We Need More Early-Career Higher Ed People

A shortage?

September 10, 2018

Working in academia is mostly pretty great. The work is mission driven. You work with smart people. The orientation is towards the future. Values such as inclusivity and opportunity creation really matter.

Sure, there are challenges. The basic economic model that underpins postsecondary education looks a bit suspect. The demographics are not great. The cost disease is painful. Many states seem to be walking away from a commitment to public education. We could go on.

But on the whole, working in higher ed is awesome.Would you agree?

The one thing that I find a bit frustrating is that we don’t have enough early-career colleagues in academia. 

Yes, we do have graduate students. We have postdocs. And we have non-traditional students.  There are many people in their 20s and 30s on campus. But they are mostly students.

Of course, we always have some colleagues on campus who are just starting their careers. New junior faculty. New staff. Just not enough of them.

Early-career colleagues are energizing. They are totally excited to be starting out on their long career path.

Anyone choosing a career in higher ed has done so for largely irrational reasons. This is not a choice designed to maximize money, opportunity, flexibility, or security. You get into higher ed because of love. A love of the subject that you studied. A love of teaching. A love the idea that college is an engine of social opportunity. The idea that people who are not following traditional faculty careers (alt-acs and staff) choose to work in higher education out of love is, I think, is not widely appreciated. But it's true.

The higher ed challenge is that there is just not enough of these early-career colleagues. This may be a function of a few things. The structural economic challenges of the higher ed industry have pushed down hiring. Colleges and universities don’t seem to be pushing to grow their workforces.

On the other end, it seems as if higher ed people have less job mobility than in other industries. We tend to stick around. People change their college or university far less often than people who work for companies. At least that is my hypothesis.

I’d really like to see some data on the age structure of the higher education workforce. I have tried to find these data, but have failed.  (Although not for Australia). There is some interesting research on how institutions can manage an aging academic workforce.  But very little, at least that I can find, on levels and trends of early-career professionals (both faculty and staff) in higher education. Can you help?

Other industries seem to renew themselves by hiring lots of early-career people. In higher education, much of the work that early-career professionals would do is done instead by graduate students, postdocs, and contingent instructors.

In my world of digital learning, I worry that we are not bringing enough early-career people into our discipline. We need the perspective and energy and ideas and orientations of people just starting their careers. We don’t have enough of them.

Don’t get me wrong. It is our colleagues with decades of experience in higher education that we rely on for their wisdom and hard-earned expertise. It is a good thing that a higher education career is long.

What will happen, however, when many of our smartest senior colleagues start to walk out the door? We are about to experience large numbers of baby boom driven academic retirements. Do we have enough young academics coming up through the ranks to replace them when they leave?

Are you a youngish academic professional?  Someone who is not a student, and who hopes/expects to stay at your school for a long time to come?

What does academic life look like to you as you start your career?

If you are a mid-career or late-career academic (faculty or staff), what advice would you have for those just starting their academic careers?


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