Niche Portfolios: The Rise Of The Concertina Career

Niche Portfolios: The Rise Of The Concertina Career
Challenging Approaches To Academic Career-Making is a book that examines approaches to aligning internal and institutional scripts. Relevant both inside and outside the world of academia, it reflects changes to both the world of work and knowledge production, brought about by the impact of technology and alterations in the landscape.


Drawing on empirical research that identifies a shift towards more open-ended approaches to roles and careers in higher education, this book is the result of a two-year Economic and Social Research Council, Office for Students, and Research England-funded study entitled The Future Higher Education Workforce in Locally and Globally Engaged Higher Education Institutions, undertaken within the UK Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE).

The authors describe the rise of ‘concertina-like’ careers, in which individuals stretch the spaces and timescales available to them. Underpinning this process, the concept of ‘career scripts’ shows how the career paths of individuals may be informed by formal career structures (Institutional scripts) but also by activity associated with professional practice (Practice scripts), and by personal strengths, interests and commitments (Internal scripts).

It demonstrates how realignment of these scripts has led to new forms of activity, within both the formal institutional economy – including promotion criteria and prescribed career pathways, and the informal institutional economy – represented by personal interests and initiatives, professional relationships and networks.

The ‘concertina’ process enables individuals to address a series of common misalignments and disjunctures within formal institutional economies, including those associated with disciplinary and departmental affiliations, job profiles, progression criteria, and work allocation models. The book also explores directions that academic careers may take in the future, and how institutions might adapt to these changes.

Associated with these phenomena is the fact that the academic workforce is diversifying; This in turn introduces relationships between academic activity and a range of settings and agencies. Diversification is also taking place within higher education, with individuals developing a focus on specific areas around teaching and learning, such as the student experience, online learning and community engagement.

The tension between institutional structures and the aspirations of individuals has framed career theory more generally, whereby organisations such as universities are seen as providing career structures, as a road map in the form of entry and progression points; and individuals are seen as having agency to manage the way that they interact with this road map, according to their interpretation of institutional career scripts.

These scripts outline different ways of making a career, for example, via a focus on research, teaching, or academic management, the balance of which may shift over time. On the one hand, UK institutions have been influenced by government policy, linking individual performance review to the contribution of individuals to national Research Excellence and (in England) Teaching Excellence Frameworks. On the other hand, institutional career scripts have expanded to encompass a range of activity, including, for example, employability agendas and public engagement. This has led to “a trend towards a more individual management of academic careers replacing the more collective treatment of a supposedly homogeneous group.”


Institutionalised Identities

In the application of career theory to higher education, approaches to career-making have tended to be broadly characterised in one of two ways: firstly, positional careers in which individuals rely on institutional structures such as promotion criteria and career tracks, within one or more institutions, and are therefore ‘boundaried’, and secondly as non-positional careers that are ‘boundaryless’ or ‘protean’ by incorporating activity outside institutional parameters.

Beyond this dichotomy, many individuals actually move in and out of both. Disciplinary boundaries are also weakening as real-world problems demand interdisciplinary solutions, including knowledge from the sciences but also from the human disciplines. Therefore, even those individuals who want to advance in what might be regarded as relatively boundaried disciplines, with less obvious practical applications, are encouraged to think about how they could scale up their activity in ways that are relevant to real-world purposes.

A gloss on the “boundaried/boundaryless” view of careers is offered by theories of identity focusing on structure and agency and the interaction between the individual and the structures within which they find themselves. At a more detailed level, the construction of identity has been seen as a cycle of interactions whereby the individual moves from passive to active mode, in dialogue with him or herself, and with the social structures that he or she occupies.

The individual’s interpretation of a role, or series of roles, distinguishes them from other individuals with similar contracts. The diversification of the workforce has meant that in practice there are increasing numbers of people who are likely to offer ‘unscripted performances.’ Through interactions with others, individual approaches to career-making, driven by what has been termed Internal, rather than Institutional scripts, may gather collective momentum, and ultimately result in the transformation of practice, described as morphogenesis.

Morphogenesis illustrates the way in which staff might be said to have moved from being what Archer terms “primary agents”, that is “members of collectivities who share the same life [or career] chances”, positioned involuntarily within given career structures, to what she terms “actors”, who “acquire their social identities from the way in which they personify the roles [or sequence of roles in career-making] they choose to occupy.”

They do this through their own interpretation or extension of their roles, via Internal scripts, making constant adjustments over space and time, so as to create elasticity within formal career structures. These adjustments are reflected in ongoing micro-shifts by individuals, in particular their willingness to personalise career paths and to articulate their needs and aspirations to line managers.

Therefore, the interplay between individual and institution becomes multifaceted during the process of career-making. This process is more complex than a dual, structure and agency binary, and in turn may lead to the modification of institutional policy more generally, although in the initial stages this may be implicit rather than explicit.

This fluidity between scripts demonstrates that in practice, people may hold many different scripts simultaneously, or at different stages of their career, moving between activities for specific purposes and according to circumstances. As a result, individuals expand and contract their activity across spatial and temporal dimensions. A career becomes a multifaceted process, involving unique patterns of movement as individuals adjust their positioning.


Concertina Contracting

Career paths tend to be represented formally by institutions as fixed, linear models that outline routes, markers of achievement and associated timescales. However, individuals may not necessarily be predisposed, or able, to follow a predetermined path. A general shift has been detected from Boundaryless scripts to either Institutional or Internal scripts as the dominant script – this has been attributed to firstly, a more settled status, reflected in Institutional and Internal scripts, as people achieve the next career move or decide to focus on favoured activities; and secondly, Boundaryless scripts as being more transitional, involving exploration of other options.

In the concertina career, paths are likely to be characterised according to real life circumstances and contexts. Individuals therefore not only interact with existing structures, but also create new, lateral spaces. These spaces, and the values attached to them, are less likely to be acknowledged in Institutional career templates, but rather emerge from Internal career scripts. As individuals fashion Internal, subjective career scripts according to their preferences, choices and opportunities – this is also more likely to be sustainable.

This study demonstrates that the potentials of extended academic activity, driven by Internal scripts, may in practice be realised, although not necessarily recognised, by institutions. The onus is on institutions to recognise and incorporate a broadening range of contributions associated with academic activity, in particular innovative work, and to reform their requirements so that these align with the lived reality of roles and careers in higher education.

This is likely to involve negotiating a new psychological and social contract with academic staff to prevent faith in institutional structures declining; However, it is also for individuals to explore spaces where they think that they can add value, and to be persuasive about these. Although it was evident that many middle managers, such as heads of department, listened to their staff and the latter’s articulation of individual strengths, needs and aspirations, there appeared to be a gap, or at least a time lag, between local understandings and, for example, formal recognition, reward and career development policies.

This is likely to become particularly pressing post-COVID, for example, in relation to extended activity related to online learning, equity and diversity, public engagement and community outreach. The authors argue that closing this gap should be a priority, and there is scope to explore the potentials for doing this in future research studies. Finally, the book reviews pointers for the future, highlighting a collective momentum towards more fluid approaches to roles and careers, which are likely to be influenced by an expanding hinterland for individuals, opening up academic and associated activity to wider purposes, and at the same time expanding personal and professional selfhood in a rewarding and fulfilling way.