One of the key ideas of my PhD was fateful moments, points in our life which constitute turning points and shape the person we become. I argued the epistemology of such moments is more complex than it might initially appear to be, as turning points have a narrative as well as a biographical existence. The stories we tell about our lives rarely map cleanly on to the causes which shape them, being the means through which we come to terms with what has happened rather than the way in we diagnose why it happened in the way that it did. Turning points give shape to narratives and are often easy to identify but fateful moments are more elusive.

There are points which might have proved fateful, opportunities to act differently which might not be clear to us in the moment. We can recognise this in hindsight, identifying the point at which we could have backed away or fully committed, open moments in which we had freedom to act before the tides of habit and commitment generated a momentum of their own. There’s a wonderful example of this on pg 223 of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. After a disturbing revelation, Richard briefly questions his relationship with his new friends, fleetingly contemplating exit at the point where his entanglement with them seems likely to pass the point of no return:

Pausing unsteadily on the stairs, I looked back at Francis’s door, indistinguishable from the others in the long faceless row.

I suppose if I had a moment of doubt at all it was then, as I stood in that cold, eerie stairwell looking back at the apartment from which I had come. Who were these people? How well did I know them? Could I trust any of them, really, when it came right down to it? Why, of all people, had they chosen to tell me?

It’s funny, but thinking back on it now, I realise that this particular point in time, as I stood there blinking in the deserted hall, was the one point at which I might have chosen to do something very different from what I actually did. But of course I didn’t see this crucial moment then for what it was; I suppose we never do. Instead, I only yawned, and shook myself from the momentary daze that had come upon me, and went on my way down the stairs.

Fateful moments that might have been pose their own epistemological challenges, as the narrator alludes to in the extract above. But unlike fateful movements in the positive sense, identified by a person as they make sense of how they came to be where they are and who they are, fateful moments which escaped us are engaged with in a diagnostic moment. We identify these when we look back on our lives, reflecting on how things could have been otherwise. They have a different mode of existence to us as we make sense of our own lives, tied to a sense of our lives as taking on definitive shape as our decisions accumulate. In this sense, I think recognising fateful moments which might have been has immense existential significance. We cannot accept the mess of life without doing so.

In recent papers Ruth Müller has offered what I think is the very important concept of anticipatory acceleration to make sense of how subjects, in this case post-doctoral researchers, wilfully participate in social acceleration. Drawing on the work of James Scott, she outlines an attitude of ‘disregard for the present’:

The present figured not as important in and of itself, but as valuable because of its potential to become the future. Discomfort and sacrifice in the present were hence normatively acceptable and reframed as potentially beneficial. If the present is only a moment of transition towards a golden future, no serious attention needs to be paid to the trials and tribulations of the now. Uneasiness with a new system is recast as a period of adaptation, critique is washed away with the final argument of where we need to go.

This immediately makes me think of Ian Craib’s work on disappointment. Craib argues that we are increasingly unable to live with frustrations, denials or uncertainties. We seek to ‘escape the mess of life’ by looking forward when we meet disappointment, rather than recognising that some element of disappointment is an unavoidable facet of human existence. We turn ourselves to the next person, the next job, the next city as a place where we hope that everything will be ok. But it never is because we can’t transcend the nature of our own being-in-the-world simply by trying really hard to arrange the pieces of our life in a perfect configuration that always exists in potentia. When we actualise it and come face-to-face with its imperfection, we go on looking, assuming that we can make the world as we wish it to be by finding the circumstances in which the representation in our minds can match the reality of our lives.

Under these circumstances, the anticipatory acceleration Müller identifies in higher education becomes remarkably alluring. We bring ourselves closer to this imagined future through an “anticipatory orientation that aims to create future possibilities and tentative certainties, and ensure an ongoing trajectory that is somewhat recognizable as a good (future) life”. Or at least we hope to do so. But within higher education, we find those conditions further in retreat because so many others are chasing them:

VOSTAL (2014) proposes that junior scholars, who often work on temporary contracts and aim at establishing themselves in academia, are particularly exposed to the demand to produce more units per time. “It seems that early career academics are particularly vulnerable to the restructuring of higher education in comparison with more established and tenured/permanently employed senior scholars and professoriate” (p.12f.). This includes a heightened vulnerability to the changing temporal frameworks of academic cultures. Similar to the differences between career stages, the focus on speed appears to be pronounced more or less strongly in different fields. While the imperative to “Speed up!” seems to interpellate a wide range of scholars across the disciplines and faculties, fast growing fields that are receiving high policy attention and investments, often due to hopes of economic return, and that are exhibiting high degrees of internationalization and competition appear to be particularly prone to processes of acceleration. One such field is the life sciences. GARFORTH and CERVINKOVÁ (2009) point out that scholars in this field are faced with a growing standardization of possible career trajectories in the context of increasing international competition. This would result in a “rigid, narrow and increasingly formalised career path […] in the biosciences” (p.172) along which particularly junior scholars must run as fast as possible to outpace a growing number of known and unknown, local and international competitors. The article at hand focuses on a distinct category of junior scholars1) in the life sciences that are, as the empirical work shows, particularly strongly affected by experiences of competition and hence acceleration: postdoctoral researchers

So how do we respond? By going faster and faster. Wilfully hopping with ever more enthusiasm while management heats up the floor (to use the lovely image Will Davies offers). Or we quit. What’s the excluded middle: collective resistance that becomes ever hard because it entails a social hope about potential shared futures, one grounded in a communal attentiveness to the present which becomes ever more unlikely under prevailing conditions of acceleration.

An absolutely beautiful snippet from Brain Pickings: the letter of advice W.E.B. Dubois wrote to his teenage daughter when she went away to school in England.

Dear Little Daughter:

I have waited for you to get well settled before writing. By this time I hope some of the strangeness has worn off and that my little girl is working hard and regularly.

Of course, everything is new and unusual. You miss the newness and smartness of America. Gradually, however, you are going to sense the beauty of the old world: its calm and eternity and you will grow to love it.

Above all remember, dear, that you have a great opportunity. You are in one of the world’s best schools, in one of the world’s greatest modern empires. Millions of boys and girls all over this world would give almost anything they possess to be where you are. You are there by no desert or merit of yours, but only by lucky chance.

Deserve it, then. Study, do your work. Be honest, frank and fearless and get some grasp of the real values of life. You will meet, of course, curious little annoyances. People will wonder at your dear brown and the sweet crinkley hair. But that simply is of no importance and will soon be forgotten. Remember that most folk laugh at anything unusual, whether it is beautiful, fine or not. You, however, must not laugh at yourself. You must know that brown is as pretty as white or prettier and crinkley hair as straight even though it is harder to comb. The main thing is the YOU beneath the clothes and skin — the ability to do, the will to conquer, the determination to understand and know this great, wonderful, curious world. Don’t shrink from new experiences and custom. Take the cold bath bravely. Enter into the spirit of your big bed-room. Enjoy what is and not pine for what is not. Read some good, heavy, serious books just for discipline: Take yourself in hand and master yourself. Make yourself do unpleasant things, so as to gain the upper hand of your soul.

Above all remember: your father loves you and believes in you and expects you to be a wonderful woman.

I shall write each week and expect a weekly letter from you.

Lovingly yours,


In the last year or two, I’ve been increasingly aware of the limitations of life planning. My own tendency towards planning is something I’ve come to experience as largely pathological. It leads me to impose an artificial fixity on open situations in a way that has often led me to make really bad decisions in order to eliminate a feeling of uncertainty about how present connects to future. Anyone who knows me very well can probably guess what non-academic things I’m talking about here but in this post I’m going to limit myself to the academic manifestations of this issue.

However while I might accept that our “modernist training for constant improvement, development, and accumulation” can cause problems, I’m far from convinced that relinquishing the desire to shape your life is a desirable solution. Developing detailed and prescriptive long-term strategies might not work effectively when the conditions upon which these are based seem increasingly unstable but the opposite extreme is drifting through life as a series of fragmented episodes that render one essentially passive. There’s an obvious middle ground between the two and I’ve been thinking a lot in the last year or so about what exactly it is.

My experience has been that one of the aforementioned ‘unstable conditions’ is my own fluctuating interests. After my PhD, I’ve felt an intense pressure to specialise that I think is coming as much from my own reading of academic career trajectories as it is from anyone claiming to me that this is necessary. Without specialisation, it’s impossible to get to grips with the quantity of literature necessary to be an authoritative contributor to an area of social scientific inquiry. Without specialisation, it’s difficult to make sustained contributions which will tend to influence thought and practice within an area, as opposed to issuing in fleeting contributions to the growing mountains of ‘unread and unloved’ academic publications.

Pursuing specialisation as a deliberate project lends itself to precisely the long term planning that I’m convinced is inadequate for navigating a rapidly changing professional landscape. The only specialism that would come naturally to me (sociological theory) isn’t exactly employable at present and seems likely to become ever less so. Any topic to specialise in has an unpredictable pay off when considered instrumentally and I’m pretty sure it’s unlikely to sustain my interest levels. Long-term planning is an unsatisfying process when the only long-term plans you’re able to formulate seem deeply unsatisfying and/or inherently unreliable.

I’m increasingly convinced that the way I’ve habitually framed these questions is completely wrong and I’m trying to rid myself of the “modernist training for constant improvement, development, and accumulation” that generated it. A recent interview with Pat Thomson proved illuminating in considering what an alternative approach to developing a research agenda would look like:

I think what Pat says here is extremely insightful. I’m keen to get back to the “bigger questions” that interest me. Particular projects would then address these questions and develop my understanding of them. It’s my sense of the broad questions I’m interested in which provide the basis upon which to decide whether a particular project is worthwhile. Projects will always be constrained by circumstances but a clear connection to the broad questions which concern me means that projects will never be determined by circumstances. Specialisation is therefore a consequence of a developing research agenda rather than a precondition for it. I find it easy to see how particular pieces of work can be developed in a ‘non-linear way’ as this extract describes of painting:

Another example in a very specific area is given by a client in a follow-up interview as he explains the different quality that has come about in his creative work. It used to be that he tried to be orderly. “You begin at the beginning and you progress regularly through to the end.” Now he is aware that the process in himself is different. “When I’m working on an idea, the whole idea develops like the latent image coming out when you develop a photograph. It doesn’t start at one edge and fill in over to the other. It comes in all over. At first all you see is the hazy outline, and you wonder what it’s going to be; and then gradually something fits here and something fits there, and pretty soon it all becomes clear – all at once.”

Carl Rogers – On Becoming a Person Pg 152

However Pat has got me thinking about how a research agenda can be similarly ‘non-linear’. It’s not a case of simply responding to situational resources (i.e. there’s funding available for X so I’ll do X) but rather of developing projects that are personally rewarding in a way that isn’t limited by situational constraints and enablements. The “bigger questions” function as what Margaret Archer calls personal concerns, utilised as a sounding board to facilitate decision-making in a changing environment: they provide non-instrumental grounds upon which to adjudicate between the options available to us. It’s a distinctively meta-reflexive mode of academic reflexivity in contrast to an autonomous mode that develops a plan to achieve a given end, revising it when circumstances changes.