The institutional narrative is your bridge

I was recently coaching a client – a female early career researcher in the visual arts – who lamented that her circumstances made her track record of outputs and achievements ‘completely uncompetitive and hopeless’.

It was a statement full of frustration and anger, but I wanted to share it with you here because it highlights one of the missing pieces in the ECR puzzle that we seldom learn about or get pulled aside and coached in.


So what’s the missing piece?

The institutional narrative – the language the academy creates and uses as a means of defining and describing ‘reality’.

Now, a lot of early career researchers struggle to make their circumstances ‘fit’ with the academic game. Feeling like a square peg in a round hole is a very common experience, and it’s just the detail that differs between our stories.

One needed to care for an elderly parent for an extended period – to such an extent that her ability to travel and present at conferences or collaborate with interstate (or overseas) partners was seriously capped.

Another was unemployed after his PhD for 12 months until he finally got a job in government, then later in industry…but not (yet) in the academy, despite an enduring desire to do so.

Still another gave birth to twins and had a partner who travelled frequently for work – so child-raising and rearing fell primarily to her (forcing her to work part-time) and restricting her time to undertake research or publish.

Others, such as my client who was ‘completely over it’ by the time we spoke on the phone, had actually been prolific and had impact as an artist. She’d produced prestigious exhibitions at sought after venues, notable artworks, but her track record didn’t include the usual suspects – peer reviewed articles, scholarly books, keynote presentations etc etc.

In most, if not all of these cases, ECRs will blame themselves, or hold back going for an opportunity (to apply for a Fellowship or a promotion). Or, like my client, you might live in a state of constant frustration and despondency vis-à-vis the institution, and completely discredit your artistic standing and achievements in the belief that the university system does not accommodate them.

The leap we need to make at this point is to grab onto the academy’s narrative – a narrative that actually validates and recognises such circumstances. What are some examples?


Nonlinear career path: this is a career that, as its name suggests, does not follow a straight line of continued advancement (and employment security) in the one sector/profession, such as a university-based academic. A non linear career path takes you instead into different types of roles that aren’t necessarily academic ones (or the ones you may have seen for yourself). For instance, post-PhD, you may be unemployed temporarily while job hunting, then get a job in industry and/or government, then get employed in a university, followed by employment outside academia…and so on. Think zig-zags, not straight lines! Remember, too, that it’s in reverse rather than forwards that we make meaning out of the zig-zags. But rest assured that you needn’t try to ‘hide’ those seemingly tangential stints you did working in government or the private sector or unemployed or running a small business; you simply refer to it as your non linear career path and aim to find points of broad connection between the various roles.


Career interruptions: literally breaks, pauses or interruptions to the momentum of your career. Different funding agencies define ‘interruptions’ differently, so you’ll always want to check their definition before you use it in an application, but common types of interruption include chronic (or extended periods of) illness or disability that have slowed you down (relative to a productive, illness-free colleague), maternity leave, parental leave/responsibility, and international relocations (eg moving from one country to another to take up a job opportunity). Don’t try to ‘hide’ these periods or feel defensive about the reduced output or momentum they’ve created in your track record, point to the [insert type of interruption] to help level the playing field in an assessor’s evaluation of your progress and achievement.


Nontraditional research outputs (NTROs): these are the types of outputs that may be your bread and butter as an artist, performer or public policy expert. Historically, art exhibitions, artworks, performances, translations, musical compositions, even policy papers, were considered the poor cousin of ‘traditional’ scholarly outputs (refereed journal articles, refereed conference papers, scholarly books, book chapters etc). In the last few years, however, non-traditional outputs have gained status and recognition, and become subject to rigorous peer review. So rather than keep them separate from your academic track record, bring them into the spotlight as a central plank of your academic profile/biography. Check out websites like for guidance and community.


Those are some important examples for those in the early-career phase, but there are more. My point is that if you’re feeling like that proverbial square peg because your circumstances and record don’t fit the traditional criteria, pay attention to the institutional narrative.


Why? It’s your bridge from where you are – right now – to the table at which you want a seat. Rather than roll your eyes at seeming ‘management speak’, grab it, understand it, and utilise it as the language you need to be understood, to validate your circumstances and achievements, and to get what you want – on your terms.

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