Enterprising, Enduring, Enabling? Early Career Efforts and ‘Winning’ Workshops

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


3 thoughts on “Enterprising, Enduring, Enabling? Early Career Efforts and ‘Winning’ Workshops

  1. Great post Yvette! It is alarming that winning a bid which brings much needed money to a department rapidly seems to be becoming an end in itself, with the research itself simply being about justifying the money, rather than, like you say, the funding being about facilitating the research, which is as it should be. I believe that writing a successful proposal is becoming more and more like trying to win a tender from a client in the private sector, which I used to do before moving into academia. My fear about this transition then is that learning to ‘win’ funding for research is becoming less about showing the reasons why a piece of research might be socially significant, and more about acquiring marketing and PR techniques which can be deployed in writing a bid which proclaims the greatest value for money and the biggest return on investment. It is refreshing to hear that this workshop talked about and challenged some of these practices that usually occur in workshops/talks/lectures like this. More of this please!

  2. As a Research Associate (ESRC funded ‘Making space for queer-identifying religious youth’) with a fixed term contract and a family to feed, lots of this really hit home as I look around for funding and employment opportunities.

    There are pressures to move institutions, some funders have this as a caveat for successful applicants as it broadens experience. Whilst some ECRs have followed a more conventional 7 year path (3 year UG; 1 year Masters; 3 year PhD) others have studied part-time, worked, travelled, started families and this period has become even more protracted. But the laying down of roots and the inability or unwillingness to be (inter)nationally mobile is thus interpreted as failure, certainly a non-starter with some funders.

    Here I am exposing the ‘cracks’ in my own CV (the part-time study, the call centre work, the family…) but whilst we look starry eyed at the established academics who’ve ‘made it’, workshops like this one remind us that most people’s lives, including theirs, do not map neatly on to a CV.

  3. Thanks Ria and Michelle – appreciate your comments and the difficult places we find ourselves in (even as we are tasked with propelling our places, people, positions, professions forward…). I really like the querying of an academic-time-line and the Q of who can be ‘on time’ in academia (mothers? women?).

    I’ve been thinking lately about who ‘arrives’ in academia amidst HE crisis – who is seen to occupy a safe position (on an ever more shaky ladder) and what does university ‘shake-ups’ imply about a ‘natural order’ of things, implicating the ‘meritocratic’ students and the ‘good university’ as resilient and achieving (now, despite the blows).

    More of this is discussed at: http://weekscentreforsocialandpolicyresearch.wordpress.com/2012/07/16/affecting-academia-collective-presence/

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