Why getting that first job is becoming harder

Are universities raising the bar for new academic staff? I had coffee with a friend, who said she thought the expectations for first positions had become higher over the last five or so years. After thinking about this, I reckon that this change has been going on incrementally for a lot longer than that.

In any department that has research ambitions, appointment panels expect new lecturers to have not only a doctorate, but also publications. The panel will measure those publications against the national quality assessment criteria, and in most cases they will want to appoint only people whose publications are good enough to enter in the assessment. The panel will also want some evidence that the new lecturer can write grant applications – and ideally has already written at least one successful bid.

Is this new? Well, when I got my first university position in the 1980s, Warwick already expected new lecturers to have these things. But Warwick was then thought rather a vulgar, jumped-up place, which had barely survived a closure threat in 1981. Back when I submitted my own PhD in 1979 (also at Warwick), my supervisor still hadn’t finished his own doctorate, and neither, for that matter, had his supervisor.

Anyone working in the sector will point to assessments of research quality as the most obvious and significant factor. The very language reflects this: appointment panels almost invariably ask ‘Is Dr X reffable?’ – a neologism that may mean little to people outside UK universities, but is critical within them. So the quality assessments, still carried out in the UK by peer review, have helped raise the entry threshold.

But the REF is hardly the only factor. Another one is the improved standard of doctoral training, at least at the upper end of the system. In the UK, this change has been largely thanks to the research councils, who have set out much more explicit standards for doctoral programmes, which are designed to produce more rounded and skilled researchers. It has also been promoted by increased international contact, which in my experience has encouraged academics to think more about how they prepare their own doctoral students, and has also help students learn from experience in other countries.

As universities across the world have started to raise their eyes beyond national horizons, so they have started to compare themselves with each other. World league tables emphasise global research achievement, whether measured through the number of Nobel prizes or average citations per publication per professor. Every university in the global top 200 has a vice chancellor who wants them to aim for the top 100, and those in the top 50 want to get into the top 10. And they hire faculty who will help them rise.

Internationalisation has also widened the pool of talent. When UK universities advertise a position, they expect to attract candidates from overseas. Local knowledge can be an advantage in some disciplines (teacher education, social work training, Scottish law) but in most disciplines it is pretty much irrelevant. In my first post, I had competed against 200 other people – every one of them from Britain or Ireland. Someone applying today faces talented competitors from Beijing, Brazil or Belgium, whose training and assumptions will be different from those whose horizons are limited to the local setting.

Is this a bad thing? Cultural nationalists may think so, as they would prefer to have – say – Quebec universities staffed mainly by people from Quebec. More significant, from my view, there is a high risk of cream-skimming, with universities plucking talented people from around the world – and inevitably rich universities in rich countries take talent away from poorer nations.

On the whole, though, I see academic mobility as a healthy development. Personally, I rather enjoy working alongside people who do not share my immediate sense of priorities and assumptions, but who instead challenge them and make me feel intellectually uncomfortable. I also think that research quality assessment, like internationalisation, has helped to raise the overall standard of academic research (though we may now be witnessing diminishing returns).

So I don’t mind too much that things have got tougher. I’m not worried that universities are chasing the next generation of highly creative and skilled researchers – the problem is that many of them simply cannot get jobs at the moment. So the challenge for more senior academics is to pay more attention to helping new scholars achieve the standards required for that first post – which may, by the way, be in a university outside their own country.