I was recently invited to present and participate in a British Sociological Association (BSA) workshop organized by the Early Career Researchers (ECRs) Study Group conveners, Dr Katherine Twamley and Dr Mark Doidge. The title of the workshop ‘What is a Winning Funding Application?’ posed an urgent, anxious question, felt as I planned my delivery and attempted to answer a loaded query, literally worth a lot. I wondered how I would, with colleagues, ‘workshop’ my way out of funding crises and the destruction of UK Higher Education: how to keep things constructive and positive in a harsh new climate? To enable rather than dissuade even as ‘early career’ is ever extended across the career trajectory which means some never ‘arrive’?
At stake are issues of (im)permanence as early career researchers attempt to secure their own posts by virtue of bringing in their own – and others’ – salaries; they attempt to progress up and permeate through academic hierarchies, negotiated internally via appraisals and promotions and externally in circulations of valued academics, institutions and incomes (Council funding first and foremost, I wonder…?). I also wondered if the workshop could possibly strike a balance between enterprise, endurance and effort and apathy, defeat and exhaustion – as an ‘early career’ introduction to academic ‘success’. Heightened hurdles should not just compel athletic-academics able to competitively keep apace, where only certain stars in certain spaces compete and complete (with their award being more stars and more space).
Rather guiltily I paused on passing my own bullet-pointed CV to the organizers in advance, aware that this displayed only success and disguised ‘failure’ and longevity (2nd and 3rd attempts; the peer review process; labored responses to reviewers; end of award reports etc.). ‘Winning’ become seductive when neatly mapped on our successful CVs (again, guiltily, I felt somewhat captured by my own CV, re-reading this as evidence of ‘making it’). But there are broader efforts and endurance between the bullet points, which if they are to mean anything, must travel beyond our own self-credentialism and collegial-institutional competitiveness as reductive measures of ‘winning’ or ‘losing’. Oppositional academics fosters a reduced bullet-point state of ‘what we are worth’ as intellectual in-fighting; while I warily anticipated some of these same valuations and reductions, I was genuinely refreshed by the collegiality and enduring efforts expressed and put to work. There was a huge effort and care as participants commented on others’ in-progress applications as positive peers.
It was clear that many aspiring, creative and remarkable ECRs were all too aware of the spaces they inhabit – with several speaking passionately and with pain about the continued sticky distinction between elite and post-92 institutions (Taylor and Allen, 2011). While a Con-Lib government shake-up advocates a benign starry ‘rise to the top’ and a sinking ‘fall to the bottom’ of good/bad institutions, it is clear that these academic-strokes are more arbitrary and unjust than a self-satisfied congratulatory ‘win’. I found myself encouraged and sustained by ECRs’ passion in painful times and their efforts in unequal circumstances as they considered the subjects (disciplinary, institutional, professional and personal) that are important to sustain, rather than short-circuiting value as income. We reassured each other that the income is not the end point or outcome of research; rather, income can facilitate research and its ‘use’ is likely to confound numerical value (see Educational Diversity: Different Subjects and the Subject of Difference, 2012).
There were many open, if difficult, questions posed in the workshop and these should concern us all – no matter how entrenched our place is in academia, no matter if we have accumulated some space or some stars. Questions included: ‘Who do I need to make a difference to?’;‘Who sees themselves as an ESRC ‘Future Leader?’; ‘How long is Early Career?’; ‘Can I write holiday time into a grant?’; ‘Where does maternity leave figure?’; ‘Are elite institutions more likely to get grants?’
To ‘workshop’ something, in my mind, is to participate, to join in, to creatively contribute and collectively learn (rather than to disseminate, digest or ‘transfer’ knowledge from entering-to-exiting the room). A ‘workshop’ is richer than its component parts of ‘work’ (as research=income=working) and ‘shop’ (as an ‘enterprising’ servicing by-the-university-to-all). In ‘winning’ back academia it is important that we do not stall in a self-servicing re-read of our own CVs (with ‘Income’ headlined). We owe early career academics so much more than bullet-pointed abbreviated academics).
Yvette Taylor, Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research