That tricky first book: trends from the job market

I’ve seen a lot of early-career academic CVs recently: more than 200 of them, in fact, in the process of my Department appointing to five lectureships. This has prompted me to reflect on the nature of competition for lectureships, and the expectations and demands weighing upon those seeking to transition from life as a doctoral student to life as a lecturer. I’ve looked at these issues from different perspectives in other blog-posts (e.g. on the job market, and the teaching-only job). In this one I want to focus on publishing: in particular, I’m interested in the first book of an academic career in the humanities.

Looking back a generation or two, there was rarely any expectation that someone applying for a permanent lectureship would already have published a monograph. A well-placed article and a PhD from one of the ‘right’ universities was usually adequate. The expectation was that a monograph would take time. Indeed North American universities still commonly write such expectations into tenure-track requirements, requiring a book after about five years. In the UK, where probation requirements have typically been less stringent, monographs did not always emerge at all. But when they did, they often demonstrated the adage that good work takes time.

Over the past 25 years or so, however, there has been an acceleration of expectations in early-career publishing. This has been fuelled by successive RAEs and REF – or, more accurately, by a systemic over-reaction to the requirements of these exercises. I see two interrelated patterns here. Firstly, while there are undeniable pressures to publish (quickly) on those who emerge from a PhD in the year or two preceding a REF, these pressures seem to have become entrenched in the system, to the extent that most early-career researchers now set themselves similarly punishing schedules. Secondly, while the REF actually sets relatively benign expectations in terms of quantity for early-career academics, a competitive drive towards (over-)production is often hard to resist.

The whole business of academic publishing has evolved in parallel with these systemic changes. More monographs are being published than ever before. According to HEFCE’s Monographs and Open Access (2015) report, the numbers of new monograph titles published per year by the four major UK academic publishers roughly doubled between 2004 and 2013. And that’s just the four biggest publishers; I think we’ve also seen an expansion in the overall number of publishers. My interpretation of this situation is that academic publishing has become cheaper and more efficient – often, notably, by cutting back on peer review and copy-editing – so some publishers are building business models based more on quantity than quality. I suspect the same is happening with journals, but that’s another story.

What has this meant for early-career academics? Others have looked more carefully at the attitudes of ECRs towards publishing; here I want simply to consider the evidence presented in applications for lectureships. The table below, derived from the job applications I’ve reviewed in our current round of appointments, requires some initial comments. Firstly, the jobs were in Film Studies as well as English. (Some publishers lean obviously towards – or away from – each of these disciplines.) Secondly, the Film Studies job attracted a lot of applicants from continental Europe. Thirdly, the English positions were all in specific areas, some of which (e.g. digital cultures) don’t have an established presence in the lists of the more conventional academic publishers. Fourthly, I’ve tried to list only first academic monographs, so I’ve excluded some items which didn’t appear to fit this category.

Across all applications that we received, 51% listed a first monograph as either published, forthcoming, contracted or under review; another 34% made no mention of a monograph, while the final 15% was composed of applicants still completing doctoral study.

Status of ‘first books’ listed on CVs of applicants for lectureships, Exeter English 2015

Publisher Published Forthcoming Contracted; preparing Under review
Palgrave 12 6 5 4
Routledge 8 3 2
Ashgate 1 4
Cambridge UP 1
Oxford UP 2
Manchester UP 1 2
Edinburgh UP 2 1 1 3
Other UK academic presses 9 3 4
Other European academic presses 20 3
US publishers 3 1 1 3
Totals 57 23 13 12

What might we learn from these data? Firstly, they appear to confirm an impression of career-acceleration. Secondly, they confirm the importance of publishers other than the big British university presses. Thirdly, they raise questions about the brand of the academic monograph: or, in other words, about the impact that this line on a CV might be expected to have on a potential employer. At a shortlisting stage, panels are forced to look for proxies of quality. When so many monographs are published, however, it can be difficult at this stage to separate the excellent from the exceptional.

There are lessons here for employers as well as potential employees. Point one: a lecturer appointed to a first job in September 2015 will almost certainly require just three items for REF2020ish, and that might include a double-weighted monograph and at least one item that has not yet been written. So why do panels commonly ask candidates for their four best items? That question won’t necessarily help to identify the best candidate. Point two: one of the lessons from REF2014 was that many monographs were graded lower than four-star, while many other items were graded higher than three-star. So why our fixation on the monograph? Many of us, it seems to me, have some thinking to do about how we manage appointment processes, and what preconceptions we bring to the table.

So how many of our appointees have monographs? Not all of them, actually: a monograph doesn’t guarantee a job, nor does lack of a monograph preclude appointment. But most of them did.

‘Would you like some research with that lectureship?’

One of the questions a head of department is likely to be asked around this time of year goes along the lines: ‘Would you like some research with that?’ Or, in other words, as we identify a need – and more importantly find funding – for short-term teaching appintments, the decision to be made is whether these appointments will be ‘teaching-only’, or will also have research duties written into the contracts.

The rise of teaching-only jobs has been a feature of the past 10-20 years in the UK. It wasn’t my experience: my first job, a three-year contract at the University of Sydney, assumed research activity. There wasn’t much pressure, nor much in the way of a workload model; I was just put in an office and expected to get along with things, one way or another. But the world has changed. Casualization is a huge and worrying trend in North America, usually taking the form of ‘adjunct’ lecturers hired to teach by the module, and often as a result piecing together a living from multiple universities. This is transforming, in all sorts of ways, the expectations and lives of early-career academics on the other side of the Atlantic.

Conditions in the UK are generally better than that, albeit arguably trending in that direction. The UCU published a worrying report last month on conditions for casual staff, while plenty of university managers will be watching, with interest, developments at Warwick.) Nonetheless, the pressures of the RAE and REF have forced us to be more pragmatic about how we deploy research resources: including, most fundamentally, money. As a manager, the basic challenge for me is ensuring that my department maximizes its research capacity while maintaining its teaching quality. Research support is precious and (whether via grants or the REF’s ‘quality-related’ dividends) hard-won. Just as we agonize, increasingly, about how to use research leave, so we have to think about all those hours in the year’s workload model that are devoted to research. Will that investment help us when we get to the next REF? Hence the tough logic: short-term appointments equal teaching-only appointments.

Meanwhile, as much as we might assume that teaching-only jobs might attract less impressive fields of candidates, the evidence doesn’t necessarily support that assumption. Such jobs have become part of the landscape, an accepted step on the slippery career ladder. In a tight job market, overproducing PhD graduates in the humanities, we have had some stunning ‘education and scholarship’ lecturers at Exeter in recent years, and their impact on our teaching performance has been overwhelmingly positive. I worry, in fact, that we are becoming institutionally addicted to a stream of such appointments, unable to manage all the demands upon us without their input. But maybe that’s a topic for another blog-post.

Maintaining, then, a focus on the experience of the ‘teaching-only’ temporary lecturers, and the responsibilities of managers towards them, perhaps it makes sense to rephrase the opening question. It’s one thing to worry about a system that makes teaching-only appointments logical, but another to think about how we might make such positions a valuable stepping-stone for the people who take them. The AHRC’s Research Careers and Training Advisory Group is currently considering a new category of ‘research-engaged’ academic staff: to recognize, that is, people who are very much focused on research, even though they are not currently being paid for it. I think that’s an important conceptual step in the right direction, although it will be up to people like me to make sure that it actually means anything on the ground.

What might it mean? Above all, it means doing all we can to help these early career academics into permanent jobs. More specifically, a big part of the answer is cultural: ensuring that teaching-only lecturers are involved, as much as they choose to be, in the research culture of a department. That means seminars and so forth, but also the informal mentoring and support structures that should exist in any healthy department. Financial support for research activities is another question. Can a department afford to provide such support? If so, at what level?

And here are a couple of other issues we face with these contracts. Firstly, should they span a full twelve months, or be limited to the period of the academic year? There’s a logic to the latter, but an ethical argument for the former. We’ve actually found that our workload model enables us to get more teaching from someone on a twelve-month contract: that means, as far as I can tell, that we’ve stumbled into a solution that makes us look ethically sound, through no real input of virtue. I’m not sure where that leaves other universities. Secondly, when appointing to these positions, we tend to tie ourselves in knots over the extent to which excellence in research might be a criterion for appointment. We never list it in our stated criteria, yet it remains, whatever we might pretend, our default mechanism for determining academic quality. Might it be more honest to reassess this? Might the candidates themselves prefer that?

Finally, a paradox. This year, on the back of a three-year Leverhulme fellowship awarded to one of my colleagues, we had funding for a three-year lectureship. Teaching-only or research-active? The Leverhulme Trust don’t stipulate one way or the other (although one would think that they might consider doing so). Anyhow, we chose the latter. Maybe that’s in part the illogical result of middle-aged liberal handwringing; however, maybe it’s also recognition of the way in which three-year appointments have historically tended to lead, one way or another, to longer-lasting relationships. Given that context, we felt it would make sense to ensure we attracted the fullest possible field, and gave the appointee the best possible support with his/her career-development. This isn’t a cost-free decision, for all the reasons outlined above, but it just might work for everyone. Who’s to say, meanwhile, what we might decide if the same question is asked this time next year.

‘When will the job market return to normal?’

What does this observation tell us about the state of our profession? By my calculation there have been more job advertisements in the past six months for vice-chancellors than for lecturers in Renaissance literature.

It certainly tells us something about the working conditions for vice-chancellors. If you follow the right people on twitter, you get a little ‘there goes another one’ alert every now and then. It’s quite something. But I’m more interested in what it might say about my own field, and in turn how that field might serve as an index for the job market in the humanities. Just about every university has an English department, and just about every English department teaches the Renaissance. There are a lot more of us than vice-chancellors.

In the United States statistics are published every year, in the wake of the regular autumn round of job ads. The figures are worrying: drops in English and History alike over the past two years, with a parallel drop in tenure-track positions. The big trend there is towards casualization: gaps in teaching being filled by people hired by the course, with no benefits or security, rather than people being set on a secure career-path. That coupled with a trend in student choice away from the humanities, and the UK starts to look ok. (Cue a shameless plug for an old blog-post.) But everything is relative.

One of my colleagues asked me last week when the UK job market would get back to ‘normal’. Obviously the pre-REF wave of manic appointing – at Exeter, maybe even more than anywhere else – felt anything but normal. But what is normal? REF cycles have been distorting recruitment patterns for a long time. Then there was the introduction of £9000 fees, which injected a shot of cash into the system, some of which was devoted to creating new jobs and driving down staff-student ratios. But that moment has passed.

And so now? Even those places that have had an unexpectedly good REF are still waiting anxiously to see what this will translate into in quality-related funding. One newspaper story in the pre-Christmas silly season suggested that QR might be abolished. In truth it’s been under threat for years, but it’s surely inconceivable that a decision like that would be made immediately after the REF. A substantial cut in QR, however, is certainly possible, as is a gradual erosion. Managers are also anxious about the election. No party is proposing to increase the cap on fees; plenty are proposing to cut it. Crucially, Labour remains torn over a possible policy of £6000 fees. So if we take all this uncertainty, add a review of the research councils and an impending comprehensive spending review, and dump it down in what are usually the most active months for the UK job market – well, you could hardly call this a return to ‘normal’.

There will, nonetheless, be plenty of talk about workforce planning: moving people on, bringing people in. It is well documented that people who were not submitted to the REF (not so much here, but at many other places) are feeling anxious. I have mixed feelings about this. A couple of years ago I stuck my head out – albeit from a distance of 12,000 miles – in support of the University of Sydney’s forced redundancy programme. But I don’t see very much underperformace among humanities academics in this country, and university managers have rarely had the stomach for performance-related redundancy in our field. Meanwhile, who can predict retirements now that they’re no longer compulsory? So I’d be surprised if there was much more than the usual levels of movement out of the system.

And while the supply of jobs is tight, demand is perhaps higher than ever. One fact I haven’t seen reported is the increase of PhD graduates, year by year, across the last REF cycle. In English Language and Literature, 462 people graduated with PhDs in 2008-09, then 615 in 2012-13 (an increase of 33%). The equivalent figures elsewhere in the humanities are roughly comparable: History produced 394 in 2008-9 and 503 in 2012-13 (up 28%); Modern Languages produced 316 in 2008-9, 412 in 2012-13 (up 30%). (Publishers, meanwhile, are also producing more monographs, which is interesting.) To put these figures in context, around 2000 academics were returned to the English REF panel, while HESA records just under 10,000 academics employed, one way or another, in Humanities subjects in UK universities. (See HESA’s Table K.)

The reasons for this increase in PhD graduates are perhaps the subject for another blog-post. My sense is that they are in part, at least, a product of the REF. If universities are told they will be assessed on the volume of PhDs produced, we’ll find ways of increasing the volume. Whether that’s actually a good thing is perhaps a question for another blog-post again: there are so many interesting arguments, on each side, regarding the question of whether we’re producing too many PhD graduates in the humanities. My only point here is that the numbers are not necessarily being driven by concerns about the future of either individuals or the profession.

Yet another question for a future blog-post might be the proportion of teaching being delivered by non-permanent staff, generally not paid to research. Our conditions are favourable compared to those faced by adjunct lecturers in the US, but the trend makes many of us uncomfortable. In many departments, indeed, performances of the kind recorded in the REF are only really made possible because of a departmental dependence on such support, since it frees time for permanent staff to do their research. For many young lecturers, such jobs are offering a valued foothold on a career-path; but at what point do they cease to be a career in themselves?

I have recent PhD graduates and postdocs on the job-market, so I’ll be keeping a keen eye on the ads over the coming months. It hurts to see excellent people not finding their way into good jobs. But ‘normal’? I’m curious to see what that will be.