7th MWP-ACO Conference: Academic Careers in the Social Sciences: Entry, Competition and Advancement

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By Alanna O’Malley, ACO

ACO Conf. 2012

The Academic Careers Observatory of the Max Weber Programme held its 7th annual conference, on issues confronting young researchers in the Social Sciences, on 28th November 2012. The theme of this year’s conference was, ‘Academic Careers in the Social Sciences: Entry, Competition and Advancement.’

The Academic Careers Observatory functions in a dual capacity, both to reflect on issues and challenges facing early-career scholars in the social sciences, and to research the evolving academic environment. The Observatory, in addition, functions as a resource for scholars on the job market, with links to job platforms and funding resources. In order to enhance its accessibility and relevance, the Observatory encourages interaction, and fosters links with the academic community on a broad basis through its research, conferences and events.

This year’s conference had two dimensions, assessing career progression both across disciplines and across regional systems. Four plus one academic systems were outlined: the Anglo-Saxon, that of North and Western Europe, Southern Europe, East and Central Europe, and Asia and beyond. The conference looked at the components in each discipline across these areas, addressing issues like: which type of institute and educational system fosters the best research; how and when can you access a particular system; and what is the best path towards personal and professional advancement.

The morning section of the conference addressed more general questions. The first panel asked: is the traditional tenure-track model of academic career development still relevant, and what are the obstacles to career progression in different countries? A lively debate between the panellists ensued. Antonio Cabrales of Universidad Carlos III in Madrid, Barbara Kehm of Kassel University in Germany and Jochen Fried of the Salzburg Global Seminar, debated the relevance of the tenure-track model, concluding that its survival varies in different regions. What emerged, however, was a clear picture of the need to reform the way in which academia is quantified and managed, and to call for changes to the system.

The second panel, consisting of Christopher Hale from Universities UK, Joerg Friedrichs from the University of Oxford, and Diego Muro of the Institut Barcelona d’Éstudis Internacionales, considered whether austerity measures in education exacerbated the ‘brain drain’ effect in universities. There was considerable debate over the terms, ‘brain-drain’ and, ‘brain-gain’, with marked disagreement between the panellists about whether the global recession has created more opportunities in some sectors, while in other areas it has closed other national academic markets. What particularly came into focus here was the question of mobility, and how easy it is to move between the different national academic markets, and how the recession has pushed many academics out of their national market in order to advance.

The afternoon consisted of a structured discussion of career advancement across the various disciplines, with a concluding roundtable debate on comparisons or contrasts between different experiences in different countries. Of particular relevance was the debate that raged over assessment criteria, with both publishing and teaching being important across the disciplines and regions. There was a general feeling that publication is being over-emphasised in most systems, resulting in a de-valuing of teaching. Overall it was concluded that greater consensus is needed between the disciplines, and across the social sciences, in order to stabilize the academic system.

See the list of speakers and programme