Truth be told

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 8 June 2017 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


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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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer based in Melbourne, Australia. She convenes the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN), is often on Twitter (@tseenster) and co-founded the Research Whisperer (theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com) with Jonathan O'Donnell.

11 Responses to Truth be told

  1. Dani Barringotn says:

    What really rang true with me was the part about being told that “things will be ok” when there really is no funding – I put SO MUCH energy into networking and volunteering for everything, and so many academics in Australia “wanted to work with me”, but nothing materialised despite bucketloads of (largely free) work on my part. And it made me feel like rubbish about my skills as an ECR.

    Having moved to the UK I suddenly have all of these doors opening and even though I haven’t changed the way I work, I feel so much more respected for what I can bring to the academic table. I really hope ECRs in Aus can hear these truths Tseen, because it IS NOT necessarily anything to do with the individual not being a quality researcher/teacher, but the destructive environment that is the current state of Australian academia. Our mental health and self esteem are important!

    Like

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Am in vehement agreement, Dani, about hoping there’s some movement away from the wasteful attitude to people and their ‘replaceability’ in our sector – it’s all extremely short-sighted and frankly cruel. It would be good for Australian researchers to feel like they have a choice whether they work overseas or here. It’s harrowing that many have left the sector because they just didn’t want to put up with the crap anymore, or they’ve left the country for other opportunities (but this would not have been their first choice – it’s a case of being forced out). Very glad you’ve landed well.

      Like

  2. Megan says:

    I just finished my PhD and have the research fellow role on year 1 of a three year externally funded project on which my PhD supervisor is a CI. This is a result of doing heaps of RA work for that supervisor during my PhD on similar projects. I’m at a good starting point but very aware that academic life post this three year period could be difficult for all the reasons covered in this article.

    I have one, maybe slightly odd, question. I did a PhD so I could work in research, not to scale the heights of academia. I love my job but I love other aspects of my life just as much (!) and am not keen to have to put my job above all else as it seems is necessary to progress (from what I have observed anyway). Basically I would be more than happy to keep working as a level B, say, on different projects and feel confident enough in my general skills (I had a career before academia) that I could do this. I also know that senior academics need good people at that level to actually deliver their projects.

    However it seems to me that staying at the one level is not possible as a career path – the institution kind of forces you to look and move ‘upward’ because of the need / desire for high performing researchers. And while I know some projects have non-academic project managers I’m not as interested in that as would still like to use my academic skills / write a bit and so on. Just wondering if anyone had any thoughts on this.

    Like

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I have so many thoughts on this that I’m going to write a blogpost about it! Thanks, Megan. 🙂

      Like

      • Megan says:

        I saw it yesterday on Twitter. Definitely has provided lots of food for thought. Thanks so much! Is interesting to see that others have wondered the same. I think I might get myself a mentor as a first step.

        Like

  3. Maggie Hall says:

    Having just been appointed to a Teaching Focused role after 5 years on contracts and casual work, I’ve been told that if I do the extra work – research/ writing – presumably in my own time- I may get the position changed to a “proper” academic role. I’ve lost research funding for lack of institutional support and to get back on that horse would require so much extra work, I’m despairing and seriously considering staying in the TFR. Even more frustrating when I work with a bunch of non research active people sitting in proper jobs. My book came out this year and I have had no energy or support to publicise it.

    As an ECR but a late career human who has worked in the area I teach in for 30 years, I’m now so tired and frustrated I am pretty much done with trying to pursue a research agenda

    Like

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Thank you, Maggie, for sharing this experience. I’m sorry to hear that you feel the options have narrowed for your research. Am I to understand that the general context is not very supportive of research (let alone your research)? Do you feel it’s case of wanting you to be around because of teaching and holding out the carrot of a teaching/research role (but not supporting you to be a ‘whole’ scholar)? It sounds tricky. Do you have a mentor or more senior person you can talk to about this? You would be a great asset to the organisation if you were a productive teacher and researcher – might be useful if you find out if you can make a case for having research time within your role (not as a ‘hobby’) and be able to articulate a clear plan for your work so they can see what you could do if given half a chance.

      Like

    • waynelschan says:

      I had a similar situation here when I was a lecturer at the University. I remember that on the second day of work, I was invited to meet the associate head of the department for job orientation. He said I can jump to academic stream if I do research, at your own expense. At the end, I couldn’t find any space, time and support for research until I left the University and joined an NGO, where is not supposed to do any kind of academic research.

      I suggested that you need to talk to your department and see if they can offer you some time, space or even resources to support you to work on your research. Asking you to do research like a “hobby” is lame.

      Liked by 1 person

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