Some advice to new academics
So, you’ve spent 3 years cloistered away, divorced from society, family and friends, writing 100,000 words for your doctorate on some specific, narrow and often obscure or esoteric topic. That of course is far and away the best preparation for dealing with hundreds of students on wide ranging topics and subjects. Be prepared for a shock.
That is not the only shock you will encounter. Some students aren’t that bright. In fact, some are door post dumb. But because Universities are now a business, the more students the University takes on, the more money the University gets. And when it comes to marks, the customer is always right. Up to a point.
This means you will have to pass people who have no idea about the subject you are teaching. Indeed they may have no idea about life either but years of underfunding of secondary education and doing rote tests have trained them into thinking they are the new Einsteins. The idea of hard work may be foreign to them.
The idea of attending classes definitely will be. But that is OK because technology means you can record your lectures. Not many students listen to the recordings. So if not many attend, and not many listen, what do they do?
Well, the weekend before the exam, or before the essay is due, they’ll cram in a few things and regurgitate them onto the exam paper or essay. That of course has to be rewarded with a high distinction because it is what students expect. It is also what Universities reward.
Because the living allowances for students are so low, and restricted, many students work long hours in jobs just to survive. On top of that, inadequate University funding means they get run down overcrowded rooms with inadequate portals and the like; the libraries are underfunded; there aren’t enough support staff; and academics are stretched to breaking point.
Students also want to finish their degrees and earn the big bucks as quickly as possible. So full-time students doing full time jobs are not that uncommon. Some Universities are accommodating this by having lectures at night, so you day could begin work at 9 in the morning and end at 10 at night.
Instead of the traditional 2 semesters a year, pushing students through 3 semesters a year cuts a 3 year degree to 2 years. Guess which bunnies will do that extra teaching?
Universities are run along business lines. Vice-Chancellors are the new CEOs. The product is not knowledge or better or critical ways of thinking but a piece of paper for a few years of study, a piece of paper students can barter for high wages and prestige positions (or so they think.) A piece of paper that is sold for 30 pieces of silver. That is the new educational KPI par excellence – is your course profitable?
Eventually business and government are going to realise that buying a piece of paper isn’t a guarantor of critical thinking, knowledge or aptitude. But in the decade or so that it is going to take them to figure that out, you new academics just keep inflating results. That will give you good student feedback. And that is important for keeping your job and advancing in your academic career.
Students liking you is just one of the Key Performance Indicators. Publications is another. So in your early years write as much shit as you can to get published in refereed journals. It won’t matter that much at the beginning of your career if it is in the Timbuktu Journal of Political Science or the American Journal of Political Science.
In the first stages of your career, you will be writing for and read almost solely by a select few others in the field so it always helps to cite them. Your aim is to join their group so you can get published in their circle and cited by them. Write the same sort of shit they do.
Look for good honours and research students. Add your name to their honours or other thesis and try to get that published. After all, you supervised them, and it’s not as if you are stealing their work unattributed. It’s more about you introducing them to academic publishing. It’s just a side benefit that you get another publication on the belt of academic publishing conquests. Console yourself with the fact that your magnanimity is also reaping a small personal reward.
Journal rankings have been abolished because some Universities made inappropriate use of them. However, as you progress in your career, publication in A and A* ranked journals evidently indicates you are shit hot. Universities still do take the rankings, which supposedly no longer exist, into account. So aim for them. Try to find an A or A* ranked journal that shouldn’t be, one that will be more willing to accept your possibly less than stellar contributions.
All this writing means you can kiss goodbye to a life outside work. There is no 38 hour week for academics. 45 or 50 hour weeks are not uncommon. Academic Stakhanovites might even work 60 hours. There are lots of them.
Not only that, but don’t imagine this extra time is taken up with just or only research. Universities are cutting costs by not only getting rid of academic staff and increasing teaching hours for those who remain. They are also cutting the number of support staff, so that those who remain are stressed, overworked and prioritising their work. This means academics have to do a lot of administrative work which in the past would have been done by professional staff.
Don’t be surprised too if many of your new colleagues are – how to put this delicately? – strange. Giving individuals free reign in obscure fields can produce or reinforce strange behaviour. The nature of the work attracts introverted individuals.
The commercialisation of Universities might be destroying the niche areas and the new homogeneity might be teaching business studies to 600 students but not everyone wants to be a business manager, or even a lawyer or doctor. So there is still room for the nutters, the societally challenged, the socially inadequate, the extremely introverted.
Prepare yourself for something else too. Universities are dictatorships. The VC is the king and the Deans the feudal lords. You are a lowly peasant.
As a newbie at the bottom rungs you will have little say or influence. You will be ordered about and bullied. You can almost certainly forget continuing to do work on your favorite areas of research coming out of your completed Ph D.
You’ll need to find a research area that brings in money. Grants is the name of the game. So focus your research, not on the social implications of the regulation of basket weaving in Timbuktu, but on trendy areas with money – something about regulating capitalism for the benefit of capitalism which doesn’t actually challenge ruling class domination is perfect – or those which industry is interested in.
A word of advice. What industry wants is not to invest money in research and development. It wants R&D done on the cheap for it in Universities and funded by government, but for business to be able to reap the rewards.
Grants are hard to get. And if you do win one they will often be inadequate, with little support from business until you have developed the profitable idea. Then the University or business will eat you alive and purloin the product.
Figure out too where the power lies in the School or the Faculty. Often, but not always, it will be the Dean or Head of School. Suck up to them, Play friendly games with them. Do if you can joint work and joint publications with them. Flatter them, and maybe get them to mentor you. Stroke their egos.
Do all of this despite the fact they may be the strangest of the strange, or the most ruthless, or the most backward, or the most bullying, or the most dictatorial or the most incompetent person you have ever met. Or all of the above.
Work out as well which faction dominates and its likely longevity. Go with them. Moderate your research interests to fit into theirs. Suck up to them.
Mouth the platitudes from the Vice-Chancellor about continual improvement, and serving students and their needs, about world class research, about improving the rankings. All vitally important to say. As long as you are getting published and students like you and some ‘research’ money is coming your way, and all your colleagues like you, you’ll be fine. It doesn’t matter that standards and improving the world in any real sense are missing from the equation.
Universities are profit centres and to get ahead you have to play the game. Write publishable rubbish. Pass poor students. Get quick and dirty grants. Be a sycophant to power.
Don’t whatever you do join the union and fight for the idea of education as a public good, or for a living wage for students and improved wages and conditions and less stress for staff or for adequate funding and support for Universities and education more generally.
Years later when you have made it up the greasy pole of academia the fact that you are now a manipulative, bullying, deceitful, dictatorial and socially useless person but a well remunerated adjunct of business and profit will have been a small price to pay for your success.