State of the Academic Industry – porosity, independent research and non-university research careers

November 27, 2009 — 2 Comments

I’ve been following the State of the Industry twitterstream over the past couple of days and keeping an eye on the comments at Mel Gregg’s article at New Matilda.

It’s an issue that resonates with me, having left academia about 18 months ago. I’m still resolving how I feel about the situation – I didn’t leave as a principled stand on the exploitation of early career academics, I mostly just wanted to get my hands dirty as a practitioner – but Mel’s points about the treatment of ECRs rings true. One point that I want to address though

The contradiction at the heart of today’s universities is the expectation that employees will uphold the ideals of scholarship in tandem with commercial values, and that they will do this in every area of their working life except pay. Is it any wonder that our peers are leaving for other professions?

For starters, I think this misses that it’s not a dichotomy of academia – other careers, and it’s not a dichotomy of poor pay – better pay. I feel that my academic work feeds my media practice, and vice versa. I feel my studies have contributed to my political policy work, and my policy work feeds back into my academic work. I anticipate returning the academy some day, and I still do academic research now. I have always considered my self a researcher-practitioner. I have worn many hats, and worked for many organisations, but I don’t feel that I’ve ever left the profession. On a personal level, I feel attachment to many different areas of work. I want researchers to come and infect other professions with their approach. They don’t have to make a career out of it, but a bit of cross-fertilisation is good for everyone.

Valuable academic work can come from outside the academy, and can come from within the corporate world. While universities may trade on the fantasy (and it has always been a fantasy) of the purity of the academy, career academics can reinscribe this fantasy by not acknowledging the validity of academic endeavour in other industries. I find it amusing when academics who decry researchers who work within the corporate world as inevitably tainted by the structural pressures of business then defend hoary old cultural studies tropes with reference to disproven psychological models, ascientific garbage, misunderstood statistics and even horoscopes. Good research comes from many different areas, as does poor, compromised and tainted research.

Similarly, the point about pay is a little problematic. I get paid less now than I would as an ECR – probably not quite as low as a sessional academic – but I feel that my work with EngageMedia is more valuable to me. A lower pay-packet is the trade-off I accept to work on a project I genuinely love. While the well-worn trope of universities as removed from the ‘real world’ is inaccurate in many respects, it rings true for me. I like research-oriented and reflexive practice in my work, I find straight research a bit suffocating. (I should also point out that QUT – where I have done the bulk of my research – is actually marvellous in this regard. The YouDecide2007 project was a great example of the kind of work I like to do.)

I could be doing academic work and earn more – hell, I could do corporate work or political policy work and earn a bucket more – but I value my independence and autonomy more than a bigger pay packet.

Certainly, ECRs should get paid commensurate with the work they do. However, there’s a bit of a tension here. Should universities step back from commercial values, and accept that ECRs won’t get what they can command in the marketplace? If we demand higher salaries to prevent researchers leaving for the corporate world, does that mean we should expect the ROI expectations and overwork that corporate work entails? Mel notes that 100% of the workers at Sydney Uni work on weekends, but this is a problem everywhere, and corporate level remuneration is unlikely to reduce that level of overwork.

Should universities move towards paying ECRs higher, headhunting and using a corporate approach? As Alex Burns notes in the comments, universities are already headed down this path:

Many positions are not openly advertised – rather, Faculties may attend conferences or look to ‘strategic hires’ to build up their reputation in specific fields. You can see this on university HR sites, in the change plans for Faculties and Schools, and in head-hunters who attend conferences to find out who is the emerging talent.

Certainly, there should be reforms around workload, the misuse and underpayment of sessional academics, and increased public funding of research. But ECRs should also broaden their horizons a little. Ultimately, academia, like any job, involves a level of self-promotion, jostling for position, strategic career moves and career changes. We should fight for fair pay, but if I have to choose between a move towards headhunting, cross-career fertilisation and the associated politicking that may come with it, and a return to a self-mythologising ‘pure’ academy, I’d have to go with the former.

You can be a researcher, an informed practitioner, a contributor to public discourse in many fields, and retain as strong a dedication to research values as any university-based researcher.

2 responses to State of the Academic Industry – porosity, independent research and non-university research careers

  1. 

    Nice one, Barry!

    More professional development work has to happen with postgrads preparing them for working in industry.

  2. 

    Barry, good to continue the conversation! I have a lot of resonance with this stuff. I have broad agreement, so let me start a fight instead:

    “Hoary old cultural studies tropes with reference to disproven psychological models, ascientific garbage, misunderstood statistics and even horoscopes”.

    First off, there is basically no cultural studies now that isn’t deeply parlayed into the creative industries model. There’s a few holdouts here and there, but essentially you are cultural studies. The media arts elves like me have gotten on our boats to the east. You, personally, are more identifiable as cultural studies than the above. I don’t think thats a stretch in the least though I’m sure you’d be horrified to hear it.

    Second, as someone who uses disproven psychological models, ascientific garbage, misunderstood statistics and horoscopes in my work, I’d like to point out that it is the most superstitious and flowery of my writing that has gained me the most traction inside industry. My three peak industry contact moments were themed around 1) horoscopes 2) octopi and ghosts and 3) glam rock. The idea that I might go and perform sober research with industry people isn’t bad because it would inherently taint the research – far from it. In my case, they don’t even want it – and make fun of the academics who do (oh my, how they laugh.)

    I just want to drill down to this idea of “academics who decry researchers who work within corporate world as inevitably tainted by the structural pressures” because I think this is important. Again, this description fits me. But, to be fair, I love decrying – I’ll decry my own shoes on a good day. There are a fair few people in media, cultural and policy work now who think both (to generalise in the same way you did) cultural studies and creative industries approaches are essentially indistinguishable. We can’t of course admit that to those who are still fighting tooth and nail, but generally, younger people beginning PhDs now (or MAs, or younger) are rolling over good cultural studies knowledge together with creative industries practicalities without ever really thinking where they fit – because most degree programs in the area have both. So what are we going to do with this discussion then?

    Finally, as I said in response to comments on the original piece; the push by Universities to replace hoary old cultural studies with super cashgun WOW creative industries is likely to be changing the types of people who come into research environments quite a bit.

    I, like you, think thats probably largely a positive. Even though some consultancy-driven academic practice is, lets be generous and say, mind-bendingly harmful to both academy and industry – the flipside is that core activity done by highly trained people (such as yourself) is showing new ways of working and engaging bodies outside the campus – even if for you that has meant staying outside but still working.

    But by no means is this a neutral apolitical shift, and this is the one thing that people across the spectrum are intent on never discussing. “Cui Bono”, because its not always the usual suspects.

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