Exploiting the new academic

I was having a conversation with a colleague recently about the changing expectations for our new hires – generally those coming in at Level A/B – and we were questioning how many of our current stars (research and/or teaching) would have met those expectations coming straight out of a PhD or a postdoc. It got me thinking back to a talk I attended at HERDSA earlier this year (blogged here) by Shelda Debowski, UWA regarding the increasing pressure on ECRs to perform highly in order to be able to win those coveted permanent positions in our research-intensive universities. With ERA placing increased pressure on Universities – all Universities – to perform highly in core research areas, that pressure has been translated to a need for new academics to exceed previous expectations on grant funding, publications and research potential.

I’ve said before here that I think we are placing too much pressure on our early career academics. It’s not a matter of letting them off easily, but in giving them enough time to mature into experienced researchers and academics; to give them enough time and exposure to other projects so that they can develop a mature research direction of their own. At the moment we are placing too much emphasis on immediate outcomes – the number of (quality) publications, total funding etc, which leads to a focus on immediate benefits and discourages academics from exploring more pure research or theoretical, blue sky ideas. Without those longer term benefits and ambitions, our future research potential as a whole is diminished.

But I am also seeing negative impacts on our early career academics in other ways. Across our research intensive universities, I am seeing many cases of new Phd graduates or recent postdocs being hired into Level A/B contract positions – and then being given high teaching loads so that existing staff members can have more time for research. This is a huge problem. On the one hand, we are crippling these new academics – who, incidentally, we have often hired because of a combination of teaching and research potential – so that they do not have the time to undertake the research that would get them into a permanent position with us, or other institutions, with these increased expectations. These academics are often attracted to research intensive universities because they want to explore a combination of teaching and research – and we hire them because they look promising in both, but then don’t allow them time to actually flourish and develop that potential. Of course, some times new academics can be their own worst enemy, with their enthusiasm for their new position making it hard for them to know when to say no to new administrative opportunities and outreach.

Quick, run before you get yet another course!

On the other hand, we are really crippling our own industry. We are making it almost impossible for our own graduates to achieve solid positions in our Universities, instead hiring in more experienced academics into the desirable, balanced research&teaching positions, and leaving our new graduates to take up the teaching backlog. I can’t see that ending well.

Perhaps the new directions in position classification at our Universities will assist here… Recently, Australian Universities have started refining their position classification systems to incorporate a wider variety of academic roles: teaching intensive, research intensive, and research&teaching with variable component sizes. I’m hoping that if we can develop strong career pathways for these different positions, we may be able to be more honest in attracting the right kinds of people for the right kinds of positions. In the cases I mentioned above, hiring excellent teaching focussed academics for teaching intensive career pathways, from Level A/B and having a clear way that they can progress in their career across a range of institutions, with relevant expectations on teaching and research outcomes. And then being able to provide appropriate workload allocations for all types of positions that reflect that.

But it’s a little early as yet. Although we have some of these positions in some of our Universities, I don’t think they are quite trusted as yet. And they probably shouldn’t be – unless we have aligned our corresponding promotion and appointment expectations, and we have those across the sector, it would still be a hard road for the individual academic.

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