On Nick Srnicek

This week I’m writing a PhD chapter on Aum Shinrikyo and the Accelerationist aesthetic and political philosophy. Accelerationism extrapolates the intensification of neoliberal capitalism as a pathway to a possible post-capitalist utopia. It has its Right (Nick Land) and Left (Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek) variants which are usually examined in terms of conceptual theory-building and teleology. But it’s also possible to examine Accelerationism through other lenses.

One of these lenses is the career trajectory of a university-based Early Career Researcher: usually the first five to seven years after PhD conferral or the initial period of being an independent researcher. Dr Nick Srnicek of Kings College London illustrates some successful ECR strategies. He built an initial track record of academic publications in aesthetic theory and the philosophy of historical materialism. He has had successful collaborations with Alex Williams (on Accelerationism) and Helen Hester (on social reproduction and the crisis of work). He engaged with debates and controversies about his research – such as on Accelerationism – whilst maintaining a broader context in his research program. He has had good relationships with publishers including Verso (Inventing The Future coauthored with Alex Williams) and Polity (Platform Capitalism).

Dr Srnicek’s use of successful ECR strategies is demonstrated by an upward trajectory of Google Scholar citations and impacts. His current research is situated at the nexus of international political economy and digital economy and some recent collaborative work with Helen Hester on anti-work. This is a broader and deeper positioning of his research program than an Accelerationist description and it should create greater longevity.

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.

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.

3rd August 2012: 53 Minutes With Kenny Loggins

Scott Brown’s New York profile of Kenny Loggins is revealing (thanks to The Reformed Broker):


Loggins started his career “spoiled” by the early success of Loggins & Messina. At 22, he surfed the instant fame (“People showed up singing ‘Danny’s Song’; our tour was really profligate”) and left the details to the pencil pushers. “Later, I found out that accountants want you to lose money on the tour because they want you to keep touring—their percentage stays the same,” he says. “If you think stardom is the answer to your problems, you’re sadly mistaken. And if you can do something other than this, you should. I watch American Idol, with all these kids who think being a star is going to solve their problems, and I think, You fucking idiot. Stardom is good if you want a nice table and a ticket to a show. It’s not a free pass around all the problems of being human. And it can cripple you if it hits too young.”


You only get a certain time period in academia to establish yourself as a leading, competitive researcher. The Early Career Researcher (ECR) phase — the first five years after PhD conferral — are critical for journal articles and grant funding agencies. In that time period, you need to be mentored on the academic game; you need to conceptualise a research program; and you need to know what other national and international teams in your area are up to. Don’t leave the university research metrics or intellectual capital/property protection to the pencil pushers. Learn from Loggins: establish the necessary structures to build a long-term, productive research career.

24th April 2012: How ECRs Can Fast-Track Their Institutional Capital

Early Career Researchers


RMIT University’s excellent Research Whisperer blog has a guest post by me on Early Career Researchers (the first 5 years after PhD completion):


ECRs should cultivate university administrators as potential allies who can help you to understand the institution’s unwritten rules. In addition, university administrators see and often review hundreds of curriculum vitae, grant applications and rejoinders, and publishing track-records. They’ve already developed the rapid cognition and intuitive judgment about what is needed to increase the quality of the document and its probability of success. They don’t need to be experts in your specific field or discipline.


I also respond to Melissa Gregg‘s recent call for ‘strategic complacency’ in universities.


Thanks to Tseen Khoo and Jonathan O’Donnell for the editing expertise, and the awesome Rosie X for the academic photo.


Image: Australian Academy of Science.