Scraps from the table?

An early career researcher shares experiences in the neoliberal Higher Education institutional setting.

Increasingly as an early career researcher (ECR), I’m finding that I’m being left with the scraps from the table. The current pandemic has only made me more aware of the precarity of my and other ECRs positions in academia. 

I felt this keenly at the start of the pandemic when I had a role as a graduate teaching assistant (GTA), and we were asked to pivot to online teaching. My full-time colleagues were equipped with webcams, microphones, Wi-Fi-dongles and so on. When the discrepancy was highlighted, the Higher Educational institutions (HEI) asked what I needed and said they would order it. However, when I followed up, I was told there were none available. This exacerbates an already trying situation; to do my job, I first had to equip myself. Spending a substantial sum to make myself indispensable as a GTA, so I could keep pace with full-time staff and maintain positive feedback from students. Honestly, as an ECR, I feel targeted by HEI as another source of income.

When I refer to the scraps from the table, these are the effects that neoliberal strategies have on ECRs careers that have been widely adopted across HEI. Neoliberal strategies are where HEI leaders focus on implementing strategies that are directed at improving income and revenue (Natale & Doran, 2012). Research has demonstrated that managing HEI through neoliberal strategies aimed at reducing cost and increasing efficiency is detrimental to staff (e.g. increasing stress and workload; for more detail, see Alvesson & Spicer, 2016) and to teaching excellence (Natale & Doran, 2012; Schapper & Mayson, 2004; Jabbar et al., 2018). 

The neoliberalisation of higher education has occurred rapidly under austerity budgets and can be seen in the increased marketisation, corporatisation, and managerialisation which has followed the economic crisis (Holborow & O’Sullivan, 2017). And, to my eyes, Covid-19 has only increased the tensions for ECRs. This might seem somewhat counterintuitive – if everything has moved to online and working from home, might we not expect that academics would have more time and discursive spaces to share ideas and research findings? 

A non-citizen?

ECRs have always faced challenges at the start of their career. Almost 20 years ago, for example, Bazley (2003) highlighted the fact that ECRs were competing for funding on an unfair field, as their competitors were academics already established in their careers. ECRs need to balance teaching demands with establishing a strong track record in research, even while on a short-term contract. Once hired, many ECRs are faced with a further challenge to their research career, as research time is diminished in favour of teaching, and supervisory support is not provided (Bland & Schmitz, 1986); indeed, Bazley (2003) reveals that ECRs are given some of the larger teaching loads, often completely prohibiting research.  

More recently, there has been growing popularity and promotion by HEI senior managers of short-term part-time contracts (Courtois & O’Keefe, 2015) as a strategy to improve income and revenue. It is also becoming increasingly difficult for graduates to obtain honorary academic affiliations whilst they seek full-time or permanent positions, subsequent to a first postdoc position. In other words, there is no stop gap for an ECR finding themselves inbetween positions of employment, as the same time as being treated as a non-citizen of the academy (O’Keefe & Courtois, 2018). This presents both practical issues (such as lack of access to a university email address and unsightly gaps in the CV) as well as moral and ethical issues for the academic field (in terms of mentorship of ECRs and their personal and professional development). 

There is also the issue of contracts ending during lockdown, with the consequence of no longer being able to access resources, lab spaces or software on campus, or the question of whether there is easy and permitted access to university library e-resources or communication software, such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom. This software is vital to successfully pivot our research from face-to-face to online or desk-based research methodologies. One third of Byrom’s (2020) respondents reported reduced access to software.

We must view these barriers with an intersectional lens of exacerbating existing physical and mental health issues. This is all in the context of ECRs perhaps being in a foreign country, unable to get home to their loved ones, or maybe even living alone or being part of an at-risk category group. With increasing tensions as budgets are tightened, the previous security provided by an affiliation with a university is no more. For example, if you are on a ‘teaching only’ contract, there are difficulties associated with using resources for networking and scholarship, rather than purely for teaching, as your value to the HEI is as a teacher, not a researcher. To contextualise this within neoliberalism, it becomes our obligation as neoliberal citizens to solve these problems with consumerism (Taylor-Gooby, 2016), by purchasing these resources for ourselves. 

A loss of the discursive spaces

With some colleagues seeking financial aid just to survive (Elliot, 2020), there is an increased demand on ECRs’ time, devoted to simply ‘making ends meet’ – whether that be through applying for jobs or for small pots of funding, or to shouldering increased burdens of departmental duties in ‘pivoting’ to online teaching. The situation created by Covid provides little time to invest in maintaining our academic careers through reading, writing and critical discussions – and these pressures appear to be impacting significantly on ECRs with precarious work prospects (Flinders, 2020; Nature Editorial, 2020; Wright, 2020). Indeed, in Byrom’s (2020) survey of ECRs and doctoral students back in April-May 2020 at the start of the first lockdown in the UK, over two-thirds of the respondents reported that, amongst other detrimental effects, the pandemic had made it difficult for them to discuss ideas with colleagues.

The key here is that such informal professional discussions are seldom scheduled and thus are rarely afforded any level of importance within the HEI management structure. The focus on working from home has meant that many ECRs have been isolated from their network – and at a time in their careers when networking has never been more important in terms of progressing up the career ladder (Pain, 2020; Woolston, 2020; Bazley., 2003). 

As an example, pre-pandemic, you might bump into a colleague in the hallway after a seminar, which leads to an informal chat on theory or research, or they might email you a paper that you perhaps then discuss whilst walking to a meeting together. These discussions are short, but often vital to ECR research and opportunities for teaching collaborations, even leading to inclusion on funding bids. Yet, from a more established researcher’s perspective, such interactions with ECRs do not merit the demands on their time and attention. As such incidental interactions are no longer visible and, given just how long days with Zoom meetings already are, these informal conversations are no longer perceived to be sufficiently important to translate into the virtual world.

The pandemic has affected everyone, but contrary to the ‘we are in this together’ discourse, it has impacted differently on the various demographic groups in academia. For example, women in STEM and also parents have been disproportionately affected by the new context of the pandemic (Cebula, 2020; Frederickson, 2020; King’s College London, 2020). For ECRs, many have lost the valuable space – physically, socially and philosophically – in which to work, discuss, and collaborate within and across disciplines. And, again, reflecting intersectionality, the pressures that ECRs are shouldering are far worse for those with caring responsibilities, such as for small children or ageing parents. The increase in pressure felt by permanent staff caused by the move to online learning and supporting current and newly-minted students in a novel online environment has also been great. However, the heroic endeavours of many ECRs delivering much the same andrological and impactful research outcomes have largely been ignored, and the precarious nature of their work – a significant focus of the recent UCU strikes (2020; see https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/) – remains unchanged. 

Creative solutions
It’s not all bad news for ECRs in academia. Our training prepared many of us for the online pivot, and, arguably, it is ECRs who are emerging as the most resourceful and creative in the move to teaching and research within the context of Covid. According to Pavlidis (2009), when individuals find themselves in precarious situations,  they can experience this as empowering, as ‘adversity capital’. This allows us to style our own versions of ‘productivity’ and ‘meaningfulness’. 

But what could this look like for ECRs teaching and researching during and post-Covid? Possibly creating our own discursive spaces. In place, for example, of my usual catch-up every Monday morning with a colleague as we arrived on the same bus, now we need to actually schedule in such exchanges. I have scheduled a once-weekly time with other ECR colleagues to discuss a recently published article.

And so, I end not with an emphasis on the financial, contractual, psychological and social pressures, but with a plea to senior management in HEIs, particularly those in charge of research funding and policy-making. Please, if you already offer research development activities for your permanent research and teaching staff – such as a journal club, book club, discussion group, seminars, assistance with bid-writing, publication writing spaces and any collaborative space for research development – open these up to your wider networks, in particular your ECRs, postgraduate researchers, and precariously placed research and teaching staff. If such activities are not currently offered in your own research domain, then I suggest combining forces with your ECRs (and even PGRs) to informally or formally start arranging these vital collaborative virtual networking spaces.  

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