What does it mean to be an early-career higher education researcher? And why we should all care

Introductory note for a plenary session at the symposium Pop up Policies or Long Term Impact organized by the Consortium of Higher Education Researchers in Finland, taking place on December 14-15, 2020.

If you are reading these lines, there is a good chance you are thinking of yourself as a higher education researcher. You may have started your academic career as an undergraduate student in education, sociology, political science, chemistry even, or astrophysics. Maybe you were active in a student union, or a member of some other kind of student or youth initiative. You may have once landed a job in a government agency or worked for an international organization with an interest in higher education. Regardless of the path and the turns you took, chances are, your PhD dissertation was on higher education. Or is, in case you are not done with it yet.

Higher education researchers, sometimes isolated, sometimes in groups, are usually found in education faculties, sociology departments, policy analysis institutes, own units specializing in higher education alone, or—as it is often the case—in more than one “place” simultaneously. We don’t even have to be part of universities—many of us find ourselves in ministries, foundations, civil society organizations, and consultancy firms offering services to universities, students, and policy makers.

And yet, being a higher education researcher is not quite the same as belonging to a community of higher education researchers, for the simple reason that the latter presupposes the existence of a community of some sort. This community may belong to a single department or university, to a country, language, or region. We could—as we often do—think of it as an international community, thus spanning regions, languages, countries, universities, and departments. As an international community we become particularly visible in dedicated academic journals, societies, and conferences. Forever torn between disciplines, policy, and practice, we share the struggles and joys of many subject-driven areas of scholarly interest.

If you are still busy with that PhD, you may be wondering how any of this is relevant for you, because you do not know what you will be doing once you have defended your dissertation. You may even see higher education research as a “phase” in your career, which you would eventually want to take elsewhere. If you are among those who see themselves as diehard higher education scholars, you are probably aware that landing a permanent academic job which would allow you to dedicate yourself fully to higher education research is, all things considered, rather difficult, although more so in some countries than in others. And given the current state of academic labour market, anywhere, you are probably considering alternatives to academic work altogether.

These are some of the struggles many of our early-career, but also mid-career, colleagues face. One of the more essential purposes of ECHER, is to draw attention to these realities, as well as to be a space for a conversation about how to go about living them and addressing them. Because they are of such a fundamental, almost existential character, they have a profound effect on other struggles, but also on the joys of being a scholar of higher education. They affect our choices, our habits, and in particular our relationship with the work we do. It is, therefore, of critical importance to act on the understanding that a community of scholars such as ours—across career stages—does not remain blind to the struggles of the most precarious among us, for that would make it blind before its own future and the future of its own field.

To be continued...

Jelena Brankovic is a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Sociology, Bielefeld University, Germany. She is also one of the lead editors of ECHER Blog. You can follow her on Twitter.

Melina Aarnikoivu is a postdoctoral researcher at the Finnish Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä, Finland. She is also a Visiting Professor at the School of Advanced Studies, University of Tyumen, Russia. You can follow Melina on Twitter.

Image by www slon_pics from Pixabay

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