I am André Brett, a Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Wollongong. I was offered the fellowship in November 2016 and commenced in June 2017 after finishing my employment at the University of Melbourne, where I received my PhD in August 2014.
Almost every ECR has an experience of cobbling together short-term teaching and/or research contracts during and after their PhD. I’ve gone through quite a few. From 2011 to 2016 I tutored and lectured in genocide studies at the University of Melbourne. I have worked within multiple projects as a research assistant since 2013. One of these evolved into a research fellow in Chancellery with Gwilym Croucher and Stuart Macintyre on an ARC-funded project about the origin and effects of the Unified National System of higher education in Australia (the Dawkins Revolution of 1988). But despite the nice title, I was employed on casual contracts that had to be renewed regularly.
I have also worked beyond academia. My research appears in a handful of television documentaries, most notably Australia: The Story of Us, broadcast on Channel 7 in 2015. I was lucky: I did not need those contracts to make ends meet; they supplemented my university employment. I did not know this, however, when I agreed to work on The Story of Us; I took that job unsure if I would have university employment for the next semester. This is the great nightmare of being an ECR—you often have no clue if you will be offered a teaching contract until days before semester begins, and even if you’re confident you will receive something, how much will you get? Maybe you’ll teach five tutorials and be able to buy nice lunches; maybe you’ll only get two and fall behind on rent. I founded Present Past Consulting Historians with five fellow ECRs (including Pete Minard) partly to create another source of work for those lean months.
I have worked with fantastic, supportive people, and in this I have been extraordinarily lucky. None of my comments in this Q&A should be construed as criticisms of them, and I am grateful for how they have helped me avoid the worst of the exploitative academic job market (so far). But I have seen many friends and colleagues not enjoy such luck. My harsh words are based on witnessing their experiences, and on the insidious and unhealthy culture that has developed in today’s casualised universities.
1. Describe your PhD research.
My thesis was on the history and abolition of New Zealand’s provincial governments. It became a book, Acknowledge No Frontier: The Creation and Demise of New Zealand’s Provinces, 1853–76 (Otago University Press, 2016). I seem to be one of the rare people whose PhD project did not change significantly from inception. It began as a third-year undergraduate essay, which informed the scope of my Honours thesis on railways and the centralisation of New Zealand statehood; one chapter of that thesis is the basis of my PhD/book. My interest in New Zealand’s political evolution has broadened into a fascination with the trans-Tasman world and the political course and character of Australasia, and my current research continues to pick up themes that emerged during my PhD candidature.
2. Why does it matter?
New Zealand is distinctive as a British settler society without states or provinces. But it was not always that way. I wanted to explain why New Zealand once had provinces, and why it discarded them so quickly. The provincial governments, inaugurated in 1853, responded to basic needs: communication difficulties between New Zealand’s dispersed centres required a significant devolution of legislative and executive authority. Hence, New Zealand to this day retains fierce provincial identities—I am by birth a Wellingtonian, with a solid repertoire of Auckland jokes and putdowns. How was it, then, that New Zealand became highly centralised? Central government successes accentuated provincial government failures, creating popular support for provincial abolition by 1875. This explains how New Zealand developed as a unitary state despite strong provincial identities, and why tensions remain in the structure of sub-national government. I have no doubt that the abolition of the provinces was one of the most momentous events in New Zealand’s history after colonisation, second only to the New Zealand Wars—without abolition, the country would have evolved much differently.
3. What are you researching now or intending to do next?
I have two main projects. One is the subject of my postdoctoral fellowship, “Economic Growth and Environmental Change: Australasian Railways, 1850–1930”. It encompasses the period from the first colonial railways through to the rise of road transport to identify how railways encouraged the spread of industry and, in the process, transformed regional landscapes. Another project, which I’ve been researching on and off for the past year, is about colonial separation movements in Australasia: both the successful ones that created Victoria and Queensland and the plethora of unsuccessful ones such as Otago, Riverina, New England, and North Queensland. I was researching a couple of these movements in the Mitchell Library when I received word about my postdoc. I couldn’t very well jump up and down cheering, so I just sat there shaking. I must have looked mad.
4. What do you love about being a historian?
Writing. I love writing. All my life I have wanted to be a writer. I still have these silly manuscripts of action and adventure novels I wrote when I was a child. I knew very early on that being a full-time novelist was an unrealistic ambition, and my decision not to go into journalism now appears to have been far-sighted. The reality is that I’m legally blind and I wondered what use is a journalist who cannot drive to stories.
I showed up at university with vague notions of pursuing writing through academia or politics. I began studying political science with history for context, but my politics essays were really history ones in disguise. From my second year the path was clear: I would write history, and keep plugging away at fiction in my spare time. Initially I considered Reformation history and twentieth-century Romanian history, the latter more seriously than the former. Then Robert Horvath backed me to write an essay on a custom topic in one of his excellent courses. It was about women’s suffrage in New Zealand, and Patricia Grimshaw’s landmark book on that topic inspired me greatly (Pat later became my PhD co-supervisor). I have never looked back.
5. What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?
The insecurity. The insecurity. The insecurity.
There is no use sugarcoating it: the period after finishing a PhD is hard. That period only ends if 1) you secure an ongoing position, which usually takes ages, or 2) you give up on academia and find a job elsewhere. The happy academic ending is unlikely, and every prospective historian must be aware of this. Casualisation at universities is bad and getting worse, with increasing exploitation of PhD and ECR labour.
History as a discipline has distinctive cruelties. If you’re lucky enough to get research assistance contracts, you will do hours upon hours of work and often all you get in return is a mention in the acknowledgements. The person for whom you research might never visit the archive or log onto the database you’ve used; your labour is essential to a publication, but without an authorial credit it counts for little or nothing in job applications. Meanwhile, as my joke goes, in some STEM disciplines you simply need to bring somebody a cup of tea to get your name on a paper. To win grants or jobs, you need to work in your own time, for no recompense, to produce publishable research. The labour that pays your bills does not advance your career, while the labour that advances your career does not pay your bills. It’s a rort.
There are other challenges. Academia places a premium on personal mobility, to a point that it sometimes becomes a ridiculous fetish—an expectation that if you haven’t moved interstate or internationally at least once, you’re not serious about a career. This strains your relationships, scatters your friendships, and places tremendous burdens on families, especially those with school-age children. Speaking personally, a long-term relationship broke down in no small part because of the pressure to move.
Institutional cultures vary, and some universities are kinder than others to sessionals and recent graduates. But often ECRs receive short shrift, or suffer inattention and apathy, no matter how much service they give through teaching, marking, and publishing research for which the institution receives credit. There are few programmes to support ECRs to attend conferences or pay the often-substantial costs associated with book publishing such as images and indexing. You will be denied access to basic workspaces; the emergence of “hot desks” is a slap in the face to historians, whose work is not amenable to this imposition of corporate culture. The mere possession of a library card sometimes feels like a blessing.
I should also note that the definition of an ECR needs to be clarified. If you walk straight into an ongoing position after your PhD, you have skipped ECR status—you have already reached the next stage of an academic career. ECR should refer to that uncomfortable phase between the cessation of postgraduate candidature and the (hopeful) entry to long-term employment. It is a period characterised by precarity, instability, and casualisation. Once you acquire an ongoing contract, your interests and concerns change significantly.
For this reason I think the DECRA criteria require revision to exclude individuals with ongoing positions. The purpose of the award is to give ECRs a foot in the door, not to provide extra funding to somebody already in a secure position. When you have one eye on the next job opportunity, as casuals and fixed-terms must, and when you lack institutional support, as many do, it is very hard to compete against somebody in an ongoing job. Research Opportunity and Performance Evidence is meant to compensate for this, but it is easy to suspect patchy and inadequate application. Somebody with institutional backing and financial stability can publish more research and prepare more thorough applications than harried ECRs balancing multiple contracts. Primetime for writing DECRA applications is January and February, when ECRs are often burdened with heavy teaching and marking loads in summer intensive courses, or desperately trying to scrounge contracts for the forthcoming semester. If you are worried about putting food on the table for the next three months, how can you possibly prepare an eight-page research proposal to the same standard? I am not saying those with ongoing positions have it easy with the applications (the ARC system is a notorious waste of time and resources), but ECRs lack an even playing field in the scheme ostensibly designed to support them.
6. What do you find most exciting?
There is nothing exciting about being an ECR.
You will spend too much time worrying about your next pay cheque, your relationships will fail, you will be separated from your friends, you will put life goals on hold, and you won’t have enough time to write job/grant applications or to publish the research to get them. If you do luck upon a position, it can be difficult to enjoy your success—I have struggled, even though my position is only fixed-term, not ongoing. I feel very guilty about all my talented friends back in Melbourne seeking whatever scraps might fall their way. Why do I have a position and they do not?
When bright, ambitious history students ask me for advice on postgraduate study and an academic career, I tell them what I wish I had known: you will finish your PhD only to find a job market without jobs. If that does not discourage you, then you probably have the tenacity to do this. If it does discourage you, don’t even start. I’m stubborn enough that “don’t do it” makes me respond “I’ll show you”. That’s been my lifelong attitude. When you’re legally blind, people think you can’t do things. I’ll show you.
7. If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?
Are you ready for something really nerdy? Because I defy future respondents to out-nerd me here.
1920s New Zealand, when the maximum amount of rural branch line railways had passenger services. The trunk network was largely complete, early electrification projects were a shiny harbinger of the future, any city worth the designation had an urban tramway, and the New Zealand Government Railways was experimenting with new forms of motive power, whether those were bigger, better mainline steam locomotives or quirky little railcars.
There would even be surviving members of the former provincial councils with whom I could chat!