This week’s chat was hosted by Hazel Ferguson, co-founder of #ECRchat. Hazel is a postdoc researching the cultural politics of alternative food systems in the Northern Rivers of NSW, Australia. She tweets here.
The week before last, I hosted a chat on academic hierarchy. You can read the storify here.
I have to admit this wasn’t a topic I’d thought much about before. Although I have concerns about career progression, I tend to think of it as something akin to survival instinct: it’s about a desire not to have to regularly change jobs, work multiple casual contracts, and spend months every year un/underemployed.
As well, I’ve been enormously privileged in my time in academia to work mostly with people who are genuinely committed to mentoring young scholars. The kindness that some very senior people have shown me over the years (in sharing their knowledge, putting me forward for opportunities, allowing me to have a sense of ownership of projects, and asking for my ideas) is what has kept me in the sector. But the formal and informal power structures that working academics must negotiate remain, and they deserve serious consideration.
The chat started with a question about whether academia is very hierarchical, to which everyone responded: yes. Many people pointed out that the structure of academic levels and the prolonged vulnerability of people at the bottom fundamentally shape the nature of interactions in academia.
I can’t argue with this, but I think the interplay between this structure and the motivations that bring us into academia need more transparent discussion. Autonomy and mastery are always high on the list of reasons that #ECRchat participants say they are in academia. Our more senior colleagues appear to hold the keys to both. The right balance between guidance and freedom for PhD students and postdocs, and then effective mentorship later on, can be the difference between a productive career and leaving academia.
However, while many of the tips offered in the chat were enormously helpful (and I will be putting some into practice), I was left with the sense that academic hierarchy is difficult to negotiate, often informal and prone to misinterpretation, a cause of significant stress, and not serving ECRs due to how time poor senior academics are.
It is important for ECRs to learn not to take this personally, and to develop the tactics suggested. Negotiating expectations up front, being circumspect when new to an institution, seeking out mentors and allies, being mindful of informal power structures, and watching deeds not words are just some of the fantastic tips shared during the chat.
Yet, I also think there is a bigger issue in how academic careers balance between autonomy and hierarchy, collaboration and management, and innovation and conservatism. I wonder if the things that attract us to academia in the first place can be particularly elusive in the years directly following PhD completion?
 I hasten to say that my reflections come out of a very particular set of circumstances, which thankfully usually haven’t matched this story.