My friend and colleague Dr Rachael Pitt, otherwise known on Twitter as @thefellowette has had a conventional academic career.

By ‘conventional’ I don’t mean that she finished her PhD, accepted a permanent position as a lecturer and has worked at the same university ever since. Oh no no no – that was a conventional academic career back in 1980.

The ‘new normal’ academic has done a decade or so of adjunct teaching work, and/or a rag tag bunch of jobs that last anywhere from a week to three years. I did the former; Rachael did the latter – what we are starting to call the ‘post-post-post doc’ or the ‘portfolio career track’. There are some unexpected upsides to the new normal academic career, at least for the survivors. All of Rachael’s jobs have been loosely in our mutual field of expertise – research education – but all of them have required her to learn new things fast and work out how to function in different university settings. As a consequence she’s highly skilled and adaptable researcher and a great collaborator who never has trouble finding work.

Most of the time I’ve known Rachael I have thought about her as the one woman academic SWAT team who has ably worked both the academic and professional side of the university fence. Start a new undergraduate research program with only vague idea of where it’s all headed? Rachael’s your woman. Your reliable post grad admin officer had to leave to have a baby early and has no time to make hand over notes? Call Rachael – she’ll keep the show on the road. You want her to move cities to join your research project? Make her an offer she can’t refuse!

@thefellowette (left) and I squeezing a visit to Edinburgh Castle in before a research nerd conference in2013. If you're wondering why the faces, it was REALLY COLD that day ok? :-)
@thefellowette (left) and I squeezing a visit to Edinburgh Castle in before a research nerd conference in2013. If you’re wondering why the faces, it was REALLY COLD that day ok? 🙂

Rachael has moved to a different city every couple of years. She’s had to find new places to live, learn new public transport systems, pack and unpack her stuff – and make new friends. This pressure turned Rachael, who, like many of us, self identifies as an introvert, into one of the best academic networkers I know. In fact, Rachael and I know each other because she cold called a colleague of mine, explained that she had just moved to Melbourne and suggested we all have lunch. From this humble beginning, the now famous Circle of Niceness was formed.

Until recently, Rachael was the perfect worker for the neo-liberal university system, which I think of as a bad boyfriend because it offers little in the way of loyalty and virtually no job security. However, after watching her do this for the better part of a decade now, I know Rachael found the ‘hypermobile’ academic life physically and emotionally taxing. Rachael is an academic AND a fully rounded human person: a generous friend, a fun aunt and a loving daughter. All this moving around for an academic career made sustaining her existing relationships, and building new ones, with say, a life partner (or even a pet), difficult. So I’m very happy to report that last year Rachael got married to a lovely man and moved back to her home state of Queensland where she can play with her nieces and nephews whenever she wants.

Of course, she found a job in 3 seconds flat too.

I wanted to tell you some of Rachael’s back story because we recently wrote an academic paper together which was deeply informed by her hypermobile portfolio career. We called it Academic superheroes: a critical analysis of academic job descriptions.

Rachael came up with the idea one day, three years ago, when we were sitting on the couch talking shop, drinking tea and eating chips, as you do. At the time Rachael was staring down the end of yet another contract. Funding was running out and she was about to be in the wind yet again. In amongst the troubles talk, we started musing about the difficulties and general tediousness of the academic job application process.

In Australia academic employers list ‘key selection criteria’ which the applicant must respond to in writing, in addition to a lengthy cover letter and a CV (an epic task in its own right). Both of us are more than familiar with how labour intensive this ghastly business is. Each application is bespoke, so every rejection letter represents hours, sometimes weeks of work. Rachael told me that some of the responses she had to write were nearly 15 pages long. It’s not advisable to try to make the process quicker by cutting and pasting between them because, while each ad asks for essentially the same things, they ask in different ways.

Rachael had noticed that many job ads seemed down right impossible to live up to, or had conflicting, ambiguous criteria that were impossible to evidence. She showed me some and I was quietly outraged. Why is there a selection criteria asking for “a PhD and evidence towards submitting for your PhD in psychology” while the one immediately below was “evidence of expertise in psychology?” – doesn’t one imply the other? And how do you evidence a statement like: “Effective organisational skills to plan and organize work to meet competing deadlines and ability to work independently with minimal supervision, showing initiative and flexibility”? I guess you could write some lines about why you are awesome at that stuff, but why should someone believe you? Wouldn’t it be better just to ask your referees if you had these attributes and capabilities? No wonder many PhD students who are exploring the academic job market are so confused and demoralised.

Being huge research education nerds, Rachael and I started connecting this problem with what is being taught in the PhD.

In her last research gun-for-hire job, Rachael had uncovered evidence that academic employers were unhappy with PhD graduates after they hired them. We found this both odd and ironic: academics design the PhD experience, put students through it, evaluate the outcomes and then employ around 40% of the graduates – and they are UNHAPPY WITH THEM?

What the hell is going on with you academic employers?

When I tell people about this finding, they always ask the obvious question – why don’t we just change the PhD so it better matches academic employers’ expectations? While there is some innovation around the edges, most PhD programs still ask for the production of a long thesis document. This document is evidence you can think, be creative and write academically, but is decidedly not evidence that you can teach, sit on committees, write peer review, and design curriculum or any of the other myriad tasks and chores that you have to do in a large and complicated bureaucracy like a university. Dr Mary-Helen Ward has accused the PhD of having an ‘accidental pedagogy’ and I think she’s right.

While I’m sympathetic to the ‘life of the mind’ aspect of keeping the dissertation part of the PhD, I think we can do better. Rachael pointed out that the job ads she was reading were asking for a really wide – and possibly unrealistic – set of skills, many of which are not explicitly in the PhD experience by default, although they might be in the environment in which the PhD unfolds: the university itself. In other words, you will learn just as much (perhaps more) about doing academic work by taking active part in the life of the department as you do from writing a thesis. Being a student representative on a committee and watching how people behaved when other students weren’t around was certainly an education in academic politics for me.

Together we started to wonder how you might redesign the PhD to explicitly include more of this accidental stuff. This is an interesting intellectual exercise if you are, you know – a total nerd, but there is little in the way of evidence on which to base your new policy ideas. Most of what we have about employer expectations is retrospective self report; to my mind often the most unreliable of all qualitative research methods. When surveyed and interviewed, employers express dissatisfaction with, for example, graduates’ communication skills, but as I have written previously, this might be more about a culture clash between academia and work cultures on the ‘outside’, than lack of actual skills.

Rachael made the brilliant suggestion that we take a close look at the text in ads to see what the jobs were asking for and see if they matched what was being taught in the PhD. Fast forward three years of toil, presentations, extensive consultation with colleagues and bewildering rejections the paper has finally been published!(that’s a whole other story).

You can download it, but since I am way over word count, here are two things we didn’t expect to find:

Academic employers want people who play well with others: I’ve written before about how you can be a clever, productive asshole academic – and get away with it. This might be true when you are well entrenched somewhere and management are too scared to get rid of you, but watch out on the way through the door. Many ads were very explicit about wanting team players who could carry their burden of the emotional life of their department, including counselling students and other staff members in times of crisis. Other ads signalled that they want academics who will treat their non-academic colleagues with respect and courtesy. When short lists for jobs are created it’s my experience that people ask around informally… actually, let’s not sugar coat it. People will try to find out the gossip about everyone on that list. Your reputation is always in the process of being made – and not just with your academic colleagues. Good admin people know everybody; they are often highly trusted and excellent sources of gossip. If you are the type of person who is ‘too busy’ to treat everyone, regardless of status, with respect, you might be in trouble.

Academic employers want your network – but probably not for the reasons you think. A big and solid, peer-to-peer academic network is like gold. You can get early news on jobs, warnings about funding cuts and other valuable intel, as well as a ready supply of people you can work with. But it’s not JUST your academic network that academic employers are after. They want your connections outside too. If you have worked in a practice based discipline such as architecture, nursing, education or the like, universities can get you to use people you know to help them place undergraduates in intern programs. Other departments are interested in what consulting monies you may be able to raise or even what philanthropy you might be able to encourage. Many PhD students are warned that if they ‘step off the academic road’, and become one of the 60% who don’t go into academia on completion, they will never launch an academic career. Looking at these job ads I’m not so sure about this advice, although it might have been true in the 1980s – when many of the people giving it out started their career. I suspect that if you go ‘outside’ and actively maintain your ties by collaborating with academics, you might find yourself in an excellent position 10 years down the track should you decide to come back. The pay tends to be better outside, though, so you might decide to stick with the 60% who don’t bother pursuing an academic career.

There is so much more I could say about this topic but I am now way, way over my usual  1000 words. Rachael is temporarily out of the academic rat-race in a professional role (you’ll see she’s identifying as ‘independent academic’ on our paper), but I am actively carrying on this line of inquiry with other colleagues. We are interested in the 60% who don’t pursue an academic career – the majority of candidates now. What do non academic employers want? I will report when we have more results.

But for now I’m wondering, what do you think? Have you started looking at the job advertisements and wondering what to do next? Love to hear your thoughts about this post and the paper.

Mentioned in this post

Download our paper “Academic superheroes: a critical analysis of academic job descriptions”

Dr Rachael Pitt on Linkedin

Dr Mary-Helen Ward’s thesis about the PhD

A paper I wrote about the value of whingeing to other people: Troubling Talk: assembling the PhD candidate

Previous post on this research – ‘academic on the inside’

Academic assholes and the circle of niceness

Is the university a bad boyfriend?

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