researchers as a resource in the ‘gig’ economy?

Following this post and this post from @kayguccione about attitudes to leaving academia, this is a guest post from Dr Cally Guerin, University of Adelaide who edits the Doctoral Writing Blog (@docwritingSIG).

When doctoral candidates are nearing the end of their degrees, mentioning their future career paths can be a pretty touchy subject. Just look at these memes:

pitt.pngBrad Pitt in Fight Club

neeson.pngLiam Neeson in Taken.

The poignancy of these memes lies in their revelation of the justifiable anxieties of current doctoral candidates as they consider life beyond the PhD. What is really needed, though, is a shift in thinking about what these talented, capable people bring to the contemporary workplace. One way to achieve this shift is to focus on the research literacies developed during doctoral candidature.

Doctoral graduates are moving into a digitally enabled ‘gig’ or ‘peer’ economy where, increasingly, workers are employed on short-term (sometimes extremely brief) projects and tasks as freelancers or ‘micropreneurs’. This translates into casualisation of the research and teaching workforce in academia, zero-hour contracts and an emerging ‘precariat’ class. Such harsh realities can, of course, be discouraging, but we need to think more creatively about the role our graduates can play in such an economy. It is expected that organisations will increasingly employ freelancers with specific skill sets to work on defined projects, or even defined aspects of projects. Not surprisingly, the concept of a full-time permanent job with a predictable career trajectory is inconsistent with such employment practices.

Faced with an increasingly automated workplace, what do our human PhD candidates offer in the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’?  What skills and knowledges are useful in such an environment, and what will graduates themselves value in this context?

The WEF predicts that: ‘Overall, social skills—such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others—will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills, such as programming or equipment operation and control. In essence, technical skills will need to be supplemented with strong social and collaboration skills’. The research literacies developed during a PhD are closely linked to these kinds of social skills, and there are advantages in being explicit about how our graduates embody them.

‘Research literacies’ include the capacities to:

  • read and understand others’ research methods and findings
  • interpret the ways in which this information is presented in written and oral forms
  • assess such information critically
  • undertake and write an account of such research in the forms appropriate to the particular context through:
    • defining an answerable research question
    • designing a doable research project that will provide robust answers to that question
    • communicating the findings and articulating their implications.

More than just the mechanics of reading and writing, ‘literacies’ includes an understanding of the social implications and discourses surrounding those skills: ‘literacies are situated and multiple—positioned in relation to the social institutions and power relations that sustain them’. That is, these researchers bring both a critical perspective to their work, and also the creative capacities to make new ideas and connections. As such, research literacies intersect with the ‘persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others’ that the WEF predicts as becoming increasingly important in the future job market.

If we start thinking of these research literacies as a resource for the current economy, the picture for our graduating PhDs looks significantly brighter than the memes above suggest. Treating this set of literacies and the graduates who embody them as a resource, we, as institutions, need to make sure we are pushing for:

  • Investing – putting more into the development of research literacies during doctoral programs, encouraging PhD candidates to think explicitly about what they are learning, and building a robust infrastructure to ensure that those literacies are in fact fully developed.
  • Profiling – articulating the details of these literacies and drawing attention to them through deliberate marketing strategies aimed at informing those within and outside the academy.
  • Managing – planning the pace of production (of literacies and of graduates) through consideration of which areas need development and when that should happen.
  • Consuming – using the capacity of these graduates effectively, ensuring that the broader community benefits, rather than squandering this resource.
  • Preserving/renewing/updating – considering what needs to be maintained from earlier doctoral programs, what needs to be modified to remain relevant, and also what needs to be dumped as no longer useful.
  • Producing – forming and developing a ‘researcher’ more generally, rather than a narrowly defined linguist/geneticist/historian, with perhaps a little less focus on the thesis document as the central evidence of the success of doctoral education in favour of the capacities now embodied by the researcher.

Many universities in the UK and Australia are moving away from the idea of a doctorate as preparation for an academic job towards a view of doctoral education as development of a highly skilled researcher. Viewing doctoral education through the lens of ‘resource’ is one way to think about the doctorate as preparation to operate in a gig economy that requires workers who are project oriented, flexible and agile, creative and collaborative, as well as being persuasive communicators in written, verbal and digital modes.

This blog is based on a presentation delivered at the Quality in Postgraduate Research Conference, 20-22 April 2016, in Adelaide, South Australia.

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