Fund or fail: the fear of a doctoral student

The new rules of academia – where researchers are valued by the funding dollars that they generate – inhibit minority background scholars and threaten universities’ accountability, says Kahlil C. DuPerry 

April 22, 2019
Man thinking with money background
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The longstanding “publish or perish” paradigm of academia seems to be dying. In its place, institutions appear to be opting for a new, market-based strategy of advancement through the ranks. No longer will the quality of my work, or even the quantity, directly dictate success. Rather, the extent to which researchers can generate external funding will. 

This shift in values reflects a change from evaluating the importance of a researcher’s work based on its novelty or intellectual breadth, to judging its worth in the capitalist free market. The implicit message in this shift is that research has little to no worth unless someone is willing to, and able to, pay for it. It’s especially problematic for researchers from ethnic minority backgrounds or with marginalised identities.  

As a doctoral student planning to seek a tenure track position, this change concerns me. The impression often given is that our research skills, and other academic related abilities (such as teaching), will be the measure by which we are judged. 

However, if you pay attention to the CVs of early to mid-career academics who are seeking full academic positions, the list of publications and presentations that they have produced has been usurped in order by the funding that their research has received, placing income over academic production.

Formerly, researchers and academic commentators have decried the idea of “publish or perish” because they believed that, among other things, it over-valued the quantity of work over the quality, created bias within results and reduced the rigour of peer review

But this paradigm shift brings about other sinister possibilities, such as granting or financial agencies censoring research or researchers influencing outcomes to secure dollars. 

Most journals require authors to disclose potential conflicts of interest and funding sources so that readers may infer whether funding sources may have influenced research outcomes. But at the same time, with public research funding decreasing, researchers are virtually forced to seek backing from external sources that have agendas.

As a young, black, hopeful academic this new method of evaluation is especially worrying. It is a poorly kept secret that researchers of colour do more work for less credit than their white counterparts. 

Their work often consists of formal and informal mentorship of students of colour, as well as supporting any diversity and inclusion offices or initiatives set up by universities. Researchers with other marginalised identities often function in similar roles with few formal rewards for doing so. With these added responsibilities, these researchers have less time to seek and secure funds from the limited number of granting agencies and other funding sources.

Moreover, my research interests lay in exploring various social identities and the strengths and oppression that come with them. When one considers that many of the available funding dollars are held by systems that are implicated in, or have benefited from, the systemic oppression called out by such research, a creative imagination is not necessary to see how funds might be harder to come by. 

Of course, there are many ways to work around these issues. More politically liberal and expansive funding sources exist, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union or other national and local organisations interested in supporting social justice work. 

These funding sources could be more actively pursued and perhaps even increased. Meanwhile, university programmes could also train doctoral students on how to find and receive funding in the same way they teach us about publishing, providing the skills necessary to be successful in this new paradigm. 

However, these workarounds are, by definition, not addressing the problem itself; they are adjustments to an unjust system. 

As a student, I don’t know what a real solution could look like, or if it is even possible considering academia will still be influenced by external capitalistic pushes for profits. I hope at least that the leaders within the institution – the president, professors and administrators – are taking time to reflect on the changing landscape and consider what it will mean for their own academic goals as well as those of the next generation.

The shift to looking at capital as the determiner of worthwhile research puts the advancement of knowledge at risk, especially the work on social justice when it conflicts with economic gains. If academia is to continue to hold systems, including itself, accountable, money cannot – and should not – be the driver.

Kahlil C. DuPerry is a PhD student in the department of counselling, developmental and educational psychology in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College

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Reader's comments (3)

Academic career progression is closely related to funding success... and this is a “new rule”...? New since when? New where? Sorry, but this article is irrelevant.
Precisely, I'm laughing my socks off. This is old, very old, news. Early 2000s at least. Full economic costing has a lot to do with it, if not everything to do with it. In England at least, papers haven't counted for much for a very long time (in areas where funding is available, primarily science/engineering) . Citations, IFs? Who cares?. Only lip service is paid to this for the purposes of REF. The key to promotion is funding, almost exclusively. Though in some cases, other criteria may be used if a head wishes to promote someone for whatever reason (usually not merit based). I've seen various reasons given (or not given), but it has been a very long time since I saw anyone who had little funding promoted based entirely on their scholarly output. Things may change though. Funding is very difficult to come by these days. Other criteria must come into play. I don't think, however, that there is even an appetite the moment to use scholarship as a measuring stick, especially given that chair/senior positions are heavily occupied by people who got there through funding successes, with weak or mediocre publication records. If anything, I can see 'teaching' taking a prominent role. There is a lot of evidence of this already.
To be fair to the author, in the US things are not nearly so extreme as in the UK. Funding is important there but not enough (from my experience) to get promotion on its own. A strong record of publications is also necessary. I guess this is down to a more rigorous process, in which several independent committees and decision making bodies are involved. Here in England, a decision is usually made by one person, followed by some rubber stamping (sometimes subject to financial quotas) to give it a veneer of credibility.

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