22 SES 07 A, Paper Session
The paper explores the question ‘How and in what ways are Early Stage Academics (ESAs) working in European universities supported and managed, both formally and informally, and what tensions and consequences surround these practices?’ By considering the tensions between, as well as the similarities and differences in, informal and formal support during athree phases of being an ESA, namely doctoral education, postdoctoral work and the initial experience of a first permanent/tenure-track academic post, the paper engages with but goes beyond current research, both on ESAs and academic careers more generally(Finkelstein and Jones 2019; O’Connor 2021). The paper also considers how to tackle some of the challenges and conditions thereby revealed, such as precarity, lack of support for academic skill development, recruitment bias and poor mental health. Much of the existing research on ESAs and other marginalised academics focuses on their experiences of gender bias (O'Keefe and Courtois 2019), race discrimination(Gabriel 2020 ), precarity (Allmer 2018a )and/or future career prospects (van der Weijden et al. 2015). These are all important topics but here a more holistic approach to ESAs is offered. It is recognised that the three phases of being an ESA may overlap for some (e.g doctoral researchers may also be teaching and working also on other projects than their PhD) and that not every ESA reaches the stage of a permanent post. Indeed, some academics, due to lack of promotion prospects, stay in entry-level posts like assistant professorships for many years, hence the concentration here on just the initial ESA experience in such roles. Offers of training in a variety of skills from research methods to more generic skills such as media work, are more commonly provided for doctoral candidates than the other two groups, though this is changing as concordats on contract researchers are developed. In addition, doctoral researchers are often more visible to their institution than postdoctoral researchers because thesis submission and completion rates are increasingly closely monitored (Dowle 2020). Postdocs, by contrast, if research oriented, may only be visible to their Principal Investigator (PI), or to their Programme Director if undertaking teaching. Those with recent permanent posts are likely to be highly visible, since they are generally regarded as a future investment for the institution. The conceptual perspectives employed include both Communities of Practice and Managerialism but this is supplemented by using an intersectional lens taking into account how different characteristics like race and gender interact (Mitchell et al. 2019), for ESAs. Communities of practice (CoPs) are a concept often applied to higher education and modelled on the notion of an apprenticeship, although much more informal, with a focus on novices learning the ‘tricks of the trade’ from more experienced people, although CoPs can also consist of just peers. CoPss can often be in tension with what university manager academics and senior administrators and HR officers offer under regimes of Managerialism (Deem et al, 2007), with performance management, targets for grants and research outputs and removal of the academic voice from decision-making often to the fore. Managerialism is an ideological, political and technical concept about how public service organisations should be organised (ibid). In higher education settings, managerialism emphasises the importance of managers and leaders over academic staff, in relation to decision-making, power relations and performance management. Managerialism has permeated European and other HE systems for some three or more decades. Tolerance of Managerialism by academics can vary by discipline and be greater in the sciences than in social science or humanities, as a recent study in Nordic countries found (Pinheiro et al. 2019)but this has not been tested elsewhere.
The paper draws upon a wide range of existing literature on academic work, academic work conditions, academic careers and doctoral education relevant to European HE. The analysis compares three different categories of ESAs: doctoral researchers, postdoctoral researchers (engaged in both teaching and research) and those ESAs who have very recently acquired a permanent or tenure track job (because they are still very new to these roles, rather than well-established staff who have not yet been able to move up the promotion ladder). It can be argued that doctoral researchers should not be included in an ESA study, as in some countries most doctoral candidates do not enter academic employment but the counter argument used here is that the vast majority of those who do enter academic roles have undertaken a doctorate. Also in much of Europe, doctoral researchers are treated as staff rather than as students. The paper compares who, both formally and informally, supports and manages each of these three groups; what attention is paid to gender (Leisyte 2016 )and ethnicity and race (Gabriel 2020 ); how wellbeing is dealt with, since mental health in ESAs, especially doctoral students, is now a significant concern (Deem 2020; Levecque et al. 2017), what positive support is available in relation to developing teaching and/or research skills, and the extent to which not only peers but also manager-academics (Deem et al. 2007) and particularly HR managers (Vandervelde et al. 2021) are a positive force for good in relation to ESAs. Alternatively are they there mainly to reinforce managerial regimes, research targets, self-governmentality, and the power of academic metrics and surveillance in connection with academic performances in research and teaching (Pereira 2017)? Whereas CoPs can range from informal networks of peers to groups containing ESAs and later career-stage staff, support from manager-academics and HR staff is invariably more formal, whether through policies on workloads, study leave, promotion and training or via regulation of activities like appointment of new staff. The analysis considers how and whether CoPs’ knowledge creation and expertise may differ from and be in tension with more managerial approaches. The paper also asks some key questions about whether some of the more problematic elements of each ESA stage, particularly precarity, absence of positive support for academic skill enhancement, poor mental health, and the gender and race bias and outflow of postdocs could be avoided in future.
The three groups are often treated differently from each other, particularly in relation to formal support and skills training, with doctoral researchers and those newly appointed to permanent posts offered the most informal and formal support. Research Postdocs can be discouraged from attending training on the grounds that the completion of project is more important to PIs than new ESA skills. Teaching Postdocs, when offered teacher training, often have no spare time in their schedule. Different criteria are used in appointing postdocs compared with permanent early career appointments (Herschberg et al. 2018 ). In relation to the challenges ESAs face, precarity is one of the most prominent and arises because of the way research is funded, using temporary labour to carry out much of the work. Fluctuations in student numbers each year also cause institutions to take on temporary teachers, with full-time academics often doing more advanced and prestigious teaching. Changing these situations in European universities would be challenging and might include using new technologies more extensively for routine work but also making some postdoc positions permanent. Positive support for all ESAs could include better organisation of mentoring and moving away from the publish or perish model, as in the international DORA agreement for HE on seeking new non-metrics driven modes of assessing research. There is also a need for more positive measures on wellbeing and mental health for ESAs, including better access to professional help, normalising mild anxiety and emphasising the importance of maintaining a work/life balance. Finally, there are still concerns with the appointment of women, and Black, Asian and minority ethnic group members to permanent academic posts, such that HR professionals need to continue to find new ways of ensuring that bias and discrimination are removed from recruitment and promotion processes.
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