At a recent Early Career BSA forum, organized by Dr Rachel Thwaites and Dr Amy Pressland, titled Early Career Academics’ Experiences of the Academy, the Saturday morning audience paused on some collective concerns, signs of hope, and shared understandings of the complexity of inhabiting academia in a particular time.  How to keep things constructive and positive in the educational climates we find ourselves in? To enable rather than dissuade even as ‘early career’ is ever extended across the career trajectory which means some never ‘arrive’?

I wasn’t speaking as a current ‘early career’ academic, although the stretch of that as up to 10 years post PhD is itself something to dwell on, as are the (dis)connections between, for example, early-mid-established career status. When I completed my PhD the category – and abbreviation – of ECR was rather unheard of, while of course there were always post-docs setting out at the beginning of their careers (and always vulnerable, impermanent academic workers, and those doing ‘jobs’ rather than thinking about ‘careers’). I have of course inhabited ECR status and have been that research assistant (and that teaching assistant) on a temporary contract: this feels important to say in recognizing these as constructed and changing categories, used to name and do different things (and to arguably mobilize around, or even feel an entitlement through…). In academic presentations across the career-stage, we are endlessly displaying and building our own value, with presence and permanence apparently announcing an arrival (even as we ask ourselves ‘what next?’, moving from ‘early’ to ‘mid’ to ‘established’ career). But it’s also important to recognize the past-presence-future of debates on career stage and academic labour (as emotional and material and as often happening on a Saturday morning), rather than as snapshot of fractured academic times. We see such snapshots in off-hand comments; ‘when did she get her PhD?’, ‘were you a professor in your last post?’, ‘who does she think she is?!’, ‘she’s very ambitious’.

There are some potential collapsing and contradictions within career categories and, for example, I’ve been at once hopeful and confused about the ESRC’s joint review on the status and experience of ECRs, sitting alongside the structural withdrawal of postdoctoral schemes and funding, replaced with a Future Leaders Scheme conveying rather different notions of being and becoming academic, as I often hear early career colleagues exclaims (‘I’m not a future leader!’). I’m concerned about the separation of categories and career stages as if we travel linearly throughout our academic careers, which cannot take account of immobility, circularity, complicatedness and connectedness. Many have written passionately and provocatively about the awkward encounters in academia where some seem to be versed and conversant, while others occupy marginal positions – and others aren’t even in the room. Feminists have highlighted gendered inequalities within academia, and the still very few number of women professors. So another awkward question might be, ‘what do we expect of them when they arrive?’

We see supposed measures of productive labour all around us, ever-rehearsing what comes to count (as academic, activist, feminist) as signs of arrival. Academic categories and counts are not simply externally imposed or regulated and we have to recognize our own complicity in regulating and potentially stretching these. As someone invited to take up this BSA  Early Career space, I felt a weight about what to convey, what to display, when it might not just be myself that I was carrying or caring for (as a ‘feminist’, doing ‘feminist research’). As we appear in academia we create certain presences and we have to be careful to ask what else is carried with us? What weight do we bear? How is this recognized or disappeared? What weight do we expect others to carry? How can these weights reach beyond the individual academic, to encompass questions of passion, pressure, care and varied feminist presence? How can I protect myself and stop doing everything all of the time, for everyone (and, of course, fail)? What if my version of feminism collides with yours?

The promise of entering and achieving in higher education is at once seductive (CVs produced, academic stars circulated internationally) and disturbing, felt and encountered across the university environment, via administrative, teaching and research concerns. We are encouraged to self-recognize in academia, to enact career mobility via our CVs, bound to academic identities – rather than to social justice actions. Academic entrance, career mobility and institutional rewards often imply a recognition, even arrival, within higher education, where objective success may be measured through increased publications, grant income and institutional visits, producing the ‘international’ academic able to take up her space. This is something we are encouraged to celebrate as a successful example of meritocratic promise and rational paths followed and sustained.

These contentious points of arriving, departing and travelling through institutional space intersect with what we might feel about occupying academia, as a potential generative and sustained encounter. The BSA forum offered a space for thinking through what is taken with us as we travel through academia, where feminist research in particular has been critical of the travelling subject (or ‘self’), who tells only their own story, who mobilizes their reflexivity as a claim, rather than a failure.

There is work to be done in stretching these processes, beyond the individual uptake of academic space, self-telling or self-recognition. Academic freedom has been understood as an ability to articulate, activate and to know differently, but these blockages, as a heightened part of the neo-liberal university, perhaps necessitate another way of speaking back, rather than articulating ‘early’ or ‘established’ as entitlements or  end-points. In re-engaging the senses and sentiments of that Saturday seminar (and the sense of higher education more broadly), I’d say that researchers across the career stage have a responsibility to re-think how they occupy academia in-between and beyond career categories. Here, we could usefully return to some feminist longstanding voices in particular to better think through the histories, presences and futures of career stretches and necessary (and tiring) feminist repetitions.