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Playing the Waiting Game: The Harsh Truth of Academic Timelines

November 7, 2021

They say patience is a virtue. But, sometimes, I would add, so is hurrying the f*** up.

I’ve been thinking a lot about academic timelines—the amount of time we academics wait for things like journal decisions, promotion committees, etc.—and the subtle ways they impact careers and disadvantage the already disadvantaged.

When I first went on the job market, I began applying for dozens of post-docs and jobs the summer before the final year of my PhD. At that point, I had a few articles out, but one big substantive chapter of my thesis was still under review at a ***BIG IR journal***—the type that can tip an application over the edge and land an interview. The journal had relied on three reviewers, and one was holding out, demanding a third round of changes even after the other two reviewers had given the paper a thumbs up. Each round of review took approximately four months.

Like most PhD students, when a ***BIG IR journal*** tells us to jump, I asked how high and I dutifully kept plugging away at changes into the spring of that year. Finally, they accepted the article after the third round of reviews, and I joyfully put the line on my CV. Suddenly, I started landing noticeably more interviews, including the one for my current post.

Now, in many ways the situation I’m describing is an incredibly fortunate one. I received the final decision in time to have it appended to my last 10-15 applications. Also, I was lucky to do my PhD at one of those posh Cambridge college’s (the one where fellows are allowed to kill and eat swan with the royal family) where they offered extra final-year funding beyond my scholarship. Waiting on three 90–120-day journal decisions was an inconvenience, but not one that ultimately threatened my academic career.

However, this is not the case for all (or even most) early career researchers, and I worry that the pandemic has tilted these dynamics even more against ECRs. Those of us who received our posts pre-2020 need to recognize how the ground has shifted.

Since the pandemic, academic timelines have extended noticeably as journals, committees, etc., have given more slack to over-extended senior reviewers juggling childcare, mental health issues, and difficult transitions to online instruction. Ironically, the techno-utopia of online work that was supposed to lessen friction and speed up processes has, in our field, extended wait times. And in the meantime, the job market has contracted substantially, such that already competitive posts have become even more competitive. In short, ECRs are screwed.

While I empathize with both sides of the equation—over-stretched senior scholars that are forced to put peer reviewing on the backburner and current ECRs awaiting decisions that could make or break their careers—I’m not quite sure what we, as an academic community, can do about the problem. We can issue more reminders, create incentive structures for timely reviewing, and offer one another greater support—all good things in theory. And perhaps, with regards to article decisions, we can transition to a more eclectic, less oligopolistic journal ecosystem, so students can shop work around to a variety of places, including those marketed as offering quick turnarounds.

But (not to be a Debbie Downer) I also fear that such reform processes amount to shifting deck chairs on the Titanic as we drown under the salty waters of university neoliberalization. Academics are overburdened and innovation requires time and space to breath. Solving the academy’s bottlenecks requires more jobs, more funding, and more space to think.

Ultimately, reflecting on academic timelines provides another windy road back to a harsh academic truth. Though we academics aspire to meritocracy via anonymous peer review systems, the inequalities in our institutions fester. Those with resources to wait out long timelines have an incredible advantage in the marketplace. Those without are the most likely to be pushed out of the industry.

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Adam B. Lerner is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London and Deputy Director of Royal Holloway's Centre for International Security (RHISC).