Academics speak out: How institutions and academic associations can ease the “oversupply” and low morale of PGRs and ECRs

In May 2014, Professor Eleanor Dickey (University of Reading) et al conducted a study attempting to find out what can be done to alleviate the distressing conditions often experienced by postgraduates and early career researchers who are struggling to find permanent academic work. The results from the longer survey have been combined into a report of which this is an abridged summary. There were 152 responses, including 52 from people with permanent academic jobs, 45 from people with non-permanent academic jobs, 17 from unemployed academics, and 15 from graduate students. 

Professor Dickey’s findings and solutions are also the basis for the new group Hortensii

The findings of this study have been collated and edited for a general and American Studies audience by Michelle Green.

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Summary of results of a survey on the difficulties facing ECRs without permanent academic jobs

Eleanor Dickey and friends, May 2014

The problem:

The high unemployment rates and poor working conditions of early career researchers have been widely reported in the media. The most recent of these appearing last week on the Guardian’s Academic Anonymous section in an article titled “so many PhD students, so few jobs” (a more extensive list can be found in Dickey’s full report). In this survey, respondents generally agreed with this picture while providing additional nuances.

The worst problems highlighted in the study were not practical ones such as poverty and constantly moving around but rather concern morale, including:

  • uncertainty about the future (severe for all except those with primary employment outside academia)
  • the anguish of not knowing whether to give up trying for an academic career
  • the demoralization of endless applications
  • giving up one’s intellectual identity
  • constant pressure (especially for the unemployed)
  • the sense of failure
  • and the contradiction between the values professed by academia and how people are really treated (especially for those who eventually got permanent jobs).

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The academics in the study highlighted three ways of managing the “oversupply” and low morale of researchers for the future:

1) Manage expectations of the PhD at recruitment level and offer more options within doctoral programmes to reduce the number of struggling or disappointed early career researchers.

Although this will not address current problems, it could reduce future ones. These options are (from least favourable to most):

 

  •  Reduce the number of PhD places. Reducing the number of PhD places seems the obvious answer at first glance, but there was little appetite for this solution: not only was the enthusiasm very low among respondents (only 18% of respondents were supportive of this option, with no identifiable group showing significantly more enthusiasm), but many respondents commented that they did not regret having done a PhD despite their subsequent troubles.

Furthermore, an overall cut in the number of PhD places is not achievable (some programmes are cutting, but others happily take the excess applicants) and would seriously harm departments.

  • Present the PhD as general education. This again was not seen as an adequate solution (58% were supportive of this option, and the percentage was lower for current students). The basic problem is that as it stands the PhD really is pre-professional training, or at least not training for any other profession, and although recipients find it personally satisfying to do a PhD, the degree is generally not perceived as an asset in the US/UK non-academic job market, individual examples to the contrary notwithstanding. Moreover, many institutions and funding bodies exacerbate the unemployment problem by preferring for admissions and/or funding candidates who declare a desire for an academic career.

At present the PhD is not seen as a marked asset in the non-academic job market and institutions should not try to change that in the structural organisation of the qualification, but universities can nevertheless improve matters slightly by helping students present their research to non-academic audiences.

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  • Make it clearer at application stage that PhDs do not necessarily lead to academic jobs. This option received much more support ranking at an overall 64%, with 80% of current graduate students supporting this move and numerous established academics expressing strong support. Unrealistic expectations are a real problem: although some statistics suggest that only 20% of PhDs will get permanent academic jobs, 63% of respondents had expected such a job, and most of the rest had thought they might get one.

The problem varies by region and by type of institution: 94% of respondents who did their PhDs in the US had thought they would get a permanent job (100% for respondents who did their PhDs at non-Ivy-League institutions). Only 52% of respondents who did their PhDs in the UK had expected a job (60% for Oxbridge PhDs, 46% for non-Oxbridge).

  • Among other ideas suggested by respondents was that universities could create more ‘honourable exits’ from the PhD programme (e.g. some type of master’s degree that could be given to students who after several years of work decide that it is not in their interests to continue).

This might make it easier for those who are unlikely to get academic jobs to avoid investing excessive time in the PhD. Some universities already do this.

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2) Ease and support transitions out of academia

  • De-stigmatise departure from academia. Considerable enthusiasm (83%) was produced by the proposal not to brand people who leave academia as failures. Enthusiasm was highest among those with permanent jobs, particularly prominent academics (100%), and lowest from unemployed academics (66%).
Screenshot 2014-05-24 09.42.15

The study showed successful academics do not look down on people who leave academia, but struggling academics have little desire to leave.

  • Be open regarding the role of chance and timing in academic successThe proposal to achieve de-stigmatization by discussing the role of luck in academic success received only moderate enthusiasm at 60% overall. Less enthusiasm was shown from prominent academics (44%) but more with unemployed academics (75%). It could do more harm than good if mismanaged but it may be the only way to remove the intense feelings of failure and shame that appear to afflict those who do not get a permanent academic job.

The fact that luck (like merit) is a necessary pre-requisite for academic success should be publicized as a way of reducing the sense of failure attendant upon lack of success, but with great care.

  • Pro-actively support transitions out of academia. The suggestion of offering support for the transition to a non-academic career was highly rated (82% supported this idea overall, but it was less popular with unemployed academics ranking at 70%). Teaching is an obvious alternative career, and support in this direction was rated even higher than general career support (86% overall, 73% from unemployed academics). Respondents pointed out, however, that it often involves training that can be expensive and in short supply (at least in the UK). Furthermore, some subjects are not often taught in schools, and making the move from HE education to school education is drastic: researchers who are good at university-level teaching will not necessarily make good schoolteachers. Another career path that was discussed was publishing. Publishing would arguably benefit from hiring PhDs for certain jobs where research and editing expertise would be helpful, and that institutions could perhaps encourage them to do so.

Academics can and should do more here, both institutionally and via professional associations, but given the reluctance of PhDs to leave academia it will not solve the whole problem.

  • Breakdown misleading media portrayals of permanent academic work.
Screenshot 2014-05-24 09.55.51

Academics on permanent contracts often face difficulties only slightly less severe than those of academics on temporary contracts.

The media paint a picture of rich, happy permanent academics, but reality is rather different: such people often face difficulties only slightly less severe than those of academics on temporary contracts. It may be that ECRs are reluctant to leave academia in part because they have an unrealistic view of what their lives would be like if they were to get permanent jobs. However, the question of how to disseminate objective facts about the daily to yearly experience of permanent academic work still remains.

Some respondents also suggested they thought departments could expand the number of academic jobs in selective fields, whether at the expense of other Humanities disciplines or by raising the profile of Humanities as a whole. 

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3) Make it easier to maintain a connection to academia while not being employed in it

There is also the issue of ECRs with no academic job at all, since such people often desire a continued connection to the profession. Some claim that helping unemployed ECRs maintain such a connection would encourage them to remain in the job market and thereby worsen the oversupply problem, but it could also be argued that having sharply-defined boundaries to academia makes it harder for anyone to leave: to get another job is to risk being completely cut off from the world one has known.

 The most popular suggestions in this category were:

  • Persuade universities to let their ECRs remain affiliated after completion (this suggestion was supported by 82% of the respondents). Many institutions already do this to some extent. Some respondents thought there should be a time limit, e.g. 3 years after the PhD.
  • Get libraries to admit people without an academic affiliation also received 82% support; this problem is not widespread, however, so solving it will not help many people.
  • Help with unionization also received 82% support, and indeed there are ongoing unionization drives in some US universities.
  • Foster more mentoring relationships. Mentoring schemes received 77% support, however, mentoring relationships only work when both parties genuinely like and respect one another. When artificially created between people who do not see eye to eye they usually fizzle out. And when forcibly imposed they can become exploitative (in either direction): the freedom to quit is an important aspect of such relationships. 
  • Make the job-search process less painful received 76% (80% for the UK); although some respondents said they had been well treated, many complained of not even being told when they were rejected. This is less of a problem in the US, owing to an online resource that could probably be extended to other countries. Simplifying applications ranked 67%, with higher results from the UK and a score of 100% from those with multiple part-time jobs.
  • Subsidize the conference attendance of those without regular jobs (74% support), with all groups considering it a good idea. Sometimes it is already done. 73% of respondents also thought it would be a good option not to ask for affiliation for conference abstracts, but with considerable diversity of views, e.g. 88% from the unemployed and 58% from high-profile academics (again this is already done for some conferences). Trying to make conferences cheaper and more local ranked 58% overall but drew strong protests from many, especially those at geographically remote institutions or in small specialisms. Not putting an affiliation on conference nametags received only 42% support, with many respondents saying that names on tags are useful.

Conference organizers might want to consider offering an ‘unwaged’ subsidy and blind-refereeing abstracts, and the profession as a whole might want to decide that one could always claim the affiliation of one’s PhD-granting institution — but affiliations are needed on our nametags and fees to fund the conferences.

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Screenshot 2014-05-24 10.10.45

86% of responders said conditions had to be improved for early career researchers, with every identifiable group agreeing that it is important.

As a general principle, improving the working conditions of academics with non-permanent jobs received the highest rating of any suggestion. 86% of respondents said conditions had to be improved for postgraduates and early career researchers, with every identifiable group agreeing that it is important. But some respondents argued that as long as there is an oversupply of academics their labour will be mistreated. Some respondents think that any action here might just make things worse by encouraging would-be academics to remain and continue the oversupply. These respondents are not necessarily unsympathetic or hard-hearted. Should we listen to them? Is action essential? And whose responsibility is it?

Do you know of other groups or organisations who are trying to alleviate the current problems for PGRs, ECRs or the Humanities as a whole? What is the way forward? Do you think there is a fourth way, or more to say in the areas put forward by Dickey’s study? Has your institution or academic association made notable improvements in these areas? If so, please leave a comment! We would like to hear from you.

Hortensii

Hortensii is a group of people inside and outside academia who want to alleviate the difficulties facing PhDs without permanent academic jobs. (We take our name from the Roman Quintus Hortensius, who in c. 287 BC sponsored the Lex Hortensia giving civil rights to Roman plebeians; our photograph is of Benjamin Franklin, who would also have wanted to help.) We think that even given current unpleasant realities facing academia many positive steps could be taken. We welcome anyone who shares these goals and is in broad agreement with our proposed actions. At present the contact person for Hortensii is Eleanor Dickey, a Classicist at the University of Reading in England (http://www.reading.ac.uk/classics/about/staff/e-dickey.aspx). Find out more about Hortensii here: http://hortensii.wordpress.com/

About Hortensii

Hortensii is a group of people inside and outside academia who want to alleviate the difficulties facing PhDs without permanent academic jobs. (We take our name from the Roman Quintus Hortensius, who in c. 287 BC sponsored the Lex Hortensia giving civil rights to Roman plebeians; our photograph is of Benjamin Franklin, who would also have wanted to help.) We think that even given current unpleasant realities facing academia many positive steps could be taken. We welcome anyone who shares these goals and is in broad agreement with our proposed actions. At present the contact person for Hortensii is Eleanor Dickey, a Classicist at the University of Reading in England (http://www.reading.ac.uk/classics/about/staff/e-dickey.aspx). Find out more about Hortensii here: http://hortensii.wordpress.com/
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3 Comments

  1. Pingback: The Best of 2014, and What’s Next for U.S. Studies Online in 2015 - U.S. Studies Online

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  3. Best thing you can do for PhD and postdocs is get them into the idea of forming their own collaborative groups (inside or outside the University setting) to tackle some of the enormous number of problems for which their high skills are needed. Universities are run so badly that problems and issues pile up while intelligence and skill is totally wasted and frittered away. The worst downside of this solution is that many of the best young scholars will not be available to teach the next generations, but that is not their problem (present ECRS I mean). The Universities will eventually be caught out by parents and high fee paying students in their inability to plan.

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