This is what precarity feels like: Early Career Researchers and “cruel optimism”

The AHRC defines of “Early Career Researchers” (ECRs) as individuals “within eight years of the award of their PhD […] or within six years of their first academic appointment.” In practice, ECRs are a highly heterogeneous demographic comprising individuals in a range of employment circumstances, from hourly paid contracts and fixed term fellowships, to permanent roles. In this write-up of a paper I gave at the MeCCSA annual conference, I draw out some of the key themes arising from research on recent Arts and Humanities PhD graduates, individuals who often find themselves precariously employed.

In my research on Arts and Humanities researchers (published here), ECR respondents reported that their post-PhD career transitions were extremely challenging, for example using words like “tricky”, “tough”, or “emotionally dispiriting”.

In a nutshell, post-PhD transitions are characterised by:

  • Exploitative contracts (e.g. fractional, fixed term, zero hours, etc,)
  • ECRs conducting research unpaid, reliance on savings or family support
  • No access to career development support or funding
  • Emotional upheaval, sense of abandonment, poor mental health
  • Financial worry
  • Liminal experience, lack of direction
  • Uncertainty of long-term prospects, difficulty with life-planning
  • Perception of “failure”, reluctance to “give up” a long-held ambition

IMG_3430What I found striking when analysing these responses is that, by and large, ECRs remain attached to the idea of an academic career despite significantly compromised conditions of possibility. In other words, despite critiquing exploitative and often unsustainable working conditions, very few respondents seemed to seriously entertain the idea of looking for work in another sector. 

This paradoxical condition, whereby “something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing” is known as “cruel optimism” (Berlant 2011, 1). Under “cruel optimism”, affect theorist Lauren Berlant argues, good life fantasies which give your life meaning or enable you to “add up to something” are also that which impedes upon your wellbeing or flourishing. So in this case, the optimistic attachment to the pursuit of an academic career, is life-giving (giving ECRs a goal to work toward, a reason to get up in the morning) and simultaneously damaging (because it turns out the neoliberal University does not much care about its casualised early career labourers). In this way, the dream of the academic “good life” functions as “enabling object which is also disabling” (Berlant 2011, 25)

That early career researchers remain attached to the fantasy of the academic “good life” despite their precarious lived reality may seem puzzling. Why not seek work elsewhere? Why persevere in what is already not working? My research suggests that this continued attachment hinges at least in part on the current culture of doctoral training; a culture which centralises academic careers as the “norm”, devalues all other career paths as “alternative”, and thus gets away with providing little or no provision in this area. This cultural devaluing also means that where such provision does exist, it is often poorly taken up due to a perception of “betrayal” or “failure”. As one respondent notes,


In much the same way, the perception that leaving Higher Education research following a PhD or postdoc is tantamount to “giving up”, or to have “wasted” years of effort is a huge barrier to individuals considering a career-change. This kind of emotive language (evoking commitment, shock, betrayal, giving up, etc) hints at the ways in which affect (and affective performances) plays into career planning behaviours. Embarrassment, I would argue is another key affective driver here. Indeed, as Catherine McDermott astutely notes, “Falling for a false promise is not only inconvenient, it is embarrassing. To acknowledge that we have misplaced our optimism feels less like genre’s failure to live up to and fulfil our expectations than our own failure to reap the rewards promised by genre” (McDermott 2017, 13). The fear of having embarrassingly misplaced one’s optimism illuminates why subjects persevere for so long in attachments that are already fraying: losing “hold of the fantasy that fulfilment resides in [particular] genres has the capacity to devastate the sense of self-continuity that is derived from our attachment to genre” (McDermott 2017, 13). 

No wonder then, that so many of us, the failure to “reap the rewards” of academic good life feels like a personal rather than a structural failure.

But my key argument here is that academia as a sector thrives on cruel optimism, in part because of the reliance on the idea that academics are motivated by passion rather than financial reward. As Angela McRobbie has shown, discourses of “passionate work” function as “disciplinary mechanism for tolerating not just uncertainty and self exploitation but also for staying unprofitably within the creative sector and not abandoning it altogether” (McRobbie, cited in Gill 2009). In academia specifically, Rosalind Gill argues, our attachment to a “myth of what we thought being an intellectual might be like” works to “bind us more tightly into a neoliberal regime with ever-growing costs, not least to ourselves.” (Gill 2009).

So where do we go from here? Well, paradoxically, it is precisely because of their attrition of fantasy, that scenarios of cruel optimism can offer us hope. Cruel optimism indeed yields what Berlant terms the “impasse”, defined as “a space of time lived without a narrative genre” (2011, 199). Despite the huge loss which the impasse entails, it is also a space of time characterised by potentiality, in particular the potential to detach from a cruel or damaging fantasy. And for those who do manage – however painfully – to detach from the fantasy of the academic good life – there is good news.

WDRSDN tableThe Vitae report “What do Research Staff Do Next?” shows that postdocs who leave academic careers for other sectors or non-research careers within Higher Education are highly satisfied. While 78% aspired to academic careers while they were postdocs, only 11% would now go back; that statistic alone is incredibly telling.


Works cited
Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.
Gill, Rosalind. 2009. “Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia” in Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections, edited by Róisín Ryan-Flood and Rosalind Gill, 228-244. London: Routledge.
McDermott, Catherine. 2017. “Genres of Impasse: Postfeminism as a Relation of Cruel Optimism in Girls.” In Reading Lena Dunham’s Girls, edited by Meredith Nash and Imelda Whelehan, 45-60. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

  1. I’m curious about the 54% of former post docs in that table who are in non-research careers and would presumably go back. I only have a MA but that’s where I’m at- I miss academia and am unsatisfied in my corporate job. I wonder what drives the difference between those two groups? Is it lack of satisfaction in their work or is it a true longing for academic research again?

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