By Luke John Murphy
It would hardly be controversial to claim that now is a challenging time to be an Early Career Researcher. PhD Students, Post-Doctoral Researchers, External Lecturers, and others in a range of insecure junior appointments all face mounting challenges from the ways in which the modern university is changing, challenges exacerbated by the pace of those changes.
In brief: the culling of smaller departments and the casualisation of academic labour have reduced the number of permanent jobs available, particularly in the humanities, and doubly so in niche areas like Medieval Studies. Simultaneously, pressure on departments to train more PhD students has flooded the market, requiring that we look further afield for work and stay tenuously underemployed longer and longer as we face ever-tougher competition for those few remaining jobs. A recent Nature editorial proclaimed that:
Global figures are hard to come by, but only three or four in every hundred PhD students in the United Kingdom will land a permanent staff position at a university. It’s only a little better in the United States.
Inevitably, this has led to rising mental health pressures, and the increasing pace of reorganisation and cuts has left our senior colleagues increasingly unable to offer the sort of support and advice they received from their own supervisors. Unsurprisingly, more and more ECRs are leaving academia, which only contributes to a distressing feeling of attrition as each year sees fewer of our friends and colleagues still active in scholarship.
One key survival tactic that has emerged the face of these trends is the idea of strength in numbers, with ECRs turning to the internet to share information with one another, creating communities and movements based around advice, tips, CFPs, experiences, horror stories, and warnings for surviving the modern academy. From light-hearted Twitter hashtags like #phdlife to more serious platforms like Our Site, ECRs have a whole range of online resources to remind us that we’re not alone, that there are others out there facing the same problems as we are – and occasionally to provide perspective by reminding us that others have even worse problems. I’m very aware that my own situation in northern Europe is a privileged one compared those of my peers elsewhere in the world!
Many junior scholars in my own field of Viking and Medieval Scandinavia have been active in this, and in the spirit of these valuable support networks I’d like to describe some of our experiences and initiatives here, in the hope that ECRs in other fields can learn from our successes and failures. Of course our efforts will not be neatly transposable to other subjects, but I hope this information will be useful (or at least interesting) nonetheless.
First, some context: the study of Viking and Medieval Scandinavia is not a discipline in and of itself, and our networks, conferences, and projects are thus often interdisciplinary, with historians, philologists, archaeologists, historians of religion, and art historians all participating. The field is not a particularly large one, even in the Nordic region today, where many departments are based and many of our conferences take place.
This geographic concentration has led to many researchers of my generation becoming connected on social media, first as fellow students, later as ECRs and colleagues. While there are many platforms on social media for discussion of Viking and Medieval topics, such groups and pages are largely open not only to more senior scholars, but also the public. While this accessibility is undoubtedly a good thing, in late 2014 a closed Facebook group was created with the intention of giving members of my cohort – then largely PhD Students – a private space to discuss topics that concerned us, from research issues to practical aspects of ECR life, particularly the PhD dissertation and subsequent employment. Out of respect for this group and its members, I’ll provide no further details, save to note that the group has grown with time as its members’ personal and professional networks have expanded.
It became increasingly common that members of this group would meet one another at academic events, even when they’d not previously met in person, and in 2016 it was suggested that we hold a dedicated event of our own. Several people volunteered to help organise something, myself included, and we polled the group on what they wanted: a social gathering? A traditional, research-based forum? Discussion of specifically ECR-based issues? The overwhelming response was “all three”.
With a small group of volunteer organisers (whose numbers fluctuated between two and five), we decided to hold a dedicated event in the autumn of 2017 and to then piggyback a second gathering onto a larger, field-wide conference in the summer of 2018. We – the organisers – drafted and submitted funding applications to a range of organisations, proposing that our two events could formalise what was already an established online network. While we received many rejections, we were able to secure some financial support from three PhD Schools and one private foundation, leading to the official establishment of The Network of Early Career Researchers in Old Norse – or NECRON (also known as the Netværk for yngre forskere i nordisk vikingetid og middelalder, or NYFVM.)
NECRON held its first event in October 2017, and, again, we polled our online membership to decide not only when and where we’d meet, but also what we would discuss and the format that would take. The result was a two-day weekend workshop in Copenhagen (chosen for its relatively-central location if not its ECR-friendly prices), starting after lunch on the Saturday and concluding in the early afternoon on the Sunday so as not to interfere with regular teaching or research. Entitled Trends and Challenges in Early Career Scholarship, the event was advertised as widely as possible, attracting over forty contributors (not all originally members of our Facebook group) from across Europe, and a handful from North America.
The first day was dedicated to research trends in our field, with participants presenting their own research in posters and 3-minute “slam” presentations. We also invited keynote lectures from more-junior-but-still-permanently-employed colleagues to discuss two key movements (Digital Humanities and Cultural Memory), and held a round table of ECRs to discuss the state of research in the field.
Following the requested socialising time on the Saturday evening, the Sunday was dedicated to discussion of the challenges ECRs face, such as those I outlined above. In keynotes and round tables, we discussed publication, particularly Open Access and the pressure on ECRs to rush out journal articles; teaching as a tenuously-employed and under-supported ECR; as well the increasing demands on ECRs for international experience, multiple post-docs, and lengthy CVs – and the effect these demands have on our personal lives, pulling us away from friends, family, and support networks, interfering in relationships and delaying our ability to have families of our own.
We noted the grim possibility that such demands would increasingly see an entire generation of researchers become rootless nomads, into their late thirties or forties before they can settle down – an outcome that would be good for neither those involved nor the academy as a whole, pulling it still further away from mainstream society. Despite this, some silver linings were identified: online communities like NECRON, the digitisation of source material, and Open Access publishing hint at a future that may allow those of us forced out of academia to remain involved in serious research, albeit most likely as unpaid hobbyists.
Every participant will have taken away something different from the event, and I doubt my own recollections are unbiased, but my feeling is that the debates and discussions we held were not only enlightening, but also respectful and constructive.
I’d like to close by offering some unsolicited advice for people reading this, particularly younger ECRs. Attend student symposia and conferences (or organise one if your field doesn’t have them): they’re fantastic places to meet both new people and new ideas. Embrace social media as a source of information and support: there’s a wealth of experience out there if you just ask, but don’t be afraid to step away from social media if you need a break. Cross disciplinary and organisational boundaries: common problems in literary studies or at British universities might be solvable by practices from archaeology or German institutions. Consider formalising your network: As we found with NECRON, simply picking a silly acronym made us – and our concerns – identifiable (and Google-able), and even if nothing further comes of our network, we’ve already gotten a lot out of it. Know what you’re getting into, and what you want: information is power, and while being aware of unpleasant practices in modern academia won’t make them go away it can prepare you to face them and make informed choices about your future.
Finally, treat your peers well: despite the pressures we face, we’re colleagues, not competitors. In the words of Védís Ragnheiðurdóttir, a participant at our workshop, the casualization of our labour, the cutting of permanent positions, and rising mental health problems – “These are things we need to fight against, because nobody is going to do it for us.”
The vagaries of the academic job market mean that I might not be around to see it, but in the face of these challenges, NECRON will meet again!
My thanks to Simon Nygaard and Danika Parikh for their feedback on earlier drafts of this text.
Luke John Murphy is currently working in a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at Stockholm University. You can follow him on Twitter @Luke_J_Murphy