On Early Career Researcher Grief

Erin Bartram’s ‘quit lit’ essay on leaving academia is emotionally powerful and resonates with many people. Here’s how Bartram – a United States-based historian who has had Visiting Assistant Professor roles – describes her decision:


I closed my laptop and walked out of my office. In that moment, I couldn’t bear to be surrounded by the trappings of a life that had just crumbled around me. The perfect reading lamp, the drawer of fountain pen ink, the dozens of pieces of scratch paper taped the walls, full of ideas to pursue. The hundreds of books surrounding me, collected over nearly a dozen years, seemed like nothing more than kindling in that moment.

I cried, but pretty quickly I picked myself up and started thinking about the future. The circumstances of the job I didn’t get were particularly distressing, so I discussed it with non-academic friends, explaining over and over again that yes, this is the way my field works, and no, it wasn’t surprising or shocking to me, and no, I won’t be able to “come back” later, at least in the way that I’d want to, and yes, this was probably what was always going to happen. And then I started looking forward.


Over the past 8 years I’ve interacted with about 80 Early Career Researchers (first five years after PhD conferral) at four Australian universities. I’ve seen some ECRs transform their research program and go on to be promoted to Associate Professor. I’ve seen some ECRs begin with optimism and then get weighted down by teaching and administrative demands. I’ve seen others like Bartram leave — and often go on to have successful ‘post-ac’ careers and fulfilling lives.


The academic job market is a ruthless microcosm of the neoliberal economy. Post-2008, career advisers like Karen Kelsky and Inger Mewburn have emerged to share how Faculty Deans and tenure track committees think when making hiring decisions. Career post-mortems – once the domain of risk managers – now encompass the entire grad school experience. Centralised Research Offices now regularly use analytics like Scopus and Google Scholar citations, Thomson Reuters journal rankings, and engagement and impact information to evaluate scholars’ productivity. It’s not quite GE’s infamous ‘rank and yank’ system of performance appraisal – but as Bartram observes, it’s close: each year many ECRs leave the higher education sector.


Unless you have an informed PhD Supervisor – or you have an ‘alt-ac’ career in university administration – this all may be invisible to you.


The ECR experience can be a period of heightened positive illusions. Bartram in her heartfelt post mentions many of these: the camaraderie of fellow ECRs; the excitement of conferences; and the joy of getting your first couple of publications. However, Bartram also notes some of the barriers: pay-walled journals, intense teaching loads, and an organisational climate in which doctoral expertise is reshaped to instrumentalist ends. The gap between the intellectual ideals of contemporary scholarship and the organisational realities are often very confronting. Consequently, ECRs may go through a period of disillusionment whilst they learn how universities actually work.


Career advisers like Kelsky and Mewburn are clear on how ECRs now need to self-manage their post-PhD trajectory. You need to have a fundable research problem with a 3-to-5 year outlook. You need to publish during and after your PhD to stand out competitively. You need to self-manage your public face via a professional website, LinkedIn, Google Scholar, and possibly Twitter for strategic, targeted outreach. The publications you write will create a track record that will underpin grant applications. You need to present at conferences and to organise a panel. You need to understand how journals’ editorial process works – which means cultivating a relationship as a reviewer and then as a writer. Some knowledge of intellectual property – copyright, trademarks, patents, and trade secrets – also helps.


Much of the ECR period – particularly in Post-Doc roles – is about developing an identity as an independent scholar and learning these institutional norms. Many universities now run seminar programs to share this knowledge. Having an informed mentor also helps. The ECR needs to manage several different roles: new teacher, emerging scholar, counselor, and, paradoxically, entrepreneur of their own research program. In reality, this transformative process often needs to begin at the All But Dissertation stage of your PhD.


As Bartram notes, ECRs are socialised into an academic, scholarly community. There is a gap between this ideal and how senior executives may view successful researchers: as revenue generators for the university. It is possible to balance the two: to build a community and also to generate income through grants, contracts, tenders, and panels. How to reconcile these two mindsets — and how to support those scholars like Bartram who decide to pursue ‘post-ac’ options — will be a challenge for university research managers. Bartram’s powerful post suggests that we need more Elisabeth Kubler-Ross or the Tibetan Bardo Thodol — as a counterpoint to Al ‘Chainsaw’ Dunlap-inspired downsizing, austerity budgets, and cost reduction.