Modelling Research Careers

Thanks to the stimulating discussions that came about during and after the recent Simulating the Social Processes of Science workshop, I’ve been making a start on a research proposal which combines two of my major interests: simulating institutions and social interactions; and inequalities in research careers.

At the moment, my colleagues and I are putting together an executive summary of our idea, which is still taking shape. We hope to develop computer simulations of the current career structure of the academic community, focusing on the recent explosion of insecure short-term contracts for postdoctoral researchers. Here’s a sneak preview of the executive summary:

Motivations

The academic community in the UK has become an increasingly casualised workforce in recent years; some 74% of researchers are on fixed-term contracts. Insecure employment can have significant impact on individual researchers, such as increased stress levels or reduced productivity due to the need to spend significant time searching for further work. However, the systemic impact of this trend on academic institutions and on the broader research community has yet to be investigated in any significant way.

As a result of the prevalence of fixed-term contracts, academic institutions face numerous challenges: a much-increased rate of staff turnover; regular and frequent loss of specialized skill-sets; high costs of training new staff; and the inability to retain skilled young researchers with high potential. More broadly, the academic community as a whole may face a loss of overall productivity as increasing numbers of young researchers lose research time to complications of the career structure, and the consequent lack of sustained, long-term research efforts due to the short-term focus necessitated by fixed-term work. This research programme will examine the impact of the career structure of academia on research productivity using innovative modelling frameworks.

Aside from the obvious self-interest at play here, in that I’m currently stuck in this situation myself, what I find most compelling about this idea is what we may learn about the structural problems of academia. As the use of fixed-term contracts has been increasing, we’ve seen a number of fundamental shifts in the ways that universities operate. We see a much greater emphasis on attracting international students, competing for international recognition, and an ever-expanding management structure which puts academics under constant, ceaseless scrutiny. Understanding the effects of these changes will be a major part of this proposal, and I hope that the insights we gain from this work might help us develop alternative approaches to conducting research — approaches that might help academics regain their autonomy and job security.

The next major step in fleshing out this proposal is to develop our theoretical framework more.  Focusing on the impact of research career structures on research outputs will help us to make the case for this work to potential funders, who will certainly have an interest in discovering how our current structures might be made more productive.  But at the same time, looking more deeply at how these structures have evolved and what institutional changes in universities have facilitated these problems will be more enticing to other working academics who might be interested in collaborating with us.

So, much work remains to be done.  Comments and ideas are always welcome.

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3 thoughts on “Modelling Research Careers

  1. Jason says:

    Would you be OK with fewer jobs in the research world, but better security and career progression paths for those who do get a job? It just seems obvious to me that if we reformed the system but kept the overall research budget fixed, the major consequence would be fewer jobs (but hopefully a more productive, effective, ethically defensible system).

    I guess the sharp edge of this is that all postdocs would have to look at a random colleague and think “am I the one that would stay in the new system, or am I the one who wouldn’t have gotten the job?”

    • I’m not sure that it would be as bad as all that. If we made a genuine effort to reform university structures, that would include reforming management and administration as well — and I think we would agree that these parts of the university have become bloated beyond the edge of reason. Plus a lot of these managerial posts command large salaries, so chucking them out would save a decent chunk of change that could be used for employing academics, AKA people who do the actual work of the university.

      In general managers in universities continue to create environments that hugely favour themselves and see no problems with dumping ever-increasing workloads onto academics who are losing their salaries, pensions, and autonomy. On top of that, essential staff services get cut, saving more money for management while creating an even more hostile environment for academics.

      Of course Southampton is a good example of this. HR has ballooned out of control, new highly-paid Assistant Pro-VC posts have popped up — and yet at the same time, the staff counseling service has been axed, admin assistant posts have disappeared by the dozens, we no longer have people to handle our refuse collection, etc. etc.

      Ultimately I’d like to try to model many of these interconnecting parts and their effects on research productivity (and perhaps even student satisfaction). Perhaps that might spur some academics more powerful than myself to actually push for fundamental change in how universities conduct themselves. In the process, I think we could find a more sensible middle ground, where we could minimise job losses while vastly increasing security and opportunities for progression.

      • Jason says:

        Nice one. I’d be particularly interested in outcomes from the simulation that showed how re-arrangement of the existing level of funding could lead to both better research productivity and also the same (or greater) numbers of people in research roles.

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