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  • Mark 4:28 pm on February 6, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , career advice, career building, careers, ,   

    The changing character of the academic game 

    At a recent event, I heard an extremely distinguished professor make the argument that there was a certain sequence to career development which all academics who sought jobs in high status university ought to pursue. One ought to publish papers in well regarded journals before writing books. One ought to establish a reputation within a field before writing for a broader audience. The professor qualified by this recognising the dynamic might not hold for lower status universities. The statements were also clearly couched in terms of the United States, without this framing being qualified.

    It nonetheless raises an interesting question which has often occurred to me in recent years: does advice about ‘playing the game’ have a shelf life in a system which is itself undergoing change? The tenure system in the United States plays a large role in creating continuity between successive cohorts, as careers pass through a nodal point which only changes incrementally. The research assessment system in the U.K. brings a different dynamic with it because so much of institutional status hinges on your relative value for the forthcoming assessment exercise. My perception is that the rules of the game change with each cycle, in terms of the institutional requirements and how they are articulated on a local level, meaning advice about career development necessarily has a shelf life.

    • Debra Bassett 1:41 pm on February 7, 2018 Permalink

      Discussing an inspirational lecturer who had encouraged and helped me in my late-blooming academic life with a respected professor I said “you may know him he was a student here” to which he replied “gosh they let anyone into academia these days”

    • Mark 9:12 am on February 9, 2018 Permalink

      I’ve heard so many stories like this. Horrible attitudes beneath the surface, waiting to be revealed.

  • Mark 6:04 pm on January 23, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , careers, , , , ,   

    “Scholar? Nah, I’m a grants factory…” 

    From The Research Impact Handbook, by Mark Reed, loc 1575:

    Andrew Derrington, in The Research Funding Toolkit , tries to help by conceiving of research as a “grants factory”, in which researchers churn out proposals dispassionately on a production line, starting work on the next proposal as soon as the last one is submitted, and accepting the odds that if your work is any good, then eventually one will get funded. Whether or not you are able to detach yourself from your work to that extent (I’m not sure I can), I think that there is something to be said for just picking yourself up and carrying on, no matter how bad your failure.

  • Mark 7:52 am on June 13, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , careers, , opportunities, , ,   

    Magical thinking as occupational opportunities contract  

    I just came across this sentence by Mark Granovetter on loc 721 of Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation:

    “There may be just enough cases around that people know about to give people encouragement, but not enough to really make it likely that that’s going to happen for any particular person.”

    This is another way of talking about ‘publicising successful outliers to propagate the illusion’.

    I’m increasingly interested in the disjunct between structure and culture that characterises occupational trajectories: as opportunities are objectively contracting, a cultural of wishful thinking emerges that focuses on a minute percentage of cases – “I realise it’s difficult but I’m sure I’ll be different” – something which many employers and entrepreneurs are happy to encourage out of sheer self-interest.

    Later on in the book, the author contrasts the older apprentice system with internships. The former was suited to a technologically stable environment in which occupational opportunities persisted intergenerationally. In contrast, internships proliferate at a time of occupational flux, creating the perception of offering a structured way of navigating change. From loc 1234:

    Nonetheless, says Jacoby of internships, “We don’t really grapple with what you have to master to move to the next level effectively … They create the sense of an open architecture where people feel like they can move into fields where they don’t have a lot of background … but I think that’s going to be more sleight-of-hand than reality.” Through high school and college, everything is made to seem possible, and internships extend the fantasy, until it comes time to land a stable, comfortable, decently paid job.

  • Mark 5:27 pm on April 23, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: careers,   

    Non-conventional academic career paths 

    Over the next few months, I’m planning a series of podcasts with academics who have pursued non-conventional career paths. This is a remarkably clunky term: what does ‘non-conventional’ mean? The difficulty I’m having defining my terms is precisely why I think it’s so important to explore this topic. In essence, I’m planning to talk to people who have finished PhDs and/or post-docs without subsequently applying for lectureships while animated by ambitions of a future trajectory up a fixed institutional hierarchy.

    This is a broad category within which there’s a great deal of variation in terms of ambition and circumstances.  There are lots of things that people with PhDs go on to do which, in many cases, complicate a simple dichotomy of being in the academy or being outside of it. But there seems to be a pervasive lack of career advice for those who might see such a pathway as being intrinsically desirable. Hopefully these podcasts can contribute in their own small way to rectifying this problem.

    My sense of this problem has emerged from my own experience. For a long time, I’ve realised that I’d like to balance sociological communication with sociological research. Increasingly I can see how this would work in the short and medium term: at the moment I’m effectively doing the former for 3 days a week and the latter for 2 days a week, supplemented by occasional consultancy and training invitations.

    It works for me and I’d like to continue, doing consultancy half the time and (I hope) within a few years working on my own grant-funded projects the other half of the time. But there’s a distinct lack of people I can turn to for advice about how to make this work in the long term. While the plans in question might be different, I’m certain I can’t be the only person contemplating a ‘non-conventional academic carer path’ in the absence of any obvious examples or available guidance about the viability of their plans.

    • Naomi Jacobs 5:44 pm on April 23, 2015 Permalink

      Might also be useful to talk to people doing PhDs via unusual routes for various diversity reasons (like me!), since I suspect that leads to unconventional careers. I love that you’re going to podcast about this. I used to podcast non-academically. I’m thinking of revamping in a more academic direction.

    • Mark 5:49 pm on April 23, 2015 Permalink

      That’s a good idea thanks. I really dislike the “non-conventional career path” concept but I’m seeing it as an umbrella for an awful lot of things that are, as yet, under explored

      Hope you start podcasting again. If you tweet me the links if/when you do I can put them on @soc_imagination 🙂

    • Aven McMaster 6:42 pm on April 23, 2015 Permalink

      Are you going to be focussing on people who have intentionally chosen said paths? I can understand why you might, since so often the discussion centres around people who have been forced unwillingly (by lack of employment) to find other paths. But since that group is indeed so large, and growing, I might suggest that you keep in mind, during your chats, the ways that someone who didn’t, originally, want to pursue an ‘unconventional’ career but has found themselves doing so might be able to use your guest’s experience to help them.

      That last sentence was incredibly clunky and incomprehensible, sorry. Hope you got the gist.

    • Mark 2:26 pm on April 24, 2015 Permalink

      Probably not but I completely see why it’s important.

    • Benjamin Geer 2:21 pm on June 4, 2015 Permalink

      Mark, my current job situation is somewhat similar to yours and I don’t know how sustainable it is over the long term, but I’d be glad to share my experiences if you’re interested. My original intention was a conventional academic career path, but I’ve come round to the idea that this sort of non-conventional arrangement has advantages if I can sustain it. For one thing, there’s no pressure on me to publish a lot or quickly, so perhaps I can do better research than I would otherwise, with less stress.

    • Mark 6:28 pm on June 6, 2015 Permalink

      Hi sorry I only just saw your comment. That would be very interesting – could you email a bit of an account and I’ll put on Si.org?

    • Benjamin Geer 6:31 pm on June 6, 2015 Permalink

      OK, will do.

    • Mark 6:31 pm on June 6, 2015 Permalink

      Look forward to it, thanks

  • Mark 9:03 am on March 25, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , careers, , , , , ,   

    Life in the Accelerated Academy, part 2 

    The idea that a part 2 to yesterday’s post would be less rushed seems rather naive in retrospect. Feeling rushed in the morning is different to feeling rushed in the evening but it is nonetheless feeling rushed. Much of my motivation for the Accelerated Academy project comes from a desire to understand this aspect of my daily experience in a sociological way. It’s not quite linking ‘personal troubles’ to ‘public issues’ however because I’m aware that I like speed. Much like the experience of rushing reflects something more than my own psychology, so too do the pleasures which can be taken in acceleration. Here are some suggestions about what they are:

    1. Time-pressure can be a symbol of status and flaunting it can represent one of the few socially acceptable forms of conspicuous self-aggrandisement available.
    2. Time-pressure can reduce the time available for reflexivity, ‘blotting out’ difficult questions in a way analogous to drink and drugs.
    3. Time-pressure can facilitate a unique kind of focus in the face of a multiplicity of distractions. If we accept that priorities are invested with normative significance (i.e. they matter to us in direct and indirect ways) then prioritisation can be pleasurable. This can take the form of people who rely on deadlines to ensure things get done. More prosaically, it can undercut procrastination by leaving one with finite temporal resources to utilise for non-negotiable obligations.
    4. Time-pressure can leave us feeling that we are living life most fully. If the good life is now seen as the full life then living fast feels like living fully.

    I think this conveys the feeling I’m trying to conceptualise more effectively than I can using the abstract words which are the only tools too many years of higher education have equipped me with:

    It’s a feeling that provokes ambivalence but does so in a way that can be thrilling. C Wright Mills once wrote that “My plans have always exceeded my capacities and energies”. This is a sentiment that resonates with me in the sense that it describes my own experience. But I think there’s more to it than that. There’s some latent moral force to this resonance, as if part of me thinks that a life of which this was not true would be in some sense a life wasted. I’m not sure if I believe this reflectively but something in me endorses it nonetheless. Part of me believes that a failure of one’s plans to exceed one’s energies would point to a failure of imagination, an inability to keep pace with the possibilities for creative activity afforded by digital capitalism.

    I find myself fantasising about working on one thing at a time. If I play the game, mark myself out in the right way then I could win funding and immerse myself in one project. But I’m not sure I really want this. I may think that I do but all the evidence I have suggests that at the first sign of frustration or boredom, I would seek out new distractions to which I could commit myself, justifying this as structured procrastination – perhaps we are veering into individual psychopathology after all… more to the point though, even if I did this and committed myself to it, would it be possible any longer? The schemes I’d be applying to demand impact strategies which presumably have to be put into practice. There is monitoring and assessment, consultation with mentors and demonstration of progress. The Rortyean image of unstructured immersion in creative work reveals itself once more to be a fantasy, at least under present circumstances.

    The further problem is that, as Ana Canhoto pointed out in a comment on part one, Rorty’s image of slow academia is still the one held by many non-academics. Friends, family, partners fail to understand the relentless pressure to do more, ascribing situational demands to individual pathology (and perhaps this leads to a tendency for all three groups to be composed heavily of other academics). The three most desirable jobs in Britain are author, librarian and academic. It would be interesting to know how much respondents to this Yougov survey know about the conditions of working life faced by authors, librarians and academics. Perhaps authors are free – if social media is my most practical escape hatch then being a writer is my most desirable one – in the way that only the truly precarious can be, with it becoming effectively infeasible to live full time as a (non-superstar) author, all the more so if one has dependants. Is it a desirable freedom?

    In many ways, I’m probably as free as I’m going to get right now. The problem is that embracing that would mean stasis. It would mean wanting to hold things in their current place. It would mean foregoing the pleasures of acceleration. It would mean, crucially, investing myself in circumstances that are by their nature transitory. This is the dilemma of acceleration: any resting place we find, any point of respite from speed, by its very nature cannot be assumed to be anything other than temporary. The stable career trajectories, as well as their associated life narratives, which Richard Sennett announced the end of in the early 90s involved a different temporality: a slow and steady movement through life (and the firm). Could acceleration be something that we seized upon as an alternative? Defining ourselves through perpetual motion, identifying with going somewhere even when the ‘somewhere’ perpetually shifted?

    In part 3, I’ll talk about social media and craft, given that this is what my talk was originally intended to be about.

    • Jan Henderson (@HealthCulture) 4:28 am on March 26, 2015 Permalink

      I don’t find any mention of Steven Ward’s ‘Neoliberalism & the global restructuring of knowledge & education’ on your blog, but I assume you already know it (although it’s possible he’s an obscure American sociologist). He comments on something that relates to the idea you mention here — how those outside academia are unaware of the time pressure academics feel these day. His point is that to the extent people are aware of the audit society nature of academia (and medicine), they find it only logical. Why should the professions be immune from what the rest of the workforce experiences?

      (Sorry for how lengthy this quotation is.)

      “[T]he transformation of knowledge and other public professions under neoliberalism is not unlike that experienced by most occupations within the primary labor market over the last few decades. Within this transformation occupations, such as those in the automobile, airline or steel industries, that once offered stable and permanent work, life-long employment, fringe benefits, union scale and contractual protection have become victims of neoliberalist political and economic policies. … [T]his does not mean that the public professions themselves are necessarily dying out only that their guild-like power to control their own fate is being seriously challenged. NPM [new public management] in practice is only an extension into the public domain of the new managerial and business policies and practices that many workers have experienced for several decades as a response to the ‘realities of the market’ and the ‘inevitabilities of globalization.’ With the extra insularity that working in public bureaucracies created, professionals often saw themselves as somehow outside of the labor process or at least shielded from its more onerous effects. The professions, with their historic monopoly on expertise and political power, have also largely seen themselves apart from and elevated above other occupations and the uncertainties of the labor process in general. It was, after all, that independence that allowed the public professions to operate in a public regarding capacity and to propagate the ideals of ‘inner dedication’ in the first place. As these occupations slowly became reshaped by neoliberalism and its cries of competition, choice and globalization, public professions rarely did anything to show their solidarity or to offer assistance. Indeed, in some instances their mutual funds and retirement plans seemed to buy their acquiescence or at least silence. This has created very little sympathy from other occupations about what is now happening to the public realm and public professions. After all, why should they be trusted when all other workers are monitored, evaluated and often fired at will? Why should these professional groups not be transformed into ‘productive labor’ by being exposed to the same policies and processes that have now long affected most other workers in the so-called new economy for decades?”

      I would take “inner dedication” to include the priority given to the intellectual pleasures of academia in Rorty’s time. Things certainly have changed in my lifetime.

    • Mark 9:00 am on March 28, 2015 Permalink

      That’s very interesting (and another book to add to the list) – it seems like a form of ‘negative solidarity’: we suffer so why don’t they?

      It occurred to me recently that the discourse of fulfilment through work (and the corresponding sense of failure if one can’t experience this) has emerged at the same time as the growth of managerialism and the (partial) deskilling of the professions. What interests me is how to make sense of the interface between the discourse about work and the changing experience of work in a sociological way.

  • Mark 7:58 pm on November 6, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , careers, , nightcrawler, , vocation   

    Nightcrawler: or, the possibility of a vocation in late capitalism 

    Lou Bloom is a petty thief, prowling Los Angeles by night while seeking some purpose in his life. He exists on the fringes of society, stealing to survive while also offering himself as an employee prepared to work under any conditions. We see the rejection he must have faced on many occasions, in spite of his ostentatious subservience (“my motto is if you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy the ticket”) and genuine acceptance of the dogma that demands this of him as a precondition for employment. However a chance encounter on the roadside introduces Lou to the world of LA’s stringers, the freelance video journalists chasing ambulances and assaults, striving for the most lurid footage (“if it bleeds, it leads!”) to buy their way into a local news media concerned for crime reporting above all else. Lou is captivated by what they do, the urgency and action which defines it, leading him to take his first fumbling steps into this occupational world. He rapidly advances, soon revealing himself to lack scruples – putting it mildly – with the film closing at what we can only assume is the beginning of his ascendency to power within the seedy world of TV journalism in LA. In the interests of avoiding spoilers, I won’t say precisely what he does but it’s not pleasant.

    Jake Gyllenhaal is superb throughout (incidentally, wouldn’t he make the perfect Patrick Bateman if American Psycho was ever remade?) and much of the film depends upon the consistency with which his performance sustains the balance between calm self-mastery and the rage we know exists beneath the surface. Too much of either would have detracted from the sheer creepiness of Lou Bloom, a man equally unblinking when blackmailing his employer into sex as when filming a corpse. The only time Lou’s mask slips is when his ambitions are thwarted, with this experience of denial prompting an outburst of rage as disturbing as it is understated. Other than this, the only emotion we see from him is delight, with involuntary smiles only becoming sinister because of context.

    It’s this quality that renders the homolies which he delivers throughout the film quite so unsettling – he regurgitates nuggets of wisdom from the online business courses he consumes autodidactically, advising those around him on their negotiating positions and reflecting on the status of his transactions. However in an important way Nightcrawler isn’t about Lou Bloom’s sociopathy, it’s about his calling: he genuinely loves his newfound profession, exhibiting a natural flair and impulse towards self-improvement that combine to facilitate a rapid ascent into TV journalism and an escape from the precarity that had defined his existence heretofore. We only see hints at his previous life, most pointedly in the certainty with which he recognises that his newfound assistant was leaving sex work behind to work for him, but it seems to have been one that left him driven towards ‘bettering himself’ and with a very particular idea of what ‘better’ entails. He is an American success story, as Henry Barnes puts it in the Guardian, with the satire of this being constructed through the careful arrangements of parts rather than simply holding up Lou’s vacuity as an inditement of the America that produced him. Many aspects contribute to the force with which this critique is conveyed, not least of all the incisive assessment of TV journalism and the endemic insecurity which drives a race to the bottom, however without Lou’s fundamental earnestness I don’t think it would work. He seeks self-improvement, to embrace his newly discovered calling and earnestly strives to make a success of himself through it. The moral bankruptcy is contextual, expressed through Lou but not originating in him – satirising the American dream in terms of the immorality it licenses is far from a novel project but I found Nightcrawler a peculiarly gripping and elegantly constructed example of it.

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