In 2010 an excellent, if a tad bleak, article appeared in The Economist describing the state of modern day academia: The disposable academic. If anything, things are worse now. Academics who have recently ‘made it’ into the prized tenured positions need to be honest and forthright with research newbies and potential PhD students about the realities of the current academic ecosystem.
The reality is this: in the academic ecosystem PhD students are the plankton. They are the stuff on which the rest of the system relies for sustenance. PhD students carry out the research that the senior permanent staff oversee but no longer have time to do. Many PhD students don’t make it to the next level of the ecosystem. Many drop out, because a PhD is an exercise in endurance which is too long, isolating and frustrating. Those who complete their degree move into the next level of the ecosystem – they become the bottom feeders.
The bottom feeders are contract researchers. Depending on the system, you can exist as a bottom feeder for your entire academic ‘career’. You rely heavily on the processes and higher entities in the greater system for funding your salary and finding research projects to work on. The system dictates that you must pay your way, work hard for a meagre salary, publish extensively, and fight with the other bottom feeders for money, results, data…
Few bottom feeders evolve towards the next level: the higher swimming fish. These are the mid-career researchers who have obtained a permanent job. Above them are the bigger fish, the sharks and the mammals.
As stated in The Economist, it’s down to basic supply and demand. And for good reason, being a higher swimming fish is pretty nice. Relative to other jobs, in academia you have a lot of control over your activities. You can determine the direction of your teaching and research. You get paid to think. So everyone wants to be a permanent, tenured academic. The problem is that there simply aren’t enough jobs, no matter how brilliant you are.
Most of the academics who trained me as a young researcher did not have to contend with these issues. They were all brilliant, most often they were rebellious, non-compliant, awkward and intellectually rigorous. They came into academia when PhDs were far less common, they were exceptional to start with. Countless times I heard the same old spiel from the senior generation of academics: “you’ll be badly paid, overworked, and exploited, but you’ll make it in the end”. It is a line delivered with a knowing smile, because what we do, here in academia, goes above and beyond pay cheques and job security. This quirky adage holds no credence these days coming from those who never battled their way up through the present ecosystem, who never spent years, even decades on temporary contracts.
It’s the mid-career academics who have come through the system more recently who owe it to new and aspiring researchers to be honest about the harsh system. They also should feel a burden of responsibility to change the system from the inside. Elsewhere in an articulate blogpost on this subject, it has been argued that it is not in the interest of permanent staff to risk losing PhD or contract staff by telling them about the realities of the system. Maybe this is true, but I think it is a cynical view of tenured academics. I don’t think that they are maintaining a culture of silence to keep a flow of unsuspecting students or researchers knocking at their door. Quite simply, it is easy to forget what life was like as plankton or as a bottom feeder when you’ve evolved into a higher fish. But it’s time for that to change.
There needs to be an honest reality-check when discussing or promoting an academic career to young researchers. The fact is that they are unlikely to make it as career academics with a permanent job. This should not be delivered as a jokey commentary implying that doing a PhD is about more than earning money and having a stable job. To most people starting a PhD in their 20s, it is easy to laugh-off such comments. Another incentive to change the system, besides honesty, is that it breeds unfavourable behaviours. The competitiveness expected of contract researchers in the system today means that those least likely to behave altruistically and act benevolently towards PhD students coming up are increasingly going to get the prized permanent jobs. They are the ones willing to fight it out, to persist in the harsh waters. So in the end, we’ll end up with nothing but sharks at the upper end of the system, which is in no one’s interest.
I am one of the disposable academics described in the article. I have been involved in research for 14 years, carrying out a PhD, and employed as a contract researcher for that entire period. Now, my time at the bottom of this great ecosystem is coming to a close. Within the next 15 months I will either evolve up or move out…
I won’t be recommending research as a viable career, whether I exit or remain in the ecosystem. I will have serious and candid conversations with potential PhD students and contract researchers before seeing them offered meagre salaries that are difficult to sustain. Would I have done a PhD and started out as a researcher if someone had warned me? I think so. I don’t regret it either. But, I think people should know that they will be a disposable entity in the vast academic ecosystem where evolving up the food chain is unlikely. And I for one, don’t want to swim in waters full of circling sharks.
References & related articles
Why women leave academia and why universities should be worried (feimineach.com)