A lot of people would agree with the following statement, “world-wide reports of dissatisfaction with academic workplaces appear to be either growing or to be receiving greater visibility in the literature.”

The careful wording attracted my attention.

 It’s from a preprint on a recent survey of Australian early career academics by Katherine Christian, Jo-ann Larkins, and Michael Doran HERE

The pre-print attracted attention in Nature. It is worth reading.

Like the authors, I can’t say if actual dissatisfaction is rising, or if the reports are increasing, or if visibility is increasing. I can tell that many early career academics are feeling pretty bad.

Survey responses include references to workload pressures, sexism in both directions, bullying, and another big one – job insecurity.

The authors acknowledge that academia has always been competitive, but here in their second paper (the first followed a 2019 survey) they argue that it’s getting worse.

I keep wondering if academia is different from other ultra-competitive professions: sport, acting, music, writing, art, politics, etc, or worse than all the dead-end jobs that limit so many talented people, who have so much more to offer.

But this isn’t the point of the survey. A better question is – can we do anything to reduce pain, now and in the future?

The survey itself is a start. It gives a voice to early career academics. This can shed light on problems and reduce power imbalances.

The pre-print suggests that we be clearer upfront about how competitive academia is.

I agree and wonder why the risks are not better known. For example, if someone is about to embark on a career in acting, pop music, art or in sport, everyone accepts that career success may prove elusive. But in academia, if you were smart at school, smart at uni, smart in your PhD and postdoc, then this enduring smartness is somehow meant to guarantee an automatic and lifelong academic career. If you don’t continue, some people seem to think that something’s gone wrong.

That’s crazy. Academia is a long shot profession. When someone doesn’t end up as a tenured professor, it is often a success of another sort, seldom a failure. If a top tennis player bows out, they often continue to be seen as successful. We need to do everything we can to celebrate the contributions everyone makes across their careers, rather than focussing on one end point.

There are other suggestions in the pre-print. For instance, that we reduce competition by admitting fewer PhD students, and that we train them for longer and more broadly, so PhD graduates are ready for diverse roles.

There will be differing views about these two suggestions.

Restricting entry to PhDs denies people educational opportunities. There would also be less research conducted overall, as the “on the job” training model is highly efficient. At its best, it benefits both students and society. Doing a good PhD is a sort of intellectual national service.

People will also question whether PhDs should be lengthened and broadened. The current project-based training already equips people with skills in project management, communication, collaboration, and sometimes other things like leadership, teaching, innovation, and entrepreneurship. It also teaches resilience and builds confidence, arguably better than many short “professional development” courses targeted at these attributes.

The paper includes discussions on related topics, such as the quality of science and questionable research practices, and suggests an academic integrity office and systematic sampling of results. I feel the latter already happens. Any important result in science is immediately built upon and we soon find out if the foundations are solid. The strength of science is that it involves re-testing all important conclusions, and is therefore self-correcting. Unimportant incorrect results may survive, but I’m not sure how problematic that is.

The authors of the pre-print are doing a service and sounding an alarm call. We should look for answers. But at the same time, we should not forget that it is the triumph of the expansion in global educational opportunities that created the hyper-competition in the first place. In the “good” old days only the wealthy and the super nerds found their way into higher degrees. Now the opportunity is open to many. Closing the door would take us back. But leaving it open means we may continue to face challenges.

We may be training more doctoral students than are needed in academia, but not more than are needed in society as a whole. Perhaps part of the answer is to keep building the connections and the pathways between universities and society. We should keep encouraging all the cooperative research centres, Linkage grants, trailblazers, industry partnerships, alumni connections, work integrated learning, career advice for graduates, and teaching into industry, to help our graduates make connections and enter the broad range of professions outside academia that also serve society.

Having more exchanges will also help everyone to gauge what pain points are unique to academia, which are shared, and instances where academics are spared ordeals that beset other industries.

Professor Merlin Crossley is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Quality at UNSW Sydney


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