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'Academic Assholes', Early Career Researchers and Peer Support

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A lot of academics I know have been talking about, or linking to, a blog post entitled 'Academic assholes and circles of niceness'. The blog discusses the bad behaviour that can be rewarded in academia and how treating people badly can be perceived as cleverness. It asks the question 'do you get further in academia if you are a jerk?' The blog also describes the importance of peer support, 'the circle of niceness'. I have been thinking about this for two reasons. 1. Never has my own 'circle of niceness' been more important. 2. I think there are structural factors in UK academia that currently exacerbate and encourage 'academic asshole'-like behavior. I'll take the last point first. My argument is, to (ahem) paraphrase Karl Marx, that we make our own choices about whether to be jerks or not, but not in the conditions of our choosing. We (Post-docs, PhD Students, lecturers that are just starting out) find ourselves in an insanely competitive job market where temporary contracts are on the increase. This breeds uncertainty and precarity. It is easy to be cagey, to see all other people in your position as competition, and indeed to try and tread on others, in conditions where anxiety and joblessness are on the rise.

One day I got a job - a temporary research job, not a Chair at Harvard, mind you. When discussing this with my friend they could barely look me in the eye. Now, my friend is not a jerk, far from it. Neither had my friend applied for this job. But worry about their own position made them act rather ungenerously. This is what I mean about the structural issues behind the behaviour.

In such conditions it is extra important to cultivate and draw strength from your peers (as the blog calls it 'the circle of niceness'). My own circle was cemented in workshops that took place as part of our PhD training programme. We came together every two weeks to either discuss an element of the PhD process or to hear a talk from someone else about their research life and career. Possibly even more important were the coffees and drinks that surrounded these workshops. Among the people I did my PhD alongside, got through obligatory statistics courses with, drank rum late into the night and missed the last train out of New Cross with, are the people I regularly call on for support. Most of us are on some form of temporary contract. In the post-PhD supervisor-less world it is easy to feel cut adrift and so peer support is vital. This week, for example, I have discussed a new research idea with two of my PhD buddies and asked others for recommended reading on a particular topic. Every time I have had a job interview I have had long conversations and have taken advice from friends who have recently been through the process. I have been on the other side of all of these conversations too. Group projects have resulted from these networks. Some of us formed a post-doc reading group which was focused on turning our PhD chapters into publishable journal articles. Another project that has arisen from intersecting circles of niceness is an edited book, a collective labour of a group of friends and colleagues, many of whom are 'early career researchers'.

Whether the job market will change any time soon, I don't know. However, supporting each other is crucial not only for the purposes of doing the right thing, being kind to your friends and not being a jerk, but also in creating new projects and generating ideas and collaborative ways of working. This may sound cosy, but there will still be some situations where you will be pitted against a friend, for example, when two of you go for the same job. If, and when, this does happen, be excellent to each other (to paraphrase those other great philosophers, Bill and Ted). Or the current situation threatens to make 'academic assholes' of us all.