18th September 2012: Career Opportunities

Maxxim Consulting‘s Claire Arnold has stirred up a Twitter frenzy on #phdchat and #ecrchat with her Guardian article on post-PhD academic careers. Arnold who is a management consultant considers three possibilities: become a ‘star’ researcher; raise your profile as a public intellectual; or enter university management. Arnold observes: “Ultimately, academics will need to go where the money is.” (I agree but I have a slightly different interpretation.)


QUT’s Ben Kraal summed up many Twitter respondents: “How a new PhD graduate with little research experience, few publications and no established management track record can become internationally renowned or allowed to manage an organisation the size and complexity of a university is clearly left as an exercise to the motivated reader.”


Readers of this blog’s Academia thread will be familiar with my stance on these issues. Academia like other industries is now the domain of Hollywood-like superstar economics where a ‘winner-takes-all’ ethic prevails. The past year several Australian universities have undertaken redundancy programs as part of cost reduction measures. A small minority have become academic entrepreneurs who ‘bootstrap’ their careers like Susan Blackmore and Kate Distin. In this volatile, competitive climate, corporate boards look for visionary leadership and turn to Clayton Christensen‘s Disruptive Innovation Theory for guidance. Exhibit one: University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan and Helen Dragas and the debate surrounding the “high-finance” worldview (hedge funds and private equity) of some senior decision-makers at UV. Disgruntled academics look for scapegoats and often blame university administrators.


Arnold’s suggested career pathways are easier to understand if you reconsider the contemporary university as like a Classical Hollywood film studio. Australia’s Group of 8 universities are similar to Hollywood’s major studios whilst some of the ‘dual sector’ institutions are more like Val Lewton‘s B film unit or Roger Corman‘s independent productions. Every university has their high-profile academics and public intellectuals: these are similar to Hollywood’s star system and its auteur directors. Universities and film studios both have their senior management and administration. University academics who are successful at competitive grants are akin to Hollywood producers assembling creative teams and packaging film deals.


It takes serious investment and a marketing budget in Hollywood to create a star. It takes the support of film critics, media outlets and subcultures to create an auteur who will build an audience regardless of a film’s initial financial performance (the studio looks to ‘versioning’ and ancillary markets as other revenue streams). Production, administration, and senior management career pathways in Hollywood are different to ‘above the line’ creatives and are the fodder for films like Barton Fink, The Player, and The Kid Stays In The Picture.


Academia has some similar dynamics. Arnold’s “global researcher” will be backed by research incentives, university administrative support, a travel budget, marketers, and increasingly, a book agent for commercial publishers. Her “public intellectual” will at least have negotiated a flexible work schedule, and like Canadian anthropologist Sam Dunn, will probably co-run production companies or spin-out consulting firms. Dean and Vice-Chancellor roles involve Professors who have management experience or managers who enter the higher education sector.


However, the current climate of cost reductions, redundancies, and changes to research incentives means that several of Arnold’s options are closed to many academics. Australian universities now rarely fund “public intellectuals” because television programs and media coverage do not translate into priority research outputs that are measured by government metrics on institutional research performance. (Yes, there’s The Conversation, but it can also be an echo chamber and it doesn’t pay academics for their content.) Arnold’s “global superstars” have often spent decades building up their own infrastructure and research programs — and they get institutional attention because they are a more likely return on investment. You won’t get promoted to Dean unless you are first a high-performing Professor and effective School Head who can manage industry donors, complex multi-stakeholder negotiations, and organisational change management programs.


How then can a newly minted PhD academic deal with Kraal’s concerns? The Early Career Researcher (ECR) phase or first five years after PhD conferral is a crucial period for academic positioning in a superstar economics climate. Use the PhD to gain self-mastery of your discipline, research design and methods, and to get across the current debates in relevant international journals. Develop a distinctive research program with well-formed goals and milestones that will differentiate you as a significant researcher. Cultivate research mentors. Have a rolling 100-day plan and conduct regular retrospectives on your progress. Know your research administrators, cultivate institutional capital, and apply for internal grant schemes (read the funding rules and instructions to applicants). Find out what institutional research incentives you have access to. Use international conferences, social media and citation metrics carefully to network, amplify your presence, and to raise your profile and visibility. Get a commercial book agent. Learn some agile project management skills. Learn about intellectual property. Publish in the best journals that you can and for the most appropriate audiences that you want to reach. Read The Research Whisperer and The Thesis Whisperer.


Remember: the ECR period is more like the taut, warehouse punk rock The Clash rather than the drug-fueled, band in-fighting of Combat Rock.