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Academic careers in the 21st century: Making sense of new opportunities and challenges

Peter G. Taylor
Griffith Institute for Higher Education, Griffith University
What opportunities will there be for academic careers in the 21st century, and how should academics prepare for those opportunities? This paper responds to these questions, examining issues related to the emergent conditions of academic work, including the issue of employment conditions. It addresses the paradox facing institutions of higher education: the need for highly skilled and flexible staff who are committed to their work and their concurrent need to be able to flexibly change the composition of their workforce in response to changes in external demands and opportunities. Academics should not expect universities, as employers, to be the primary long-term supporter of their career development. This invites academics to re-shape themselves as individuals who can be productive in a rapidly changing world through active self-management. In turn, this will require that academics recognize what is happening to their career opportunities, and invest in the development of competencies for such self-management of those opportunities, including know-why, know-how, and know-who competencies. The message is that it may be better to think in terms of a professional career, and of relationships with employers more flexibly, as separate but related opportunities.


The assumptions and expectations of academic work have evolved over a long time (Taylor 1999). Those that are current tend to be representative of a relatively recent period when Australian higher education was primarily an activity for economically well-off students, as noted in the report of the West Committee (CRHEPF 1998). As a consequence it involved a relatively small numbers of students, high levels of professional autonomy and relatively little financial support, or policy intrusion, from government (or industry), and an industrial environment that was not subject to political or union pressure. In terms of the latter, the coverage of Federal conciliation and arbitration arrangements for university staff did not begin until 1983 (Hort 1997). While the Dawkins reforms, initiated in 1987, saw the end of that period for universities as organisation, the assumptions and expectations of academics tend to continue to reflect the ideals of former time (McInnes 1996). However, the current economic and industrial settings is highlighting the disjunction between those assumptions and expectations, and the needs and priorities of university management.

This paper explores the situation, and offers some ways of thinking about the implications of the emergent patterns of employment for academic workers in the early decades of this millennium. It does so from the assumption that there will be a growth in employment opportunities for those who wish to engage in academic work. That assumption is based on the projected growth reflected in the general reviews of Dearing (NCIHE 1997) and West (CRHEPF 1998), and on the more detailed study of employment opportunities in Australia of Adams et al (1999), which suggests an national annual growth rate of employment of 1.5%, while growth in 'university lecturers and tutors' is expected to be 4.9% over the period 1998-2010. What these figures do not indicate is the changes in employment patterns that are likely to accompany this growth. This paper addresses that task, exploring issues related to the emergent conditions of employment, and related opportunities for advancement for individual academic workers. The perspective adopted is that of the academic as employee. Those who seek a more institutional focus may find the recent work of Coaldrake and Stedman (1999) of more use. My argument is that individual academics need to become as equally focused as their employing institutions on self-interested self-management.

Emergent conditions of employment

The scenario for the future involves decreasing responsibility for management of the careers of staff on the part of institutions, and the complementary requirement that individuals engage in the self-management of this aspect of their professional lives. This is indicated in the report of the Dearing Committee (NCIHE 1997, para 14.12), which speaks of the future conditions of employment (in Britain) as including: These trends are already 'visible' in reports on the trends in academic work in Australia (see Higher Education Series Report 30 1998). These propositions directly challenge the assumption of universities as benevolent employers. My sense is that similar issues are also confronting workers in all of the professions in Western economies (see Adkins & Lury 1999, Castillo 1997; Hesketh & Considine 1998).

In the more general scenario, work of a high quality is expected, but the 'psychological contract' between worker and employer is being radically altered by an era of the "disposable, rootless worker" (Castillo 1997, p. 418). While Castillo's characterisation draws on the rhetoric of economic exploitation, discussion of the relationship between organisations and their employees is increasingly focused on issues of competence, the security of employment, and the nature of employment contracts.

This shift in focus is caused by the development of a labour market characterized by increasing demand for flexibility, competence, and commitment, combined with the inability of enterprises to offer full and stable employment conditions. (Graversen & Johansson 1998, p. 260)
The paradox is that, while universities, like most other organisations, need staff who are committed to their work, and have a capacity to rapidly adapt to new institutional expectations, these organisations do not want to guarantee security of employment, because such guarantees would decrease their flexibility to respond to changes in their markets and thus threaten their chances of survival.

The 'psychological contract' derives from the relationship between workers and their institutions, a relationship that is connected with the work they perform in both a psychological and a material sense. This relationship dominates their life space in terms of both the demands of work on their time, and in terms of their sense of success or failure in life (Graversen & Johansson 1998). In part it reflects the view that, in advancing their individual career, they advance the interests of their institution (Adams 1998). Thus, academics and aspiring academics desire more than a job and a fortnightly wage. They expect their work to involve opportunities for advancement within a particular institution. In particular they expect a career path to be traveled by means of merit.

But what is a career?

The concept of a career draws on assumptions developed in what Castells (2000) refers to as the Industrial Age. In particular it draws on employment-related expectations such as predictability, security, loyalty, a 'pathway' to progress along, and assumptions like: Moreover, careers have a decidedly gendered history - they were for men (see Toren and Moore [1998] for a case study of this in the higher education context). Issues of status are strongly wedded to an individual's career intentions, and an individual can gauge their success in life, in part, on their progress along their chosen career path, ie, achieving employment that includes a career ladder, and achieving progression up that ladder. Thus, professionals and white-collar workers have careers, while unskilled and blue-collar workers generally have jobs.

Career decisions are important. They signal intentions and expectations. But those decisions have to make contact with the wider set of life-experiences, and with the very different conditions of employment that exist, and are emerging, within universities and in the wider community. One of the consequences of this linkage is that many of the more traditional expectations and assumptions attached to the term 'academic career' act to constrain thinking rather than to broaden it.

The term 'career' brings with it implications of pre-existing 'structures' which form both the path and the means of advancement. Such structures provide guidance on what is valued and what is more optional (Adams 1998; Toren & Moore 1998). Tierney (1997), in a report on socialization into academic careers, notes that his respondents found this pathway very poorly lit in universities - "the goals for tenure were unclear" (p. 12), and "grand markers that conveyed institutional meaning were absent" (p. 13). These structures - tenure and schemes for internal promotion - provide a 'fuzzy' set of options by which advancement might be achieved. While they offer limited options, they really do not guarantee advancement (Toren & Moore 1998). Some achieve promotion very quickly, while others toil for little obvious reward. However, these structures do, or did, offer a form of collectivist and 'shared' security, even if this was both fuzzy and open to the idiosyncrasies of individual and institutional actions and/or practices.

Existing conditions

It is clear that an academic career is not the same thing for those who are not on the tenure-track as it is for those who are tracking to tenure, or have achieved it. In his discussion of the decline of the professoriate in the United States, Altbach (1997) notes that the proportion of staff in tenured and tenure-track positions is steadily declining and is now around forty-four percent of all faculty. However, the goal of tenure is likely to remain "the 'gold standard' to which all aspire" (p. 321). That is, while there are multiple employment tracks, tenure remains the ultimate goal of most.

Universities, as Altbach argues and the Dearing report suggests, will attempt to increase their use of non-tenure staff primarily because this strategy involves reduced costs, and increases the flexibility of their academic workforce primarily through decreasing the cost of discontinuing employment. The outcome in terms of opportunities for employment, for the US, has meant that "[b]etween 1970 and 1995, the number of full-time faculty increased by about half, while over the same period part-time faculty grew by two and a half times" (Feenberg 1999). There seems little reason to doubt that the annual growth in employment of 4.9% over the period 1998-2010 predicted for Australia will follow a similar, if not more skewed, distribution between tenurable and part-time positions.

The part-time and untenured underclass - or as Altbach calls them, the 'untouchables' - are primarily employed to teach. While many have very similar research qualifications to 'the tenured Brahmins', they are "hired to teach a course or two, provided no benefits, often given no office space, and expected simply to show up to teach a class" (Altbach 1997, p. 322). His reference to a type of caste system is deliberate, highlighting differences in prestige and drawing attention to this system as a hierarchy within the academy, a hierarchy which challenges the more egalitarian assumptions of collegiality. This underclass is gendered - disproportionately the 'untouchables' are women, although in some disciplines the reverse applies. And it is employed to undertake a quite specific and limited forms of academic work, and as a consequence, the amount and nature of the paid work done by its members is far more restricted than for those with full-time and tenured positions.

Career conditions

So how is it possible to think beyond the current scenario? One way of thinking about a career involves the metaphor of a 'pathway'. This metaphor implies a relatively clear, organisationally supported, and generic direction along which to move in order to advance one's career. It also implies the individual effort that must go into achieving that advancement. A new set of 'guides' for career advancement seems to be emerging, guides aligned with the emergent employment conditions noted earlier. The following statements capture some of these new guides.
It is now the norm for organizations to have no fixed career paths, and for individuals in them to see no further than one or two years ahead, if that, in their own careers. (Peiperl & Baruch 1997, p. 7)

Competence and hard work no longer guarantee continued employment. (Peiperl and Baruch, p. 7)

With fewer external guides for work, greater value is placed on improvisation and learning. (Rousseau 1997, p. 518)

Promotions and formal status gains are being reduced and replaced by lateral moves presented as 'career-building' assignments. (Rousseau, p. 520)

Collectively these assertions suggest two major challenges to the assumptions underlying the traditional concept of a career. First, the old psychological contract between employer and employee, represented in the concepts of loyalty and career, is rapidly disappearing. The academic underclass has already experienced the failure of this contract. The future will increasingly involve a psychological contract with the self and one's work rather than the self with an organization (Hall & Moss 1998, p. 25). Indeed, "the underlying message is less to serve the present employer, than to protect against dependency upon it" (Defillippi & Arthur 1994, p. 310). This change does not, in one sense, represent an insurmountable challenge for some academics, given their loyalties to their disciplines and their valuing of autonomy (Adams 1998).

The second and related challenge is that career advancement will be increasingly individualised (Adkins &Lury 1999). Organisations, including universities, will invest fewer resources in mapping out a generic, pre-formed path, or in procedurally supporting the movement of all up that path. The new situation will include neither a generic path nor generic means, as they are currently understood. Career advancement will become more individualised for the employee, and more responsive to the short to medium term (1 to 5 years) needs of the organisation. Thus, it might better be thought of in terms of role restructuring to meet a specific and current institutional need than a reward for past achievements.

Employment conditions

Employment opportunities are being formed through and by organisational structures (and restructuring). Handy (1989) provides a readily recognisable model for the organisational structure of universities - the 'shamrock structure'. His reference to the 'shamrock' alludes to the three leaves of the structure. The first leaf, or the core of the business, includes the permanent employees, the directors, managers and other well-qualified people who are needed to direct the organization and conduct its core business. This is quite similar to the Dearing Committee's notion of 'core', noted earlier. These people will be committed to the organisation and dependent on its success - a significant proportion of their income will be performance based. Handy (1989) speaks of these people working very long hours in an organizational context that is like a partnership in a professional practice.

The second leaf is 'the contractual fringe', the individual and firms to which the organisation outsource specific aspects of its work - subcontractors. Outsourced work will either demand skills that core staff do not have, or be too tedious for or of no interest to those people. These subcontractors will have a relatively permanent form of employment, but they will only be paid for results. Many universities have moved to outsource aspects of work formerly undertaken by general staff, including cleaning, security and catering.

The third leaf is 'the flexible labor force' - the part-time and casual staff who are employed to work on a needs basis. Handy's discussion recognizes this form of employment, and the workers it involves, as essential to the capacity of the organization to change the size of its workforce quickly in response to changes in demand for its products or services. These include the 'academic underclass' involved in teaching (and research), as well as the irregular work of general staff, such as that associated with running formal examinations, and the processing of enrolment data at the beginning of each year.

Implications and opportunities for career management

Handy's model of the organisation, as outlined above, is consistent with trends in many universities to outsource specific work, and to increase the use of part-time academic-teachers. It is also consistent with the future career patterns suggested by the Dearing Committee. For this reason it may be time for academics to both recognize and take stock of the direction of organisational evolution being experienced by universities. Individually, academics need to think carefully about the relationship they want with their university, and how that relationship might be achieved. Indeed, it may be insightful for those who have full-time tenured positions to think carefully about the implications of their current location in terms of Handy's model.


There are alternative versions of 'career management'. One focuses on the achievement of secure full-time employment - the 'tenure track'. The earlier argument suggests that, while tenurable positions will continue to be advertised, the major form of growth in employment opportunities will be as short-term contracts, or part-time and casual appointments. In addition, tenurable positions are likely to be offered to relatively senior academics - the sort of individuals who are in high demand as 'core' workers. Few people will be able to make the transition to a tenurable position at 'level A' unless they are prepared to sacrifice salary in order to gain this security. The outcome is that the quality of applicants for these low-level tenurable positions is rising rapidly. Where once a PhD candidate could win these positions, increasingly they are competing with people who have held their PhD for some time and who have considerable teaching and/or industry experience. The track from high school to undergraduate degree, to honours, to PhD, to tenured 'level A' employment is increasingly 'less travelled'.

A second version of career management focuses on the achievement of increases in both responsibilities and remuneration. This is related to the traditional pattern of career development through internal promotion from one level to the next. It is also related to the move from a focus on teaching and/or research to administration, for example, the move to Head of School. An underlying argument of this paper is that the first type of promotion is likely to be increasingly difficult to achieve for tenured staff, while it is unavailable to contract conditions for part-time and casual staff. On the other hand, this form of career advancement is likely to become more accessible through a tradeoff between security and 'reward'. At the same time, advancement will continue to be achievable through changing employers, particularly where an individual's competencies are in high demand.

The challenges resulting from new organisational priorities and practices have been recognized for some time, with some organisations and their employees having negotiated new relationships. In a review of such experiences, Hall and Moss (1998), offer three outcome scenarios: 'lost in the trees'; 'sees the forest'; and, 'comfortable in the woods'. In the first situation, employees are experiencing the loss of the old psychological contract, and have yet to experience any release from the anxiety this loss has caused. The second scenario reflects settings where the drastic changes occurred 'a long time ago'. As a result, the grieving is past, and a new sense of 'acceptance' has developed, with "many employees now embracing the new arrangement, with its greater freedom, [and] responsibility" (p. 27).

The success stories of 'comfort in the woods' involve firms that showed "exceptional leadership and high employee involvement" (p. 28) - a combination that seems unlikely to be found in large institutions, ie, any Australian university. These allow the relationship to change gradually, avoiding a sense of unexpected loss - a process of continuous (and continuing) learning and adjustment. While one of the features of these firms is their commitment to staff, the new psychological contract is focused on the achievement of the firm's goals - it is a performance-driven contract, which rewards loyalty-through-achievement. That is, it involves a form of mutually beneficial loyalty. This loyalty is referred to as 'the new protean career contract' by Hall and Moss (1998). The term 'protean' comes from 'Proteus', the sea god in Greek mythology who could change his shape at will. If the future involves a 'protean career' what strategies might be helpful to provide a sense of personal direction and advancement during a work-life?

Self-management for academics

Employment relationships and professional careers can be managed so as to optimize the possibility of financial security and personal satisfaction. That task is increasingly shared between individual academics and their supervisors. Universities are developing organizational policies and procedures that govern this process in their interests - seen largely in terms of needs for increased flexibility and efficiency. That is, university management has recognized emerging opportunities and challenges, and is tending to invest attention and resources in the development of self-interested responses.

However, there is little evidence that academics have begun to recognize their own emerging opportunities and challenges, or to develop strategies for self-interested self-management. They tend to be focused on their disciplines - the self-help book industry has not been bought by academics. Management and the literature that serves it are the concern of managers, and most academics want as little to do with them as possible (Adams 1998; Martin 1999).

Once the challenge for academics was to get on the career pathway. Now it seems that it might be helpful, even healthy, to get off of it and invest in what Hesketh and Considine (1998) refer to as "Me Incorporated" career management.

"Me Incorporated", like any effective company, must not only maintain current activities and profitability, but may need to keep a wary eye on the future, investing in skills to safeguard against future obsolescence. Investment might also include accumulating social capital through increased networking and the development of a diverse array of social contacts. The greater the diversity of the networks the better; close intense networks are not as valuable as diverse ones. (pp. 406-407)
Investing in a psychological contract that is fixed, immutable, based on 'modernist' assumptions, and focused on institutions as benevolent providers of a career path is likely to prove fruitless.

The message of those who write of 'protean' careers is that it may be better to think in terms of a professional career, and of relationships with employers, as separate but related issues. The advice is to separate the self from the employer as part of a re-shaping of the self as an individual who can be productive in an uncertain world, and capable of maintaining a sense of personal stability while simultaneously and cautiously engaging with change. This 'enterprising' of worker identities, and the process of 'self accumulation', and their implications are explored by Adkins and Lury (1999). One of their conclusions is that these processes will continue to favour men over women. An implication of their review, for women in particular, is a need to separate personal identity from both an employer and a particular 'product or service', eg, teaching or research. Accordingly, they suggest that 'self accumulation' should focus on career development seen more broadly than just a capacity to provide particular 'products or services'.

The literature offers some suggestions on how this might be pursued. Defillippi and Arthur's (1994) work on the value of three competencies - know-why, know-how, and know-who competencies - is particularly useful. Their meanings, adapted to fit my immediate intentions and to include ideas from other authors, are as follows.


The scenario for the future involves decreasing responsibility for management of the careers of staff on the part of institutions, and the complementary requirement that individuals engage in self-management of this aspect of their professional lives. Evidence suggests that the concept of a career will need to be revised if it is to continue to positively contribute to an academic's sense of professional identity. It may be more useful for academics to focus more directly on their professional life and identity in ways that emphasize separateness from any particular employing institution - to engage with opportunities for paid work rather than to commit to a particular form of employment or employer.

The psychological contract to create opportunities for self-development and employment-advancement for academics will increasingly be with themselves rather than any employing institution. Fulfilling this contract will require the development of capacities to value and develop skills, expertise and relationship networks. This will require a high level of personal awareness and responsibility, and a complementary awareness of trends in the professional environment in which they are working, or seek to work.

One of the questions academics will need to constantly ask themself is "what areas of work, projects, responsibilities, learning would I like to engage in over the next two to three years?" In turn, this suggests two further questions: "how am I going to achieve this" and "who is going to pay me to do this"? Answers to questions like this will help to ensure that performance evaluation and activity planning discussions with supervisors serve the productive processes of self-creation for 'advancing' academics.


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Taylor, P.G. (1999). Making Sense of Academic Life: Academics, Universities and Change. Buckingham: SRHE & Open University Press.

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Toren, N. and Moore, D. (1998). The academic "hurdle race": A case study. Higher Education, 35: 267-283.

Author: Peter G. Taylor, Griffith Institute for Higher Education, Griffith University, Australia
Phone (07) 3875 6816 Fax (07) 3875 5998 Email

Please cite as: Taylor, P. G. (2001). Academic careers in the 21st century: Making sense of new opportunities and challenges. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 672-681. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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