While navigating the unemployment system in Sweden, I’ve discovered that I need to report every month what I’ve been doing to find a job. It includes applying for jobs of course but also training. I should also include working on my CV, networking and other activities that improve my employability. I’ve also been warned that one shouldn’t “work” during this time and all work has to be reported (you can work for up to 75 days and keep your unemployment status).
All of this has me reflecting on what work is in academia.
It seems to me that few other professions have the same structure as academic research. The only time I have not been working on something from a previous position was when I started research as an undergraduate. I was publishing undergraduate projects while doing my masters. When my PhD started, I spent quite a bit of the first year submitting, getting rejected, and resubmitting my masters research. I published my PhD work while first unemployed and then employed as an assistant professor*. So an implicit part of the system expects that you bring research baggage with you from position to position. I’m not sure how it works in other fields but for ecology/evolution, I haven’t heard of labs where students or post docs are forced to work on their previous projects on their ‘free-time’, ie time that they aren’t being paid for their current position. It seems to me that the implicit expectation is that these trainees will also continue to work on their current projects when they have left the lab. And pretty much everyone does.
Part of the reason for a lag between the salary for the job/project and the completion of the work is the turnover time of academic publishing. We can’t speed that up and I’m not sure we want to. But if publication signifies completion of the work, then there would be periods that you essentially couldn’t work on a project but need to wait for reviews, journal decisions, etc. It would be incredibly inefficient if people either didn’t start something new or get salary during this time. Hence the lag in project completion and overlap between positions. Even within a tenure track job, the same principles apply when transitioning between grants. None of this is necessarily a bad thing but it can cause issues when someone is without a position or decides to leave academia. Either the individuals volunteer their time to complete the project or collaborators have to take over. I wonder how many manuscripts lay unfinished because of the implicit expectation that academic research requires continuity in the field but there isn’t necessarily financial support for it.
Being an academic isn’t only about research so there is a strange duality of different kinds of work that make up the job. Some aspects of the job definitely do not carry over after a contract is complete. A university would never expect me to teach a course without paying me but would happily add a publication that I wrote to their research output.
In general, reporting my job search activities feels a little strange because so much of it falls under the umbrella of what would have been my work previously. Applying for grants is most definitely a job expectation of a professor but now that also functions as a job application because if successful a grant will provide me with 3 or 4 years of a research salary. Writing a paper is a more grey area, it is definitely the work of an academic but getting something published is an additional line on my CV that could be the difference between getting to an interview or not**. The same for a conference: work or networking to get a job? It can be both.
I think the system works reasonable well when people have a continuity of contracts/positions. Research happens and people get paid. But as we train more and more PhDs who don’t continue on as academics***, it might be good to think more about how the system can adjust to avoid volunteer work or worse science being lost to the file drawer.
*if I am completely honest I still have a dataset that I’ve expanded and still haven’t published but I began in my first field season as a PhD. Really must complete that!
**I think this is especially true if the paper is in a different field or topic so it shows you are capable in that area. Or probably if it is in a big flashy journal.
***again not necessarily a bad thing