Does Career Building Produce Neoliberal Subjects in Academe?

Career building is a fundamentally imaginative activity. In envisioning how our lives and working circumstances might be projected into the future, career-seeking individuals engage in conceptual mapping. Our career imaginations are influenced by personal values, perceptions of ourselves and environments, our relationships both in the workplace and beyond, and any number of discourses and practices of institutionalized career development.

Career building activities in academia have been critically discussed in relation to the instrumental place of universities within our global knowledge economies. Simon Marginson, among others, have been prolific in describing the impact which globalization is having on universities around the world. Universities are broadly described as being corporatized, privatized, metricized, managerialized, economized, audited – amidst any other number of verbs implying the disempowerment of collegiate governance. Far less attention has been paid to the impact which these broad processes are having on the cultural imagination of academic career planning itself. In an industry characterized by precarious labour arrangements, tribe-like professional groups, status games and portfolio development, career planning becomes weaponized in the struggle for professional survival.

Firstly, a brief overview of the battlefield: Academic careers are often both protean (Hall) and boundaryless (Arthur and Rousseau) endeavours. Although university human resource departments go to lengths to formally distinguish each level of the formal academic hierarchy apart from one another, practicing staff are under no illusion that each step of this career ladder is gated and monitored by financial management as much as peer assessors. Unable to rely upon their seniority to assure promotion, academics are charged with the duty of creating their own case for formal advancement, through building portfolios, self-marketing to future employers and roles, and gathering allies (“networking”) to boost the presentation of one’s peer-esteem. Career progression is in a sense self-created or protean. As D.T. Hall has described, the successful protean career is determined by “internal” (i.e. psychological) criteria, rather than one’s place on a formal career ladder.

It is not uncommon for academic staff to trade off opportunities for formal ladder climbing for the opportunity to engage in work which is perceived to be fulfilling and worthwhile. Consequently, there may be, theoretically, a high degree of inter-organizational mobility  which contributes positively to an academic’s sense of career advancement (sometimes described as a “boundaryless” career orientation). The commonality of protean and boundaryless characteristics within academic employment implies a high degree of flexibility in how academic might imagine their ideal careers. The “tenure track” towards professorship might be a hegemonic ideal, but it is by no means a totalizing ideal.

Academic Careers in Knowledge Economies

Although scholars may strive to fulfill personal aspirations, the economic and political reality of managerialism in universities, neoliberal education policy reforms and increasingly legitimacy of student choice, qua education consumer, shape the possible roads ahead. Departmental amalgamations and closures seldom occur on grounds of scholarly merit. For the neoliberalising university, some career aspirations are more ‘efficient’ than others; some achievements are more ‘effective’.

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Alongside the metricization of academic value, so too have the conditions of professional ‘survival’ become enmeshed in short-hand indicators of teaching and research excellence. Publication counts, journal rankings, h-indicies, Altmetrics and numerous other metrics which signify academic value allow for potential academic employees to be sorted, graded and compared against one another – a short-hand useful to academic management in an age of trans-national knowledge labour. Staff are not blind to the competitive advantage offered by demonstrating an ability to score highly on these measures. Although successful academic careers might be built around achieving personally meaningful outcomes, the need to survive professionally within universities creates additional career demands. Not only must academics construct viable career narratives around their duties, but this narrative must form a recognizably valuable commodity. To imagine a ‘career’ in academe is to aspire to professional survival through the commoditization of one’s self as a ready-made product for input into the university’s production processes.

The eerie image of an academic career described on this battlefield is (evidently, I hope) a characterization – or perhaps an ‘ideal type’ – intended to sensitize us to the negotiations facing academics in corporatizing universities. Of course, real academics may engage in other modes of career building and planning – i.e. career building as skills development, as networking, as quest for social justice – and a real academic may use any number of these schemata in practice. Although I have not yet found an empirical study addressing the issue, I suspect that early career academics and others in precarious employment conditions may be more inclined to adopt a model of career-building-as-self-commoditization to the degree that self-commoditization promises greater employment security. The isolation of individuals in precarious employment conditions are a primary driver towards a the neoliberal subjectivity of the self-responsible labourer.

Career-building in a precarious environment becomes a mechanism of control, encouraging academics to engage in self-surveillance and evaluate their conduct against the criteria signaled by performance metrics. Professional ‘survival’ is a practice which encourages academics to approximate the self-responsible, rational self-producer – a kind of labourer central to advanced liberal modes of governance. More than just subject of capitalism (i.e. academic-as-commodity), career ‘survival’ introduces academics to a field of competition where their energies are not simply exchanged for goods in an academic capitalist marketplace, but they must also compete to have the value of their labour recognized alongside other – perhaps equally qualified – academics. Neoliberal modes of governance do not only encourage competition, they increasingly define the criteria by which value is judged.

Although academics may travel between universities and over continents, the metricization of ‘value’ in universities creates new boundaries for career development. I describe the importation of managerial accounting tools (i.e. the audit culture) and digital techniques for approximating ‘esteem’, ‘reach’ and ‘impact’ of academic activities (i.e. citation counting, ranking) as neoliberal in that the function they perform is to marketize academic labour and also act as a “site of veridiction” (Foucault 2008, p. 32). Though procedures and tools of metricization are contested and often critiqued in academic discourse communities, their outputs are often taken up as evidence of academic merit and achievements, thereby – to a large degree – legitimating managerial and scholarly decisions alike.

Do we have to Measure Up?

There are perhaps good reasons for suspecting that career building encourages the neoliberalization of universities in our present culture of audit and managerialism. Management is as political as it is technological. An anonymous professor (and former associate dean) recently wrote to The Guardian that academics not only “need to be managed”, but must also themselves become involved in their institutional management through taking up managerial roles.

Resources are stretched. Students, funders and the government all make demands, and the university must weigh these up against other interests and requirements. I’ve often found myself conflicted: on one hand I see the need to manage and on the other I also see the value of academic autonomy. The trick universities have to pull off is balancing these different forces.

The concern which this professor expresses for “the need to manage” is symptomatic of a political subjectivity predisposed to an allegiance with capital through academe. Although few academic staff would contest the claim that academic autonomy is valuable, the values of university management are often, as above, seen to be legitimate in and of themselves – as needed to be “balanced” against scholarly needs, rather than reconfigured or protested.

In a highly individualized work culture, academics often find themselves negotiating their ‘survival’ through competition, under threat, precariously and by reaching out for signifiers of legitimacy – metrics, peer esteem and tokens of validation. To engage in career building individually through appealing to these metrics, or to collectively contest which numbers best reflect our intentions is to fail to address the fundamental question of government: Why measure at all? Measurement fulfills several layers of truth-making (or “veridiction”, for academics, universities, governments, etc.), but what sort of truth are we constructing? For academics to be intellectual leaders who are more than highly paid public servants, these basic questions must be objects of discussion, demolition and – vitally – delegitimization. Metricization eases the squeaky wheels and tightens the assembly line belts. It is our duty to see the factory for the cogs and rearrange the mechanisms to produce not only good ‘outputs’, but also good reasons.


Can we afford to be cynical about academic life?

When I began my investigations into what drives academics, I armed myself with the most powerful critical arsenal I knew: ideology critique. Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man was a particularly sharp-looking cutlass which I was sure would puncture the heart of the expropriation, exploitation, and general unfairness that many claimed characterised academic labour relations. The growth of casual and short-term contract labour, the use of PhD students to turn the cogs of teaching and assessment, the growth of ‘voluntary’ redundancies within the sector: stones to sharpen a Marxist blade.

Thankfully, the naivety wore off: I questioned my epistemology, read more broadly, and generally stopped dressing like a war veteran or prophet of the apocalypse. I don’t mean to imply that all cultural critique is a fashion, but when it is, oh, do we look back cringing… With my method challenged and my coat a less depressing shade, I began to ask more interesting and concerning questions: Not ‘why?’, but ‘how?’ Not ‘who?’, but ‘when?’ How do universities seek to regulate the activities of academics? When do academics comply? When do they resist? Michel Foucault and Bruno Latour had been particularly useful in assisting my thinking here. However, despite the near wholesale abandonment of my Marxesque aims, a certain degree of cynicism remained. It emanated from zombie issues of casualisation, labour market issues and the persistent complaints and critiques of colleagues. These zombies are not problematic in themselves, but when the cynical attitudes which surround them become contagious, the infestation is no longer containable. It becomes a template for approaching other academic-university relations. Let’s take the example of Performance Development.

Performance Development is generally a program of audit: a recording device for measuring and storing information about the research, teaching and service outputs produced by academics. These recordings are then able to be used by academics to demonstrate their cases for promotion or pay increases, for applications towards new jobs, or to defend their work contracts if placed under threat of redundancy. Many scholars have complained (perhaps rightly so) that Performance Development is little more than an auditing device for the bureaucracy – a tool which universities use to keep a track of their academics and a source of data which can be used to back up decisions about who to hire, fire or promote. What counts as ‘performance’ is defined by the university, within the Performance Development program. This makes it difficult for unorthodox research to be recognised by universities (especially those that do not consider publishing scholarly journals as a key good of the research process, such as research which aims to engage communities outside of academia). Teaching is often narrowly evaluated in terms of student numbers, student feedback assessments and post-education employability rates. The cynicism that this process generates is not without a few endogenous origins. However, to reduce Performance Development to a bureaucratic device risks overlooking the inventiveness and ingenuity of the individuals and systems that engage it. If overindulged, cynicism can become a straight-jacket for the mind.

Consider a letter I received from a journal editor. This editor was excited to read that I had been considering the role that Performance Development plays in guiding academics in their work. However, they were not impressed with the direction that my argument had taken. They would review a revised version of my article that “more forcefully, directly, and specifically criticized the performance development process” and gave some suggestions about how the system could be configured to allow staff more freedom to define their own terms of ‘success’. My initial reaction was modest embarrassment: How could I have missed this criticism?! Of course this process was a pernicious nuisance! Thankfully, I was prevented from redrafting and submitting a revised article in a timely manner, as my thinking on Performance Development changed radically.

Given some distance from the article I drafted, some reflection on the direction of my project and on the ambitions and goals of academics working in their disciplines (thanks to some PhD field research), I had another idea. Why were academics engaging in these practices (of self-reporting, evaluation and judgement), if it was detrimental to achieving their goals? Ideology could not be the answer: everyone seems well aware of the ‘problems’ associated with Performance Development as a management tool. My focus shifted: Not ‘why do academics engage in Performance Development?’ but ‘how are academics encouraged to engage?’ Some of my answers surprised me. Performance Development is required by many universities as evidence for demonstrating competence for promotion, salary progression or employment, but also perhaps for career planning. Depending on how the Performance Development process is managed, self-accounting and planning can be a useful tool for younger academics to orient their actions and have frank and honest discussions with senior staff about their career planning. More than just a bureaucratic auditing device, a conversation (which extends beyond yearly reviews) is invaluable for the mentorship of younger academic staff, who may often rely on imitating their supervisors and mentors to learn the academic game.

In order to better our present systems of academic governance, imagination is wanting where cynicism blooms. In order to imagine how our present arrangements (such as Performance Development) might be enhanced or modified to produce benefits for both academics and institutions, we must allow space for creative explorations. For speculation. For comparison and conjecture. And also for feedback. We can begin by imagining apparatuses such as Performance Development as conduits through which individuals, data, intentions and action are configured and flow: as points of definition and negotiation (or, to use the STS jargon, as assemblages). The strength of this perspective is in being able to see beyond a binary of agent-object (i.e. management-worker), and towards a more flexible platform where interests are understood as functions of the system in which they operate. Academics engage in Performance Development because that engagement is beneficial in some way; they complain because it can also be a burden. The point is not to advocate the demolition of the whole conduit, but to redirect the flow in a more useful direction. And if the stream cannot be cleaned of the aforementioned cynical contagion, then perhaps regular treatments of imagination will make the water worth swallowing.


(On a side note, I am genuinely curious how early-career academics get a feel for the academic game. Do you seek out advice from colleagues? Do you test out strategies used by your supervisor? Are you panicking that you might be forgetting something? Feel free to comment.)