Psychologist logo
Jordan Kirwan
Careers and professional development, Developmental, Equality, diversity and inclusion, Social and behavioural

Don’t rock the boat?

Jordan Kirwan reflects on his experience as a working-class PhD researcher, the challenges around identity and concerns around how activism can impact career prospects.

03 January 2023

During secondary school, a trusted mentor offered me a piece of advice that has greatly influenced my career path: ‘if you come from a disadvantaged background, you must use the opportunities given to you to come back and help your community’. While I became interested in a career in academia towards the end of my second year as an undergraduate, I felt that building industry experience – in tandem with the development of my academic career – would allow me to work in communities similar to the one I grew up in. A fusion of different experiences with social care, youth work and advocacy work has driven my research career from undergraduate to PhD.

However, as a working-class academic-activist, I have realised the potential dangers of burnout/researcher trauma. At times, it feels as though I am engaging in research as a matter of personal importance in order to somehow assist those in a similar position. As a result, my research can predominately appear as a way of striving to promote some form of social change, rather than just conventional research skills development that will aid my future career. Although this can feel like a weighty responsibility as an extension to your PhD, I have found my identity to be a strength rather than a weakness in most instances. I’ve been supported by a wider community who share and validate my experiences as an academic-activist.

In the current context, I literally cannot afford to be seen as a troublemaker.

Through engaging with other academic-activists at various career stages and of differing experience levels, it is apparent that our experiences as academic-activists in the current institutional environment are often similar. While this can be mildly comforting, learning of the extreme levels of impeded mobility, stifled creativity and the prominence of isolation and loneliness amongst academic-activists can detract from the idyllic goal of attempting to enact real change.

Too risky?

My past research at undergraduate and postgraduate level could, in a sense, be regarded as academic-activism, but I have always thought of my activism as being primarily community-based. There was minimal crossover between academia and activism. This may have been an ideal arrangement to offset instances of burnout, but my PhD project has forced me to reconsider where my activism lies.

Being an academic-activist and researching academic-activism means you understand the implications of identifying as such both in a literary and in a personal sense. Learning that academia is a challenging environment to navigate based on its current structural issues/conditions (more so for those with marginalised identities/backgrounds) can be enlightening, but experiencing it first-hand can be detrimental to your wellbeing. Understanding academic-activism in this way fosters contrasting emotions. On one hand, I tell myself to get out while I still can, but on the other, I feel I have a duty to expand activist commitments and help reverse current trends in the industry (e.g. exploitative work practices). This is easier said than done.

I dread the thought of being perceived as a careerist who uses sensitive data as a means of furthering my career and, in the process, leaves nothing behind for the individuals, groups, or communities it can benefit.

More experienced and securely contracted academics in my network have been considerate of my situation in past pieces of advice and insight. Typically, I am warned to ‘not stick your head above the parapet’, ‘don’t rock the boat’, and to keep quiet until I gain some degree of permanency before announcing myself as an awkward thinker or an agitator. But I am not entirely convinced that this is the reputation I want.

Risky to not rock the Boat?

This is where impostor syndrome starts to set in. My research aims to improve the landscape for academic-activists by challenging issues like precarity, restrictions on academic freedom and the lack of representation of diverse voices in academia. Yet, I am apprehensive about tackling these issues by becoming involved in movements or campaigns. I think, at times, this fear does a disservice to both the project and my identity as an academic-activist. I’m conscious that being an academic-activist who is not visible on the issues they are researching might betray a degree of trust I have built with research participants and support networks. I dread the thought of being perceived as a careerist who uses sensitive data as a means of furthering my career and, in the process, leaves nothing behind for the individuals, groups, or communities it can benefit.

In an attempt to justify my hesitant stance on committing to activist causes, I refer back to learning of the adversity faced by more outspoken academic-activists. My PhD is taking place against the backdrop of a looming economic recession, a full-scale housing crisis and a dearth of secure options in the job market. Given the wider socioeconomic environment, I do not think it is sensible to risk being viewed as the awkward thinker or the agitator by potential employers. In the current context, I literally cannot afford to be seen as a troublemaker.

In order to protect both my personal and professional reputation, I believe focusing on previously held activist commitments (outside of academia) and concentrating on completing my PhD is the best form of action to take. I will allow activism and academia to merge insofar as my research aims and attempt to convince myself that it is more than enough at my career stage. Ultimately, in the present climate, I will heed the words of advice offered by senior colleagues.

About the author

Jordan Kirwan is a PhD Researcher based in South East Technological University. ‘Prior to lecturing and before returning to do my PhD, I worked in Youth and Community Work for 5 years. My current research explores the influence of the current neoliberal climate and academic environment on academic-activism.’ Twitter: @JordanKirwan3

Key sources

Marginson, S. (1997). How Free is Academic Freedom?. Higher Education Research & Development, 16(3), 359–369.

Merga, M.K. & Mason, S. (2020). Perspectives on institutional valuing and support for academic and translational outputs in Japan and Australia Learned Publishing, 33(3), 277–286.

Pearce, R. (2020). A Methodology for the Marginalised: Surviving Oppression and Traumatic Fieldwork in the Neoliberal Academy Sociology, 54(4), 806–824.

Rhodes, C., Wright, C. & Pullen, A. (2017). Changing the World? The Politics of Activism and Impact in the Neoliberal University. Organization, 25(1), 139–147.

Warnock, D.M. (2016). Paradise Lost? Patterns and Precarity in Working-Class Academic Narratives. Journal of Working Class Studies, 1(1), 28–44.