Persistence and Uncertainty in the Academic Career

Good article for those of us who are substantially irked by the short-sighted use of fixed-term contracts in academia:  (PDF download link on the right-hand side)

The important bit of the abstract:

“We introduce a model of proportional growth which reproduces these two observations, and additionally accounts for the significantly right-skewed distributions of career longevity and achievement in science. Using this theoretical model, we show that short-term contracts can amplify the effects of competition and uncertainty making careers more vulnerable to early termination, not necessarily due to lack of individual talent and persistence, but because of random negative production shocks. We show that fluctuations in scientific production are quantitatively related to a scientist’s collaboration radius and team efficiency.”

And the discussion gives a nice summary:

“One serious drawback of short-term contracts are the tedious employment searches, which displace career momentum by taking focus energy away from the laboratory, diminishing the quality of administrative performance within the institution, and limiting the individual’s time to serve the community through external outreach [3, 6]. These momentum displacements can directly transform into negative productivity shocks to scientific output. As a result, there may be increased pressure for individuals in short-term contracts to produce quantity over quality, which encourages the presentation of incomplete analysis and diminishes the incentives to perform sound science. These changing features may precipitate in a ‘tragedy of the scientific commons’….

However, this model also shows that the onset of a fluctuation-dominant (volatile) labor market can also be amplified when the labor market is governed by short-term contracts  reinforced by a short-term appraisal system. In such a system, career sustainability relies on continued recent short-term production, which can encourage rapid publication of low-quality science. In professions where there is a high level of competition for employment, bottlenecks form whereby most careers stagnate and fail to rise above an initial achievement barrier. Instead, these careers stagnate, and in a profession that shows no mercy for production lulls, these careers undergo a ‘sudden death’ because they were ‘frozen out’ by a labor market that did not provide insurance against endogenous fluctuations. Such a system is an employment ‘death trap’ whereby most careers stagnate and ‘flat-line’ at zero production. However, at the same time, a small fraction of the population overcomes the initial selection barrier and are championed as the ‘big winners’, possibly only due to random

This makes for compelling reading, especially given that the usual justification for the use of fixed-term contracts seems to be the alleged benefits of the inevitable competition for posts — which our overlords would have us believe allows the cream to rise to the top.  What we see here is that, in contrast to the management view, short-term contracts amplify the effects of problems in research production, and those who rise to the top may have done so purely by being lucky rather than particularly skilled.  Meanwhile, the system creates a massive wastage of talent by cutting short potentially promising careers, given that research productivity can be stunted by problems in research teams (which continue to grow larger and more complex over time) or unfortunate bad luck in experiment outcomes or similar, and not necessarily by a lack of effort or skill.

Meanwhile, the focus on short-term contracts with short-term appraisals leads to an intense pressure to publish sub-par science more frequently, rather than well-considered, long-term research with more potential impact.  The loss of productivity due to worries over job insecurity and time-consuming, highly-competitive job application procedures is also not to be underestimated.

When I started my first postdoc I was advised to start looking for my next job when I still had a year left on my contract.  I did so and found, as most others do, that finding an appropriate academic position is very difficult due to the extreme specialisation of every post — if you’re unlucky and there’s not much in your area kicking off when you happen to be looking, you might end up struggling for work through no fault of your own.  Not to mention that it wasn’t uncommon for me to have to send 50+ pages of material to each potential job, causing me to waste rather a lot of time that I could’ve been using for my research.  In the end, getting your next post seems to rely much more on luck, timing, and networking than anything else.

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