Professor: End ‘myth’ of marginalised early career researcher

Staff who enter higher education in mid-career without a PhD are academia’s ‘proletariat’, not ‘privileged’ young researchers, says paper

February 16, 2021
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Early career researchers should not be “misrepresented” as a disadvantaged group because they have generally followed a “privileged linear path” into academia, a leading professor says.

Writing in Higher Education Quarterly, Bruce Macfarlane, professor of higher education at the University of Bristol, says the tendency to describe those who enter academia straight after gaining a doctorate – whom he calls “guild-route” academics – as disadvantaged is “largely misleading” because it “fails to take account of their privileged entrée into academia”.

“In reality, early career researchers from a guild background are anything but a proletariat,” argues Professor Macfarlane in a paper written with Alison Elizabeth Jefferson, from the University of Toronto.

Although some early career researchers do face “hardship and precarious employment”, their “insider” status allows them to benefit from “academic cronyism since they combine access to exclusive networks and the skills needed to exploit the opportunities to which these networks give rise”, the paper contends.

Instead, the authors argue that the real and “largely overlooked” issue of “academic social class” on campus concerns the treatment of “non-guild route” scholars, who begin their academic career later in life after having spent time in another profession, such as business, nursing, the performing arts or engineering.

These academics are often confined to teaching-only posts, denied opportunities to research and lack the “academic patronage” of doctoral supervisors, explains the paper.

“Only non-guild-route entrants to the academic profession can lay claim to a proletarian identity since they do not possess the built-in advantages of ‘insiderism’ enjoyed by guild-route early career researchers,” says the paper, which recommends that universities review whether they unfairly favour PhD graduates from research-intensive institutions when hiring staff.

Elite institutions should also audit the number of internal candidates they hire to tackle “academic inbreeding”, which reinforces the “bias and discrimination” faced by non-guild staff.

Given that a PhD was now the “de facto entry qualification” at many UK universities, compared with 30 years ago when many British academics did not have a doctorate, the “class divide has got worse”, the authors told Times Higher Education.

“So-called ‘ECRs’ who have obtained their PhD full-time from a top research university are part of an academic elite able to capitalise on their superior networks, contacts and know-how in a way that few from outside this ‘guilded’ route can possibly compete against. They are definitely privileged even if they claim not to be in terms of their early career economic situation,” the authors said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Academy’s outsiders are ‘late starters, not ECRs’

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Reader's comments (8)

Wait... there are people who enter academia straight after gaining a doctorate? Who are these people? In my experience academia is a pyramid scheme and PhD candidates need to be informed on Day 1 that their chances of actually getting an academic job are next to zero. I wish "academic cronyism" and my insider status had helped me. After seven years postdocing... nothing.
Excellent article - the myth needs busting. Early career researchers in the past did not have the level of support that is offered today and this did not stop the talented researchers from succeeding.
level of support?
Some profs should probably retire to make way for their younger colleagues
i do not recognise anything asserted in this article.
spot on!
I'm sure this varies by discipline, in the humanities there seems to be an over-supply of PhDs, so the idea of precarious ECRs makes a lot of sense. But I agree it can get overstated. In my field academics from a working class background almost invariably came into academia as a 2nd career, and struggle to develop a research profile.
Absolutely. Not to mention the difficulty of achieving the PhD and building a research profile while working full-time in teaching-heavy post-92 institutions. And while we're at it, the infuriating number of awards and grants still only accessible to 'young' researchers. Where are the grants and awards aimed at late-entry academics, with rent or mortgages and families to support, while everyone's falling over themselves to look after the guilded youth, who've just had years and years to do nothing but study?

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