Academic Excellence and Other Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Duckling feeling left outEven after a considerable number of years, one of the most puzzling aspects of academic life for me still is the enormous disparity of feelings and modes of experience it offers to individual scholars. At one end of this experiential continuum, there are some scholars for who seem to live academia as a mostly peaceful world of interesting scholarly opportunities. At the other end of the continuum, academia seems to be lived as an incessant competition for professional survival. This latter mode of experience is evoked very vividly in a letter I received a few days ago from an acquaintance. I found this letter quite thought-provoking, and I think that it speaks for itself without further introduction:

“When I was a student I had a memorable experience: One of the most well-known professors of our institute was offering a seminar and many students enrolled in it to take part. Hence the course was overcrowded and the professor was not happy with this fact at all. Finally she had a brilliant idea. She exclaimed that the best students needed the best supervision and handpicked the students already working for her and started a subgroup which was exclusively taught by her in a separate room. The remaining mass of students was put into the hands of new inexperienced lecturers who were forced to teach the very big group and many of the students dropped out after a session or two. Most of the students therefore had no chance of interacting with the praised professor, because she already had a clear picture in mind about the few students that mattered and the mass of those that did not.

Many years later, when I had already received my PhD myself, I had an eerie feeling of déjà vu. This time I met somebody who introduced herself as a professor and senior evaluator of a public funding body, responsible for selecting research proposals to be funded. Or in her own words: avoiding that money is wasted on ‘unworthy’ people and research. This topic interested me a lot because I was about to submit my first own research proposal and so I probed somewhat deeper how this selection process worked and if my own research ideas would stand a chance there. The answer was a clear one; absolutely no chance. The reason: she did not know me personally. The argument: the research needs to be excellent, only excellent researchers will be funded, I am excellent myself and I know everybody else who is excellent. She did not know me personally — I had been living abroad during the previous years — so it was clear to her that none of my ideas mattered and would be worth funding, otherwise she would know me already, so she argued.

My colleagues in Germany also confirmed that this view is widespread in the German research scene and that hardly any of the youngsters ever managed to get a project funded from that institution, no matter how much potential the proposal had, unless they had already been connected to some of the evaluators before. At the same time there were groups of senior academics who were consistently continuing their research since decades with funding from the very same source. There were some public outcries recently about how a few handfuls of senior academics could distribute taxpayers’ money among their ‘boys and girls’, but without any real consequences — a truly excellent way of eroding the public trust in academic research.

After having spent some more time in the curious world of academic research at some point I had to start looking for a new job opportunity since the limited work contracts had ran out. I have applied for various professorships, where — according to the job ad — the selection criteria were mainly based on academic excellence and international experience. In many cases the candidates who finally got the job did not shine so much because of interesting research results, international experience or good publications, but rather because of their personal connections and sometimes also because of the names of the institutions where they studied or worked previously. In many cases the successful candidates have worked with some of the people who offered the posts in the past, shared same supervisors or at least came from the same university. In Germany it is even a standard procedure that the PhD supervisors themselves propose how a PhD thesis will be evaluated and graded, so it is not a surprise that in such cases the majority of theses will be judged as excellent.

These kinds of stories are not really new and probably widespread in many other areas, such as industry, the media or the political system. However, in times of hypercompetition, former research staff members like me are even forced to see and treat their former friends and colleagues as competitors and enemies in the battle for employment and funding. Suddenly every contact and resource counts. The more time passes after the acquisition of the PhD, the harder it is to find a job. In the last year I learnt that I am already too old to be supported and that the award of my PhD was too long ago for getting fellowships or individual funding from many funding bodies in Europe.

I probed somewhat deeper how this selection process worked and if my own research ideas would stand a chance there. The answer was a clear one; absolutely no chance. The reason: she did not know me personally. The argument: the research needs to be excellent, only excellent researchers will be funded, I am excellent myself and I know everybody else who is excellent

Luckily enough I finally found a fellowship where it was possible to apply even if the award of the PhD was more than three years ago. The intention of the fellowship was to attract researchers with international research experience to a reputable German university, where the fellows then could work on their own research projects for a number of years, a very rare opportunity these days.

Also a perfect opportunity for me to carry out more research on my area of interest, and so I applied. Or better said: I tried to apply. One of the requirements in the application procedure was to get hold of a letter of recommendation from the head of the unit where one intends to work and carry out research. So I wrote an enthusiastic email to this person, explaining who I was, what I wanted to do and why I applied for this fellowship. Many days passed until I received a short reply from the professor I had addressed. He wrote back that he could not recommend me or my work because he did not know me personally (and showed no interest in reading the proposal I had drafted) and was not willing to take on the responsibility that a recommendation would entail.

In practice, this means that only people that are known personally by this professor have the chance to even apply for the fellowship — which is not the intention of the fellowship at all (at least according to the description on the website). But there is not much one can do but to abandon the application after putting much hope and many hours of work into it — the required recommendation letter was a mandatory part of the application.

These little episodes raise the interesting question what academic achievement actually means today. If those that have jobs and resources to offer and distribute can also select candidates and are at the same time responsible for evaluating their achievements, it is no surprise that the picked ones will be evaluated as excellent, no matter what results they produce.  If intellectual achievements, research ideas, innovative and inspiring teaching, results and publications count less than the prophecies that want to be fulfilled by those in charge, academia has reached a stage in which the comparisons of academic achievements does not make sense any more.”

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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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