What’s So Wrong with a “Research Associateship” Anyway?

Many readers were duly aghast when I highlighted this “call for applications” (we won’t call it a “job ad”), for a “non-stipendiary residency” at a feminist research center. I was upset about what is apparently a call this center makes (presumably with success) on an annual basis, for one very simple reason: It is advertising for scholars to come and work at this center in exchange for “networking,” “collaboration” and “prestige” instead of money. Its requirements might not be as much work as your average TT job, but they are work. Sitting through a weekly seminar is work. Writing and giving a colloquium talk is work (I get paid, for example, an honorarium between $500-1500 to do so nowadays, in case you want to have me come speak at your institution, which I am delighted to do if compensated for my work). And doing your own research is work — work enough that if you’re on the TT it’s usually considered a full 40% of your duties. So sure, this “residency” seems kind of part-time, and maybe it shouldn’t pay a full 50K a year (about what it costs a single student, all told, to attend 4/5 of the institutions that affiliate with the “center,” by the way), but the idea that it is acceptable to pay nothing — to, indeed, expect the “resident” to pay for her (and it will be her) own everything — is what is so patently offensive to me and anyone with a brain. I’ll allow one of my astutest commenters from yesterday to put it to you best, since s/he explained it better than I ever could:

Let’s be clear: this is a conversation about both gender and economic discrimination. This position uses the terminology of employment to advertise itself but pays nothing (the very point of employment).

Research shows that women (and this ad will have only female applicants, presumably) under-earn men throughout their lifetimes, they negotiate for too little, and they are far more likely to work for free (a.k.a. “prestige”).

And the only women who can apply for this position are likely to not need financial compensation anyway. If there are children (daycare) or spouses involved, or involved moving from an entirely different state, and the woman did not come from economic privilege, would she be able to afford this appointment? *That* is the problem with this “ad.”

Exactly. And if you don’t understand this, like I said, you are not just part of the problem, you are the problem.

26 thoughts on “What’s So Wrong with a “Research Associateship” Anyway?

  1. Thanks for continuing to highlight this, Rebecca.

    Often even good-hearted and well-meaning academics find ourselves in positions where we have no good options for balancing our own economic and social needs, our commitments to scholarship and pedagogy, and our obligations of justice and decency to our families, our colleagues, and our students. Do we refuse to accept exploitative employment conditions and thereby (if we’re lucky) place the onus on others to provide for our immediate economic needs? Do we refuse to offer adjunct positions, at the cost of further overworking ourselves or our full-time colleagues, or at the cost of not providing for the needs of our students? Do we risk our own jobs in a quixotic refusal of administrative policies that will just be carried out by someone else instead?

    While I think the answers to these questions are sometimes ‘yes,’ it can be very difficult to know when that is – and sometimes even more difficult to follow through with that judgment.

    But the seriously very least we can do, when we decide that we are forced to tolerate these practices because we don’t have the (immediate) power to change them, that we insist, loudly and frequently, that those asking us to tolerate them are asking us to tolerate something indecent and indefensible.


  2. I believe this “research associateship” has been advertised for over ten years. I almost applied myself, thinking I could rush back to Vermont to teach PT at a state college and “gain resume building” skills and contacts. The horrible FULL TIME job market (for over 10 years) means that the truly desperate or the absolutely convinced that if they do one more “good” career building sacrifice they will land a job will continue to “take advantage’ of this humiliating offerings in order to show their conviction to their chosen field.


  3. For the life of me, I don’t understand why one wouldn’t want a woman for that position that is a) independently wealthy, b) fully supported by her parents, or better yet, c) fully (and appropriately) supported by her husband [sic]. After all, who else would know more about feminism?

    Seriously though (since the first paragrapH was a joke), this reflects so much of the thinking of the last couple of decades to outsource labor and to require self-funding (replace state support with tuition) that this is all sadly logical. In fact, I am kind of surprised that more of it is not being done. When we get to the MOOC superstars would it be that much of a stretch for them be sought for similar positions as exposure for the superstar’s other “products?”

    If an enterprise can find some way to not pay for something, it is only rational to follow that path.

    Any industry that seriously considersthe New Indenture – Pay It Forward or Income Share Agreements – as appropriate policy models will do anything.


  4. Wondering what reactions the Consortium folks have had w/the kerfuffle (bc it HAS headed their way): disdainful dismissal (might or might not be accompanied by pearl clutching), denial (real and/or and performative), ZERO embarrassment (though one would like to think that at least someone with authority is cringing with “caught us, you’re right” sense of remorse).


    • Yeah, I’m curious myself. I wonder if they’ll have someone like Claire Potter come to their vociferous defense and start a Thing (which, not gonna lie would be pretty great for my blog revenue during a time when I am otherwise off work…LOL, oh look at me, always thinking about getting paid. What an anti-intellectual!).


      • CBP has gotten better about avoiding the usual CBP bait. For instance, she stayed out of the UVA/Rolling Stone mega-fiasco, even though she’s had a bone to pick with the Greek Life Industrial Complex for a long time. So I wouldn’t count on her waltzing into this one.


      • FYI, Claire Potter DID defend this position on Twitter, as you probably saw. (Maybe not quite “vociferously” yet.)


      • LOL no I did not see that; I don’t follow her on Twitter. LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL. Also LOL. What was her excuse for not paying people for work? That they should do it out of love? That networking? That it’s for people who already have funding? LOL.


      • Yeah, I saw the “Claire Potter–is–baackk-with–her–trademark–apologist–cog” tweets. Goodness Gracious.


  5. There’s a “research fellow” position like that in my department that tends to provide a home for Ph.D.s who defend and don’t get TT jobs. As most would have done anyway, they stick around for another year on their own dime, but with a line on their CV instead of a gap. Those who do it are happy to have it, and to my knowledge, nobody moves for it. But I don’t think it requires as much work as this position does.


  6. I’m wondering about the other end of this equation — not the people who are either desperate enough or wealthy enough to apply for these unpaid “associateships” — but the institutions which collaborated to establish them. I’m guessing the idea was pitched as a paragon of “leanness”, doing more with less, innovative, networky, collaborative, flexible, probably not as part of the “sharing economy” if it has been around for 10 years but that descriptor could get tacked on now and quite possibly has. And shoop, it was off to the races!

    Not for the first time, I just wonder, what the fuck happened to all the academic Marxist feminist harpies to swoop down and tear this shit apart with their talons? You honorably excepted of course, Rebecca 🙂 — good taloning. But seriously? There used to be a lot of them in academia, if the literature of the 1970s is any guide. Now though — it’s not just that there are not enough jobs, but like, why in the allotment of the tiny number of available jobs the academics like you are not the ones getting hired? oops, I made myself sad:


  7. I know of two similar “fellowships” in Canada: one is in Toronto, where a local center offers “fellowships” to recent grads or independent scholars who already live in Toronto. The point is to offer affiliation and library access to those who would otherwise lose or not have it (basically every fellow is in an alt-ac position or is an adjunct). No pay, but no requirements, either, other than living in Toronto.

    The other one is in Winnipeg, where the fellows are paid in office space (again, not actual money). I’m not sure whether this is also directed towards local adjuncts/independent scholars/researchers who need 6 months in the area or not, but Director of that center went and found a bunch of (adjunct) teaching for the one non-Winnipegger I know who has held that fellowship. Not great, but at least they weren’t expecting her (and yes, it was a her), to show up for 6-12 months without getting paid a dime.


  8. There’s another side to this coin that hasn’t been mentioned yet: what a great tool this is for keeping the wrong kind of people *out* of courtesy appointments. Suppose you’re an unemployed academic who just happens to live in the area (in your parents’ basement), and you’d really like to have some institutional affiliation and maybe library access. At other universities, that kind of affiliation (so I’ve heard) is granted to people who ask. But in this corner of MA? This gives those departments a way to say, “I’m so sorry, but an associate appointment requires that you apply 6 months in advance and commit to participating in seminars on campus. You can apply now for 2016-17, however!”


  9. Hi Rebecca,

    I haven’t wanted to comment on these posts for confidentiality reasons, but I very much appreciate your take on this “Research Associateship.” I applied for it last year, not realizing that it was non-stipendiary, and thinking that it would be a good fellowship for finishing my dissertation, and realized only when it was offered to me that there was no money involved. I was also sent a rather snottily-toned list of the expectations they had for me, which was kind of ridiculous considering that all I would have been getting from them was an office. In the end, I got a fellowship from my university, which I could have taken to this research associateship, but moving to Western Mass didn’t seem worth it. In any case, I just wanted to say, “keep up the good fight.”

    Thanks! Emily

    El dic 10, 2014, a las 10:58 AM, pan kisses kafka escribió:

    > >


    • Thank you VERY much for sharing your story with us. I got a note yesterday from the director that sounded a tad bit more chagrinned than what you describe, though understandably unhappy. I simply don’t think there is any way to defend what they are doing without defending the idea that academics should work self-supported or free, which is an idea i don’t support. I am very proud of you that you told them to get bent and I’m sorry you wasted what I am sure was a lot of time on your application for them.


  10. I posted this on Facebook, might as well put it here! I work in the Five College Consortium. These associateships typically go to: international scholars doing feminist research who are looking to spend a year in the US. Most have funding from their home institutions. For example, the Center recently hosted Turkish academic feminists. Other associateships go to faculty on sabbatical who want to finish a manuscript in this environment (it comes with a very nice office, and access to the Five College library resources). The Center often also offers these associateships to visual and performing artists who have grant money from elsewhere. Finally, exhausted Five College faculty on sabbatical often apply for these; we covet the office space where our students and colleagues can’t find us.

    I’m no Five College apologist; the FCWSRC should be better funded. We keep being promised, and we keep waiting. So, don’t take a total dump on the place. It’s really important to a lot of feminist scholars for a lot of reasons. Peace.


    • As long as it perpetuates a system where those who already have get more, and those who have nothing get “prestige,” I will continue to level criticism. I would recommend discontinuing this program or just calling it what it is: a courtesy appointment, something that can (and should) be available informally and with a few emails, not a lengthy application process.


  11. Lack of pay is why I didn’t bother applying to this position last year:


    They want a writing sample, CV, research proposal, and two references. In return, you get:

    No stipend (“Most fellows have obtained funding through other means, such as an outside grant or award, a home institution, or other forms of scholarship.”)
    No permanent office space
    No access to university health insurance
    No housing benefits or access to university housing (but you must be in residence in Cambridge)

    You do, however, get a library card (although no remote access to electronic library resources).

    I recall having seen the term “non-stipendiary fellow” quite a bit when scouring for potential postdoctoral positions. My impression was that it was designed to give someone who already had a fellowship an institutional affiliation. But it’s certainly not an exceedingly rare thing to see.


    • It’s stuff like this that makes me wish that Badmin (and enabling faculty) at Ivies (well, everywhere, but especially Ivies) could be paraded down a city center with a sandwich–board–of–shame comparing their salaries to that of non TT lecturers and “fellows.” The fellowship you describe is BEYOND SHAMEFUL. Talk about the abuse of passing prestige as salary, what PKK has been elaborating on.

      Anyhow, marching whoever is responsible for this so called Harvard fellowship should be paraded and shamed in Harvard Square.


  12. This has been a very thought-provoking conversation, since I was once of those Research Associates (I cobbled together a small grant from elsewhere – which also included extensive work – and adjuncted extensively to afford the associateship – and yes, the irony of that sentence does not escape me). Did I wish they paid a real fellowship? Yes. Did we talk openly about this with any and everybody, including the director and other faculty members affiliated with the Center? Yes. Did we ever get shot down for such conversations? No – so that puts a plus in that column since even daring to question a convention is often met with getting in hot water.
    Still – it was one of the most positive experiences of my academic career. I had recently been “let go” from TT land and was overjoyed to work with such a broad range of feminist scholars who were willing to actually read my work over and over again and push me to question everything – including academia.

    As one of my colleagues put it, we felt taken seriously there – something I know that not everyone felt at earlier or later places of employment. Perhaps I am part of the problem and should have chosen my other option at the time – unemployment and all the professional and personal costs associated with that (a state I am about to be hurtled into again since I am in a contingent position) – but I wonder if there is still another problem at work here. What does it mean that I have felt more directly supported academically and personally there – especially when it came to feminist issues – than I have most other places, even back when I had a TT job?

    Still, yes, of course they should be paying a stipend; I am not supporting that system and it was not easy working multiple jobs or being away from my family for the wonderfulness of being at the Center. But the place gave me the self-confidence to do what I wanted, without judgement on what decisions I was contemplating, and it was a refuge for me, at least, from a different academic reality that had abandoned me, a place where I was a scholar again no matter my background or horror stories. I have made plenty bad choices in my life; the Center was not one of them. It needs fixing (i.e. stipends), and, if it is anything resembling the place it was when I was there, is deserving of it.


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