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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2006

Challenges Facing New Academics

By Greg Allain

Let me ask you a question. Have you ever felt like an utter stranger in a particular setting? Think back. It could have been your first day in grade school, or on first setting foot in a developing country, or even being hospitalized. It’s one of the many senses of the sociological concept of alienation, and very broadly simplified, it refers to a situation where one feels totally alien.

I’m concerned that many of our new colleagues may be experiencing these same feelings of alienation in their new surroundings. Well, you might say, these institutional surroundings aren’t exactly new to them, since they’ve spent years studying in them as undergrads, then at the graduate level, and for many, as postdocs. The setting may not be completely unfamiliar but the reality is quite different depending on which side of the fence you’re toiling on, to twist and bend an old analogy.

You’ve been taking exams and writing papers for x number of years and all of a sudden you’re in charge of preparing courses, writing grant applications and sitting on various departmental and other committees. It can be a little overwhelming for many new hires.

Strangely enough, at a time when academic staff recruitment and renewal are considered priorities in most post-secondary institutions, we know very little about difficulties our junior colleagues encounter, except from anecdotal reports.

However, a recent study on the topic 1 commissioned by the Fédération québécoise des professeures et professeurs d’université (FQPPU), sheds an interesting light on the issues. The analysis is based on focus group discussions with young recruits (hired in the last six years) from eight Quebec universities. The themes included the hiring process, integration in the work environment, work satisfaction, reconciling work and family life, and avenues for collective action.
The report begins by saying that part of the problem starts at the graduate level and notes that other studies identify various difficulties graduate students can face. These include feelings of isolation and competition, the challenge of deciphering often contradictory messages about the importance of teaching versus research skills, and a lack of support, satisfaction and feeling of community in the graduate school experience.
These experiences and the lengthy period of time required to access the profession — a Statistics Canada survey showed that Canadian PhD students spend on average nearly six years to get their degree — lead to high attrition rates. Unfortunately, we do not have good data on this.
The context in which our new colleagues operate is quite different from the one many of us started in. The workload has increased in volume and complexity over the past decade, due to post-secondary funding cuts and the non replacement of some academic staff positions, a much higher emphasis on developing a research program and obtaining significant outside funding, and the expectation to serve on various committees.
Indeed, some focus group participants spoke of the long hours required of them — as much as 15-hour days, six and even seven days a week. And while the first year was unanimously described as the most difficult by far, most people surveyed said the first five years were tough, with the sheer demands of work coupled with other simultaneous pressures (financial, family, spouse/partner needs) taking a toll on physical and mental well-being.
Most acknowledged having asked themselves whether the prospect of a professional career was worth sacrificing their personal lives. And life events such as the birth of a child, death or illness of a partner or family member, or the breakup of a relationship, can impact these tensions. But new hires feel they don’t really have a choice — the underlying message of the workplace seems to be “perform or else.” Whether they like it or not, they must be workaholics.
Adding to this pressure is confusion over what the evaluation criteria are for tenure and promotion. Many new hires work feverishly to reach the perceived expectations of their academic unit only to discover, come evaluation time, that the criteria are in fact understood differently or that there are additional ones. Teaching duties include not only preparing courses outside of one’s areas of specialization, but also teaching large introductory classes or difficult compulsory courses no one else wants.
Also, rather high expectations often abound as to the active involvement in different committees, which more senior academic staff are vacating, feeling they have done their share.
Not surprisingly, according to the FQPPU study, many new hires feel there is a great divide between “juniors” and “seniors” within academic units. Widespread individualism, lack of collegiality and the challenge of penetrating an academic unit’s organizational culture (to borrow another sociological notion) as well as a general lack of recognition by colleagues for the efforts put into the job, are key problems faced by junior academic staff.
The consequences of all these pressures are easy to predict. In addition to stress and alienation, new colleagues are living in “survival mode,” or burning out, and more than we think leave the profession altogether.
According to the FQPPU report, based on secondary analysis of a province-wide survey, in Quebec, an average of 29 per cent of new university academic staff hired between 1998 and 2003 quit the academic workplace. This represents an attrition rate of about 10 per cent after one year, and more than 30 per cent after five. These are alarming statistics in any context, but all the more so given the overall challenge of academic staff renewal. Institutions must realize that recruitment and renewal may prove futile if issues of retention are not addressed.
Is this a case of “only in Quebec”? If we think about our respective academic milieux, doesn’t all this sound terribly familiar? I’d be willing to wager the FQPPU findings for Quebec universities are typical of the situation throughout post-secondary institutions across the country. Institutions may want to collect feedback from their own new hires, through surveys or focus groups, for their insights on the academic environment generally. And, if it’s generally shown to be the pattern across the board, what should we do about it?
I’ll have more to say on this next month, so stay tuned.

1. Nathalie Dyke. « Le renouvellement du corps professoral dans les universités au Québec : Profil et expérience d’insertion des recrues en début de carrière », FQPPU 2006, professoral/Profiletexperiencedinsertiondesrecrues.pdf