Professorial Pathways: Academic Careers in a Global Perspective, edited by Martin J. Finkelstein and Glen A. Jones

Aniko Horvath considers a collection that illuminates the deeper causes of the everyday irritations of life as an academic

September 5, 2019
motorcycle pyramid
Source: Alamy

At international conferences, after the formal activities of the day have concluded, we at last get a chance to “hang out” with each other. This is the time when almost all of us will ask our academic colleagues about issues of mutual interest and concern. What is the work environment like in your university? How much autonomy do you have to shape your teaching and research agendas? Is your workload reasonable? Are you fairly compensated for your time? Are there sufficient opportunities for career advancement? And, most important, do you have job security?

As we listen to each other’s answers, we inevitably also reflect upon our own work-life balance, professional autonomy and academic freedom, as compared with academics in different institutions and different countries. However, while necessary, these questions are not sufficient. Yet, during these late-night talks, we rarely explore the deeper foundational and structural elements that need to be in place if our work is to be fairly evaluated and supported. And we almost never discuss the broader failures within academia that impede our ability to do our best and instead feed our feelings of anxiety.

These, and many more, are the issues this excellent book explores in a systematic way across 10 countries: Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, Brazil, India, China, Japan, the United States and Canada. Each chapter uses a common structure to explore diversity within national systems, with its links to the fragmentation of academic labour and the increasing centrality of research. Other issues analysed are the competitive environment in which academic work is carried out; relative degrees of professional autonomy and academic freedom; and the relative uniformity of types of institution within each country. The authors also look at the role of unionisation and its impact on job security, and many of them argue that academic relationships are becoming more unequal and dependent – almost feudalistic – with senior professors holding disproportionately high levels of power.

It is here, when we reach the systemic level, that we begin to understand our academic colleagues’ individual stories in context. This leads to a number of crucial questions. How do we cope with ideas of failure? Does “climbing to the top of the academic pyramid” represent a definition of success to which we subscribe? If academics are to reach the “land of milk and honey”, do we need to understand more fully the systemic impediments and then organise so we position ourselves as drivers of change?

What makes this well-written and very readable book unique is that it shows clearly how the crucial issues at stake are not only the subjective factors, such as where it is “better or worse” to work as an academic, but the ways in which structural imbalances increasingly shape the sector globally and reach well beyond the traditional boundaries of academia, thereby impacting on so many other aspects of the lives of individuals working in the field and beyond.

Aniko Horvath is research associate in the Centre for Global Higher Education, UCL.

Professorial Pathways: Academic Careers in a Global Perspective
Edited by Martin J. Finkelstein and Glen A. Jones
Johns Hopkins University Press
312pp, £29.50
ISBN 9781421428734
Published 16 July 2019

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