“Career suicide”

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(Image from BLASST cartoons)

When I accepted my first academic position on completion of my PhD, I was pretty happy about it. My PhD was in Cultural Studies examining corporeal feminist philosophy and motherhood. (At the risk of understating it, this topic is not generally considered a canny choice for any career, but it was what I loved and lived). I changed discipline and built on research assistant work in education that I had completed during my PhD candidature. My new role was a part-time, fixed term, teaching-focussed position in the University’s central learning and teaching development unit.

I was warned by a well-meaning colleague that I was “committing career suicide” by accepting it.

It seemed to me that the only alternative was to continue sessional or casual teaching for the indefinite future. At that point, I had already been tutoring and lecturing casually for almost a decade. It was an example of Hobson’s choice, a free choice in which only one thing is offered. (I was also advised to move overseas for a post-doc, but I had a sick baby at the time).

I am not alone in facing limited (and limiting) choices, as early career academics in my research with colleagues stated:

Quite frankly it is impossible to make plans. I should have been hired as a full time academic … years ago … The best I can get is casual positions. These have been at several universities across a wide variety of departments over many years. 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…

Another described the risk of being ‘stuck’:

In order to progress in my career I need to continue researching and publishing, as that has been shown to be the area where academics get rewarded. Although I am teaching focused, if I am not research active I don’t think I will be able to progress at the same speed as other academics and will be stuck in a role for a longer time.

Teaching-focussed academic work — which includes sessional teaching and ‘teaching only’ or ‘80% teaching’ roles (as opposed to ‘traditional’ or ‘balanced’ 40% research, 40% teaching and 20% service roles) — was the focus of a recent post on The Conversation with the grim headline Teaching only roles could mark the end of your academic career. The research by Bennet et al (2017) supports the view of career suicide:

The TA role emerged as a negative career move for academics that transition from teaching-research roles and a career-limiting move for academics new to the sector … Teaching academic roles are attractive to new graduates as a pathway to an academic career. However, with no research provision and a directive not to engage in discipline-related research, it is doubtful that new entrants will develop the research or supervision profile required to transition into traditional teaching-research roles. Ironically, heavy teaching and administrative loads also limit access to professional learning, such that TAs are arguably less likely than their peers to develop and evidence excellence in teaching. Similarly, promotion to leadership roles is an unlikely outcome for TAs, despite them developing a nuanced understanding of teaching and learning within their areas. In our study, TAs had little confidence that they would one day achieve a professorial position.

By my colleague’s measure, I may have committed career suicide multiple times: doing a PhD part-time, having a baby mid-PhD,  taking a lot of carer’s leave, becoming a professional (general or administrative) staff member, accepting the aforementioned teaching-focussed role, changing discipline, staying at one university, being part-time, being sick, having another baby …

Right now, at this moment in time, I feel both confident and challenged by my career for a number of reasons (many of which were precarious last year): my career choices have been rewarded thus far, I am in the sweet spot of part-time work (the secret to happiness for working mothers, according to this article), and my institution’s new promotions policy aims to recognise and reward teaching-focussed academics.

In ten minutes, I will be hosting morning tea for a group of teaching-focussed academics. This month, we will be discussing the Teaching Perspectives Inventory. I have found this a useful starting point to articulate my philosophy of teaching which formed part of my application for Higher Education Academy Senior Fellowship and will contribute to a future promotion application.

Despite the weight of gloomy research evidence, I remain an optimist at heart.

 

Doomed

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This post was prompted by a sentence in Berg and Seeber’s (2016) The Slow Professor manifesto:

The language of crisis dominates the literature on the corporate university, urging us to act before it is too late.

Yes, apocalyptic visions are alive and well in writing about universities and academics. Students (especially doctoral candidates), staff (especially academic aspirants and casuals) and the community are suffering. Disciplines, institutions, research, teaching and curriculum are imperiled. The language of  crisis is sensationalist, full of hyperbole, replete with implied threats and proclamations for profound and urgent or impending and irreversible change in higher education. (This doesn’t necessarily mean there is no crisis).

I started to write this post by revisiting some of the examples I have come across over the last ten years. I linked to a lot of crisis stories in an old (and not very pretty) blog between 2008 and 2010: The crisis is here, So Few Jobs, The Big Lie, Don’t go to grad school, Academia is not a smart choice, Academic workforce needs revolution, Academics are miserable, Academic jobs are unicorns.

Since then a lot has happened to fuel our fears of impending doom. And, as some more recent stories reveal, it gets worse for academics, and writing better or being more productive won’t fix things (although they probably won’t make things worse).

I am not immune. In fact, my research is full of crises, from graduate attributes statements:

Our students will enter a globalising world of major environmental change and resource constraints, of scientific and technological advance and ethical challenge, of continuing political instability and possible international conflicts, of unlimited creativity and increasing social surveillance.

the promise of technology:

In ‘Back to the Future’, Bridges writes that individual learners will be situated within a … ‘multi‐layered, multimedia, multi‐dimensional learning environment’ in which they have the power to create their own learning. Bridges refers to the ‘anarchic’ potential of web‐based learning [for] radical upheaval and transformation … Universities [will] no longer [be] in control of higher education curriculum, the construction of knowledge or the awarding of degrees. Barnes and Tynan similarly refer to the ‘revolutionary promise’ of technologies and the need to radically and urgently rethink learning and teaching and the university itself before ‘a generation of opportunities is lost’.

the experiences of aspiring and early career academics:

When asked about career plans, participants articulate considerable uncertainty and indecision about their future in academia … The workforce has changed significantly over the last decades and is now dominated by casual employment … ECAs in this study had difficulty envisaging, let alone navigating, career paths through academia … Responses to the question asking participants to ‘provide a brief statement outlining career plans’ were non sequiturs: ‘I am doomed. Don’t know what’s gonna happen. Scary’ …  The affective language utilised makes casualisation palpable: miserable, embittered, shattered, suffering, isolated, worn out, swamped, stressed and dissatisfied.

As this recent article in Inside HigherEd puts it, claims that higher education is in crisis are nothing new. But I feel hopeful. Perhaps not quite as hopeful as Berg and Seeber:

We are more optimistic, believing that resistance is alive and well … By taking the time for reflection and dialogue, the Slow Professor takes back the intellectual life of the university.

(I’m imagining sloths starting a revolution).

I’ve been thinking about our responses to the ongoing crises of higher education as I edit the Australian Universities’ Review special issue on Activism and the Academy. I am enjoying this work. It is full of hope. At the risk of making academia sound (even more) like a battle between good and evil, wonderful things are happening. Ideals are being upheld. Academic activists are the ivory tower’s unicorns, with the power to heal sickness and make poisoned water potable.

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Planning and dreaming

I don’t consider myself a great planner. I often enjoy unintended outcomes more than the predetermined. I love the happy discoveries of serendipity (even the word is a joy). Here’s to creativity sparked by reading, unexpected calls for papers, conferences and conversations with colleagues!

A ResearchWhisperer post by Tseen Khoo earlier this year made me rethink planning:

The value in planning your research career isn’t in the actual plan. It doesn’t lie only – or even mainly – in achieving the amazing goals you’ve set for yourself. It’s in the process of research planning itself …

The research dream plan is the one that you’d talk about with your career mentor…

It can be extremely difficult to keep research dreams alive and on the radar when beset by the metrics-obsessed nature of contemporary academia. But to not have these research dreams is in itself a tragedy. As renowned author Diana Wynne Jones says, “it is better to aim for the moon and get halfway there than just to aim for the roof and get halfway upstairs.”

Linking planning to dreaming? I can do that. French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1987) suggested that we can accomplish nothing against our dreams. He went so far as to say that neglecting dreams can result in annihilation. His example is an artisan working with clay who interweaves dreams and dexterity:

Take away the dreams and you stultify the worker.  Leave out the oneiric forces of work and you diminish, you annihilate the artisan.  Each labour has its oneirism, each material worked on contributes its inner reveries.

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(Image source)

Hold that thought: the importance of inner reveries, and the risk to the self if these are ignored.

Two things prompted this post.

First, today I gave a welcome address to undergraduate students thinking about career options beyond their discipline. This allowed me to share my first career plan (become a mermaid), my side hustle (operating rides and dressing as a hunchback at Luna Park) and my love of dressing up, travelling the world, reading and writing.

Second, last week I facilitated a planning session with early career academics, the first of a series of monthly meetings where we will do some planning (rather than just talking about it). I’ve been thinking about planning (as opposed to doing it) for a long time. I’ve read lots of resources on planning in this time: The balanced researcher, How (not) to get ahead in academia, and Time for research. These are all practical guides, full of tips and templates, but, while useful, they didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know.

Surviving and succeeding as an early career academic takes a different approach. It focusses on capabilities that are equally valuable in and beyond academia and at any career stage: resourcefulness, relational agency, resilience, respectfulness, rest and recreation. Its creator Kathryn Sutherland also has an impressive collection of other resources freely available. The questions it asks are an excellent tool for reflection:

Who are your academic kindred spirits – people who think similarly or are doing similar work – and how much contact do you have with them? How could you find more such people?

Who are your mentors, and in what areas of your work (research, teaching, social, cultural, etc)? How do you nurture these relationships?

How do you demonstrate care for your students? For your colleagues?

Against whose criteria do you measure your success, and how does this make you feel at work and at home?

Great ideas for future posts here! These questions make space for dreaming as a part of planning. As Tseen says in the ResearchWhisperer post above, keeping dreams alive in academia can be difficult. How do you avoid stultification and nourish your inner reveries?