The Personal Consequences of the Academic Jobs Crisis

Chinese Mandarins
The idea that if you jump through all the hoops you’ll get a good academic job is a model that’s not nearly as true as it was in the past.

Since I began to write for Social Science Space, I have often considered the origins and consequences of the academics jobs crisis. The unavailability of stable employment opportunities for Ph.D. graduates and the opacity of career pathways are widely accepted facts. Yet there is surprisingly little debate about the matter, and there are very few genuine and wide-ranging efforts to address the problem.

One reason for this may be that those who are directly affected by the jobs crisis – junior scholars stuck in unemployment or deadlocked in a vicious circle of precarious short-term employment – have remained almost invisible. By virtue of the fact that they occupy marginal positions in academia, they have few opportunities to generate debate about the issue or to organize as a collective. The fact that they struggle so hard to find work and establish themselves as scholars means that many of them are reluctant to speak out and risk alienating future employers. As there is no real interest in the academic jobs crisis on the part of the media, the political class, and the academic establishment, no general solution is in sight. Once in a while, Times Higher Education or The Guardian publish articles in which career consultants advise struggling young academics to polish their CVs, be entrepreneurial, be flexible, and so forth. This arguably compounds the problem, as it portrays a structural problem in the academic labor market as a personal problem on the part of young academics with unrealistic expectations and poorly written CVs.

Therefore, it seems particularly important to give those who have been affected by the academic jobs crisis a voice and create venues in which their experiences can be made public. This is my objective for the present and future posts. The following is the story of a young German academic with a Ph.D. from a renowned British university, numerous publications in one of the most fashionable fields of social science research, and ample experience of working at universities across Europe:

“I have studied social sciences at a reputable university. Once I finished my studies I started looking for a job, preferably outside academia and research. To make a long story short, I found it to be a frustrating experience. I got the impression that possible employers, particularly in Germany, are not interested in the expertise and skills of social scientists. After almost twelve hard months of unemployment I went to the UK to do a Ph.D. From all I had learnt so far it seemed that work and research experience abroad would be a valuable resource in the struggle for employment, in or outside academia. Improving the language skills would certainly count as an additional plus, so I thought at the time.

‘Permanent positions in all sectors are getting scarcer and scarcer and the working conditions for limited contracts seem to get worse almost every other month.’

Four and half years later I had to face the job market again, but this time with a Ph.D. degree on my CV. In the meantime I had learnt how to present my work at international conferences, how to publish peer-reviewed articles in international academic journals and a couple of other skills which should be helpful to get a job, at least in the academic sector. However, again I had to learn that it was still impossible to find a suitable job quickly. It took me another nine months to find a temporary position as a social researcher, but again in another European country. Once more this meant leaving friends and family behind for a job. All the time in between I had to live on savings and eventually had to move back to my parents’ place, since I did not qualify for benefits in any of the social security systems of the countries in which I had lived in the meantime. The limited time as a researcher passed away quickly, and I simply had not spent enough time at the new place to develop further publications. The outcome of the research project in which I worked was solely one conference presentation. Even though I had done enough research and drafted a paper to be published in an international journal, the principal investigator had to be on a paper to be published. This person supervised many graduate and postgraduate students and my paper was not high up enough on the list of priorities to be considered important. From the conversations we had it was clear that it would bring me nothing but trouble if I went on publishing the paper on my own.

However, I was lucky. The following years I worked once more as a researcher in another European country, again on a limited contract. This time was more productive: the collaboration worked well and I went on publishing good quality research papers in prestigious journals and I eventually was invited as a speaker at various academic events. From that point of view the stay was a success; I developed an international reputation in my field, became a reviewer for various institutions and important journals and enjoyed a couple of other academic honors.

However, the time passed quickly and the question about the next step to be taken soon became overwhelming. I applied world-wide for academic and non-academic posts. After many months of sending out applications I still do not have the feeling of having arrived anywhere. Permanent positions in all sectors are getting scarcer and scarcer and the working conditions for limited contracts seem to get worse almost every other month. The salaries are on the decline and the duration of the contracts also seem to shrink constantly. Nowadays it is not unusual to see ads for jobs in the academic sector which are way shorter than 12 months. Potential employers seem to be flooded by qualified applications. For instance, I applied at an educational foundation for an admin job (limited for two years), a Ph.D. was required. In the response I got I was told that the application procedure will be delayed, since more than 800 people had applied for this post. Friends who were funded by this particular foundation then informally told me that they only employ people who had actually been funded by them previously.

However, the biggest shock was that my international experience worked against me in many cases, particularly in Germany. Having lived abroad for many years has the disadvantage that you are not very present in the particular scene of your research field at home. In concrete terms this means that professors and researchers often prefer to employ people that they know or have met at local events before. For many people language is also an issue. In Germany many of the social scientists publish their research in German only. It even seem that it makes you look bad if you have published findings in international journals in English and not in the very local German social science journals and edited books (which are not read and known outside the country). For me personally this issue has a particularly sour taste, since pretty much all of the institutions in question state how important ‘internationalization’ is for them. In reality it is not rare to find professors and senior academics who studied and did their Ph.D.s (and also their ‘habilitation’ for that matter) at the same institution where they are now employed.”

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Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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