Showcase Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia 2015

Redefining early career academia in uncertain times (#156)

Agnes Bosanquet 1 , Alana Mailey 1 , Kelly Matthews 2 , Jason Lodge 3
  1. Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW, Australia
  2. Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD, Australia
  3. Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, VIC, Australia

Current definitions of ‘early career’ academia assume steady, continuous research development within five years post-PhD (Bazeley et al, 1996) and document a normative career path: PhD, post-doctoral or Level A appointment, and Level B appointment or promotion (Anderson et al, 2002). This does not reflect the lived experience of many academics in the current context of higher education, and offers significant limitations for the purposes of organisational support for academic development.  According to Norton (2014), annual PhD completions reached 7,800 in 2013, compared to a net increase of only 1,000 on-going or fixed term contract academic jobs. In this context, many commentators have identified concerns about the future sustainability of the Australian academic workforce (Bexley, Arkoudis & James, 2013; Hugo & Morriss, 2010). The situation has been described as a “perfect storm” (Coates et al., 2009, p 6) and a “demographic time-bomb” (Hugo, 2005, p 16). Those who identify as early career increasingly include academics and aspiring academics outside the traditional definition: casual or sessional staff, professional staff research assistants and project managers, and doctoral candidates.

This showcase utilises a unique cross-institutional data set with two lines of evidence. First, findings from a survey of 522 self-identifying early career academics (ECAs) across three Australian universities provide a snapshot of career achievements and aspirations, and perceptions of organisational support. Second, this is mapped against institutional documents detailing professional development opportunities and support for academic development. The findings starkly represent the uncertainty experienced by academics establishing research and teaching profiles, and the limitations of current professional development in an increasingly precarious higher education environment. This showcase (a) provides an evidence-based definition of early career academia appropriate for the changing context of higher education employment, and (b) presents comparative data on organisational support for ECAs with implications for academic development across the sector.

This paper addresses the conference sub-theme Navigating uncertainty and complexity. Findings from the research presented here starkly represent the uncertainty and complexity experienced by early career academics (ECAs), and the limitations of current approaches to professional development in an increasingly precarious higher education employment environment. ECAs internationally face increasing career progression barriers (Hemmings, 2012). There is a need to attract new academics and ensure succession, despite a context of decreasing job satisfaction and security (Coates et al, 2009). Permanent appointments and research time remain elusive for many ECAs. Deviations from the normative career pathway (such as casual or short term appointments or career interruptions) serve to lengthen the ECA period well beyond the recognised five years post-PhD.This research identifies challenges common to all academic staff which act as intensifiers for ECAs: uncertainty about the future, job insecurity, frustration with academic career paths, pressure to publish, limited research time, high teaching and administrative workloads, competition for research funding and caring responsibilities. This showcase addresses the misalignment between institutional definitions of early career for the purposes of professional development and research support, individuals’ self-identification as ECAs, and normative career paths depicted in the literature.

  1. Anderson, D., Johnson, R., Saha, L. (2002). Changes in academic work. Canberra: Department of Education, Science and Training, Retrieved from
  2. Bazeley, P., Kemp, L., Stevens, K., Asmar, C., Grbich, C., Marsh, H., & Bhathal, R. (1996). Waiting in the wings: A study of early career academic researchers in Australia. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.
  3. Bexley, E., Arkoudis, S. & James, R. (2013). The motivations, values and future plans of Australian academics. Higher Education, 65(3), 385-400.
  4. Coates, H., Dobson, I., Edwards, D., Friedman, T., Goedegebuure, L., & Meek, L. (2009). The attractiveness of the Australian academic profession: A comparative analysis. Camberwell, Victoria: Australian Council for Education Research.
  5. Hugo, G. (2005). Academia's own demographic time-bomb. The Australian Universities' Review, 48, (1), 16-23.
  6. Hugo, G. & Morriss, A. (2010). Investigating the ageing academic workforce: Stocktake. Adelaide: The National Centre for Social Applications of Geographical Information Systems.
  7. Norton, A. & Cherastidtham, I.,(2014). Mapping Australian higher education, 2014-15, Grattan Institute. Retrieved from
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