When is a career interruption not a career interruption?

One of these is not like the other (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

The issue of career interruptions is a difficult one in higher education. Particularly given the gendered nature of many ‘interruptions’ (i.e. maternity leave, and who often ends up as the carer for family), I think this is a facet of life that funding bodies – and promotion systems in universities in general – don’t handle particularly well.

Major funding bodies churn through a lot of applications and are most often desperately under-staffed. So, in writing this post, I’m not looking to blame them for not being incredibly considerate of every snowflake situation.

I do wish, though, that there were more effective overall systems in place to consider the nuances of people’s track-records. Or at least a smidge more honesty in what they’re really looking for: unproblematic high performers without ongoing (or potential for) negative issues/conditions.

It bothers (and angers) me that accommodating the interruptions that life sometimes throws at you is often inadequate and perfunctory in research and higher education. Because some basic processes are in place, it feels as if this is assumed to take care of things.

The opacity of how funding bodies decide what counts as an ‘eligibility exemption’ (whether your career interruption justification is accepted) is frustrating.

For example, the funding body accepts one researcher’s justification for having an extended ECR (early career researcher) status because she had maternity leave at the right time for the right amount of time, yet another researcher who was working in a non-research role in industry gets declared ineligible (with no reasons given – I think they could save themselves a lot of pain by providing a short standardised reason for why they’d ‘desk-reject’ a grant application). These are contexts that can be backed up by ‘proof’, yet the process of deciding whether to accept a justification remains a mystery.

Then you have the greyer situations: researchers who don’t take formal leave, but are carers for sick partners, parents, or children; or those who have ongoing conditions that affect their work life but aren’t technically ‘bad’ enough to take a block of time off (e.g. mental health issues); or still others who have had a string of casual or part-time appointments that never gave them the ability to focus on building a research track-record in the midst of worrying about rent and groceries. There’s little paperwork that can ‘prove’ these, or present a neat administrative solution to the question of how much time it takes out of a research life. Can you imagine putting in an amount for how much ‘lost’ time a dying parent might take out of your research productivity?

There has been a relatively recent development in the UK where the quality assessments now ‘allow’ women who’ve taken maternity leave to have one fewer publication their track-record. While this is a step in the right direction, it appears to be a small, tokenistic step.

I can’t help feeling that the institutional modes of rewarding research productivity depend on the figure of a researcher who has no hiccups with work, health, or relationships. While the consideration of people’s circumstances are ostensibly in the system, these are blunt instruments at best. Even now, with a section that supposedly addresses people’s work circumstances (and to which assessors and panel members are meant to give appropriate weight), I’ve heard professional advice given about how to ‘game’ it. Instead of presenting honestly what your opportunities and challenges have been, people are advised to use that section to showcase how fantastic they are despite years’ worth of sick or maternity leave and stupidly high teaching-loads (for example).

The fact is this section is meant to give assessors an idea of why your track-record is what it is, and for them to duly adjust their expectations of it. Applicants are being encouraged, instead, to use it as a section that sells their awesomeness. I think this is seriously screwed up.

Given a choice between a high-quality, high-output performer with no career interruptions and a high-quality, high-output performer with career interruptions, I think I know which track-record would be judged as ‘better’.

Am I railing against the injustices perpetuated by a faceless bureaucratic system and crushing expectations surrounding research output? I guess I am.

Do I have a magic solution for compassionate consideration of the vagaries that affect people’s lives and, therefore, their ability to produce research? I guess I don’t.

What I would definitely like to see, though, is less hypocrisy about judging academic productivity and circumstances. What’s often being judged is how consistent, unproblematic, and healthy researchers’ lives are.

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4 thoughts on “When is a career interruption not a career interruption?

  1. Deb 26/03/2012 / 2:21 pm

    Tseen, thanks for raising this – I think it’s a significant issue affecting equity and diversity in the academic workplace. I don’t have any grand solutions, either, but I think the gesture toward taking ‘quality’ into account in measuring research performance is theoretically a good idea. We just have to work out the implementation …

    • Tseen Khoo 26/03/2012 / 3:02 pm

      It’s hard to write about this stuff without sounding like a big old whinger. At the most simplistic level, I’m saying that life’s unfair (and I know that), so what exactly am I expecting inefficiently articulated systems to do about it?!

      On the other hand, I dislike the manner in which ‘time out’ of academic careers is viewed with suspicion, resignation, or plain discomfort. People make decisions to not work in academia for a range of reasons, and often it’s because _there are no decent jobs at the time they’re looking_ (and they need things like food…). I’ve heard extremely well established profs judge a person’s CV by their (lack of) presence in the academy for a couple of years (“If they were serious about being an academic, why did they take a job outside of it?”).

      And with issues such as family commitments, the issue gets even more diffuse and diverse. I could write a whole other post on that one alone! (but will spare you in this comment…)

  2. babita 23/05/2013 / 12:27 pm

    what about career interruption because of unemployement? no extension of end of contract in one institute and job hunting.

    • Tseen Khoo 23/05/2013 / 11:01 pm

      Unemployment is usually something that’s taken into consideration, in my experience. But too many spans of unemployment may cause other biases to kick in with hiring or assessment committees? It’s a murky area.

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