and I enjoy her wit and openness.

Happy celebrating!

135 words

An alarming flu season is underway here and, like many, I have been sick, looking after others and trying to keep up with work. A colleague and I are writing an abstract, and I have promised 100-150 words by the end of today. This seems achievable, so I am blogging the same number.

I have recommended this article to several colleagues and PhD candidates this week: Ways of constructing research questions: gap-spotting or problematization?

In brief, Sandberg and Alvesson (2010) argue that identifying a gap in the literature dominates, but is lazy scholarship. Gap-spotting is relatively easy, we’re taught to do it and it lacks criticality. Alternatively, ‘problematization’ challenges assumptions and enables the development of new and creative theories.

Once seen, gap-spotting can’t be unseen, including in your own, already published, writing. Consider yourself warned.