How Much Autonomy Do You Have as a Post-Doc


The relationship between the ECR and their institution / organisation (its just, if not more complex for those of us working outside academia), is a weird one. While we are building our profiles as independent researchers we are also joined to an organisation where we have to abide by their values, views and procedures. So how do ECRs manage this complex relationship in order to develop their careers especially as the number of permanent academic jobs post-PhD is significantly reducing and the number of temporary contracts rising? How do you maintain your autonomy while still fitting in?

This may sound like a strange question to ask however, I believe due to the changing nature of the post-doc job market this is something we need to consider. This is particularly relevant for those of us working on short, fixed term contracts and those of us working outside of academia where the ability to be a maverick is possibly less tolerable and those of us with well-developed online profiles need to look at how the two interact in different ways.  I raise this because of a recent discussion I had with a friend who felt somewhat stuck between their organisations policy and procedures and his own beliefs and independent research profile. While we all have disclaimers and assert that our opinions are our own and not those of our employers what control do they have over us?

I’ve written extensively about building your own independent research profile as an academic and making the most of what web 2.0 technologies can offer you. I’ve shared with you what I think we should and should not share and how it may impact upon your career and working life. The series related more to pictures and comments from our personal lives and what would happen if they began to co-exist with our professional identities however, the above conversation has made me wonder what happens when our professional interests clash.

As someone who has worked hard to develop their online profile as an independent researcher, I am often working for a range of organisations in different ways. At the same time, I still have my own feelings and beliefs on a range of issues, but I’ve learnt that I need to think more before I tweet. I do not want a separate account for the professional and personal me, for reasons you all know, yet I would not want to be constricted by my work place. It’s a difficult tightrope to balance on.

I have begun to think about how much of my identity both professional and personal is intertwined and how much autonomy any of us have to be independent. Before I moved outside of academia the blurred boundaries seemed less important. To an extent within the academy you are somewhat expected to be non-conformist, (which actually means many of us are subversively conforming to a stereotype). We can rise up and ignore hierarchy; we can challenge the status quo etc. as its more expected. Outside of academia things are a little different.

Outside of academia our abilities, qualifications and experience often put us higher up the career ladder faster than we may have achieved within academia and with that comes more responsibility and a certain expectation to conform. As academic researchers we push boundaries, we ask difficult questions and look at solutions which are often wider than the typical policy requirement (a subject I will come back to next month) this means we don’t switch off (ok, that could be just me) but I often question other things I see and hear, Sunday Morning ethical discussion programmes being one example. Can we still speak out against things that annoy us or we feel are wrong when we are not working and are using a personal branded communication platform but may upset or potentially offend those we work with and their clients?

In much of what I have written in the area of digital professionalism I have argued for the need for openness and the importance of ‘social professionalism’. We are all individuals yet the bond between employee and organisation has the potential to mask some of that individuality. My friend told me that the conversation they had had with colleagues centred on the use of social media and was asked whether they would put their job before the organisations policy – they said yes. Their boss suggested it was a high stakes decision however, my friend believed that while conforming to what the organisation wanted he still had to be able to be himself, particularly as this was a subject he, like me, writes on extensively.

So what would I do if faced by the same dilemma? In all honesty, I don’t know. I’d like to hope it would never occur. Part of me would think that by continuing to work there you would be able to illustrate, through your independent work, the positive benefits of whatever the issue. At the same time I could not openly be a different person at work than at home. This would be magnified if the policy stance of my organisation conflicted with my personal and published views.

I thought that moving into the post-PhD phase of my life would be simpler, I’d be more independent, however, the more I think about it the less independence we have as post-docs.

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Sarah-Louise Quinnell

Dr. Sarah-Louise Quinnell is the E-Learning Lead Technologist for Floream Partnerships she works on a portfolio of e-learning projects in partnership with Google, International Olympic Committee and the Institute of Digital Marketing.

She is also a researcher affiliated to the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities.

All views are her own and do not necessarily represent her employer's views or policies.

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