Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Truth Be Told (About Research and Academic Careers)

It’s safe to say that the funding and employment prospects for researchers in Australia are poor.
When I first drafted this piece, I wanted to say that the prospects were ‘challenging’, then realised that this is the way we have come to talk about—and cloak—the many stark inequities in our system. The circumstances are not challenging in the sense of being a series of personal adversities that must be overcome.
The perfect storm of scarce career pathways, highly metricised researcher valuation, and diminishing funds for research mean that early career researchers work in an area that is broken in many ways. There are options—good, bad, and often precarious. The challenges are systemic and institutional, with pressure brought to bear on the individual as a consequence.
This is not new knowledge—many have written about this situation and its consequences for our national research workforce. With few career pathways, many are leaving the country, or research, and Australia’s research capacity will diminish. The personal costs of investing in, then having to leave, academia can be very significant, materially and emotionally.

The truth

What I want to focus on here is why we still lie about many of these aspects to early career researchers and PhD researchers. Maybe lie is too strong a word? Perhaps it’s a case of not telling the whole truth.
I recently chaired a panel that talked about the early career researcher’s career context and Australia’s research terrain. What came from the speakers and through the ensuing discussions was the harshness of the choices many researchers face when they’re trying to establish their independent academic track records, publishing, gaining funding, and finding job security.
Being able to share tales of the contradictory, unsustainable, and overly bureaucratised aspects of being a contemporary early career researcher also means being able to give voice to strategies for negotiating these issues. The combination of openly shared peer experiences from across institutions, and insight from more senior academics who were willing to take on thorny, negative topics, was strangely exciting. The vibe was energetic and engaged.

The whole truth

What this demonstrated to me yet again was the pointlessness of putting up a veneer about the state of the academic careers. There are many well-meaning but ultimately wrong-headed assurances given to early career researchers explaining that the situation’s not great but that they’ll be OK.
Avoiding discussion around these issues because you don’t want to depress your colleagues is doing them a disservice. Early career researchers are subject to high performance pressures while they’re undertaking the significant work of establishing their research publication and funding pipelines.

Nothing but the truth

While no one needs to hear endless tales of woe for the sake of it, being able to speak honestly about the stresses and prospects of academic life, and the ways that one might negotiate or agitate against aspects of it, are increasingly necessary. This is even more the case if our research and institutional leaders fail to do so.
One major example of the avoidance of honest talk in academia is the unfortunately very common instance of fixed-term or sessional staff not having clarity around their status when their contract is up.
Academics can think they are doing their contract colleagues a favour by keeping happy faces on about their prospects of future employment with the school or department. They are not. If there is no work, find a compassionate way to tell your colleague there is no work, or discuss possible other avenues for them if the work doesn’t come through. Having been a fixed-term researcher for much of my academic career, there was nothing worse than people telling me there’ll be something lined up for me, then nothing materialising. Don’t give false assurances. They help no one.

Three ways to start making things better

Here are three things that I think are most useful for early career researchers in our current climate:
1. Honest reasons why things haven’t happened
Why did an internal grant application fail? Why didn’t they get that role? What happened to the contract extension? Fobbing disappointed people off is what usually happens, but what is more useful is for colleagues to let the researcher in question know what went wrong. It could be something they need to improve, or it could just be the vagaries of the system. Whatever it is, it’s always better to know than not.
2. Finding and creating non-institutional ways to gather
While institutions want to keep their fabulous researchers, they also have their own priorities (and the same is true down to the level of heads of schools or research directors). These priorities may run counter to a researcher’s best interests. It’s extremely valuable to find a relatively neutral space where scholars can feel safe voicing their concerns and receiving advice that’s not tempered by the priorities of key performance indicators for senior personnel or their organisation. Scholarly associations and societies have a big part to play in this.
3. Getting together to establish an institutional voice
Early career researchers’ forums can take various forms and operate at varying levels of institutional endorsement and resourcing. Networking is excellent for internal peer-to-peer connections, which are so important and often overlooked in the rush for external collaborations and partnerships. It can only be a good thing to have a group that can represent early career researchers’ concerns and advocate for changes at higher levels within the university.
So, the truth about academic employment and research funding may be hard and unpleasant to hear but the situation is what it is—for now. The more informed, and activated, early career researchers are by what they’re dealing with, and where potential change can happen, the better it is for them and for academia.
Honest conversations about what is happening, and what can’t happen, need to occur across all levels: among peers, within faculties and colleges, with senior research executives, and in national higher education debates.
Let’s not pretend that things will work out for the best, when we know that things in Australian research have only worsened over recent years.
Can we work together to improve the situation? Of course, we can. But not until we can tell the truth about it among ourselves and within our institutions.

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