Early career academics need more than patronising advice and vacuous assurances

Those lucky established academics who want to help precarious colleagues would do better to pay for their lunch, says Sarah Burton

July 24, 2019
Source: Getty (edited)

The rising level of concern about precarity and casualisation in academia is heartening. Clearly, a sector that relies on the exploitation of part-time, hourly paid and fixed-term early career academic (ECA) employees desperately needs reform, and it is encouraging that even permanently employed colleagues have begun expressing concern.

Nevertheless, I am not alone among my ECA friends in having come to dread these colleagues’ increasingly frequent Twitter threads dispensing advice to us on job applications.

Behind this, arguably, are many good intentions, yet the tips are frequently well known and can feel extremely patronising. Often they are also impractical – offered by people who have not faced precarity for many years and are unaware of the current experience of applying for academic posts. Moreover, their advice is usually deeply conservative and only perpetuates a broken and unequal system. 

Frustrated at the latest batch of such threads, I recently tweeted my own recommendations on how “secure” academics can better support ECAs.

First, money matters. Where possible, pay for our drinks and dinners at academic events, and make room in your departmental budget for hourly paid and teaching-only staff to access research funds. However little money you have, precarious ECAs have less. Many in formally non-research-active posts have to pay out of pocket for conferences, fieldwork and materials – even though they must continue to research and publish if they are ever to land a permanent role.

Next up, be mindful that while ECAs are bearing the vulnerability of precarity, we are also skilled, knowledgeable, competent adults. Treat us as intellectual equals and take us seriously when we have perspectives on academia that differ from yours. Conversely, make sure your department provides information and support for ECAs going through their first internal research excellence framework or module assessment questionnaires. Apart from breaching our overdraft limits, being patronised, infantilised and dismissed are probably the most common ECA experiences.

Academia is built on social networks, so invite ECAs as guest speakers for seminars and symposia, and offer us career-building positions, such as those on editorial boards. Former supervisors play a big role: check in on your previous doctoral students and offer to collaborate on publications, grants and events. Don’t rely on our contacting you. We spend a large portion of our time asking for things – it’s a constant hustle for mentorship, funding crumbs, teaching and references – and we get shy about going to our senior colleagues again and again. So take on some of that and approach us instead.

Do it on an everyday level, too. Make us feel welcome in your department by asking us out for lunch or coffee (you’re paying), calling round our office for a chat, and learning our names and research specialisms. It’s hard moving to a new institution every year, so be aware that we’re exhausted by the social side of it. Extend this widening of the social network to your writing and cite the work of ECAs as well as the Big Names.

Think, too, about how you can be part of dismantling structures of precarity. Can you lobby for job specifications that enable ECAs to meet all essential and desirable criteria, or argue for changing that hourly paid role into a salaried one? It’s not that ECAs don’t know how to play the “permanent contract” game, it’s that the culture of competition and ranking skews hiring practices, making it impossible to get on the playing field in the first place.

Finally, we also need to consider how we relate across generations and stages of privilege and precarity. Although well meaning, telling a struggling ECA that they will “get a job eventually” or that they shouldn’t “give up” is extremely unhelpful. Our fears are reasonable and these salutations undermine them. Moreover, they also erase what it means to be casualised by reducing a material, structural problem to one where we as individuals just have to wait it out.

I know that many permanently employed colleagues don’t feel secure in their jobs either. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that there is a material, economic and status hierarchy, with permanent academic staff at the top and, at the bottom, those ECAs working multiple insecure, hourly paid contracts (while also completing numerous job applications).

In between are privileged-but-temporary early career scholars like me. It’s been over a year since I last applied for a job and it will likely be over a year until I have to apply for the next one. Applying for jobs is work, and I’m lucky that this period of settledness lets me focus my energy on research.

We forget our privilege when it becomes our norm, but it is important to hold it in mind when we’re discussing precarity. I know I have more career privilege than lots of my ECA friends, and I also know that – however bad things are – my permanently employed friends are better off than me. Precarity hurts us all; genuine collegiality is how we challenge it.

Sarah Burton is a Leverhulme early career fellow in the department of sociology at City, University of London. Her research areas include political sociology, expertise, knowledge production and neoliberalism in academia.


Print headline: Money matters for the insecure

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Reader's comments (5)

'Skilled, knowledgeable, competent adults' don't beg others for coffee...
There are lots of important points for securely employed academics to take away from this. However, what I see in this are many implicit assumptions about securely employed academics. Namely, the idea that a securely employed academic should pay for coffee and lunch for an ECA assumes that the securely employed academic is well-off enough to be able to do this. While the securely employed academic may well earn more than the ECA, this doesn't take into account their wider financial situation. A securely employed academic might be paying off longstanding debts; may have children with additional needs that carries financial implications (e.g. regular hospital visits where parking can cost a bomb); may be financially supporting impoverished parents; may be paying through the nose for commuting to their secure job because the academic job market means working close to home isn't possible. This may well leave the securely employed academic with less disposable income at the end of each month than the ECA.
@Professor Plums, how dare you suggest that ECRs do not have a 'wider financial situation'? Children, parents, commuts, working far from home, and (student) debt? I strongly suggest you contemplate the term privilege.
I'm not suggesting that ECAs don't also have wider financial constraints. What I'm suggesting is that it's unreasonable for an ECA to assume a securely paid academic will be in a financial position to be able to buy them lunch or coffee. I gave examples of the sorts of financial constraints securely employed academics might have (which ECAs might have too, of course) which might lead them to be unable to pay for someone else's coffee or lunch.
I find this debate a bit ridiculous, to be honest. Not all ECAs are skint and not all securely paid academics are well off.