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CRIT-GEOG-FORUM  March 2014

CRIT-GEOG-FORUM March 2014

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Subject:

Re: PhD surplus and post-doc deficit

From:

Kurt Iveson <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Kurt Iveson <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sun, 2 Mar 2014 06:49:58 +0000

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (356 lines)

Hello all,

Thanks to Andrew for starting this discussion, it's a really important one
and no doubt a tough one to raise when you're in the middle of such a
difficult period of job-seeking.

In response to the points in the original post about the precarity of the
academic labour market, some (including Libby below) have made a point
about the necessity of collective action. Having just been involved in
organising a long industrial campaign here at the University of Sydney,
I'd like to respond with a little story about what we managed to achieve
here on the issue of academic labour for recently-completed PhDs.

At Sydney Uni, as across Australia, casualisation of academic labour has
been a big issue for several years. Universities have become increasingly
dependent on casual labour for both teaching and research -- with all the
nasty effects on recently-graduated PhD students that Andrew and others
have pointed out.

The National Tertiary Education Union has a strong and increasingly active
Casuals Network, both nationally and also at our Branch. In the
recently-concluded round of 'Enterprise Bargaining' at Sydney (here,
working conditions are negotiated every few years at the University
scale), our Union sought to address the issue of casualisation through a
couple of key claims for the position of two new types of entry-level
academic positions - Scholarly Teaching Fellowships and Early Career
Development Fellowships. The national Casuals Network in the union was
crucial in developing these claims. (A short and embarrassing little video
explaining these claims can be seen at
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQZuNd8nJ-s)

In the case of Scholarly Teaching Fellowships, we demanded that the
University 'convert' a significant percentage of teaching that is
currently performed by casuals into full-time, permanent positions. We
also demanded that these positions only be open to people who had not
already had permanent employment in the higher education sector, to ensure
that recently-graduated applicants were not competing with people who had
already built up a massive portfolio of publications via post-doc
positions etc. 

We won this claim, and the University will be creating a minimum of 80
Scholarly Teaching Fellowships and 40 Early Career Development Fellowships
during the life of the current agreement. Yay! This is the first campus on
which our union has won this claim in Australia, and we're hoping it will
have a flow-on effect...

Winning was not easy ...  the campaign lasted over a year, involving
countless hours of meetings, several days of strikes and pickets that were
sometimes policed violently, and lots of other actions - including the
'Yoga' actions by casuals, who turned up to University Senate meetings and
other events to run yoga sessions that made a point about the flexibility
constantly demanded of them by university management: see
https://www.newmatilda.com/2013/05/06/just-how-flexible-are-casual-academic
s)
 

Don't get me wrong: this is not the end of precarious work in higher
education, and the outcome is by no means perfect. We wanted more of these
new positions. They are also start with a higher teaching component than a
standard academic teaching-research post (although they revert to a
standard mix after getting through probation), etc.

Nonetheless, I think it's a significant win in a much longer struggle
against casualisation in higher education, which has become such a
debilitating treadmill of short-term contracts and insecurity for so many
recently graduated PhD students.

My point in telling this story is to say that we *can* work through our
unions to make change on this issue. I completely agree with Libby below
that those of us in secure positions who are critical of the current
situation have a responsibility to act on this issue.

One of the best things about being involved in the campaign was the
solidarity that was forged between permanent and casual academic staff.
The strikes were incredibly important in this regard, putting us in a
position of working together as equals to organise and enforce effective
picket lines. (It drives me nuts when people say that strikes can't work
in higher education ... but that's a whole other rant!!).

Cheers,
Kurt

PS More info about the campaign generally can be found at:
http://www.nteu.org.au/sydney/bargaining

:::

 
Kurt Iveson
Associate Professor - Urban Geography
School of Geosciences
University of Sydney
NSW 2006
Australia
 
T +61 2 9351 3627
F +61 2 9351 2442
E [log in to unmask]
W http://sydney.edu.au/science/geosciences/people/st_iveson.shtml
 
Blog: http://citiesandcitizenship.blogspot.com








>
>Date:    Fri, 28 Feb 2014 14:10:41 +1100
>From:    Libby Porter <[log in to unmask]>
>Subject: Re: PhD surplus and post-doc deficit
>
>An excellent account, Andrew, of the state of play - very resonant with my
>experience both in terms of personal experience and too many years in too
>many different institutions. Here in Australia, my sense is that funding
>drives a lot of this. To be frank... it's cheaper (ie looks better "value
>for money") to put in for a few PhD scholarships into a grant application
>than it is to create postdoctoral posts. I see this happening all the
>time,
>where whole projects are built on a sort of mini-army of PhD students -
>all
>working on pre-defined projects, of course - and where the supervisor gets
>their name on every single paper produced by that mini-army. It's a set of
>practices that leave me cold. Those that do it, get promoted and are
>lauded
>for bringing in the 'big bucks' in research income (and outputs).
>
>I wonder if there are some (highly atomised) things those of us who have
>the relative comfort of a a secure position can do, and that's refuse to
>pursue that model. But that's small fry -  it has to be combined with some
>kind of wider, collective actions around University job losses... ahem,
>"restructuring" (here at my institution, it's called "academic
>strengthening"... which apparently means we get stronger by working harder
>with fewer resources - truly extraordinary abuse of language not to
>mention
>work practices). Those of us (I include me in that category) who are
>'lucky' in Andrew's terms here have a real responsibility here. It's on
>our
>watch, and through our practices, that this trajectory becomes okay. And
>it
>isn't.
>
>Libby
>
>
>On 28 February 2014 06:41, Andrew Wilbur
><[log in to unmask]>wrote:
>
>> Sorry about the length of this, but I wanted to offer a follow-up to my
>> post on PhD oversupply from a few days ago. Iıd like to thank everyone
>>who
>> responded on and off-list, and note that if I havenıt yet responded to
>>you
>> personally, I have read your e-mail and appreciate your thoughts. It
>>should
>> surprise no one that I was contacted by many PhD students and graduates
>>in
>> a similar position to mine, stuck in the perpetual grind of casual work
>>or
>> long-term unemployment, on top of which must be balanced unpaid efforts
>>in
>> academic writing, project proposals and (sometimes absurdly onerous) job
>> applications. I certainly donıt feel ungrateful for the opportunities
>>and
>> privileges Iıve enjoyed as a PhD student and I donıt sense those
>>feelings
>> from any others. After everything, I still donıt feel like my PhD waste
>>of
>> time. Iım more interested in finding solutions to problems than cursing
>>my
>> bad luck, and I hope thatıs the attitude taken by others in my position.
>> However, after hearing diverse views from faculty, graduates and
>>students,
>> there does seem to be a fairly widespread acknowledgement that we are
>> collectively engaged in something rather illogical and potentially
>>damaging
>> by channeling significant resources into professional training
>>programmes
>> for a shrinking and largely inaccessible profession. When these concerns
>> are voiced publicly theyıre typically met with three types of response:
>>1)
>> Generally sympathetic comments from people with experience or inside
>> knowledge of the situation; 2) Some variation on ŒThe world doesnıt owe
>>you
>> a job!ı; 3) Some variation on ŒIf youıre half as smart as your doctorate
>> would suggest, then why didnıt you study science or engineering? What
>>made
>> you think you could get a job with a PhD in arts/humanities/social
>>science?ı
>>
>> Arguments 2 and 3, however snidely they may be phrased, can often
>>strike a
>> chord of self-doubt in anyone whose ŒJob Applicationsı folder is as fat
>>as
>> mine. I want to address that issue later, but first itıs important to
>>note
>> that many PhD programmes arenıt to likely downsize any time soon,
>> irrespective of the job prospects for their graduates. If anything, some
>> will continue to expand (see http://www.economist.com/node/17723223).
>>One
>> obvious reason for this is that universities arenıt going to turn down
>> tuition for the sake of limiting job market competition (nor should
>>they).
>> There are also other, trickier, factors at play. As one professor (who
>> hopefully doesnıt mind being quoted anonymously) put it to me: ŒMaybe
>>it is
>> a tragedy of the commons -- we all want to protect our own programs,
>>even
>> as we recognize that there is a problem with oversupply. And we wait for
>> the axe to fall, for administration to decide that graduate programs
>>should
>> be cut entirely, or whittled down, and we hope it isn't us who feel the
>> knife, but if we do, at least we didn't do it to ourselves...ı
>>Furthermore,
>> itıs no secret that graduate education often serves as a welcome escape
>> from a stagnant, uncertain and lacklustre career path, particularly in
>>an
>> era of diminishing economic opportunity (real or perceived). Hate your
>>job?
>> Feel like youıre not utilising your full potential? Thereıs still
>>somewhere
>> you can go. Yes, it takes years of hard work. Itıll be emotionally
>>draining
>> and financially debilitating, but the payoff will be totally worth it.
>> Imagine getting paid to do research ­ to study what youıre passionate
>> about! And did I mention get paid?!?
>>
>> And this is where I want to respond directly to arguments 2 and 3. Itıs
>> extremely patronising to imply that anyone who earns a PhD feels an
>> automatic entitlement to the job of their dreams. If anything, those of
>>us
>> who started our doctorates within the last ten years are intimately
>>aware
>> of the grueling job competition ­ so please give us some credit for
>>that.
>> Nobody is going into this completely blind to the realities ­ the
>>realities
>> are just getting tougher by the day. Weıre well aware of the
>>difficulties
>> and yet we choose to do this anyway. Why? Because we care about what we
>>do,
>> just like the generation of academics that came before us, and weıre
>> willing to make some sacrifices so that we can feel good when we get up
>>in
>> the morning. We want to take pride in where we work and what impact our
>> work can have, and to know that our knowledge and training isnıt being
>> wasted on jobs that demand none of it. This resolve grows stronger
>> throughout our academic careers, first on masterıs courses as we grow to
>> understand the practice of professional scholarship, and then as
>>doctoral
>> students, where our confidence develops along with our range of skills
>>in
>> data collection, analysis, writing, public speaking and ­ not
>> insignificantly ­ navigating the complicated byways of university
>> structures, funding agencies and the publishing industry. This period is
>> fundamentally formative in that it reveals many of the frustrations and
>> challenges of an academic career, enough to ensure that some students
>>will
>> decide not to pursue one. For those that do choose to continue, much of
>> what happens to us as doctoral students reinforces our desire and our
>> assuredness. However daunting the conference talks may be, however
>>glacial
>> the publishing process might seem, however burdensome the teaching
>>duties
>> are, we still make it through. And that convinces us that we can do this
>> thing after all.  Everything else then conspires to reinforce this
>> conviction: the enthusiastic responses at conference talks, the
>>acceptance
>> of a journal paper, the positive feedback from students, the sincere and
>> complimentary references from well-respected scholarsŠ Everything to
>>this
>> point is telling us that we can beat the odds, and we carry this
>>confidence
>> through graduation.
>>
>> For a majority of us, the full horror of our situation unfolds slowly
>>but
>> inevitably, as 10, 15, 30, 50, 60 job applications all meet with the
>>same
>> stock response. On the advice of elders, we initially believe that we
>>can
>> Œpick up some teachingı or Œjust do research assistant work for a couple
>> yearsı before landing something more stable. If only it were that easy.
>>An
>> even more misguided comment, to which we are regularly subjected,
>>suggests
>> that we should consider Œjust going backı to another sector, where the
>>pay
>> is allegedly better and HR managers are apparently appreciative of our
>> qualifications. In most cases this is completely deluded. Unless weıre
>> willing to erase all of our most significant achievements from our CVs
>>(as
>> Iıve done to secure my current job), there is often nowhere else to go.
>>We
>> realise, probably later than we should, that every time we apply to a
>>job,
>> we are competing with dozens of people whose achievements match or
>>surpass
>> our own, and are likely to be carrying some other kind of advantage.
>>Often
>> this advantage is as simple as the good fortune to have finished a PhD a
>> couple years sooner. So chance didnıt favour us with this application,
>>and
>> it probably wonıt with the next. Tough shit. Itıs not just the financial
>> stress that weighs so heavily, but also the depressing recognition that
>>we
>> may never have a chance to execute some of our ideas, that we hold the
>>key
>> to research that will probably never get done. Itıs hard to keep that
>> thought at bay as the weeks and months pass at our office and retail
>>jobs,
>> which we perform diligently while knowing that another Statement of
>> Research and Teaching Interests awaits us at home, and more writing for
>>the
>> financial benefit of Wiley or Elsevier is what the weekend holds in
>>store.
>> If we publicly question how this situation came to be, or why
>>universities
>> continue to perpetuate it, we get hundreds of virtual fingers jabbing
>>us in
>> the chest, telling us that the world doesnıt owe us a job and that we
>> should have studied something useful.
>>
>> So thatıs why we fight for these jobs, not because we feel like weıre
>> entitled to an easy life. Weıve undergone years of top-level training
>>for a
>> profession that, if student numbers and research funding are any
>>indicator,
>> is still in demand. I know I donıt represent everyone and Iım not
>> pretending that my situation is universal, but Iıve heard from enough
>> people to know that itıs a fair representation of what many of new PhD
>> graduates face. The question is what to do about it. No one really
>>seems to
>> know, but I think itıs time we start talking about it a little more
>> seriously. This e-mail list contains more than 3500 addresses. Some
>>people
>> probably wonıt read this and some might be too comfortable to care, but
>> even if a thousand feel like this is an important issue, then that seems
>> like a pretty strong collectivity. Iıd hate to think that weıre too
>> powerless to do anything at all. I donıt expect to see any immediate
>>result
>> from writing all this, but I do hope that if nothing else I can
>>encourage
>> scholars in relative positions of power to think hard about what kind of
>> opportunities await the next generation of geographers that theyıre
>> training, and what they can do to strengthen or expand them. Thatıs
>>less a
>> demand for senior academics to solve the problem for the rest of us
>>than a
>> call for everyone to work together to figure this out.
>>
>> Thanks for hearing me out.
>>
>> -       Andrew

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