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.

Coercion and Strategic Culture

Coercion

 

RAND’s Jack Snyder originally conceptualised strategic culture as a cross-comparative framework for evaluating adversaries’ use of force. Strategic culture’s potential for informing strategic bargaining remains under-theorised. Kelly M. Greenhill and Peter M. Krause‘s new edited collection Coercion: The Power to Hurt in International Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018) offers conceptual, theory-building, and policy insights on particularly non-state actors in a multipolar world who use a range of military and non-military instruments. Coercion has important insights for scholars who wish to further progress a fourth generation research agenda in strategic culture.

Demanufacturing Consent

In the early 1990s, I was an undergraduate student in La Trobe University’s cinema studies program. The Cold War had just ended and Australia faced “the recession we had to have” (then-Treasurer Hon. Paul Keating). I was introduced to Marxist thinkers such as Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci, and to critical feminist theory. Having grown up in rural Bendigo, I didn’t know my base from my superstructure. It was all way over my head.

 

Ironically, I was actually exploring Gramscian influences via Consolidated’s Nettwerk-released albums such as Play More Music. I read Noam Chomsky and long-form journalism in The Atlantic MonthlyThe New Republic, and The Nation. I saw the Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media in RMIT University’s video library. I briefly became involved in animal rights activism. I discovered that I really liked to write.

 

In October 1994 I ran for Rabelais student newspaper editor on a broad ticket. The on-campus progressives felt this was a betrayal, and ran a scare campaign (the successful ticket’s editors became notorious a year later). This experience chastened me: when I covered Chomsky’s 1995 lecture tour for Australia’s REVelation Magazine, I was critical of the activists that followed him.

 

Over the next decade I encountered various people and social movements with activist, utopian potential. I explored the Robert Anton Wilson, the Gurdjieff Work, and the Temple of Set. I wrote for and edited the Disinformation website, linking to sites like CounterPunchMother Jones, and Z Magazine. I spoke at and arranged panels for This Is Not Art: the youth arts festival held in Newcastle, Australia. I was part of the second student cohort in Swinburne University’s Strategic Foresight program which used critical education pedagogy.

 

However, many of the people involved in these activities did not enjoy a Gramscian ‘march through the institutions’. The dotcom collapse of 2000, the global financial crisis of 2008-09, and the Eurozone crisis of 2011 were turning points that led to the widespread adoption of neoliberal austerity policies. In 2008, I left Disinformation and retreated to a decade of academic publishing, research management work, on-going PhD research, and explored hedge funds and investment management.

 

This week I’ve been reflecting on how to reconcile critical, left-wing politics and wealth management. Some possible models:

 

  1. The activist or philanthropic hedge fund manager: George Soros or the more conservative Bill Ackman’s Herbalife ‘short’ and his interaction with social justice movements (see the Netflix documentary Betting On Zero).
  2. Continue to read the critical theory work of people like David Harvey, David Graeber, the late Mark Fisher, McKenzie Wark, Nick Srnicek, Alex Williams, Richard Seymour, and Charles Stross.
  3. Take Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s influential work and update it for an era of addictive social media platforms, agitprop memes, and information warfare doctrines.

 

We’ll see what personal synthesis continues to develop.

RentierCap

I’ve started a model portfolio that I will watch as 2018 unfolds:

 

  • AUMF – IShares Edge MSCI Australia Multifactor ETF (factsheet).
  • BAF – Blue Sky Alternatives Access Fund (shareholder site).
  • BLA – Blue Sky Alternative Investments Limited (shareholder site).
  • IHVV – IShares S&P 500 AUD Hedged ETF (factsheet).
  • IHWL – IShares Core MSCI World All Cap (AUD Hedged) ETF (factsheet).

 

The initial impetus for this emerged from reading S.M. Amadae, David Graeber, David Harvey, Michael Hudson, David Michael Kotz, Philip Mirowski, and James Rickards about neoliberal capitalism. These authors converged on the FIRE sector (finance, insurance, and real estate) as a socio-economic elite that would continue to charge debt and economic rents, as rentiers.

 

Current and former colleagues have looked to innovations like the sharing economy as a way to deal with growing economic inequality. I came to different conclusions: I spent six years learning how hedge funds and proprietary trading works. The topics ranged from macro plays (Kondratieff winter) and fund flows (Richard D. Wyckoff’s influence on technical analysis) to using global markets to hedge against home bias, and the success of momentum-value combined strategies.

 

I’ve dubbed the model portfolio RentierCap as it benefits from the FIRE sector. The model portfolio aims to accumulate wealth over a longer period of time than a catalyst-based intraday strategy. It uses Smart Beta and Exchange Traded Funds. I’ve selected BlackRock ETFs (in a nod to the Adam Curtis documentary HyperNormalisation), although State Street SPDRs and Vanguard ETFs could be used, and may have lower expense ratios and management fees.

Michael H. Cresswell on United States Public Diplomacy

8 years ago, Monash University’s Dr Ben Eltham and I examined United States public diplomacy during Iran’s 2009 election crisis. 6 years ago, I wrote a critique of the Bush Administration’s Global War on Terror (GWOT) grand strategy.

 

Now, Florida State University’s Michael H. Creswell has a new paper in Studies In Conflict & Terrorism journal on the Bush, Obama and early Trump Administration experiences with public diplomacy and why GWOT still continues today.

 

Creswell observes that it is import to examine public diplomacy for effective policy (p. 9):

 

Examining this subject is thus important primarily for policy reasons. Over the years, the U.S. government has dedicated considerable time and money to SC-PD and related programs. Gauging the efficacy of these efforts is necessary to determine if the time and money devoted to them have been well spent. If these efforts are failing to fulfill their intended purposes, then the government is wasting taxpayer money, squandering political capital, and incurring opportunity costs as well.

 

After examining the Bush, Obama, and early Trump Administration experiences Creswell concludes (p. 41):

 

In short, the U.S. government ought to rethink the usefulness of SC-PD in advancing the national interest, which in turn ought to govern the time, effort, and resources devoted to it. The benefits of implementing SC-PD well are relatively modest, while the downsides are fairly steep when it is done poorly. Instead, the government should direct more of its efforts toward designing more effective policies and strategies, as opposed to just trying to make existing ones sound better. This approach will serve the country more advantageously than endlessly tightening the bolts on a machine largely unsuited to the task it was created to perform.

I look forward to the final publication version of Creswell’s interesting journal article.

Exploring Human Values

20 years ago today, in the morning I attended my first Spiral Dynamics workshop in Melbourne, Australia. Dr Don Edward Beck and the late Chris Cowan ran the workshop: one of the last that they would do together. Beck is a PhD student of the social judgment psychologist Muzafer Sherif and is a ‘big picture’ geopolitical thinker; Cowan had a counselling background and was able to situate biopsychosocial systems models in terms of practical life advice. I had just interviewed both Beck and Cowan for my Marketing Magazine cover-story ‘The Advertising Virus‘. I would liaise with Beck until about 2004; I attended several of Cowan’s SD I and II training sessions and corresponded with him until he passed away.

 

In the afternoon I corresponded with Connell Monette (now Associate Professor at Al Akhawayn University) about our respective research. We discussed the Bektashi and Naqshbandiyya Sufi Orders. At the time, I was reading a secondhand copy of Hasan Shusud’s Masters of Wisdom of Central Asia on the Naqshbandiyya Order. I had also read Idries Shah and received the zikr from Dr Brian and Nina Earl, who were students of Gurdjieff pupil John Godolphin Bennett. I had circled around mystical Islam for several years; unaware of the Deobandi and Salafi jihadist events unfolding in Afghanistan at the time that would later lead to 11th September 2001.

The Advertising Virus

20 years ago, Australia’s Marketing Magazine published my first cover-story: The Advertising Virus on advertising and memes. The article featured interviews with Richard Brodie, and Spiral Dynamics authors Don Edward Beck and Chris Cowan. I later republished the article on the Disinformation website (archived here with some dead links). It will be featured in my forthcoming ebook of 1994-97 New Journalism, Personal Mythologists.

A New Article on Islamic State and Saudi Arabia

Kings College London’s Abdullah Bin Khaled Al Saud has a new article in Terrorism and Political Violence journal on Islamic State’s activities in Saudi Arabia. The abstract:

 

The self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) has never ceased targeting, verbally and physically, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. While it might be easy to know why, it is harder, but more important, to understand how. Since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the establishment of a wilaya (province) in the land of the two Holy Mosques in November 2014, thirty-two IS-linked terrorist operations took place in Saudi Arabia. Based on primary source materials produced by IS, and an examination of its footprint in Saudi Arabia, this article explains the calculus behind IS’s strategy and objectives in Saudi, shows the main themes of its narrative and how it tailors its strategic communications campaign to the specific historical and social context of the country, and illustrates how it tries to exploit and claim the Saudi religious heritage. The article also examines to what extent IS’s activities and operations reflect its rhetoric and purported strategy, describes the structure it adopts inside the Kingdom, and demonstrates why the momentum of its violent campaign has faltered in recent months.

Monash SPS Symposium Presentation on Fourth Generation Strategic Culture

On Wednesday, I’m giving a snapshot presentation on Conceptualising Fourth Generation Strategic Culture for the Monash SPS Symposium. This covers material from my PhD’s Chapter 1. It also covers some further development of my research program. Thanks to the SPS Symposium committee for organising the event.

 

Further details:

 

Disciple: Strategic Studies, Terrorism Studies.

 

Key words: strategic culture, research program, conceptual framework

 

Abstract: Strategic culture emerged from United States think tanks in the late 1970s as a comparative framework in strategic studies. Early proponents such as Jack Snyder, Colin S. Gray, and Ken Booth each sought to understand foreign decision-making on the use of force. In 1995, Harvard University’s Alastair Iain Johnston conceptualised three generations of strategic culture theory-building in an influential International Security journal article called ‘Thinking About Strategic Culture’.

 

This presentation (1) responds to Johnston’s framework to explore issues of generational selection, change, and continuity; and (2) proposes a new fourth generation that I trace to Jeffrey S. Lantis’ ‘constructivist’ turn in 2002. Lantis’ research and active sub-field building (such as with the United States-based Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the International Studies Association) involves national security policymakers using strategic culture to understand emerging trans-national security threats in a possibly multipolar world.

 

I outline a developing research program which develops strategic culture frameworks, qualitative case studies, and causal inference methods. Current research focuses on the possibility of strategic culture in terrorist organisations. Recent developments in (nuclear) complex deterrence, economic statecraft, and terrorism studies provide the necessary and sufficient context for strategic culture research to have greater policymaker relevance.

 

Update: The snapshot presentation audio can be downloaded here and the slides here. Thanks to Dr Pete Lentini and Dr Tom Chodor who were discussants.