Posted in Collegiality, Recap

Recap: #ECRchat on Negotiating Academic Hierarchy, 28th February 2013

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[1].

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?


[1] I hasten to say that my reflections come out of a very particular set of circumstances, which thankfully usually haven’t matched this story.

 

You can also download a PDF of the full chat here #ECRchat_tweets_2013_02_28.pdf

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Author:

Academic, political tragic. Northern Rivers, NSW, Australia.

4 thoughts on “Recap: #ECRchat on Negotiating Academic Hierarchy, 28th February 2013

  1. I’m sorry I missed this chat, it’s an interesting area. My take on it would be that hierarchy in itself is not necessarily a bad thing – it can lead to clarity of roles and responsibilities for example and offer clear means to promotion. I also often find myself looking at some of my senior colleagues and really not feeling a great deal of envy – the higher you climb the less air you breathe, as they say. I know through experiences good and bad that your immediate research team and line manager are far more important than hierarchy in the day-to-day experience of your job. Not being given autonomy, not having your opinion respected, or your contribution recognised in publications, and not being supported in building a more stable and predictable career – these are some of the consequences of poor management, which may relate to a rigid sense of hierarchy, as might a general feeling of not being included fully in the research culture of your institution; however, there are many other factors both individual and social, and within and outside institutions, which contribute to these outcomes.

  2. Thanks for your comment Simon – it’s definitely a complex and interesting topic. I agree with you that hierarchy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You’ve inspired me to look further into what makes effective hierarchy work well.

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