A Postdoc’s Lament: Creativity and Innovation in Academic Sphere


Head in Hands statueCreativity lies at the core of academic labor. The motivation to engage in creative scholarship is arguably central to the work of most academics. Other motivations — e.g. the pursuit of prestige, financial gain, the material stability that follows appointment to a permanent job — may matter as well, but the wish to work creatively is arguably still central to what academics do. For this reason, it seems important to consider the impact of the academic jobs crisis on creative scholarly labor. Stable, long-term appointments are now extremely scarce in the academic labor markets of Britain and Europe.

So, how does the experience of impermanent, precarious employment on the margins of academia affect young scholars’ ability to engage in creative labor? Is such creative labor still possible? Are young scholars in precarious employment still meant to be creative? The following is an account of the experiences of a young European academic who has been precariously employed since he completed his PhD a few years ago:

I think in general most researchers have a pretty clear idea what topic they want to investigate, what kinds of methods they find interesting and which theoretical foundations work for them and which do not. However, not all of them are lucky enough to be able to do exactly the kind of research they want to do. External circumstances often dictate what the research will be about and how it will be addressed.

It starts in the Ph.D. phase. Only a few graduate students are actually lucky enough to be completely in charge of their research topics. It helps to be financially independent, to either have a grant for carrying out self-initiated research, or supportive (academic?) parents willing to sponsor their child’s Ph.D. research. However, I think most of the Ph.D. projects are tied to specific topics or bigger research projects where Ph.D. students work on a particular aspect. In Germany and other places many Ph.D. students have (often part-time) working contracts at universities, where they teach, do admin work and help their professors,  but where they are also supposed to work on a Ph.D. project alongside. In both cases many of the aspects of their research are predetermined by design, either by the structures of the project, or the topical, theoretical, methodological and other preferences of their professors. Ph.D. students are also the cheapest of academic workforces and often also good workhorses; often it is up to them to deliver the data that the professors use to publish their papers. Once the Ph.D. project is finished it is often very difficult to find research positions and particularly to build up on the expertise and knowledge acquired by doing the Ph.D. research.

I had become sort an academic mercenary, selling my research skills to principal investigators, who paid me for investigating issues they found interesting and relevant. In such circumstances very little creativity is possible.

In my case I would have liked to carry out further research on my Ph.D. topic and to build up on the expertise I had developed over the years. In reality, however, it was not possible to find an arrangement where I could sustain myself and carry on doing this work, so — after a long period of applying – I finally became a postdoc in the context of a pre-established research project, which was followed by another limited postdoc contract under similar conditions. I had become sort an academic mercenary, selling my research skills to principal investigators, who paid me for investigating issues they found interesting and relevant. In such circumstances very little creativity is possible. Often the research questions, theoretical underpinnings and methods to be used are given and there is only little room to operate independently.

Nonetheless, over the years I got in touch with people with similar research interests and decided to design a research project of my own. I have spent a lot of time preparing and writing a proposal for an innovative research project that fascinated me. I also carefully checked my ideas with senior academics I trusted to be sure it was a project worth pursuing. It took nine months after the submission of the detailed research proposal that I got notice from the funding body that I had addressed. They replied that my C.V. and research proposal were both evaluated very positively and ranked very highly, but that there was a problem with the innovative-ness of the research: No research had been carried out on the topic I proposed so far (which was the reason for writing the proposal in the first place), the methodology proposed had also not been established yet, and the reviewers were not confident that such risks should be taken. Consequently the proposal was turned down.

From this experience I learnt that creativity in principle might be a good thing, but that being too creative might also be a dangerous. More experienced academics that I know then commented that it is often not wise to leave the trodden research paths, and that many research institutions and also established reviewers actually want to see ‘more of the same’ and what they are used to – no matter how many times ‘innovative research’ is emphasized and underlined in mission statements and publicity materials.

In the application stage, however, one often has to be extremely creative. In cover letters one has to find a convincing explanation why one’s experiences and background fit very well to advertised posts and projects, particularly if the job is situated outside the own field of expertise. For many research jobs it is also required to write a couple of pages about research ideas and how to address them in a given project, often in a very short time span.

In various cases where I was invited to introduce myself I was asked to prepare a lecture or a presentation, sometimes about rather peculiar topics. Other potential academic employers even give you a particular ‘homework’ or questions to be solved, or ask you to present a detailed research plan in the framework of their research projects. When I came up with something interesting I more than once got the impression that I am speaking in front of an audience of senior academics who are eager for inspiration and very busy taking notes. To invite scholars looking for a job and to let them present ideas that might inspire them does not cost them anything (sometimes they do not even cover the travel costs), but could help them find interesting research avenues they had not thought of previously.

No matter how much effort I had put in such kinds of exercises it never brought me closer to a job. Now I have become extra cautious not to give away what I think are my best ideas. For me personally this is a big dilemma: If you are asked to present what kind of research you would like to do and how you would do it you should probably comply. But what happens if you do not get the job? The senior academicians and professors in the interrogation rooms are generally busy scribbling down whatever they hear and how can you be sure that your ideas do not soon appear in one of their research proposals? I heard it happen more than once.

This part of the application process often reminded me about what I hear from the so-called creative industries: young interns with the fire still burning deliver good and creative ideas to not-so-creative-anymore senior partners, often for pocket money or entirely for free. The senior partners sell the ideas and cash in on the profits the junior has to leave when the short-term contract ends, in order to be replaced by the next one. And so the cycle goes on. Is there much of a difference in academia these days?

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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