Disillusions of an early career researcher in mass-produced academia

This piece was anonymised and certain details were omitted to avoid negative repercussions on the careers of the authors.

The summer after I defended my PhD and obtained a unanimous high distinction, I felt I was on top of the world. I was feeling a mix of excitement, wonder and a sense of being part of the prestigious world of academia. At that point, this world naively represented for me a space of intellectual freedom, independence from the free market logic and state agendas, allowing me to take a step back to analyse and shape policies and politics, rather than being shaped by them.

Within a month of reaching out to contacts and writing applications, I was lucky to stumble upon a post-doctoral position, which fit my profile very well. Although not well defined, postdoctoral positions are temporary jobs of limited duration allowing fresh PhDs to gain further experience in a new research environment and hence aims to broaden their horizons after having worked in-depth on a more specialised topic in their PhD. They also aim to prepare them for a permanent position. This opportunity represented my first full-time job in academia and it felt like I had finally obtained a key to be part of a very privileged club. Indeed, I felt I was on top of the educational and social ladder, with at hand, the highest possible academic degree and one of the titles perceived among the most prestigious in society. This job was within a very well-connected prestigious research group, with funding from a variety of national and international sources. This group is located in a university in the Global South, typically characterised as producers of data, while the institutions in the Global North take on the role of theorising. This centre in the South, which was worldly renowned, prolific and multi-disciplinary, promised to be a centre in which reflection takes place, and this made me even more excited to be part of this unique space in which knowledge and theory are produced. It looked like a stimulating and dynamic environment and a perfect place to start developing a career. I seemed to fit the job description for the role perfectly in terms of type of research, skills and topic of interest. After two interviews, one with the coordinator of the centre who had written the proposal for the project, and another with the director of the centre, I was offered the job. I was expected to be in an office (working at least 8 hours a day, 5 days a week) and performing some high-level tasks – e.g. designing data collection tools, writing reports – and some administrative work. This opportunity was a very welcome development in my career as it would help me settle, develop academic networks and gain research experience in a new country.

After a PhD journey which consisted of working as an independent scholar, doing my own PhD project during which my fieldwork took place in a country different from the one I was doing my PhD in and far from my research group (as opposed to the PhD model of working as part of a collective of other students and researchers), this new centre represented potential for intellectual exchange and a space for academic growth. I was at the height of my enthusiasm, only to find out, shortly after starting, that this centre and its list of multiple projects was in fact closer to a mass-production centre churning out projects with no benefit to academic advancement but for financial overhead (funding given directly to the host institution) and accumulation of capital. Indeed, the centre’s modus operandi was focused on continuously applying for new grants, as part of consortia, or in collaboration with other institutions (often in the Global North), which in the words of the director represented a way to obtain “more resources”. It had become the reference centre in its area of expertise and was thus widely solicited by universities and organisations for several projects. This represents an emblematic case, as I learned, among institutions in the South, which compete for external funds and whereby a few limited number of centres become recognised abroad and are commissioned most of the projects. Hence, this centre hosted many projects, which meant that, though the director of the centre was on all of the projects, his involvement was very minor. Project meetings focused on outputs (number of interviews and distribution of reporting tasks) rather than on academic exchange. It catered to external funders’ needs pragmatically, rather than setting its own research priorities and agendas. Hence, it is important to reflect upon the way research is carried out and the labour relations involved, as these directly affect the “end-product” i.e. the knowledge that gets produced in academia. Indeed, beyond concerns about the welfare of early career researchers, these labour relations in a mass-production centre have implications on the way research is carried out and thus impacts society as a whole.

Indeed, as new projects came in, the division of labour intensified. While, I was promised to be working closely in a multidisciplinary team and to be involved in all aspects of the research, it became clear very rapidly that there was a hierarchy within the team between those who would do the “fieldwork” (the early career researchers) and those who receive the data and are involved in its analysis and presentation in international conferences (the principal investigators – PIs). The early career researchers were even asked in many cases to prepare slides and select quotes from fieldwork in preparation for the presentations of the PIs. Labour became compartmentalised giving only my employer a holistic comprehensive overview; our value was decreasing and I felt slowly alienated from the output of the research project. The latter was reserved to the PIs who focus on the outputs and on authoring or, in the best-case scenario, co-authoring papers from the data generated with the hard work and emotional investment of the younger researchers.

The scholarly academic aspects of the projects fall in the background, and so does the formation of young scholars, who go unsupported with limited opportunity to be part of a dynamic academic environment. The well-connectedness of the centre and the multitude of projects did not translate into benefits for the early career researchers. My naivety and enthusiasm at the start were soon hit by reality as the team meetings started to look like a stock take of outputs and the hierarchy within the team in terms of tasks started to emerge. I started to ask questions about my own role – and who is this centre really offering value to? As I shared my experiences with other colleagues, early career researchers in other research centres, I came to realise that my experiences in terms of work conditions at the centre are shared and that exploitation of early career researchers in academia – ranging from graduate students, post-doctorate researchers to contractual researchers or non-tenured faculty on limited-time contracts – had become common practice and is often rewarded instead of being discouraged.

The wages offered to me were actually low relative to the level of my qualification, but I accepted to be underpaid with the hope that gaining professional experience will increase my chances of getting a tenured position afterwards. Indeed, it was paradoxical that after having successfully reached the highest educational level through significant investment, I found myself back at the bottom of the ladder in the field of academia. I became especially aware of how low the salary was, when I compared with those of my peers who were working in corporate firms or even in civil society organisations. In addition, while they worked on an 8am to 5pm weekdays-only schedule, my life had slowly become a continuity of uninterrupted time in front of my laptop, putting all my efforts in trying to use this opportunity to plan an escape from this mass-production centre and from the fate of precarity to ensure a more stable permanent position where I would be the PI of my own project. Despite the perceptions from the outside that working at a university is seen as secure and high-profile, in reality, this type of employment as an early career researcher guarantees a labour surplus that provides cheap, flexible labour for universities. Similarly, the universities, despite increasingly limited places in the job market, continue to accept and employ graduate students whose over-supply renders labour cheaper and increases universities’ profit.

Contrary to common belief, as the director obtains more projects and has access to more resources, the researchers do not get a fair share of the benefits. The gap that separates researchers from the director widens. My employer’s institutional affiliation grants him academic credentials and professional qualifications. Additional grants, particularly from international donors in the Global North, provide him with further institutionalised power. With part of the existing economic capital (grants), he can hire researchers in a similar manner to raw materials (technological equipment, computer, software etc.). The more he employs early career researchers, the more projects are completed, the more benefits are received by the centre, in terms of recognition, visibility in the field, along with monetary incentives for both the researcher and the institution to which he belongs. His demonstrated ability to conduct research then becomes part of the capital he detains.

My labour was turned into the required output (reports to the funder, academic publications, fulfilling obligations such as organising workshops), of which my employer takes possession as co-author or co-organiser and most importantly continues to accumulate social and symbolic capital. Through my experience, I was of course myself gaining recognition, as my affiliation with the centre was an indication of my credibility as a researcher. However, I felt I did not have ownership over data, even though intimately connected to data production through in-depth repeated interviews which I had initiated through my personal social contacts. I needed permission to use this data, and the senior researchers who barely did any fieldwork, received the translated interview transcripts and could write it up into papers. Furthermore, it was assumed that these researchers would be co-authors of a piece to which they had no relation besides having obtained its funding. This thought greatly hindered my creativity and I could no longer enjoy engaging in the research process and exploring its many horizons and opportunities, as I felt like every effort I made, every reading, every new idea was not my own but was shared with more powerful individuals who were very distant from the research. I started reminiscing on my PhD days when I had full autonomy and encouragement from my thesis advisor, a traditional scholar, whose goal was to promote and develop early career researchers for the sake of research. Now, a proportion of my work often went unrecognised. My own production was limited by the sense of alienation which I felt towards the data as I had lost significant amount of intellectual property.

My employer himself may have been an early career researcher, but today he is a well-established full professor, a leading figure in his field. Today, chances are slimmer to become tenured given the changes in the model of the university leaning towards contracting teaching and lower research expectations from adjunct faculty, especially in the light of the surplus of doctorates. According to the funding office of the university I was rarely able to apply for projects independently. Indeed, except for a few fellowships aimed at early career researchers, most programmes require a permanent position in an institution, whether for career starting grants, or to be part of the multinational consortia. Consequently, and as some of my work went unrecognised, I was not able to establish a track record of my own and had to resort instead to other mechanisms such as collecting my own data on a project I had put in place in parallel in order to have free rein on publications. This meant that I was working two simultaneous jobs and I had totally burnt myself out.

I feel it is important to share these experiences in writing to start a conversation about how to create a place in which academia could preserve the excitement of early career researchers, as the one I felt upon graduating from my PhD. This piece aims to contribute by creating awareness, firstly among precarious early career researchers, that this model is common, that they are part of a hierarchy and that this system needs to change. Secondly, it aims to raise awareness among the senior researchers themselves, who may be unaware of their own exploitative practices. In some cases, they might have good intentions but find themselves caught in a system in which sources and mechanisms of funding lead to competition for funds and need for exploitation. This awareness would be a first step in thinking of a fairer system, nipping the problem in the bud among recently established researchers and opening the floor for discussion. General awareness at all levels, from the early career researcher to the established one, is the only way to start transformative change and preserve the idea of research and knowledge production that is not driven by market forces and monetisation and all its detrimental effects on early career researchers. One question should thus be: how can we achieve the goal of obtaining projects, doing collective research and training future researchers without falling into the trap of capital accumulation and exploitation? The answer lies in creating a culture that values an equalitarian and supportive environment and in targeting the more established (tenured) researchers to make a change starting with their own work environment and their own research teams to set a good example. Otherwise, mass-produced academia will inevitably lead to a deterioration in the quality of academic research, with a detrimental impact on society at large.

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