Academic career paths becoming more varied

In a new paper, Dr Celia Whitchurch explores the emergence of ‘itinerant’ academic identities against a background of less certain higher education environments.

Dr Whitchurch looks beyond general trends in patterns of employment and working conditions to consider the way in which individuals supplement academic work with activities in other fields such as consultancy, professional body activity, and work in the community, locally and overseas.

The triggers for this appear to arise, on the one hand, from an intrinsic interest in entering new fields of activity, and on the other from a desire for a greater sense of security by keeping a range of options open.

The two motivations are not mutually exclusive, and are likely to depend on individual circumstances and career stages. It also appears that, in space outside higher education, individuals may find some of the freedom and autonomy that they may feel they have lost as a result of structural requirements such as workload models and performance assessment.

There is also evidence of individuals with specific skills, particularly in professional areas, joining higher education at a later stage and moving in and out of the sector. Thus, assumptions about the ‘ideal’ scenario of one or two postdoctoral appointments leading to an academic career are breaking down.

As a result, academic processes intended for those on a linear teaching and research career track no longer necessarily reflect the lived experience and expectations of academic staff in different types of role, and distinctions between academic staff on the basis of employment categories alone have become increasingly artificial.

In this scenario, extended networks, inside and outside the university, have become critical to career development, enabling individuals to acquire and build new forms of professional capital. As a result of these changes, a tension has arisen between the university providing security and a safe haven in which creative activity can take place, and being seen as a restrictive structure that imposes limitations.

From a diversifying workforce to the rise of the itinerant academic is published in Higher Education.