Young researchers aren’t boring – and if they are, it’s senior scholars’ fault!

‘Conditioning’ is partly to blame when junior researchers tone down their work, says Ciaran Gillespie

February 27, 2017
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Completely circular inter-generational bickering turned its attention away from politics momentarily this week, in order to discuss academia. Times Higher Education’s no-doubt intentionally (and now successfully) provocative article characterising young researchers’ work as boring has drawn the ire of many proudly inelegant academics, such as myself, to put paid this preposterous assertion that our work is too careful to be interesting.

But in order to be sure of the veracity of my own claims on the matter, I felt it necessary to carry out an intensely dry, hopelessly biased, navel-gazing research project.   

I diligently put together a focus group survey (read “hastily organised Facebook chat”) composed of my fellow early career researchers to see how they felt about the piece. The results are in, and they are mixed. While the study highlighted some welcome areas of agreement, there were also quite a few points of conceptual discordance.

A rudimentary content analysis of responses reflected a higher than average frequency invocation of the term “bullshit”. What conclusions can be drawn from this pattern is open for debate, but it is worth engaging in some qualitative analysis of the responses in order to determine any direction of causation between the initial article and this particular descriptive categorisation.  

First off, the innate accuracy of the claim that “young researchers” are “writing very conservative things, not sticking their neck up over the parapet” was heavily contested. To illustrate this point, one respondent described their recent experience at the annual conference of their field’s largest association, where her work on gender was dismissed by a senior male colleague as “radical” for including the (admittedly rather obscure) variable of “power” in the analysis.

Power, as I understand it, is some kind of Marxist concept that apparently maintains a small but persistent following in the more hipster-ish circles of the hard-core ECR scene. Likely a little too niche to be interesting.

Another colleague recalled how her work was rejected by a reviewer for a Q1 publication on the basis that the article was “a political activist piece, not an academic one”. Yet another colleague was told (in an otherwise glowing review) that feminist and post-colonial approaches contained “no theory”.

This speaks to a general theme of responses whereby it was felt that, far from a natural desire to be conservative or homogeneous in their research, ECRs are actively instructed by reviewers, at a stage in their careers when they are highly vulnerable to internalising personal criticism, in what type of research is acceptable (and what is not).

“Conditioning” is a term that also appeared with an above average frequency.

All respondents were keen to stress to any other ECRs or young researchers reading this article that they should be as active as possible in their postgraduate or early career research networks, in order to better contextualise such critiques and thus avoid said “conditioning” to the greatest extent possible (which, in total agreement with the underlying thrust of the initial article, all respondents felt could only help the future health of the sector).  

Secondly, while respondents were cautious of playing into the image of us “youths” as pipe-smoking fuddy-duddies who talk endlessly about methods, they could not help but point out the small sample size upon which the initial article’s claims were based. “Perhaps you attend boring conferences” posited one respondent.    

Indeed, one of the most shocking admissions by a member of the group (which came after they double checked the strict anonymity protocols for my research) was that they had, on one or two occasions, actually felt bored by the work of senior academic researchers. They even implied that many professors coasted on similar subject matter for decades at a time.

Such views are likely outliers, held only in unrepresentative fringes of the ECR community, and are reported here only in the highly unscientific spirit of provoking further response articles, attention and clicks. 

I’m loath to include a drab, introspective conclusion here but it’s almost as if the pressures on ECRs are complex and multifaceted, arising from an increasingly corporatised academic sector that is in the midst of a fundamental crisis of identity, and facing questions about its economic viability and social utility.

I’ve tried my best to strip away the more esoteric aspects of our particular theoretical response in order to make the findings accessible to the widest possible audience and stave off boredom. In its simplest terms it can be expressed as: “You built this thing, we’re just trying to survive in it.”

Yet this theory framing doesn’t preclude areas of conceptual parsimony with the initial article. Indeed, many respondents strongly agreed with the assertion that the pressure to publish is fundamentally altering ECR behaviour, instilling a quantity over quality mentality that doesn’t necessarily facilitate the production of interesting or useful research. Yet quite what the people with the least amount of power in the sector are supposed to do about this problem remains, however, unclear.

More data are required.  

Ciaran Gillespie is a teaching fellow in international politics at the University of Surrey.

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