Higher education is experiencing a period of profound change. A combination of the increasing influence of the global higher education market, the impact of technology on knowledge and learning, and declining public funding relative to GDP are creating significant challenges for universities in Australia. The number of university places being offered to students in Australia has also increased markedly in the wake of the Bradley Review of Higher Education and subsequent policies put in place by the Rudd and Gillard governments. The consequence of these policy settings and market forces is that Australian universities need to do more with less while also continuing to compete in global rankings, driven mostly by research-related data.
Early career academics
The implications of these forces on higher education are particularly evident in relation to early career academics (ECAs). Financial pressure on institutions means that sessional staff, rather than more expensive permanent lecturers and professors, are carrying out much of the teaching work (Bexley, James & Arkoudis, 2011). Opportunities for early career academics are therefore declining in relative terms as more PhD qualified people enter the job market and compete for positions.
Pressure on jobs has also led to a decline in traditional pathways into academia. A progression from undergraduate to PhD student to postdoctoral researcher and then ‘tenure track’ or permanent member of academic staff is becoming less common over time. Laudel and Glaser (2008) argue that the standard definition of early career academic as someone within five years of finishing a PhD has been strained beyond reason due to the diversifying of pathways into academia.
Not only is there increasing competition for the available positions, those applying for these positions also now need to have a wider range of skills. In addition to a strong research track record, ECAs are also expected to gain experience in teaching, curriculum design, the use of educational technologies, and to demonstrate evidence of leadership and/or service. While quality publications, citations and grants still dominate in the selection criteria for early career positions, more is now being asked of candidates. The PhD provides grounding in research but does not prepare ECAs to design and deliver high quality teaching, engage with the broader community or develop leadership capacity. Many ECAs feel as though they are not being sufficiently prepared for these extra responsibilities (Matthews, Lodge & Bosanquet, 2014).
Early career in psychology
Within this broader context, it can be particularly difficult for early career psychologists and psychological scientists to effectively transition into an academic role. Meeting the expectations of high performing ECAs is difficult given that the pathways by which psychologists and psychological scientists arrive in academia are diversifying and as competition for the available positions in psychology schools and departments intensifies. The path from PhD to postdoctoral position to lecturing position is becoming less common in psychology also.
What makes the situation more precarious for ECAs is that there are challenging, discipline specific characteristics in psychology. Journals in psychology have high rejection rates compared to those in other disciplines (Sugimoto et al., 2013). The standard of research required for publication in the top journals is therefore very high. There is also fierce competition for available grant money. While these are mostly desirable indicators for the discipline of psychology, they nonetheless create significant hurdles for ECAs to overcome. Academia is particularly challenging as a career given that it involves trying to contribute new knowledge and often doing so in competition with some of the smartest people in the world. This is particularly true in psychological science it would seem.
On the teaching side, the incoming cohorts of psychology students in most Australian universities are getting larger and more diverse over time. This is further amplified by the requirement to carry out service teaching for cognate disciplines. For example, it is not uncommon for education, sport science or other health disciplines to require their students to take some psychology subjects/units/courses in undergraduate degree programs. This diversity can make it challenging for inexperienced academics to manage large undergraduate cohorts early in their career, particularly given many report feeling underprepared for the task of teaching.
While these circumstances might not paint a rosy picture for ECAs in psychology, there are also substantial benefits. It is relatively easier for psychology graduates to get up to speed on notions of student learning and curriculum design than those coming from other disciplines. For example, academics who have disciplinary backgrounds in engineering or dentistry find the social sciences broadly to be a vastly different way of thinking than the ways they are familiar with. The epistemological and ontological distance between psychology and higher educationis much closer by comparison giving psychology graduates a head start in developing expertise in teaching.
The other main advantage of a psychology background is that the skills and knowledge developed during an extended education in psychological science is that these skills are in high demand in related areas. One example is in the area of public health. The research and statistical skills developed in accredited psychology programs are of great benefit in epidemiology, for example. One other obvious point of translation is into education. A solid background in how people think is undoubtedly of use when researching how students learn and attempting to create the conditions for learning to occur. Moreover, there are opportunities in management, marketing and other disciplines where an understanding of humans, their thinking and their behaviour might be applied.
A background in psychology therefore opens up opportunities for ECAs in higher education that might not be immediately obvious. Knowledge and skills in psychology are valued across many discipline areas and in many industries. Being involved in the translation of psychology to other discipline areas and/or working with colleagues across disciplines is one way of thinking outside the square.
Preparing for the future of higher education
While it might not be as high a priority as finishing the PhD, time spent developing knowledge and skills in higher education, curriculum design and educational technology is rarely wasted. The development I have completed on my teaching practice has opened up opportunities for me that I would never have imagined. For example, my background in psychological science and higher education has afforded me the opportunity to work in the ARC-SRI Science of Learning Research Centre, a multidisciplinary research initiative spanning neuroscience, psychological science and education.
If trends overseas provide a glimpse of what lies ahead for us in Australia, it is also entirely possible that there will be much more emphasis on providing quality educational experiences for psychology students in the near future. In the UK, for example, there is a new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) coming into effect that will bring teaching in universities into sharp focus. While there has been discussion along these lines in Australia over many years, we are yet to see anything like the TEF here. It may only be a matter of time though.
Given how pivotal psychological science is to underpinning our understanding of learning and teaching, there is no reason why ECAs with backgrounds in accredited psychology degrees cannot have a substantial impact on teaching in higher education (among other disciplinary areas) in the years ahead. Growing a successful career in modern universities means looking outside the traditional pathway from postdoc to permanent position and focusing on research alone. Given that psychology underpins aspects of other disciplines, including education, psychology graduates are well placed to take advantage of the changes in higher education into the future.
|Tips on preparing and transitioning to a career in academia
- A PhD is still the ticket through the door into academia and should be the priority for aspiring academics
- Publications with demonstrated impact are also vital for developing a successful academic career
- If you have an opportunity, get some experience in teaching and complete professional development on curriculum development and learning design
- Be aware of opportunities for working and collaborating in applied, cross-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary areas
- Gain experience in leadership by being on committees and working groups
- Seek opportunities to engage with industry and the community
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- Bexley, E., James, R., & Arkoudis, S. (2011). The Australian academic profession in transition. Canberra: Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, Commonwealth of Australia.
- Laudel, G. & Glaser, J. (2008). From apprentice to colleague: The metamorphosis of early career researchers. Higher Education 55(3), 387-406.
- Matthews, K. E.,Lodge, J. M.,& Bosanquet, A. (2014). Early career academic perceptions, attitudes and professional development activities: Questioning the teaching and research gap to further academic development. International Journal of Academic Development, 19 (2) 112-124. DOI: 10.1080/1360144X.2012.724421
- Sugimoto, C. R., Larivière, V., Ni, C., & Cronin, B. (2013). Journal acceptance rates: A cross-disciplinary analysis of variability and relationships with journal measures. Journal of Informetrics, 7(4), 897-906.