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.

Global Metal

York University anthropologist Sam Dunn has found a communication strategy to reach a broader audience than many academics and scholars.  Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (2005) combined Dunn’s fandom of heavy metal music, a taxonomy of subgenres, interviews with influential musicians and a field trip to the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany.  Dunn’s follow-up documentary Global Metal (2008) travels from Wacken to three BRIC members (Brazil, India and China), China, Israel, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates.  Global Metal has rich insights on the coevolution of nation-states in the world system, the challenges of market design, indigenous and hybrid responses to globalisation, and new voices on old debates in heavy metal subcultures.

Anthropologists need an entry point into a new culture.  Dunn achieves this by interviewing Max Cavalera the cofounder of Brazil’s Sepultura and frontman for Soulfly and Cavalera Conspiracy.  Cavalera explains that Sepultura emerged in the mid-1980s as Brazil evolved from a military dictatorship to a neoliberal market society.  For many heavy metal fans Sepultura’s album Roots (1996) was their first encounter with an indigenous worldview as the band included field recordings with the Xavante Indians and Brazilian percussion.  Dunn’s interview with Cavalera uses Roots to tacitly bring the anthropological models and theories of Clifford Geertz, David Horowitz, Stanley Tambiah and others to fans who are unfamiliar with these influential scholars.  In contrast to this immersive approach Global Metal ends with a more familiar event: Iron Maiden‘s concert on 1st February 2008 the first time that a major Western heavy metal band has played Mumbia, India.

A second entry point for fans is when Dunn revisits past controversies and debates in heavy metal media to include new voices and perspectives.  Does Slayer‘s song ‘Angel of Death’ about the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele promote Holocaust denial and racism?  Dunn turns to the Israeli band Orphaned Land who note that although the song was written for shock value it has been used by politicians to inform Israeli youth about the Holocaust.  Orphaned Land then talk about Jerusalem as a global city and the past religious conflicts between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Far scarier than Middle Ages imagery and occult demons is Orphaned Land’s reality of having to live daily with potential suicide bombers in crowded urban areas.

Dunn returns to this debate throughout Global Metal to show how different individuals and groups reinterpret a meme or symbol and how this can have unforseeable outcomes.  Orphaned Land recount how after playing ‘Angel of Death’ live for Israeli audiences they were sent a mail bomb by Varg Vikernes a notorious Norwegian black metal musician and Holocaust denier.  Iranian fans who are photographed next to Slayer graffiti face possible arrest and torture by religious police – which provokes Slayer’s frontman Tom Araya to comment that the fans seek a death sentence.

More disturbingly, Dunn interviews the Indonesian band Tengkorak whose song ‘Jihad Soldiers’ embraces a militant Islamist worldview.  When Tengorak’s lead singer quotes conspiracy theories from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Dunn observes his jacket has a crossed out Nazi swastika.  “We’re not against Jews,” the singer explains, “just the Jewish system.”  Dunn then visits a Muslim mosque with another Indonesian musician.  Tengorak’s context is the 1997 Asian currency crisis which sparked a wave of conspiracy theories within Indonesia due to macroeconomic destabilisation.

Many of the interviewees give examples of how heavy metal music is reinterpreted differently to Western narratives.  Japanese fans reject Western alienation as an existential motivation and instead create a more emotional and direct identity that is an alternative to their conformist work identity.  KISS had an immediate impact in Japan as the band’s makeup is comparable to Kabuki theatre.  The live improvisation which closed Deep Purple‘s first concert at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan in 1972 has sparked a subculture of ageing salarymen who reform their teenage bands to play ‘Highway Star’.  Former Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman explains how X-Japan and Death Panda have fused heavy metal with Japanese game shows like Rock Fujiyama and pop music to create rifts within and between subcultures.  In China heavy metal music is used as part of a Confucian state policy to give youth an outlet for aggression, even though the music is officially frowned upon.  Whilst visiting Mumbai, Dunn intercuts scenes of Indian bands playing a local bar with the Hindu wedding playing Bollywood music next door: two alternative cultures coexist.

The heavy metal subcultures that Dunn visits serve as barometers for nation-state development; freedom for religious and political views; and in a nod to Ulrich Beck, P.R. Sarkar and Amy Chua, the relationship of subcultural groups to mainstream society and sociopolitical power.  Japan has a Janus-faced subculture which has Western and indigenous elements.  India and the United Arab Emirates’ subcultures are at an infancy stage which Dunn links explicitly to democratic political institutions and modernisation: UAE hosts a festival with bands and fans who cannot perform in their home countries due to restrictions.  China, Iran and Turkey have subcultures that are underground due to religious authorities who perceive them as antinomian youth subcultures.  Beck’s concept of subpolitics from below and Sarkar’s Law of the Social Cycle provide theoretical insights here: if the fans are shudra (workers) they have coopted insights from vaeshya (entrepreneurs, merchants) and vipra (intellectuals) to create soft power which counteracts the influence of ksatriya (military).

Brazil and Indonesia are two test cases of this hypothesis.  Cavalera’s narrative of Brazil’s transition to democracy st
ands in contrast to Samuel P. Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies (1968) which warned of the gap between rapid sociopolitical change and lagging political institutions.  Instead, Cavalera argues that Sepultura’s music signified a subpolitics response by the shudra underclass to poverty and the lack of macroeconomic and sociopolitical reforms by social elites.  The flashpoint is Metallica’s concert on 11th April 1993 at Lebak Bulus Stadiam in Jakarta, Indonesia.  Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich explains that in order to protect a middle class area Indonesian police prevent fans from entering the stadium.  Fans retaliate by setting fire to the surrounding buildings; the smoke is visible on a bootleg concert tape.  Indonesian authorites then banned all heavy metal bands and live tours until the Suharto regime ended in 1998.  Indonesia’s heavy metal subculture have since gained greater visibility although Tengorak gives voice to subcultural fears of Western geoeconomic, cultural and religious domination.

The consensus of most fans in Global Metal is that heavy metal’s ‘identity politics’ is evolving into a transnational network with a cosmopolitan worldview.  Almost everyone in the documentary wars an Iron Maiden t-shirt – the power of Chinese sweatshops, marketing and passionbrands.  The major facilitator is the heavy metal entrepreneur, such as the cofounder of China’s Tang Dynasty who imported Western heavy metal in the late 1980s and then evolved into an indigenous worldview.  The major barrier to this cosmopolitan ideal and diffusion process is when subcultural identities are caught in Muzafer Sherif‘s assimilation-contrast effect of social judgment: Japanese purist fans who decry the fusion of pop-metal or Indian fans who are caught in a power struggle with authority figures and family traditions.

Failures in market design are one source of these infra-subcultural battles.  In order to change their financial account reporting Western conglomerates dumped their excess back catalogue such as Extreme‘s 1989 debut album as cheap CDs into India and other countries.  Third World countries were the beneficiaries of bootlegs, MP3s and illegal downloads.  Dunn coaxs an admission from Ulrich that this is a positive trend, a reversal of Metallica’s lawsuit against Napster in 2000.  Black markets emerge where demand exists yet there are no official agents and major price differentials exist.  Ironically,  Global Metal is a victim of this trend: the documentary and a soundtrack of featured bands now circulates on illegal BitTorrent networks.  Turn up the distortion to 11.