A cliff is no place to start

Building an academic career is hard, but high initial hurdles and a lack of clear progression paths make it unnecessarily daunting

January 15, 2015

A career in academia is supposed to be hard work; but as they scan the landscape ahead of them – the rocky plains, quicksand and canyons – young scholars setting out into the badlands would be forgiven for concluding that it’s an even tougher journey than they had bargained for.

Writing in Times Higher Education a few years ago, a postdoc with an excellent CV who was finding it much harder than he had envisaged to progress described the disillusionment that can cause talented young researchers to fall by the wayside.

“At present, with the exception of a few stars who take the shortest path from the crib to the professor’s chair, the driving force at work in the early stages of most academic careers is attrition,” he wrote.

Of course a PhD is not a guarantee of a job. But the career structures facing new academics are often inadequate to non-existent

“The young scholars who survive are those who can eke out a living from one temporary position to another, and who are prepared to repeatedly sever social ties and move to where the work is.”

It’s not a new problem. Supply and demand will vary by discipline, but to give one example, figures quoted in Perspectives on History suggest that the number of new history PhDs has outstripped job openings for most of the past four decades.

Of course a PhD is not a guarantee of a job. But the career structures facing new academics are often inadequate to non-existent, with increasing casualisation a growing concern.

In our cover story this week, we look at how different European countries are attempting to address this problem.

Our analysis draws on a recent book, Academic Work and Careers in Europe: Trends, Challenges and Perspectives, edited by Tatiana Fumasoli, Gaële Goastellec and Barbara M. Kehm, which highlights the risk that academia is increasingly unattractive as a profession.

Embarking on an academic career is a “risky undertaking”, it says in a chapter titled “The rocky road to tenure – career paths in academia”. “In the words of one interviewee it is vital ‘not to have a need for security’.”

One way this is being tackled in Europe is through new career tracks that offer tenure at a much earlier stage – routes that link fixed-term positions at the start of a career to the senior positions that are the ultimate goal. However, the number of tenured positions remains small – too small to offer a broad solution to the structural failings identified.

The chapter also highlights other sensitivities: one interviewee warns that in disciplines that require personal maturity, a 30-year-old professor teaching 20-year-old students could be inappropriate, while another worries that “overambitious and inexperienced people will acquire junior professorships” (this hardly seems a reason not to try to give promising young scholars the security that emerging talents would enjoy in other lines of work – it is up to appointment committees to see that positions go to deserving and capable candidates).

Above all, postdocs need clarity about how they might build a career in academia; they will make their own choices about whether to pursue it, and will succeed or fail on all the factors that influence careers elsewhere, including talent, persistence and luck. At the moment, the perception is that it is too often the last of these – luck, coincidence and the patronage of an influential “mentor” – that plays the greatest role.


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