A career is defined as an occupation, one that is based on a sense of direction. A career is supposed to be an expression of a ‘life’s work’. In this sense, academics form a relatively privileged group, because they have the opportunity to exert at least some measure of control over their working life. The academic has, nonetheless, to make a career, often in the teeth of determined opposition. All individuals experience adversity, to a greater or lesser degree, but in our profession the solution is not necessarily to invest all one’s time in activities such as networking. The core value of the whole activity is the work, and ultimately this is all that should count.
Although I was meant to be speaking on behalf of Early-Career Researchers as a whole, I was aware of my own good fortune because, unlike many of my colleagues, I was lucky enough to secure employment shortly after passing my Viva nearly two years ago. Now, as a full-time Lecturer, I work with other Early-Career Researchers, most of whom are still completing their PhDs, and I can see that they are facing the same questions and uncertainties that I myself encountered. They are bound to wonder: what will happen when I finish my thesis? Will I find a job? Where will I have to move? What other opportunities might I have, what challenges must I face, and what sacrifices will I have to make, before I can gain, at least, some sense of security?
Nobody could answer these questions for me when I was a PhD student, and even when I passed my Viva, I still didn’t know what was going to happen next. These feelings are still so fresh in my mind that I wish I were able to shed some light on these questions for those who are going through similar issues at the moment. Unfortunately, I do not have the magic formula for them. The best I can do is to advise them to get as much guidance from those around them. My experience is limited, in one sense, because I cannot talk about the changes that the academy has undergone, or describe the differences in our field today, as compared to the situation thirty years ago. I can only talk to them about what, in my experience, has been helpful.
I know, however, that the sense of uncertainty that I mentioned is not exclusive to Early-Career Researchers. All of us, to a lesser or greater extent, experience this feeling at some point during our careers. At Departmental or School level, there is the long wait for decisions to be made; the doubts expressed about the strength of student recruitment; the worry over NSS results; the endless speculation about the quality of REF scores; and the anticipation of funding decisions that could make or break a Project. The same questions keep rising to the surface. Will that journal article receive good reviews? Will my book proposal convince the publisher? And, in so many cases, will my fixed-term contract become permanent?
We can perhaps all agree that academia is a turbulent place nowadays, but it is much more so for those trying to enter it. The challenges, the doubts, the conflicts, are all the more daunting for those who are new and lack the experience and inside knowledge to function in this environment. In addition, precarity is not just a fashionable term, or one that should be used simply to advance individual interests. Precarity means working endless hours, often poorly paid, or even unpaid. It can mean getting paid only during term time, juggling several jobs while also doing research and, even worse, it means not being sure whether you will make enough money for the rent. Precarious employment means not being able to make plans beyond the next three months, and knowing that this will have a significant ‘impact’ (if we can still use that term without irony) on your life plans and your family.
Precarity is not, therefore, just a fashionable term. It is an attempt to describe the array of circumstances that affect many Early-Career Researchers, and the very real circumstances that force people to make difficult, often painful, choices. Early-Career Researchers who submit perfectly good abstracts to take part in a conference, and have to turn it down because their part-time hours do not stretch enough to cover the added expenses of travelling, is only one example of this condition. It is not only the financial impact: it is also, very importantly, the loss of access to opportunities. Opportunities which are available to those who manage to jump into the skipping rope, but not to those who are left outside queuing up.
There is something that makes this issue even more problematic: the fact that these ‘precarious’ working conditions are often disguised as fantastic opportunities to earn some extra cash and, perhaps more importantly, to gain experience. Gaining experience means, in reality, doing whatever becomes available, without having much choice, to the extent that refusing work is often not an option. I remember celebrating when I was given an extra hour of teaching, or 20 extra essays to mark. When the permanent members of staff got research or maternity leave, that was good news for me. I hoped that I would be able to cover some of their work, because it meant I would have more hours.
Meanwhile, the PhD has become increasingly like a professional qualification: yet, even during that process, it is quite important to be engaged in additional activities in order to gain the expertise that is expected at the end of it. As we all know, the PhD alone is not enough to get a job these days. The list of essential and desirable criteria in job specifications has become longer, and even when you think you tick all the boxes, you are still not sure that you have done enough.The AHRC and the British Academy have recently announced the results of a survey which highlights the issues faced by Early-Career Researchers in the Arts and Humanities, particularly in the period immediately following doctoral study. This study includes aspects such as the diversity of roles, opportunities, employment, and their needs and aspirations at this crucial stage of their careers. According to this study, many Early-Career Researchers are on fixed-term contracts and 92% of those surveyed expressed concern at their career development and the prospects of achieving a permanent position.
Evidence from this study also shows that 71% of Early-Career Researchers on a permanent contract had previously held a fixed-term contract, and a quarter had held three or more. This seems to suggest that, in some cases, short-term posts are a pathway to permanent contracts, yet it is also seen as the key to getting a better type of contract in the future. There is also pressure to organise conferences, to give papers, sit on the Board of journals, publish world-leading outputs, think about impact, engage in Knowledge Exchange activities, secure funding, and so on. Add this list of requirements to the everyday challenges of academia and what we have is a growing body of researchers who really need support and guidance. For this reason, I would like to take this opportunity to emphasise the need to develop appropriate channels and spaces to provide this much needed mentorship.
The MeCCSA Postgraduate Network, which I chaired for a couple of years, does a great job organising events for postgraduate students and Early-Career Researchers, including workshops where they can hear useful tips from more established academics. This is not only true of the UK. Organisations such as the IAMCR also have Emerging Scholars Networks which fulfil similar purposes for Early-Career Researchers around the world, including a Mentorship Programme which matches mentors and mentees according to research interests. However, having coordinated this Programme for a couple of years, I have observed that mentees’ motivations to join it are not exclusively concerned with specific areas of research, but are also driven by the desire to seek more general advice on their careers and to make sure that they are doing the ‘right’ things. Programmes like this, however, depend on the willingness and availability of more established academics to participate and to volunteer their time and knowledge.
Of course, Universities also offer formal training courses for PhD candidates, covering a wide variety of topics such as generic workshops on employability, delivering presentations, research ethics, publishing and teaching as a postgraduate student. These courses are, to a certain extent, useful, but students are often left to wonder how to go about applying that knowledge and skills to their own disciplines and research. It is vital, therefore, to design these courses bearing in mind what the students need, and to answer their questions and to make the advice as specific as possible to their field of enquiry.
At the beginning of this piece, I wrote about being in a privileged position, considering the current state of the academy. I am also privileged, in a way, to have seen how the ‘system’ actually works because, as someone from another country, I could observe the customs, behaviours and internal politics associated with departmental life in the UK. An outsider learns a great deal about those day-to-day processes, which so often stand in contrast to the declared values of individual institutions.
In many cases, the individual researcher has to learn through their own observation. The specific experiences that people acquire in a given institution, and in a given Department, will colour their thinking and affect their career trajectory. So, in the end, we must acknowledge the varied experiences of a very mixed group of Early-Career Researchers, who might share some of the same issues, but who have different experiences in terms of access to work, career support and Departmental opportunities. This has also implications for the ways in which Early-Career Researchers develop their identities, relationships and attitudes as academics.
Inclusion in Departmental or School activities is essential, but it seems to be lacking in many cases. PhD candidates, for example, tend to cover significant amounts of contact time with undergraduate students. They also mark student work, offer tutorials and provide individuals with advice and specific suggestions to improve their assignments. In other words, they know the students well. However, more often than not, PhD candidates are not invited to Exam Boards or Staff-Student Liaison meetings. Doctoral students undertake a lot of work which then becomes invisible. Not only is it important for future Lecturers to know what an Exam Board looks like, but it is even more crucial to give them that space, that acknowledgement, that sense of being involved in what’s going on, exactly because they are (an unacknowlegded) part of it. We know that PhD students are in an ambiguous position, because they are not undergraduates, and yet are not full-time members of staff. They are, however, academics in the making, and it is important to overcome the barriers between permanent colleagues and Doctoral candidates whenever possible.
For the PhD student, there are always a number of formal opportunities to pursue, but the most useful things I learned came from holding informal conversations with people who were able to give me the benefit of their experience. One piece of advice still stands out: a colleague told me that one needs to be resilient, because the actual process of establishing a career is based on a lot of negative experience which has to be overcome. I was only starting my PhD when an experienced member of staff in my Department warned me that you need to have a thick skin in academia, because we are all exposed to rejections and criticism at every turn. Her words stuck with me since then. Even though this was not a planned meeting or a formal workshop, it was perhaps one of the most useful bits of information I have been given since I decided to become a researcher. It certainly helped to put things into perspective, and to know what I could expect. She also told me that there isn’t much money to do research in our field, and that the job is not that well paid. I didn’t give so much attention to this part, so I went ahead anyway.
On reflection now, there have been tough moments, but also very rewarding ones. The best periods are the times when one sees the connection between the different aspects of the work, and how one line of enquiry leads to another. I began the process of research – as many people do, without perhaps realising it at the time – with an undergraduate dissertation that used content and critical discourse analysis to examine the news coverage of the Madrid bombings of 2004. During my undergraduate degree, it was, in fact, the undergraduate dissertation that I most enjoyed doing. My dissertation also opened the door to the next thing: I was awarded a scholarship to do a Masters degree. I had thoroughly enjoyed writing my final-year dissertation and now I had the opportunity to go deeper into my research. I completed a comparative analysis of the Madrid bombings and the London attacks of 2005. This MA scholarship really opened a door for me, which highlights the importance of providing similar opportunities to our undergraduate students and to help them develop their potential.
It was during the MA that my supervisor first suggested that I should do a PhD. I liked the idea of doing it and setting myself the challenge. I was certainly enjoying the MA, but at that point I wasn’t sure. Life was interfering, there were questions about what to do, where to live, and family issues. I finished my MA and graduated. I had a job which I did not want to do much longer, but it was paying the bills. It was a full-time position in Customer Services, working for an energy supplier every evening from 4pm until 12.30am. This job had paid my way throughout my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. This is also when the ‘credit crunch’ happened, so I thought I was lucky to have a job, and to have completed a postgraduate qualification doing research that I loved.
After graduating, a few weeks went by and, one day, I went to see my supervisor and I said something that neither of us has forgotten: “I miss doing research”. I distinctly remember his look of incredulity after I said this. “You miss doing research?” It was evident what he thought when he heard those words. I was thinking it too. This was one of those key moments in life that seem to define everything that happens afterwards. I started writing my application to register for a doctorate and, once accepted, I began the PhD, still supported throughout by my evening job. Later on, the part-time hours started pouring in. I did these in the mornings and afternoons, meaning that the PhD research had to wait until the weekend. For the PhD candidate and the Early-Career Researcher, there is no work-life balance: there is just a lot of work, sustained by great amounts of determination and, if you are lucky, by a support network. My support network was small, but it proved to be essential: my family, some external colleagues, and three or four academics in my Department who always had time for a chat when I needed it, and who always had me in mind when any opportunities came up. I said at the beginning that we often have to deal with adversity and opposition, but it is thanks to the support of these full-time colleagues that I was able to move forward.
The field of Media and Cultural Studies is the thing that all of us have in common, whatever stage of our career we have reached. Media Studies has always made an informed critique of public communication in order to improve accessibility and democratic accountability. Inside the academy as a whole, however, the apparent commitment to these ideals is sometimes less in evidence, because there is some distance between the goals we declare and the behaviour that is supposed to be necessary to establish and maintain the individual academic career. One thing would certainly improve the life of the Early-Career Researcher: not only the secure employment that I mentioned earlier, but also the sense that academic conduct was a little closer to the ideals expressed in the journal articles and book chapters that address the social problems that lie behind media coverage of events. When we are wearing our Media Studies hat, we must be consistent.
I have talked above about the exclusion and invisibility with which many Early-Career Researchers have to deal. Let’s seek ways in which we can include these colleagues more effectively in the life of our Schools and Departments, in order to create more opportunities for development. Let’s develop mentorship strategies that work within our Departments, with the resources that are available, to help those researchers to face the challenges that lie ahead. Let’s have conversations to discuss what Early-Career Researchers need, and let’s involve them in those conversations, because they should of course be at the very centre of these efforts.