/ 27 January 2023

Abused in academia: A cautionary tale

Graphic Edu Postdocs Website2 1200px
(John McCann/M&G)

Between December 2016 and December 2019, I was a postdoctoral fellow at a university that shall remain nameless. I was recruited to work on a project researching the “institutional culture” of the university itself, commissioned by the deputy vice-chancellor: academic (DVC). 

I was placed in the university’s institutional research unit. I understood the project to be concerned broadly with university transformation. Because I had done a PhD in social psychology, addressing xenophobia and racism, I thought this project would be up my street. 

I had an intermediate boss — let’s call him Pierre. He was a deputy director in the research unit and took main responsibility for implementing the project according to the DVC’s brief. 

As the project got underway, however, I became uncomfortable with the ethics of what we were doing. The DVC was proposing to research the opinions of university employees over whom she had direct managerial power. Wasn’t this a conflict of interest? When I suggested this, she insisted there was no conflict of interest. 

I also suggested she shouldn’t have access to interview recordings or transcripts until they had been anonymised. Her response was: “You could do that but I’ll know who they are anyway.” 

Some colleagues, who had been at the university longer, thought the project was simply a disguise for the DVC’s efforts to identify academics whose politics she didn’t like. 

Then suddenly, three months in, Pierre resigned. His post was not filled; instead, the DVC tried to palm off responsibility for the project’s “key deliverables” on me. I floundered; I was out of my depth and my heart wasn’t in it. Also, the DVC wasn’t able to explain precisely what she wanted. I would come out of meetings with her more, rather than less, confused. 

After some weeks of stalemate, the DVC had the idea of finding a replacement boss for me. She asked another professor of higher education studies at the university whether she would be interested in joining the project. This professor initially expressed an interest but then threw a curve ball and offered me a postdoctoral fellowship in her own centre. 

I was relieved to be “poached” because my relationship with the DVC was reaching a dead end. Then the new professor proposed that perhaps we could also take the institutional culture project to her centre. 

I said I was interested in her offer but made sure to clarify the conditions. She assured me that even if we couldn’t continue with the project, I could still move to her centre and work on new research. 

However, instead of negotiating this transition with the DVC herself, the professor left me to do it alone. So, I met with the DVC and told her I had been offered a new fellowship in the other professor’s centre. I explained the new professor’s suggestion that we continue the project there. Unsurprisingly, the DVC refused. I was prepared for this, so I said I was resigning anyway. 

But when I reported back to the professor, she inexplicably became upset and worried that I (!) had offended the DVC. Then the worst (almost) happened — the new professor retracted her offer by pretending that she had never made one. 

I spent several days in torment about this but then she reinstated it, and I ended up moving to her centre — essentially jumping from the frying pan into the fire. 

Later, she told me the reason for retracting her offer was that the DVC had told her I’d failed to do my job on the institutional culture project, so I shouldn’t be rewarded with another fellowship at the university. So the DVC — my postdoctoral host — actively tried to burn my professional bridges. 

That was phase one of my time at the university. For phase two, we can skip ahead to early 2018, when I had been a postdoc in the new centre for about six months. The professor of higher education studies hosted several PhD students, and when a new cohort arrived, we postdocs were informed that we would be co-supervising them. We weren’t given any option about this. The professor didn’t run her centre democratically.

Privately, I thought this unwise. I was allocated to a PhD student whose research topic I knew almost nothing about. Also, postdocs are temporary, meaning we might not be around to see the students through to the end of their PhDs. 

Still, I did the job diligently, consoling myself that, by the end, I’d have my first completed PhD supervision under my belt. This is a career milestone and a requirement when applying for some academic jobs. 

Fast forward another 18 months to late 2019, when my student was approaching the third and last year of her PhD. By then, I had spent about 70 hours giving feedback on her thesis drafts and seminars. 

At this time, a few other things happened. I heard that an application I’d made for independent postdoctoral research funding had been successful and I was offered a six-month job teaching at a university in Norway. I told the professor this and asked if she would let me go away for a semester and come back. She replied that I could, on condition that I keep supervising my student while I was away. 

Then, a few weeks later, I received an email from the professor saying my services as co-supervisor were no longer needed. The reason she gave was (surprise, surprise) that the PhD student’s other postdoc supervisor was also moving away for a job and the student needed at least one supervisor in South Africa. 

I was being replaced. This made me livid. I’d spent my time doing the professor’s work, supervising her student, for two years, and now would have nothing to show for it. So, I replied, asking either to be reinstated as supervisor or else reimbursed financially. She refused. 

I wrote a complaint to the director for research development and the DVC: research (who have responsibility for postdocs). I explained how the professor had wasted my time, and again, asked either to be reinstated or paid for the work. 

Asking for recompense in this way resulted in my getting fired. 

The director for research development said he found no grounds for my complaint and that the professor was willing to let me take my new research funding elsewhere. 

That’s how I discovered I’d been dismissed. The professor never told me herself. Obviously, she and the director had discussed me behind the scenes. 

A few days later, when I wrote to some of my postdoc colleagues to tell them I’d been sacked, I got an email from the DVC: research, telling me that since I wasn’t allowed back into the centre, I was also not to communicate with anyone there about what had happened. Management was colluding to muzzle me too. 

I went to Norway and found another university to host me and my research when I came back. But about 10 months after leaving the university where I had been so poorly treated, I was hit by a wave of grief. 

I became unspeakably angry at how I’d arrived there in good faith, expecting to be treated as an academic professional, only to get entangled in the dubious agendas of colluding senior academics and managers and, ultimately, treated like dog shit. 

I contacted the vice-chancellor, asking for a meeting. I wanted to tell him what had happened, hoping for some kind of justice. Initially, his PA promised me a meeting, but later she fobbed me off, and I never saw him. 

This tale about what I learnt of the “institutional culture” of this university serves as a warning to future postdocs about the dangers of these positions. Many postdocs got messed around at this university. Postdocs are vulnerable and no one in leadership helped me. Instead, it was those same leaders who were most dangerous to my career and my mental health. 

Ironically, both the DVC academic and the professor of higher education had built their reputations on a purported concern for transformation and social justice. This hypocrisy played a large part in my losing faith in the academic profession. 

And as long as academics don’t have meaningful job security, speaking truth to power will not pay. 

Philippa Kerr is a freelance writer and artist. She has previously been a postdoctoral fellow at two universities.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.