Young academics striving to fit in reveal high anxiety

Study highlights the trials of junior lecturers feeling the pressure to perform, writes Rebecca Attwood

August 7, 2008

The pressure to publish, chasing research grants, fears over job security and concerns about "fitting in" - the trials and tribulations of being a young academic are laid bare in a new research paper.

In a series of interviews with a sample of young academics, Louise Archer, reader in education policy studies at King's College London, found that they did not define success in "careerist or instrumental terms" but saw it as achieving self-fulfilment through their work.

However, they were "regularly compelled to engage in behaviours and practices that were unrelated to - or which could even counter - their own notions of authenticity and success".

Dr Archer found high levels of anxiety over their ability to "perform" by publishing papers and bringing in research grants.

Interviewees recounted instances of "non research-active" members of staff in their department having their contracts revoked, while those who had not yet begun to publish experienced "considerable stress and pressure ... and found their academic 'worth' questioned and considerably diminished," Dr Archer writes in the paper "Younger academics' constructions of 'authenticity', 'success' and professional identity", in Studies in Higher Education.

One academic, who presented herself as a "passionate, innovative and committed" lecturer, found that the pressures in the run-up to the research assessment exercise were so intense that she began to look for work elsewhere.

"I felt I may as well jump before I was pushed," she told Dr Archer.

Another, who worked in a top-rated department at an elite university, "felt compromised by a 'greedy' and insatiable system, which renders success fragile and tenuous".

The process of bidding for research grants was often seen as "unfulfilling and soul-destroying," according to Dr Archer.

"They were highly critical of the pervasive pressure on academics to 'bring in the money' for its own sake, suggesting that this represents an 'anti-academic' ethos which is symptomatic of the attempt to make universities more corporate and 'business-like'," she writes.

Contract researchers described the insecurity of their positions and felt that they were seen as being of lower status than permanent staff.

"If you are a contract researcher you are never part of the team - people don't remember your name ... You are just here to fill a function," one said.

Many of the young academics who took part in the small-scale study felt that issues of race, class, age and gender had an impact on their working lives.

"Those who expressed the greatest doubts about their 'authenticity' as academic writers were those from working-class backgrounds," the paper says.

One ethnic-minority academic described negative assumptions being made about his literacy skills and spoke of "embedded racism", while many women drew attention to the dominance of "masculinist" practices and values. One woman felt that she would have to "trade down" to a lower status institution to progress up the career ladder.

Another said: "There has always been a bearded, middle-class, white, middle-aged man as director of every research organisation I have ever worked in, despite the majority of the staff being female. And when those women do crack the glass ceiling, they never quite make it to the top, it seems."

The fact that young academics are critical of the pressures they face could be seen as a sign of "the ongoing power and resilience of 'traditional' constructions of academic identity/culture," Dr Archer argues.

She does not believe the pressures to perform and produce are confined to younger academics.

"I would argue that the impact of new managerialism and performativity within the sector has been to render all academic identities more unstable," her paper concludes.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com

AIMING FOR SUCCESS IN THE CAMPUS CULTURE: 'I TRY TO BE POSH-ISH. AS POSH AS YOU CAN GET'

Appearances matter - including what to wear if you want to be taken seriously, according to many of the young academics who participated in Louise Archer's survey.

"The younger academic women talked in particular about how a youthful (female) appearance was implicated in their being positioned as 'novice' or 'inauthentic' academics," writes Dr Archer.

"Several of the women described deliberating over whether to dress as 'myself' ... or whether to dress 'older', 'smarter' more 'formally' (or more 'badly' (as one academic put it)) in order to appear more authentically 'academic.'"

One described dilemmas over how to dress when hosting a seminar series. "I had moments of agonising. Should I wear a suit? That is not very academic. Should I wear a flowery top and trousers? That would be quite academic, but I hate that look. So actually, what do I normally wear? Jeans and T-shirt. Why don't I wear that? Because they will think I am a student. So you are sort of wrestling with issues of presentation of self."

Another said she believed that some people "passed" as academics by the way they presented themselves or who they were seen with.

A young male academic described adopting strategies to fit in with the middle-class ethos of his department.

He said: "I try to be posh-ish. As posh as you can get. So I work on my p's and q's around them. I am quite false with them ... I use language and terms I wouldn't use outside that turf ... So there is a pretence."

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