The economics of research

I just received an email from our Graduate Research School.  I had applied for, and been approved for, funding to support my attendance at a conference in China in a few weeks.  The funding wont cover the whole trip, mainly my airfare, but it was a reasonable level of support.  I consider this conference my potential academic swan-song.

It turns out, which I probably should have known, that you cannot receive funding if you are in the examination period. This means I will not receive the support that I had expected and budgeted for.  This isn’t a criticism of the Uni/Faculty, I should have realised, by reading the fine print, that this would be the case and based my application to attend an international conference on a realistic financial picture. I have finally got the time and the content to really showcase the outcomes of my research but ironically I lose the support I had relied on to go because I’m too far into my degree (it’s 2 weeks away so I can hardly withdraw now.)

All this has me thinking about the economics of undertaking a research degree. Other than my scholarship (which covered 2.5 years of a 4 year degree) I haven’t had any financial support from the government or University. I’m very grateful for this support, don’t get me wrong. Unlike many, I did a Masters by coursework that cost under $10,000 (significantly less), but most of the courses I see know in arts management are well in excess of $30,000.  My PhD technically cost me $300 per year (UTS admin fees.) I’ve personally paid to attend two conferences prior to this, one international and one interstate. It was through those events that I managed to secure contacts here in Melbourne that lead to a research assistant gig.

During the past 4 years, however, I was not supposed to work more than 8 hours a week.  I was fortunate enough to have a casual teaching position which gave me $10,000 a year (which I worked out equated to $5 per hour given the workload) , 2-day a week part time job for 6 months that paid less than what I earned when I went to Uni the first time (and that was the early 90s) and a RA contract that I’m still working on even though the money stopped in February.

Yet I’m in a very fortunate position.  I’ve had a secure career outside the arts/academia for a number of years and this has provided me with a buffer.  I’m also married to someone who works a corporate job. We are very privileged.  It is that privilege that has allowed me to spend 4 years doing this.

But now that my PhD is almost over (let’s not discuss results and revisions as I’m currently in a state of peak anxiety) I’m contemplating my future – vocationally, academically and financially.  The Uni that I have been engaged with here in Melbourne has expressed the idea I should apply for a post-doc.  Leaving aside the question as to whether this is something I want to do (and I’m not sure I do), it means I need to spend at least 12 months attempting to get solid publications out of my thesis in the hope I can then obtain a grant for a post-doc place.  That’s 12 months of work with no salary or wage of any kind and no guarantee of a job at the end of it. I’m not academically strong, I’ve worked damn hard to get this far, but I don’t see myself as having the stamina to aim for an academic career long term.

To build an academic career you need to publish.  You need to go to conferences.  You need to work outside your PhD (unless independently wealthy).  But even for someone as secure as myself this is a huge financial ask. For those who do not come from the same social-economic background as myself it is basically untenable (and I know the people in my cohort, so I know how narrow the economic background is.)

Being in the arts makes this even more challenging.  In this excellent article Becca Varcoe discusses the privilege of “doing what you love” and the impact economics has on the make up of arts organisations.  I know that gaining a PhD  in the arts has probably decreased my earning potential, not opened the door to a whole new career like it might if I’d been in business or technology. But at the same time the arts has to STOP EMPLOYING PEOPLE LIKE ME as the last thing it needs it another middle-class, white, middle-aged, Gorman wearing, statement jewellery buying person with a higher degree.

The system is just wrong. And the impact it has is broad.  Not only does academia suffer, students suffer for lack of good teachers, the arts suffers as it doesn’t reflect the community in which it operates, those in the system suffer economically and, increasingly, psychologically.

I don’t have the answers, other than to stop cutting higher education and a complete economic overhaul to reduce precarity of employment (a strong creative sector union option for those not in secure employment would be nice.)

I’ll just go back to writing my journal article that one day might secure me a job…..

Creative Labour and nearing the end (not that end, just 2016)

Today is likely to be the last (official) working day of 2016.  I’d like to say I’m in good shape for an early 2017 submission, but I suspect we’re talking the March/April range if I’m completely honest.  If things can be done and dusted by mid-year then I will be pretty happy.

It’s strange to think I’ve been doing nothing but working on this one piece of writing for a full 12-months.  I finished my transcription on January 2nd 2016 and here I am on December 22nd and it’s still a word salad of ideas.  80,000 coherent words doesn’t sounds like a lot, but damn it takes it out of you.

Today I need to write the last 1000 words or so of my ‘setting the scene’ or climate section.  This is a new addition that has taken me a lot longer than it should (as in a week), but yesterday I just fell into the zone and did 4,000 in a day (which I can honestly say has never, ever happened before.)  Today however….it’s 3:19pm and I haven’t started. To be fair I was at a funeral this morning.

Intellectually  I’m being spurred on by Angela McRobbie’s book Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries. I feel like this might be the missing piece of my larger puzzle.  McRobbie argues that the rise of the creative industries can be linked to the reduction of social democratic policies and focus on neo-liberalism of governments like the New Labour Blair government.  By encouraging the growth of creative labour, fuelled by increases in arts school intakes, the emergence of rave culture, technology change and globalisation governments essentially facilitated the destruction of collective approaches to labour (that is unions) by encouraging everyone individual to be creative AND entrepreneurial  and “follow their passion.” Studies have shown that managerial techniques aimed to increase worker satisfaction and engagement within organisations are used to decrease union membership, and what we are seeing in the flexible, gig or precariat economy is a similar thing.  Individual’s are encouraged to chase their creative dreams, start their own businesses, which leaves them not only 100% accountable for their own success or failure but removes any working welfare support they may have had.

While I’m not finished the book yet, it has made me very conscious of the the role that I have personally played in the similar structures emerging here in Australia.  Education providers are the starting point as they are encouraging entrepreneurship and the reality of the portfolio careers but teaching ‘creative skills’ without critiquing the system itself. I often despaired at the lack of politics in the art school I taught at, but didn’t really consider my own role in contributing to a system I increasingly don’t believe in.

Thesis wise it’s not only given me some good positioning data about the reality of creative work, but has provided some guts to my ideas about what communities of practice do for creative practitioners.  I have been arguing that communities of practice are not only sites of learning and identity formation for emerging leaders but that they provide psychosocial support and create a sense of career optimism.  Which they do, but it’s a bit theoretically light.  But taking MMcRobbie’s arguments I can see that communities of practice are also providing a barrier against the increasing neoliberal state of creative work.  They are, on a micro scale, a type of emotional welfare net.  So in effect they play two roles:

  1. For those in organisational settings they can be a buffer against identity regulation
  2. For those in the flexible gig economy they provide a type of support that is missing when there’s no collective body (like a union).

In both cases the coming together of like minded individuals to achieve a collective aim offers an antidote to the neoliberal ideas of individualism.

Yes I know this is a political stance, but I feel more energised when writing with a bit of politics behind me.  This is one of the problems I have with my thesis, I feel it lacks my voice.  I’m hoping that in this next re-write I can bring some passion to the project (even if readers don’t agree with me.)

Anyhow, off to write and I hope any readers have a good holiday season and a safe, productive new year.  Here’s to a successful, happy 2017 filled with Phd submissions and resulting graduations!

Organisational leadership in cultural institutions

Last week I had a really bad day at work.  I came home after running an event until 8pm and told (yelled at) my husband about it (he’s used to it.)  Then, as is not unusual for me, I awoke at 3am with an awful migraine.  After taking some tablets I lay awake in pain for an hour with two words going through my head: organisational leadership.

I’ll start personally.  I’ve worked in four arts organisations over the past 6 years, sometimes short-term contracts and one permanent job.  They are often amazing places to work.  But there’s generally one weakness that sometimes can undercut the good they do – organisational leadership.

Arts organisations are great at the vision thing.  They get crafting a narrative, storytelling, inspiring audiences and marketing and communication.  They are very good at communicating outward.

But a large part of running a successful organisation is internal operations.  I’m not questioning financial and operational capability here, but more organisational culture and internal HR processes.  While this could be seen as a criticism, it is driven by lack of understanding, capability and awareness of the importance of these functions. What arts organisation has a HR person? (Unless you’re a government body.)

My pet hate is the “This is the way we do things” culture that dominates many older arts organisations.  Given what I do I’m often tasked by the CEO to come in a explore new ideas.  But I’ve often found a level of almost belligerence from the staff around exploring new internal processes.  “It’s just not how we do things” is a statement I hear a LOT.

What could help? Understanding of the need for change management processes and establishing an agile internal culture.  Coupled with this is there is the lack of any formal, or informal,  feedback or performance management process so you are left with a sense of frustration and no way to communicate it.  I’ve watched staff pack and leave because they just can’t deal with the way things operate. And I’ve left myself.

This got me thinking about my research.

I have a mix of employment types in my data pool; employees, contractors, consultants and sole traders.  About 50% work in organisations and 25% of the total interview pool are managers. I’ve noted in my first chapter on reluctant leadership how there was a lack of focus on staff/peer/collaborator development from the leaders I interviewed.  I’ve written how they shied away from transformational leadership toward charismatic or great man theories.  There narratives constructed on leadership were all externally focussed – contributing ideas, inspiring the community, crafting narrative.  But nothing about creating sustainable, well run organisations nurturing future arts talent.

What I got thinking about last night was the lack of emphasis on managing organisational culture and staff.  I can easily name two interviews where this came up. Out of over 40.  This is a gap in our creative industries’ knowledge that should be addressed.  Sure this is an issue you can most likely attribute to many small businesses but the hiring, retention and development of arts staff is one that we’ve tended to neglect as a sector – why, because there’s always someone out there willing to take on a $40k job in the arts.

Imaging how good our, already amazing, cultural organisations could be if they got this bit right? As for my research this is something I’m going to explore more closely as I continue writing the data chapters.




A black day

Friday the 13th is truly a terrible day for the Australian arts community.  This morning the full results were announced for the federal Australia Council for the Arts 4-year organisational funding.  And the results were decimating.

The idea that the arts is propped up by government funding is ludicrous in this day and age.  I’m yet to see or work in an organisation that doesn’t drive revenue from multiple sources; government, philanthropy, sponsorship and generated revenue through members, tickets or retail.  That said, the government support is crucial to the survival of many.

Before we get all “but other industries don’t get hand outs” it’s worth mentioning that a) they do in a whole variety of ways, and b) the creative capital that begins in the arts flows through to all other sectors. The creative industries (to use my broader, thesis driven economic term) brings economic, social AND cultural good.  Where would Melbourne tourism be without our laneways, galleries and street art? To name just one.

When a car manufacturer  closes in Adelaide we get front page news, opinion pieces and government debate.  The impact to individuals is considered along with the broader supply chain issues and the ramifications to the life of a city.

But 62 arts organisations across Australia lost federal funding this week.  What’s the impact of this to the people working in them? The artists they support? The community they work within? The customers who see/hear/watch/experience or buy their works?  This impact is incalculable.

My current part time/contact employer was one of the lucky ones.  My former employer was not.  My heart is heavy today.

Research statement de ja vu

Another day, another post about shaping my research statement.

I’m technically editing my literature review today.  Paragraph by paragraph editing to send through a slightly shorter (now about 11,500 words) draft to my supervisor on Friday.  But it’s hard when your opening still doesn’t really reflect a research statement or question that I am 100% happy with. In particular with a questions that focusses on the mechanisms creative workers use to create leadership identity I am still discussing the how question.  While that is part of the thesis, the my first discussion chapter, that I alluded to yesterday, if actually about reluctant leadership.  Nothing to do with how, but more about what and why.

So I came across a book chapter shared on twitter that shows a slightly different structure, and I thought I’d give that a try.

My topic: The topic I am exploring is the development of leadership identity in the Australian creative industries.

My research problem:   As the creative industries has become a more visible contributor to the Australian economy there has been a renewed discussion about the importance of leadership within the sector.  While the question of what constitutes effective arts and creative leadership has been discussed both theoretically and in the media, there is little understanding about how creative leaders develop their leadership identity. This research aims to explore how emerging leaders shape their leadership identity and the relationship they have to the concept of leadership.

My purpose: The purpose of this research is to explore the formation of leadership identity in 9 sectors within the Australian creative industries to understand the influences that shape this development.

My research questions:

  • What mechanisms are used by creative workers in Australia to develop their leadership identity?
  • What role does context have in shaping leadership identity within the Australian creative industries?
  • What relationship do emerging leaders in the Australian creative industries have to the concept of leadership?

I actually prefer this to trying to write one singular research question, though I’m concerned the last question is too broad – what I’m really exploring is the reluctance to be seen as a leader. Maybe is should be something like: What factors influence a reluctance among emerging creative industries leaders to embrace the title of leader?

OK, back to editing.


Social Theory, Politics and the Arts 2015

Note: I changed my title from Surry Hills PhD to the even more generic PhD 2017 as I’m not in Surry Hills anymore, Toto. But I still hope to finish my PhD by 2017, so there’s that. 

At AIMAC in June one of the loveliest people I met, Kathleen from Southern Methodist University, encouraged me to apply to present at STPA.  There’s not many chances to be involved in an international level academic arts orientated conference when you’re in Australia, so I thought why not?

Of course I knew going to Adelaide two weeks before Christmas and two weeks after we moved to Melbourne may have been stressful, but I only aliased how stressful whe I tried to change my flight to come home early (as I just couldn’t face going.)

Of course my paper was scheduled for the final session of the final day, thus ensuring I was not able to escape, forcing me to participate in the whole conference.  I should note, all this mental miserableness occurred before I actually made it to Adelaide.

What I did discover, within two hours of arriving, is that I knew a lot more people than I expected too. Which is always comforting.  People I’d met in France, people I’ve interviewed in Australia, and I few that are increasingly popping up on my social media feeds discussing cultural policy and the world of the arts. The second thing I discovered is, I’ve lost significant stamina in making polite, even academically polite, conversation. The downside of PhD life is the you forgot how to be in rooms full of people, as it’s usually just me and the dog.

But the conference itself. It kicked off with what has to be described as the rockstar dream team of David Throsby and Julian Meyrick. (The lack of women keynote speakers does have to be mentioned though, this is the second conference where there’s been no female plenary speakers. Come on guys, really?) Prof Throsby is undoubtedly a superstar in cultural economics and he rolled out all his hits in his keynote.  Prof Meyrick was a great theoretical counterpoint bringing his theatre driven charisma and style to discussions of cultural language. And he wore a good hat.

Paper sessions reminded me of a few things.  People still forget to present according to audience. Academics travel the world giving the same paper a lot (a few times I ended up seeing a presenter give exactly the same presentation they gave at AIMAC).  That it’s hard to pick what will be a fascinating presentation by the abstract.  (One of my favourite presentations from day one was an comparison of Indian and South Korean cultural policy, which I went to because I met the speaker previously. ) Storytelling, effective narrative, cannot be underestimated. Good storytellers are good presenters (And good leaders?) and panel sessions are never panel sessions but a series of short presentations.  The only panel sessions I’ve seen at any conference was a recent on at the Australia Council’s Arts Learning Forum where instead of a series of monologues the panel asked each other questions.  I’m stealing this idea, as it was great.

I was exceited that Prof Nancy Adler from Montreal was presenting (over lunch, which again pushed me #everydaysexism buttons.)  While she was lovely, and her presentation engaging, it wasn’t particularly useful and wasn’t really about leadership as I’d hoped.

More generally, I find the people at conferences are one of two types, overly generous and kind, sharing ideas and collaborating willingly or constantly looking past you to see who’s more important to talk to.  I hope I can be the former.

Research wise I find I’m still a little out there in my own. There’s very little work being done on how creative people learn. How arts education is taught maybe, but not practitioners themselves.  I was pleased to meet Dr Sheree Gordon from Western Sydney University who’s working on issues HR in the creative space, her research focussed on family balance and responsibility for actors and how that’s managed. Really interesting and I can see parallels in her finding to what I’m seeing.

I also caught up with someone I went to high school with, but a few years below, who happens to have the best job ever- head of research and policy for Screen Australia.  After I got over my extreme jealousy it was good to hear about her experience.

As to the reception of my paper, the feedback was pretty positive.  It was pleasing to have Ruth Rentschler come and see me present after providing me such guidance at AIMAC, and then tell me she thought I’ve come forward in leaps and bounds.  Each time I present I do get my ideas better formulated and more coherent.

Once again, however, I confirmed that academic life is not in my future. This wasn’t the tearing down of ideas type scenario, but more a confirmation of the logistics of academia being out of reach.  I can’t apply for fellowships or post docs in other cities when I’m done. The required mobile life of an academic, especially early in their career, is not achievable by a 40 something married to a lawyer aiming for partnership. And furthermore I could see how difficult this was for people, especially women, socially.

This does a couple of things, it removes my self inflicted anxiety about publication in academic journals (though I will still aim to next year.) It also has me planning again for life beyond the PhD. And to that end I’m reaching out to organisations with the aim of volunteering next year.  One, I want to return to community service, two, I want to build my Melbourne network towards a post academic career.  So let’s see how that goes.

But it has left me undecided about going to another conference in 2016.  I had thought maybe one would be on the cards, but maybe it will be hard to justify the expense when my scholarship runs out mid-year and we are about to buy a house.  I have to think honestly about this one.

Now I’m heading back to transcribe the last of my interviews, ending the year how I began I suspect.

Melbourne feelings

I’m on my second day of a six day trip to Melbourne.  It fills a variety of needs:

  • I’m conducting five interviews for the PhD, one completing my ‘festivals’ group and another four on the advertising sector,
  • I’m meeting with two people from Melbourne Universities, one of whom is the editor of the journal I submitted to in June (and am yet to hear anything back.)
  • I’m meant to be writing my paper for the December conference,which I need to have drafted in two weeks and submitted in four,
  • I’m getting my Melbourne groove back, knowing we’ll be living here again in three months.

I’m doing all of these things to varying degrees of success. All the advertising interviews are done, more on that below, and they were different to what was expected.  The University meetings are tomorrow and I am less concerned about these now I know that I don’t really care if I get an academic job, or teach next year.  They were important when I was considering changing university, but as I realise that was a bloody stupid idea, now they are just a nice chance to drink more Melbourne coffee. (Got to stop drinking so much Melbourne coffee as I think I might have heart palpitations.)

My paper….yeah that hasn’t happened.  All the hours, or the few hours, I’ve had between interviews have been spent a) seeing friends, b) getting my Melbourne groove back, c) drinking coffee, d) eating too much.  But tomorrow IT’S ON. (Aside from the three meetings/coffees I have in Brunetti’s cake shop in Carlton.)

I can hand on heart say I have achieved the last point. There’s been some collective worry, on my part and by others, about how we might go settling back in to Melbourne, but the moment I arrived yesterday it was like I exhaled for the first time in months.  As my best friend says: these are my people.  I cannot wait to be home again.

Back to my interviews.  I feel I owe the advertising sector an apology.  I had preconceived ideas about the how these participants would be, full of swagger and bravado, bluster and self-confidence.  But I think I underestimated them.

The primary participant was a crazily successful 27 year old, doing some amazing stuff and winning international awards, who still wont embrace the title leader. Those around him said he was in many ways unique in the sector, which is not ideal for me in the fact he isn’t necessarily representative, but that he has an extraordinary brain and creative capacity.

I had expected to find a very individualised culture, with little evidence of social learning.  In some cases that was true, but in some cases not.  What I found was that advertising tends to pair up copywriters and art directors, like a marriage (a descriptor everyone has used) and they work together, but it is not necessarily a community of practice approach.  Many still prefer to undertake creative work alone.

There was still the same level of ambiguity with regard to leadership, but in discussions there was an agreement that a ‘new definition of leadership’ is required. One participant even sent me an email that said:

I think we need a new word or phrase to encapsulate this role for the future.  ‘Leadership’ seems too top down and hierarchical to me, which goes against the notion  of collaboration. Don’t have an answer, but I think if it could be done, it would allow people to take ownership of the role.

Which is really my thinking as well.  I had expected advertising to be much more ‘corporate’ in it’s approach and thinking, when it is actually more aligned to the arts world.

One thing that is sticking in my mind, however, is the high level of outside interests discussed.  Every participant in this group mentioned their (often creative) practice outside of advertising – music, business/product development, art, not for profit work.  If you look at the labour market statistics in the creative industries there is a high proportion that work multiple jobs – mainly because of freelance work or economic necessity as being an artist doesn’t pay the bills.  But these advertising guys aren’t doing it for the money or the job. They all work full time and admit to being paid very well.  The said they do it for perspective and creative outlet (even though their day jobs are creative too.)

They also contemplated, in some cases, that these outside work creative endeavours are their places of leadership and learning.  They are their communities of practice. Despite spending 10 hours a day, 5 (often more) days a week with their creative agency colleagues they are not necessarily considering them as their creative learning peers.

One senior leader in an agency did talk about the difference between a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ agency.  A good one is open to collaboration and works collectively, a bad one is more competitive.  As there are many scholars that say communities of practice cannot be created in an organisational context, there may be some truth in this. And others argue organisation is the enemy of creativity, but by definition advertising agencies are ideas generating organisations.

I don’t have it all worked out, I’m over tired, a little frazzled from everything going on in my life right now, and have drunk WAY too much coffee.  But it’s more food for thought.