To Prof, or not to Prof

There are some days when you just know you’re inviting the pitching of rotten cabbages.

I hope this is not one of them.

I’ve attended a large number of early career researcher (ECR) events in recent times as RMIT University has a new and active ECR Network (login required), which is finding its feet, prioritising what it might do, and all those other exciting things that take place when initiatives take flight. The great thing that I’ve seen happen is ECRs feeling more empowered by knowledge and excited about their career plans and research activities. Most importantly, in my view, they also start seeing what it means to show research leadership and foster a positive research environment.

I’m speaking in this post mostly from my own experiences in academia as a research fellow, and as someone who started a research network where membership is overwhelmingly from PhD students and other ECRs. Over the years, as I’ve listened to extremely accomplished professorial researchers, ECRs, professional staff, and academic consultants, there has been a refrain that has become louder. It has always bothered me, and now it’s bothered me enough that you get a post about it.

That refrain is:

For ECRs to get anywhere, they must resign themselves to years of intellectual and organisational exploitation by senior academics.

For example, the refrain says that ECRs should expect to:

  • Do most of the work in any collaboration.
  • Assume that they must put senior colleagues’ names first on grants and publications.
  • Cultivate ‘up’ so that established researchers will want to work with you.
  • Have to do research ‘freebies’ for senior academics to lay the foundations for future collaborative possibilities.

I’m not saying that any of these things are necessarily heinous acts, but ECRs may benefit from taking a step back to consider their broader research plans and strategies before bowing to what they are told is the inevitable.

Another thing I should point out at this stage is that I’m not a babe in the woods about research, nor do I believe that there will ever be an academia where everyone is rewarded and recognised for being the special, diligent snowflakes that they truly are (not that that should stop us striving for such). I know there are distinct strategies for approaching grant applications and gathering a team with a strong track-record, or possibly fast-tracking one’s journal article because one happens to be co-authoring with a Nobel Laureate.

There’s a difference, however, between being strategic about how you commit your time as you’re building a layered, active research circle of peers, and only feeling as if you’re doing time and making progress on someone else’s work.

We all know compromises have to be made in life, and the academic system is particularly embedded with trade-offs for your labour and expertise. As you build your track-record and gain more institutional capital, what you need to ensure is that you’re happy with the balance of these compromises.

Speaking for myself, these are the ways I ensure I don’t become bitter and twisted about being ‘exploited’:

1. If I know I’m going to be doing the lion’s share of work on a project or publication with a collaborative team, I’ll make sure that this additional loading is acknowledged and respected.

Who gets to go along to the exciting creative industry appointments and launches? Will I be supported for conference presentations and briefings? Who’s going first on articles? If you’re not receiving open communication on these kinds of things, be wary and push for clarification. A world of hurt can be avoided if everyone knows what the situation is up front; everyone says this, but it’s erratically put into practice. Even if the answers aren’t to your liking, at least you have an honest look at what you’re in for, and you may still want to choose it.

For example, I took on an editing project once where I knew I’d be doing all the administration and much of the intellectual management of the process. For the opportunity it presented and the fact that the senior professor was up front about acknowledging how the workload division would go, I signed on and have never regretted it. Mutual consideration about input and acknowledgement is not unreasonable. If you’re not going to get that with your collaborators, why are you working with them?

2. I need to know that the connections and intellectual progress I’d make are worth the investment of my precious ‘ECR’ time.

It’s hard when you’re starting out to know your value. If anything, many academics – particularly women – tend to underestimate what they bring to a project or collaboration. I’m able to say this mostly with the glory of 20/20 hindsight: your attitude and perspective as an ECR is extremely valuable to others. You bring a vitality and excitement to the research endeavour that many academics, who have been in the institution for many years, no longer have. I say this because it’s important that you channel this fresh and ephemeral energy creatively and strategically. Don’t slog away at Big Name Prof’s project unless it brings you to a better position. Don’t take on laborious administrative responsibilities that will quash research activity in the longer-term; always set a limit to your role (e.g. “Sure, I’d love to be the research higher degree person for one year!”). Don’t commit all your time to Extremely Fab Project if it gives you no opportunity for profile-building via significant publications, or access to snazzy academic networks. I was just talking to a senior academic today who mentioned the idea of ‘opportunity cost‘ in academic research, and it’s important to keep this consideration at the forefront of your research career planning.

3.  With the increased pressure to perform as a research academic in most university environments, it’s even more important to weigh up what you will and won’t do. 

For many, it’s hard to learn to say ‘No’, particularly if it’s to a senior colleague or amenable peer. It is important to work out  what you want to prioritise in your establishing years. I’ve talked to academics (now senior) who regret taking on X role or Y project because they felt obligated to do so, and they felt they didn’t really get anything out of it except lost research time. I haven’t found any experiences to be a total loss when it comes to building networks or laying the groundwork for future collaborative work, but I know now that I probably should’ve been more proactive in planning my research agenda and working in a more focused way to make it happen.

But with all this said: Don’t be selfish. Your parents probably told you this, and I’m telling it to you again. Academia is a carousel of research, teaching, and administration. Academic research is an entity that, for many of its outputs, depends on collegial service and cooperation. If everyone decided they didn’t have time to review articles, where would that leave us? And if no-one bothered creating new courses, journals,  subjects, or conferences…?

So, don’t resign yourself to doing time as an ECR. Seize opportunities, plan your research, choose the ways you want to commit your valuable time and intellect, AND recognise that you are part of a wider academic ecosystem. It will always be about striking a balance.

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

4 Responses to To Prof, or not to Prof

  1. Sharon B says:

    Really nice post, Tseen. Completely agree. There are many research support schemes that target ECRs and while it may seem–when you are panicking in that immediate post-PhD abyss–you should grab whatever comes your way, it’s worthwhile reflecting that ECR status is a valuable commodity and doesn’t last forever. Of course the trade-off is that with so much competition sometimes you take the bus that’s there rather than risk watching full ones drive past.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      The most difficult thing is having confidence that something worthwhile + with a liveable salary will turn up. After so many years in part-time, casual, sessional work, is it any wonder that people are keen for some security and validation?

      And does this reflection on the value of ECR-ness only come AFTER one has left that phase behind (and realise what one had)? Is it a bit like ‘youth is wasted on the young’?

  2. Anuja says:

    A very interesting post, and I can think of many examples of it. Perhaps the challenge is actually being able to strike the balance, or maybe in figuring out what the balance is.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      It’s a tricky and highly case-specific kind of thing. Unfortunately, the level of dependence on the academic hierarchy differs markedly across the disciplines, geographical regions, and on a purely personal level. Sometimes, giving advice on this front feels ‘aspirational’, which is a great pity.

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