You Can't Bring Me Down

How I dealt with setbacks to the PhD-to-academic career transition

  1. The Year of the Rat is turning into a year of downgrades and career pivots. Although my PhD was conferred in April the second wave of COVID-19 in Melbourne means that I probably won’t have a graduation ceremony. (I haven’t attended any of my graduation ceremonies yet.) The University of Melbourne rescinded the 2020 cohort for the McKenzie Postdoctoral Research Fellowship that I applied for, and announced 450 FTE people would be cut. I also had to recently pull out of a possible joint tender application due to not having the time commitment and institutional research affiliation as a professional staff member. How have I dealt with these research career setbacks?

  2. The first important step is to separate my self-identity from the institutional and situational factors that are beyond my control. This means taking an internal locus of control: narrowing my focus to what I can control, and what next steps I can take. I don’t know for example if my Fellowship would have been successful but I will make improvements to the next iteration that will be submitted next year. I have been through university restructures before, and know well the personal and psychological toll that learned helplessness and uncertainty can take. I’m prepared: this is a post graduate school transition that many people go through.

  3. The second important step was to update my individual research plan which I first formulated in 2019. Now that my PhD is under embargo I have a clear publication strategy for new papers from it. I have 9 years of unpublished working notes and unused chapters which could be the seeds of potential articles. I’ve sounded out potential collaborators on what we could write next. I’ve kept an eye on other scholars such as Tamir Libel who cite past research by me. I’ve looked at old blogs that I wrote during my Masters studies as I began to think about what my PhD might look like. I’m also going to follow political economist Branko Milanovic’s suggestion to read Karl Marx’s Grundrisse in order to understand what ‘working notes’ can look like.

  4. The third important step is to think about my research in terms of a coherent data strategy. One of the ways to think about this from the hedge fund world is that you are creating alternative data. I’m taking some steps to deal with this, such as that I will be consolidating the author accepted manuscripts of my published journal articles, my Masters essays, and draft papers into my profile. I need to consolidate my data sets just as the qualitative data set on Distributive Conflict and Regime Change does, and to update my Endnote library with details of my personal library collection. I recommend Tresorit for secure cloud-based storage. I’m not yet at the stage of thinking about a big data approach but it’s definitely a future possibility.

  5. The fourth important step is to think about my research in terms of developing a platform strategy. Nick Srnicek’s book Platform Capitalism has shaped some of my thinking on this. Earlier this year I launched the Vega Theory site to keep track of my unfolding research program. I did so based on my 1998-2008 period with the former subculture search engine Disinformation (which you can now find archived on The Wayback Machine), and on watching daily the work that the libertarian economist Tyler Cowen has done with his blog Marginal Revolution. Over time I’ll be adding to Vega Theory some updated Disinformation era material as well as the environmental scanning frames that I developed whilst in Swinburne University’s Strategic Foresight graduate program in 2002-04. I’ll also be thinking more carefully about target journals, editorial boards, and publishing contracts for academic journal articles and books. The key in dealing with setbacks to the PhD-to-academic career transition is to build my own infrastructure for research activities that also has portability.