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).



Against all advice

I read a lot of advice for early career academics. Much of it is similar: focus on your research, publish a lot (with an eye to metrics), be prepared to move universities and countries to further your career (or even get a foot in the door), align yourself with institutional values and priorities, develop your personal brand. Several of my previous posts detail the ways in which I haven’t followed this advice—for example, committing career suicide multiple times and living by the pirate’s code. And there are some excellent resources out there with more nuanced advice: Surviving and succeeding as an early career academic is one of my favourites, ImaginePhD is another.

Last week, at an university networking event (I think I was invited to encourage small talk), I spoke with someone who is about to move from a small community-driven workplace into higher education. He’d found the institutional induction alienating, which had increased his nervousness, and he wanted to know if I had any advice on making the transition to working in a large organisation.

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If you work in a university, you don’t need me to tell you they are complex places. They can have mechanistic, organic and bureaucratic elements operating simultaneously, with competing expectations and priorities. In a thought-provoking paper about university management and the traditions of collegial governance, institutional autonomy and academic freedom, Winter (2009) refers to universities as hybrid identities that “attempt to sustain traditional academic cultures while simultaneously promoting and developing corporate ideologies and structures” (p 124). For someone who is used to working in a smaller or more tightly structured organisation, this can feel chaotic.

Winter (2009) distinguishes between the “identities of ‘academic manager’ (values congruent with the managerial discourse) and ‘managed academic’ (values incongruent with the managerial discourse)” (p 121). An academic manager is defined as a professorial position, middle or line manager, who aligns themselves with institutional norms and values (examples of which might include economic rationalism and marketisation). On the other hand, a managed academic is described as being disengaged with the institution and holding a greater commitment to their discipline and professional identity (which might be determined by scholarship, intellectual curiosity, a community of practice, or student learning). This binary thinking is reductionist—I would argue most academics move between these positions—but serves to illustrate the competing aspects of being an individual within a complex workplace.

My suggestions over canapés were an attempt to understand and manage these tensions:

1. Join some committees

This is a risky strategy—academic housekeeping can be thankless, time consuming and a distraction from more highly valued work (especially for women). I have nonetheless found working on committees, particularly when new to a role, a valuable way to meet people and learn a lot in a short time. Before you go in: know the committees available to you, have an understanding what they do and where they fit in the structures of academic governance and give your tenure on the committee a sunset date (two years is common in my neck of the woods).

2. Chat with people over a cuppa

You will never again have as few emails or meetings as you do in your first few weeks in a new role. The people I spoke with at last week’s event had very different orientation and induction experiences. Some were not even introduced to colleagues! If you find yourself in this position, have a couple of cups of tea a day and introduce yourself to everyone who comes along. If you are unlucky enough to be working somewhere without a tearoom, spend time in corridors, lobbies or doorways. Some awkward and confused lurking may be forgiven in a newbie, and these thoroughfares offer opportunities to meet people, introduce yourself and move on (or linger, depending on how well the conversation goes).

You can also request a chat, ideally over coffee and a walk around campus, with people you will be working for, with or alongside. Introduce yourself, conversationally share some of your past work and your ideas for your new role, and have a mental list of what you want to ask them: what are they working on? What are their expectations of your role? Is there anyone in particular they think you should talk to?

This advice will not make you an academic superhero, but it may help you orient yourself in a large organisation and find some like-minded souls.


When things aren’t slow

This post was prompted by my agreeing to take on a new leadership role with an estimated workload of one day a week. It was also triggered by a feeling of trepidation when a colleague asked what I was up to at the moment. I made a list of the things I am doing in July and August and collected the multiple notepads I had been working from (at work, in my handbag, and at home):


I am excited about a lot of things on my to-do list. To name a few: the forthcoming issue of Australian Universities’ Review on activism and the academy; a peer review action research project; directing a growing undergraduate degree program; facilitating teaching inductions and workshops; conducting interviews for a history of the Academic Identities Conference; co-authoring papers on topics and with colleagues I care about; facilitating communities of practice for early career and teaching-focussed academics; and planning future research projects.

My challenge is to manage this busy period within part-time paid work hours.

Note I said ‘busy period’ — these strategies will not work if there is no end in sight. If your workload is unhealthy, unsustainable and unsupported, don’t struggle on alone. (I have made suggestions for finding like-minded souls before. Join a union. Also check if your university has a staff wellbeing program or counselling service).

Workloads in academia are not an individual problem. This recent Times Higher Ed article by Ruth Barcan makes the case for institutional responsibility for the “almost 40%” of academics who want to quit the sector. This figure is from a Times Higher Education’s 2016 University Workplace Survey. In my research with colleagues on aspiring and early career academics’ experiences at three Australian universities, the numbers were less alarming:

At the extreme, ECAs consider leaving academia. Of the participants, 16 (3%) stated this explicitly: ‘I want to get out of higher education and research as soon as possible’ and ‘I plan to leave academic at the end of my post-doc [because of] limited opportunities.’ Another 46 (9%) refer to moving into private or community sectors as an option: ‘I do not know whether I will stay in academia long term or move into industry.’ Others stated that they did not have career plans, with 57 (11%) respondents undecided about the future: ‘My career plans are fairly vague’ or ‘I will re-evaluate whether academic life is for me’ or ‘No fixed plan, but I would like to spend some time in academia at some stage.’ There were 89 (17%) blank responses to the question about career plans; by contrast, all 522 participants answered the questions about their ideal academic job.

This is a more telling result when the responses of women with caring responsibility for children are isolated. Of the 128 respondents in this category, 16 (12.5%) stated that they were considering leaving academia. That means everyone in our study who said ‘I want to leave, get out, or quit’ was a mother. (Ruth Barcan may not be surprised by this: 80% of the people who contacted her to discuss leaving academia were women). (Note we did not ask about leaving academia explicitly).

High workloads will be a familiar story for most of you. With thanks to colleagues who allowed me to think aloud (or vent) and offered solutions, I am using a range of strategies (and there is slow privilege at work here):

  • I am working an extra day a week from home. This is taking pressure off the feeling that I was volunteering my own time for work activities. I am spreading this load over a few days so it feels manageable and, for the short term, being flexible with my self-imposed rules about not working nights and weekends (I recommend Tseen Khoo’s post about working weekends);
  • I talked through my current projects and activities list with my manager and was supported to stop, delegate and defer some things. This is extremely helpful if you have a supportive manager, supervisor or mentor;
  • I revisited strategies for prioritising work: what three things do I need to achieve today? What is the relative importance and value of these tasks?;
  • I scheduled everything into my calendar (which looks a little crazy with multiple things listed simultaneously, but keeps tasks in one place);
  • I let people know they might have to wait, and I asked for extensions where possible (if you haven’t heard from me yet, my apologies);
  • I put a pause on agreeing to new commitments. Or at least I told myself I would do this. To be honest, it hasn’t gone well and I agreed to a speaking gig today — but if anyone asks, then tomorrow I am saying no!;
  • I am allocating time to task (not task to time) because time is finite but tasks are infinite (this advice from here). Sometimes I have to remind myself that near enough is good enough, done is better then perfect, and aiming for 80% is ok;
  • I am continuing to practice self-care — exercising every morning, eating good food, sleeping enough. And for wakeful nights, I find reading on the Kindle is a good distraction from thinking about work, and soon sends me back to sleep.
  • I will give myself a reward at the end of this busy period. I am taking a week off in September. It looks like this might clash with my university’s Staff Wellbeing week. I think this is a great initiative, but I might not be participating this year. I have to consider my wellbeing.

What strategies do you use to manage intense times at work? And how can you ensure there are less busy times ahead?