Why I do not know what 2016 will be like

I have not written on this blog for many months. I know that what has kept me from writing has been the fact of not feeling at peace with myself, because of my job situation. I have felt for the first time in my working life quite privileged in the last two years thanks to the support of the Alexander Von Humboldt Foundation. But my fellowship expires in April and I have again the feeling of falling into a void. Interesting to notice, although the AvH is well paid, it is not considered a job contract, so, for the German state I have never worked and I am not entitled to unemployment benefits. Since this summer, I am applying for jobs. I have made a few interviews, failed to get one position for a very little margin, haven’t got a job until now. I have also been struggling to write a research project, with which I might apply for funding and extend my stay at the GIGA.

The search for a job has probably taken at least half of my time. It is incredible how much time researchers who have not a tenure spend applying for jobs or funding. A lot of the creative energy that we should spend conducting research and writing is actually spent with cover letters, project outlines and the likes. And it is strange to me to write a blog about research without knowing if I will still be a researcher for very long. Because I do not know if I will have the possibility to continue to do this profession and on which terms.

There are a lot of things that I like about my job, but there are also a lot of things that I do not like. And I think that we have all asked ourself how much are we disposed to sacrify to our career in terms of stability and of peace of mind. At the same time, what has probably kept me in the academia until now has been the fact that I have had enough chances to look around in order to know that the grass is not always greener. Especially for people like me, born in Southern Europe in the ’80s, there is not an ‘easy way’, when it comes to access to the job market.

I know a few people in Italy who have relative job stability, but most of them do not feel happy about their job and have relatively low salaries. Not all of them work less hours than the typical academic – some actually work more and have no fixed working hours. You do not make fortunes today in Italy even when you have a supposedly ‘good job’ in a bank or in a private firm – if you live in a big city and your parents do not help you to buy a house, you might in the best case scenario be able to rent a one bedroom apartment but you won’t save money. And categories of workers that felt once ‘safe’ – for instance bank clerks – are now fearing for their jobs, even when they have permanent positions.

I also know people who work in the humanitarian or development sector, who have interesting jobs but even less security and stability – in both physical and financial terms – than academics. Indeed, the wave of ‘neo-liberalisation’ has affected international organizations and NGOs at least as much – if not more – than the academia. There have been scandals about unpaid internships in the UN, but internships are actually not the worse. Once, the typical entry level job in the UN was a “Professional Level 2 (P2)”. Today, especially in peacekeeping mission, most P2 and P3 positions are replaced by “United Nations Volunteers” – who are not volunteer at all, but professionals with sometimes many years of experience, who work for the UN on temporary contracts for up to seven years for salaries that are one third to one fourth those of the “P” staff.

This is why I am wary of those who paints working conditions in the academia as hell on heart. They tipically belong to two categories: the first are relatively privileged tenured academics who are nostalgically hinting at a mytical time when the profession had not still been corrupted by the neo-liberal virus, but conveniently forget that this was a also a time when there were very few people with degrees and the economy was growing steadily. The other category is composed by PhDs in some branches of engineering or in other very specific fields that are in high demand by the private sector and who have in fact been lucky enough to get a well paid job in the private sector. They tell to other PhDs that green pastures are awaiting them if they free themselves from the chains of the academia, but forget that their experience is hardly representative of that of most humanity and social science PhDs – and even of many PhDs in scientific disciplines.

Surely, there are problems in the academia. According to the Guardian, many academics suffer of depression and anxiety, exasperated by job insecurity and pressure to do always more. Probably most of what it is in the article is true, but I ask myself what about similar issues in the private sector? Could a similar article have been written about people employed in finance, law firms or large businesses? Probably not, because the “weak ones” would have already been expelled from those sector – or would have left voluntarily – during or after their first internship.

In many respects, we are privileged. We have a lot of control on our work, including our working hours. There are very few other jobs that leave so much space to personal initiative and creativity. I have seen how people who work in bureaucracies, even when they are at a very high level, have so little power of decision. Even the Secretary General of the UN is an executor of the will of the Security Council.

But this freedom comes with a cost. Academics do a good job when they have good ideas – which sometimes come easily and sometimes don’t. Our work is potentially open ended – we can always do more, publish more, be better teachers: we can always be smarter. We need a lot of self discipline but also of self confidence in order to navigate in the difficult landscape of today’s job market. And then, we also need luck: for every available place, there are always many people who could potentially do the job well, and it might be nuances that make a difference – the department prefers having people with a certain expertise or a certain methodological approach, you were stressed and did a bad interview, or you were in shape and looked great and confident in the interview.

So, I do not want to complain about my condition. But I do not want to pretend either that it is easy. It will probably not easy if I will continue working as a researcher and it will not be easy either if I will decide to change. During my professional career, I have gone through so many false starts and disappointments. I am sure that I have also done a lot of mistakes, but could I have avoid it?

What I want to say, it is just that I do not have the slintest idea about what 2016 reserves me. I do not know if I will still do the job that I am doing now, I do not know in which country I will live. I do not know if I will have to start everything from scratch again. I do not even know what I wish for myself. I hope that at the end of another year I will be able to understand better what it is good for me and what I realistically can achieve. I wish the same to all the other children of this lost generation – my generation.


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News from the American Political Science Tribe

It is my third day at the American Political Science Association conference. I have presented at the Electoral Integrity Project Workshop and I have no more work to do. So, my feeling is a bit that of an ethnographist just landed in a village inhabited by an exotic tribe – the American Political Science tribe. The fact that the conference takes place in a Hotel is already a bit alienating for me – three Hotels to be precise, because one Hotel could not suffice for the number of participants – more than 7000 are officially registered. Of course, I regularly get lost. I have asked myself and asked other people why European conferences take place in Universities and American ones in Hotels but had no response. Perhaps the Americans prefer holding the convention in a Hotel because in this way they get the feeling that academia is business and thus, in the US scale of value, a serious thing.

As I said in the previous post, my image of American political science was that extreme scientism and quantitative methods would prevail. It is in part true – I have been panels were I was bombarded with numbers and I had actually the feeling that the presenters cared a lot about their regression techniques and little about the issues themselves they were discussing. Lots of papers are based on very complicated and actually economically costly methodologies, but it seems that here people are not affected by the trivial money problems that are a constant obsession in places like Italy.

However, I saw how the community is so big to leave space to diversity and how non quantitative scholars created their spaces of resistance, such as the Qualitative session and the Method Café (which is a sort of moderated group discussion about qualitative methods). There is also some space for the kind of more policy-advice oriented political scholarship, which does not use complicated methodologies but relies on regular contacts with the policy community.

Interestingly, African studies seem better represented here than at mainstream European politics conferences. Yesterday I was at the business meeting and at the reception of the African Politics Conference Group. It seems that the organized sessions are a sort of families where someone can take shelter from the overwhelming magnitude of the conference – the members all seem to know each others.

Another feeling I get here and I do not get in European conferences is this sort of competitive, aggressive spirit. It is full of competitions for prizes – best article, best dissertation, best book etc etc. And, of course, there is a lot of competition for jobs – alas, in this the situation is not that different than in Europe, although my feeling is that the rules of the game for getting a job are quite distinctive: perhaps harsher, but clearer.

In the end, in the social sciences we seem to be further far than in the natural sciences in creating a single transnational community. Does it mean more space for diversity? Or does it mean provincialism on both sides? I leave the answer to the reader

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Migrant researchers are migrants. Not guests.

This is a post a bit more personal than the previous ones but I feel the need to publish it, because I think it will resonate to many other young researchers. It will probably be also the first of a series of posts that I want to dedicate to the problem of employment (in the academia and not only…).

Since I moved to Germany about one year and half ago, in order to start a post-doc financed by the Alexander Von Humboldt Stiftung, there has been a misunderstanding that might sound innocuous but that has hurted me quite a lot. It seems that, because the VH fellowship is dedicated to foreign researchers coming to Germany for up to two years, once you have it you are attached the label of “Gastwissenschaftler” (guest researcher). You are introduced in meetings as “the guest researcher”, you are put into a “guest researchers office” and so on. Most of people calling me “guest researcher” do not mean wrong. Some of them care sincerely about me, like the senior colleague who told me that being called a guest is a good thing because it means that the hosts are under obligation to receive me in the best possible way.

To me, however, there is a fundamental element in the definition of guest that is lacking in my case. A guest has a home to come back to. Some Von Humboldt fellow do, especially those who take the fellowship at the “experienced researcher” level. They are lecturers or professors in their country, have come to Germany to start a scientific collaboration or to have a period to dedicate to research free of teaching obligations, and after one or two years they come back to their institution. But many others, especially the Von Humboldt post-docs, have no home to come back to. When their fellowship expires, they have to find a job. Most of them do not go back to their country, for the very obvious fact that what has pushed them to leave their country in the first place and come to Germany is that they see very few opportunities there. I know several VH post-docs who were also based in Hamburg or Northern Germany who have completed their fellowship: none of them is back to his/her country.

I am not a guest researcher. I am a migrant. I like to travel and see the world, but let’s not fool ourselfes: if I had had the possibility to do the job that I am doing now in Italy and be decently paid (which to me means, enough to rent my own place and not to have to ask money to my parents for day to day expenses), I will not have moved to South Africa first and to Germany later. I know people who are obsessed by the dream of living in London and New York but I do not have such an obsession.  Nor do I feel bored i I do not move every two years – although in practice I moved more frequently than that. The idea of living in my hometown of Pisa, with the Tuscan countryside and coast at hand, is far from repulsive to me – indeed, is also far from repulsive for many Germans, who are wise enough to keep their jobs in Hamburg or Munich and buy a holiday house in Italy with their savings.

I know that to some extent mobility is a normal thing for researchers. But being forced to move because you perceive that the academic system in your country is blocked and that you have zero chances to get a job no matter how hard you work because you do not have a godfather to parrain you should not be normal. Migrant researchers are migrants. Even if we seem to have far more economic and intellectual resources than the typical economic migrant, we face in the end problems that are similar. Calling us guests does not help, because you typically expect guests to leave: but if we leave we do not have any place to come back to.


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