Too many PhDs for malnourished academia?

While the number of graduates of doctoral programs at Slovak universities have grown more than tenfold over the past 15 years, the same cannot be said about their job security. The chances that graduates can pursue independent research once they enter professional life are slim. What’s worse, this issue is rarely discussed in public forums.

Photo: CreativeCommons/Loughborough University Library


There are things in the Slovak academic environment  that get talked about, and some that do not. The poorly paid part time jobs, temporary assistantships on research projects, and the occasional honorary fees received at universities are only whispered about in private meetings over coffee. Why you may ask? The topic is considered inappropriate, and thus rarely gets mentioned openly.

Shh . . . just don’t say it loud

Until recently talking about the precariat meant talking about those in poorly paid service industry jobs. In Euro Maydays, this emerging underclass along with migrants and the unemployed participated in demonstrations for better working and living conditions. The precariat, as labour theorist Guy Standing proposes, is not only defined by precarious employment status and job insecurity, but by the fact that its members lack a work-based identity. Unfortunately today, this condition plagues a number of recent doctoral graduates attempting to land stable research and university jobs.

Still, to recognize oneself as a precarious academic is a precarious job indeed. There are inherent contradictions that must be acknowledged – on the one hand academia’s idealized meritocratic norms and on the other hand realpolitik. The widely held belief in just rewards for those producing intellectually challenging work and leading interesting classes, clashes with the reality of the complex strategizing needed in such a conflict-stricken environment. There is a number of obstacles preventing the inhabitants of the “republic of science” to reflect on the career and working conditions of those aspiring to a full-fledged academic working life.

In the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany the academic precariat possess a self awareness voicing their concerns in various public forums – from established niches of academic chat such as The Chronicle of Higher Education to philosophical blogs such as The Philosophy Smoker, “in which issues concerning the profession of philosophy are bitched about”. There are a number of organizations and support networks that have emerged, like the The Adjunct Project, New Faculty Majority and The Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, and in some universities the academic precariat have even unionized and started collective bargaining.

However, in Slovakia, despite their growing numbers, the academic precariat hide their experiences, and constrain their chat to cafes and university corridors.

Too many graduates?

It appears that the Slovak academic labor market is unable to absorb the sharp increases in the number of doctoral graduates. While in 1996 there were only 192 graduates, in 2014 the number grew more than ten-fold to 2,119 persons. 1  The increase could be indicative of the economic interests of universities, whose subsidies increase with each doctoral student or perhaps it’s just an easy and cheap way of increasing the country’s academic research output.

It can definitely be assumed that politicians and bureaucrats responsible for higher education policy are carelessly hoping that PhD graduates will be happy with the honor bestowed by title alone. There are many PhD graduates, who are exposed to the moralistic rhetoric about the academic profession, and eventually come to see it as their mission and vocation. However many of the fresh graduates also lose interest in academia – 2009 research solicited by the Slovak Ministry of Education indicated that only half of the PhD students wanted to stay in academia. 2

Even still if we compare the number of PhD graduates with the numbers of those employed in higher education and research the results are staggering. Currently there are about 11,000 pedagogical workers at Slovakian universities and 3,000 employees at the Slovak Academy of Sciences. With the current PhD graduates numbering 2,119 per year, they could likely replace about 14% of all of the employees in academic jobs in Slovakia every year. A complete replacement of all 14,000 thousand persons could thus take place within only seven years. This kind of speculation may seem absurd, but it points to the fact that the number of those who are qualified for and intrested in academic work is higher than the sector´s absorption capacity.

Hunger scientists unlikely to bring much groundbreaking research

Many of the PhDs in the social sciences and humanities need to take minor pedagogical teaching jobs, temporary assistantships in applied research, writing, translations or project work with non-governmental organizations in order to sustain themselves. They must  “assemble” various parts of their working lives. This requires both careful time management as well as long hours spent commuting from one place to another. But how long can one be a “hunger artist” – that is a “hunger academic”?

These observations are supported by labor theorists‘ characterizations of precarious work. Guy Standing defines the precariat as a people with low security in areas that define industrial citizenship in a period of an eroding consensus around the post-war social welfare state. 3

Academic precariats suffer especially from low job security because they have a relatively low opportunity to retain a niche in employment. Their “offer” is expected to meet the changing “demands” of the academic course “market”, which is set to attract the ever-decreasing attention of the “student-consumer-evaluator”. Even teaching the same courses over a longer period of time does not prevent skill dilution. To retain and upgrade skills one would need to have opportunities for designing and conducting research projects, so that teaching organically builds on the subjects of one’s intellectual curiosity and attachment.

The opportunity for “upward” mobility in terms of status and income is impossible without a full-time employment contract. This is due to the fact that full-time contracts claim employees’ loyalty to one particular institution, and reciprocally enables the employee to make claims on the institution – be it in financial or reputational matters.

Income security is another problematic aspect. An individual’s income based on smaller jobs, which may often be unreliable and vary over time, cannot be considered secure. And since many social welfare benefits’ calculations count income as the main variable, income insecurity may develop into meagre pensions or maternity leave benefits. Additionally there is a lack of representative security. ‘Possessing a collective voice in the labour market, through . . . independent trade unions, with a right to strike’, as envisaged by Standing, is not even a dream because no collective exists to have such a dream.

According to Standing, the precariat is denied the possibility to define its identity through work. However the academic precariat still identifies with and considers themselves a part of the academic sphere. They observe the norms and rules of the game, bend them at times, and perhaps believe that they will one day become a part of a the stably employed salariat.

The precariat juggle identities and institutions – their sense of selves are constructed at the intersections of various and often-contradictory codes of conduct – vocational, entrepreneurial, and professional among others. Their identities are an assemblage of many, and they learn to structure and discipline themselves by using the time management methods often employed by freelancers. They do not do research, they do not teach, they do not educate themselves – they just try to “get things done”.

Silence

There is a need for the academic precariat to support one another. However can the frustrations and experiences of individual “failure” be shared with others in such a competitive environment? The relatively small academic environments in Slovakia and Czech Republics do not allow the kind of anonymity on blogs and Internet forums that other doctoral students, PhDs and adjuncts in the United States enjoy for instance.

Thus we silently remain one another’s adversaries, even adversaries to ourselves alone. Once we start speaking publicly about it, our speech can be interpreted as an admittance of failure because “we did not make it”. The cultural theorist Rosalind Gill wrote that such speech acts risk being received as a ‘moan, (or) as an expression of complaint or unhappiness’. Maybe. But as the experience from many countries (Poland included 4 ) shows, this conversation needs to be had.

Notes:

  1.  Asociácia doktorandov Slovenska (Slovakia PhD Students Association) (2011). Základné informácie o doktorandskom štúdiu (The Basic Information on Doctoral Studies). Available at  ; Education), Ústav informácií a prognóz školstva (The Institute of Information and Prognoses of Education)
    (2009). Štatistická ročenka školstva : absolventi vysokých škôl (The Statistical Yearbook of Education : HE Graduates).
  2.   Helbich, J. et al. (2009). Akademická kariéra výskumných a pedagogických pracovníkov na vysokých školách v SR a možnosti jej optimalizácie : analytická štúdia (The academic career of research and education workers in higher education in Slovakia and possibilities for its optimalization : an analytic study). Bratislava: International Business Support Slovakia, p. 63.
  3.   Standing, G. (2011). The precariat : the new dangerous class. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  4.   Trawinska, M., & Maciejewska, M. (Eds.). (2012). Uniwersytet i emancypcja (The university and emancipation). Wroclaw: Interdyscyplinarna Grupa Gender Studies.
Ľubica Kobová

Ľubica Kobová

is a teacher at the Department of Gender Studies, Charles University in Prague. She specializes in political theory and feminist theory.