NECTAR Annual Retreat: early-career academic issues at ANU

By now you’ve probably already guessed that I’m not posting about the transit of Venus. It’s over. I came, I saw it, it was a little black dot on the sun, the end. (There’s another story to tell about some manic children’s theatre inmate in a fake astronaut suit ushering at the Visitor’s Centre door squawking the moral equivalent of “OMG OMG TRANSITS!!!1!11!!”, thereby leading me to reassure the rest of my group, who had come up from the main ANU campus down the hill, that not all astronomers related to the lay public this way. But as I said, that’s another story and I won’t get too far into that part.)

No, what I want to write about right now is an… organization, for lack of a better word, called NECTAR, who held an annual retreat up Mt. Stromlo covering yesterday and half of today. I’m still digesting my experiences at this retreat, and I’ll do that in part by relating the narrative below.

TL;DR

If you consider yourself an early-career academic at ANU, which NECTAR refuses to define so that they can be inclusive but which I think includes at least any ANU academic with a term appointment (i.e., without “tenure”), then:

  • there is a group of people advocating for your interests who have direct channels open to the University Executive, including Vice Chancellor Ian Young;
  • they hold regular gatherings including weekly Tuesday lunches at Fellows Cafe (University House) and once-monthly drinks there in the evenings;
  • they have already accomplished some things such as advocating for “bridging” funding to help give young academics some career stability while they’re applying for their next grant;
  • they want to hear your ideas for how to make things better.
  • I’ll be (unofficially) liaising for the RSAA.

Retreat, day 1: A bit of a rocky start

A few months ago I received a series of very strange unsolicited emails which said little more than, “What if…? Be Part of the Buzz!” and giving us a link to click on. I considered this spam and deleted the emails almost immediately, but their persistence stuck in my head. Apparently, not only were the emails legit, but they represented the most successful advertising campaign the group has ever conducted, and got a lot of other people’s attention. Still, if your website has to include a sentence like “If you are concerned about the authenticity of this webpage, please email…”, I would venture to say you’re doing it wrong.

The emails I ended up responding to had a more businesslike tone: “As an early career academic at ANU, you are warmly invited to the upcoming 2012 NECTAR retreat, to be held on Wednesday, 6th June (all day) and Thursday, 7th June (half day) at the Commonwealth Solar Observatory (CSO) Common Room, Mount Stromlo.” It included a schedule and agenda, as well as the names and contact emails of the people who were involved. On the schedule was a meeting with the Vice Chancellor. Lunch and coffee breaks were on them. And of course it was being held at Mt. Stromlo, so I didn’t have to go anywhere special e.g. where parking would be hard to find! So I said sure, why not, let’s check it out.

I walked in on Wednesday morning with a smile on my face and a cup of coffee in my hand, geared up to participate enthusiastically in the proceedings. The first person I met was someone from the School of Music, which you might remember is really unhappy with ANU right now due to their handling of a “financial repositioning initiative” (Dilbert-speak for sacking the entire School and rehiring a smaller number of them back in different capacities). She did a good job of not throwing rotten tomatoes at anyone! This set the stage: there are many reasons for us younger and/or less-established academics to be nervous about the vulnerability of our positions. We’ve got a lot to talk about.

Probably what I enjoyed most about the event is the chance to talk with my contemporaries in other Schools, all of whom are very bright people doing very interesting things: a biomedical researcher crunching enormous genomics data sets, with all the attendant computational problems; a linguist studying rare dialects of English spoken on South Pacific islands by the descendants of shipwrecked sailors; a nuclear physicist puzzling over the abundance of light isotopes like lithium-7 in the Universe, and why they don’t match the predictions of Big Bang nucleosynthesis (an extremely successful theory in predicting e.g. the ratio of hydrogen to helium). People are cool and they are fun to talk with. I hope I run into some of these folks later on.

What I found most frustrating is that the first day’s events, and by proxy the retreat organizers, seemed really disorganized to someone who had had no previous contact with them. The leaders (or “custodians” or “NECTARines” as they called themselves) talked vaguely about “space” and including everyone. There were a couple of talks from senior figures in the University, one of whom went an hour over his allotted time without being cut off by the session moderators (who clearly weren’t moderating) and meant we started lunch late. The afternoon session started with a session to brainstorm possible issues of concern to early-career academics and possible initiatives to help. This prompted a lot of talk from vocal, disgruntled people in the group at large who sounded like they wanted to man the barricades until the University agreed to their demands, and/or play passive-aggressive politics with the VC by second-guessing his reactions to any interaction we might have with him. At the end we had only half the planned amount of time to figure out how to conduct our session with the VC the following day, including (but not limited to) possible action items or new initiatives to place before the Executive, which were to emerge from the morass of papers coating the wall.

I stood by with some bemusement as a large group of otherwise intelligent people (not the custodians, I should add) seemed keen to blame the University Executive for problems — particularly the “casualization” of the academic workforce to short-term, insecure positions — which, time and again, I hear are endemic to the whole of academia across all fields and countries. Indeed, they’re endemic to the whole post-modern workforce: when you have access to the best of the whole world’s talent, why pay so much more to give experienced people secure jobs when you could pay a whippersnapper to do that job from their living room thousands of miles away? and why pay that whippersnapper any more or any longer than you have to? Indeed, in this global economic climate, why hire someone with experience and accomplishment into a secure, long-term position when you can hire that same person into a low-paid, temporary position, or even sometimes into an unpaid internship?

There are reasons why, of course, but they have more to do with long-term returns on investment than with the bottom line on a quarterly report. The current constraints arise from the short-term, herd-based mentality of the people who hold the purse strings — politicians and executives, and indirectly, voters and shareholders. In academia, of course, it’s much worse because postdoctoral jobs are being created at a far greater rate than permanent positions are, but nobody seems keen to help the new people do the math when they’re first in the position to let that knowledge influence their decisions about their own future. The main point is, given these realities, shouldn’t we be focusing on what we can do to help these temporary academic workers to have a happy, productive time at ANU, and to succeed in whatever they decide to do next? (including, possibly, applying somewhere for a ongoing or tenure-track appointment?)

What’s been going on behind the scenes

Over drinks at Scope Cafe afterwards, I was debriefed a bit by the NECTARines. It turns out that they aren’t disorganized amongst themselves, but what seemed to me like confusion resulted from a number of very deliberate decisions on their part regarding how they felt things should be conducted — and not even everyone involved seemed to agree with those decisions. I’ll try to summarize:

  • It’s not clear to me what the NECTARines think NECTAR is, or what it should be doing. They describe it not as a group or an organization, but as a “space” for the participants. Nor is it clear to me who it is for: “early-career academics” is deliberately not defined, so as to be inclusive of anyone who would like to discuss things. That’s all very well, but it does leave room for confusion. It is not a union or a collective bargaining unit, which is fine because we have those already, although it’s also not clear to me how what they’re trying to do differs from what the unions do (not the least because it’s not clear to me what they’re trying to do). My best sense of what I would call it is an association, or possibly an advocacy group; at least, there seems to be a niche for that sort of thing.
  • The NECTARines construe NECTAR as having University-wide scope. That is, any early-career academic is welcome. But for some reason, there are no designated representatives to the various University academic sub-units (Colleges, Research Schools, and/or departments). This strikes me as a bit odd because if NECTAR is trying to change the ways things are done at ANU rather than just talking about them, they need to understand what the existing constraints are and what “levers” and processes are available. A lot of what needs to be done to help people will differ from field to field, and yet there appears to be no explicit representation or recognition of this in the agenda. It’s impressive to have the Executive’s ear, but not all problems are necessarily suited for the Executive to confront directly.
  • The NECTARines have been having trouble getting the word out. I can only speculate as to why this is the case, but I’d wager that the lack of organizers at the Research School level doesn’t exactly help. Instead of relying on lists of people from University HR, I’d think you could get a lot more mileage from people talking to other people who perceive them to be like themselves. HR may not be willing or even able (!) to track down all the new students and postdocs across the University, which falls into the recurring theme of how poorly access information is organized throughout ANU. But you ought to know when new people arrive in your department, and should be able to go have lunch with them to talk about their experience.

I also learned about their existing projects which have been in the works for some time now, nearly four years in fact, and was impressed with the NECTARines’s dedication to getting something concrete and useful done. Apparently they didn’t lead in with this information because they didn’t want to bring preconceptions to the new people about what NECTAR is or should be doing, but none of the new people I talked to saw that as helpful. It’s also impressive that the group has the VC’s ear, but I feel like they’re going to have to impose some structure and order if they want to be effective. You can have a well-organized group with a definite mission which still encourages people to think outside the box. And I was far from being the only person who thought so.

Retreat, day 2: Meeting with Ian Young

The next morning I got caught in a line of traffic stretching halfway across Canberra, due to a four-car pile-up on the Tuggeranong Parkway going south to Mt. Stromlo. I therefore missed the early presentations relating to what they’d gotten done, and had to come in halfway through small-group discussions about various questions to put to Ian Young in a round-table discussion format. Since the VC is an engineer by training, we were told he would respond well to a consulting role — “who should we talk to about issue X?” This was fortunately something I could get behind.

When the VC arrived the discussion was civil and went quite smoothly. Ian Young seemed like a friendly and decent fellow, and responded to some of our questions with concrete suggestions about how to keep things moving forward. His words were, refreshingly, not likely to fit in the mouths of weasels. Some definite issues such as extension of ECA travel funding and the sudden end of funding for the prestigious mid-career Future Fellowships (of which ANU has over 100 — this is a problem at the ministerial level in the federal government). He invited us to periodically send representatives to the fortnightly meetings of the Executive, which struck me as a very generous thing to do. How many postdocs at a US university would get to bend the ear of their University President on anything approaching a regular basis?

After the break-up of the meeting with the VC, lunch was served and the bus eventually brought the others back down the hill.

What I’m taking away from this

I hate organizing things. Organizing is by its nature prone to drama as people go through a more or less confrontational process of hashing out their differences. I’m curious about NECTAR and what it could be and do, though, because I’ve been through the wringer just like everyone else and I feel strongly that I should help contribute ideas on how to move forward.

So, for anyone still reading: I think I can manage to attend the NECTAR drinks once a month, and serve as the (unofficial) RSAA liaison to NECTAR: raising awareness within the School of the group’s activities, bringing back more contextual knowledge about how University-wide decisions are affecting our counterparts down the hill, and giving early-career academics in other Schools a feeling for how the RSAA is being affected. I’m trying to encourage others who were at the workshop to do the same in their own Schools.

Overall, I think the RSAA is really lucky, in that it has a Nobel Prize winner on staff who cares deeply about giving young people a “fair go”. Brian’s attitudes seem to be broadly representative of the School’s as well; for example, Lisa Kewley is currently spearheading a ground-up revision of the RSAA’s Ph.D. program, geared towards giving our students much more rigorous preparation for an insanely competitive job market. Everyone here has been constructive and engaged through what could otherwise be an extremely contentious process. I’d like to figure out how to export some of this culture, in which I feel so welcome and valued, to some of the other places at the University where young academics aren’t so fortunate. And if NECTAR doesn’t want to do that, then maybe there should be a group that does.

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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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