Academic superheroes?

Taylor & Francis

A critical analysis of academic job descriptions

Traditionally, a PhD was seen as a prestigious qualification where individuals, working on their own initiative, demonstrated their talent, academic excellence and a thirst for knowledge. It opened doors to the academic community and guaranteed an advantage in the job market. However, for the last decade, debate has raged about the nature and purpose of the PhD – including its role as preparation for working in academia. Is a PhD enough to secure a job in academia anymore?

A recent study that analysed job descriptions for junior academic posts, has found a trend that requires early career academics to be multitasking, multitalented ‘superheroes’ if they want to get a job. In order to gain their initial position in academia, a candidate’s ability to simply balance teaching and research is no longer enough.

The study, which focused on nearly 300 jobs adverts posted by universities in Australia in just one day, found that some of the job descriptions contained as many as 24 key selection criteria. In one case 21 of these were deemed ‘essential’.

Published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, the report states that the essential criteria for selection included not just detailed requirements for research and teaching, but also the ability to perform duties in administration and community engagement.

The study’s authors, Inger Mewburn and Rachael Pitt, highlight how some overly specific descriptions could become contradictory and confusing. One sentence in a lengthy job description stated that the candidate was “expected to exercise independence and creativity while being a part of the team, and to be prepared to learn new skills and adapt to new problems.”

The authors stated that this sentence covered, “Independence, teamwork, creativity, continuing learning, adaptability, responsiveness to change and problem-solving” and argue that the desire for ‘new academics’ to be multi-talented, always ready and available workers led the authors to label them “academic super-heroes – capable of being everything to everyone, with the ability to leap over 24 key selection criteria in a single job application.”

The findings of this report have implications for academic developers and policy makers alike and provide a valuable resource that can be used to inform both hiring practices and development of new PhD programmes.

When referencing the article: Please include Journal title, author, published by Taylor & Francis and the following statement:

* Read the full article online: