Early career scholars’ expectations and obstacles in doing STS – within academia and beyond

Early career scholars’ expectations and obstacles in doing STS – within academia and beyond

“Doing STS – within academia and beyond” was the theme of the pre-conference doctoral workshop at this year’s EASST conference. While the issue definitely matters to early career scholars, as they try to find their own way of doing STS as scholars within academia, it also matters to them as scholars interacting with the world beyond academia and as future professionals working outside of academia.

In this article I offer some reflections on the workshop, but will begin by approaching the workshop theme from selected theoretical perspectives on doing STS, as they provide inspiration for (early career) scholars to reflect on their ambitions and visions of how to do STS. Such ideals implicitly and explicitly floated in the discussions during the workshop. However, this doctoral event brought together more heterogeneous expectations, as well as rich experiences of participants and discussants. The second section focuses on some of the concerns and obstacles raised by participants about doing STS, offering insights into how early career scholars are affected and perceive the particular challenges of doing STS beyond academia. The article ends with examples of engaging STS in the particular ways of publishing and communicating research as good practices in order to encourage experimentation with the yet “unspeakable” in John Laws’ sense.

1. Doing STS beyond academia: perspectives from theory

Key figures in STS have already articulated their visions of how STS can matter or contribute beyond academia and derived suggestions on how STS should be done. Let us recall some of these ideas. Wiebe Bijker (2001) suggested two strategies of doing STS when he argued for the reinvention of the “public intellectual”. One strategy is acting as a critical observer and making “political interventions” by offering a mirror to scientific and technological cultures and the actors involved:

“doing case studies is a way for individual STS researchers to conduct political interventions. […] Another metaphor to describe this kind of intervention via a case study could be “the STS mirror”: STS studies present mirrors in which actors see their cultures and actions in new ways. And again, seeing themselves in these new ways may lead to self-conscious changes in behaviour.” (Bijker 2001: 446).

Another is to act as a social engineer:

“STS research needs to reestablish close collaboration with the science and engineering communities. […] I argue that STSers can contribute to making things, to changing the world. In doing so, they inevitably will dirty their hands, for there is no free ride here.” (Bijker 2001: 446)

Obviously, both strategies can potentially conflict with each other. For example some scholars feel uncomfortable with the latter because they fear losing their critical distance or becoming instrumentalised for the wrong ends.

The way scholars interact with their empirical field, but also with the public and policy makers links up with what John Law (2004) wrote about how STS can matter and how he defines particular modes of contribution. Instead of giving an appropriate summary of his six modes, I recommend a full reading of his paper and here only selectively pick out some points of inspiration. He suggests “interference” as one mode which offers an explanation as to why it is rather challenging and demanding to make contributions as an STS scholar beyond academia:

“[…] interference is a mode of matter-ing that is awkward, rough, and broken. […] It does not generalise. It does not smooth out. It does not offer general calculative possibilities. In short it is specific, a form of located practice. Mattering in interference is something that is re-done, re-enacted, instance by instance. […] Its contributions are local. So there is no overview. Instead there are specific problems and specific constellations, and specific possibilities. All in specific places.” (Law 2004: 7).

While such lofty ideals were aired here and there in our discussions, the overall approach of the doctoral workshop was hands-on and rooted in participants’ own practical experiences. The aim was to learn from exchanges on ambivalent experiences about how to turn ideals, such as “using the STS mirror” or “interference”, into practice. Yet ideals remained implicit.

2. Doing STS beyond academia: concerns of early career scholars

The objectives for the workshop were promising. The organizer Marton Fabok, student representative in the EASST council, had drafted a call inviting to “critically engage with what STS researchers practically do” and “to address how STS can be used in the context of practitioners, policy-makers, activists or even business consultants” 1. In retrospect, the key question addressed involved the obstacles and visions of EASST’s early career scholars about doing STS. Before addressing some of the concerns raised during the workshop, I would like to note that since I’m writing based on my subjective experience of selective discussions, these reflections are eclectic and self-evidently do not necessarily represent the perspectives of other participants.
Starting with the range of obstacles, one issue raised was the challenge to communicate and make research understandable beyond STS insiders. A participant described his interest in the workshop based on:

“experiences on how I previously have found it quite difficult to discuss my research with people outside academia not familiar with STS concepts. So far they have found it too theoretical to actually be useful for implementation.[…] Another experience is that I have found that STS theories very often focus on finding problems rather than solutions, and this is also something which makes it troublesome when trying to reach a broader audience and actually achieve a change.” (participant A)

Other participants were interested in discussing the challenges of how STS engages with the public and politics. Therefore they wanted “to hear if and how others succeeded in communicating their research to actors involved in the policy process or to ‘the public’” (participant B) and “to engage in conversations about using STS doings and knowings in political ways and with political goals” (participant C).

Another area of interest was how to interact with the empirical field. Bijker’s notion of “political interventions” by the researcher turns out to be a rather complicated and difficult endeavour in practice. As one participant described it:

“The company had little experience with the anthropological approach and it was therefore a challenge to communicate my findings to the designers and programmers at the company in a useful way. Not only did I try to make the programmers and designers interact with the ethnographic field site in new ways. In doing so I constantly had to challenge the normal ways of knowledge transfer in the company.” (participant D).

A recurrent theme pointed to the issue of how to make STS ‘useful’ – for practitioners, for policy makers, for engineers, but also for their own careers (in order to be competitive with others on the job market). Depending on the country around 20 to 75% percent of PhD candidates will leave academia after they have finished their thesis (Auriol 2010: 15)2. It is common for various scholars to see their future contribution in other working areas beyond academia. Furthermore, the younger generation of STS researchers is in many countries confronted with increasingly precarious working situations within academia, which makes them increasingly concerned about what they can contribute outside of academia. Due to massive and complex changes (linked with a trend in the marginalization of social sciences in some countries and increased competition for constantly limited resources in academia) the future prospects for PhD candidates in Europe (especially but not only in East and South Europe) are under pressure (Cyranoski et al. 2011). This could be a driver for increasing demand from early career scholars in STS for more reflection on what kind of skills STS researchers gain and how these are unique qualifications demanded on the job market outside of academia and enrich the employability of young researchers:

“When it comes to STS as a profile that qualifies you to get a job in business or public sector, I have little clue what important aspects are that make you look qualified. I hope to gain knowledge about whether there are specific methods or knowledge bases that are significant for the STS-approach and that can be translated to applied problem-solving competencies. Are there actually companies that look for the STS-competencies?” (participant E).

This points to a dilemma regarding controversial expectations in STS. A legitimate demand articulated by young scholars is to clarify the particular skills and competences of STS in order to use STS as a unique selling point when they compete with others on the job market. However, requests and competences deriving from STS scholarship might be different and even contradictory to what is demanded by the worlds beyond academia. Or put differently: challenging traditions of thinking might be welcomed or at least heard in some niches and under certain conditions – and in others not. STS scholars will continue struggling to find a balance between these requests, but should explore further which are these niches and conditions, in order to make a better impact with their interventions and ways of doing STS. If they succeed, they will become more and more demanded beyond academia. To me, this includes developing reflection skills, collecting experiences of how to intervene in a critical but responsible way, and learning how to deal with the ambiguities of getting our hands dirty while still keeping a critical distance in order to avoid becoming instruments for the wrong ends.

3. Doing STS beyond academia: examples of good practices

The workshop approached the theme of what STS researchers practically do by addressing the actual work practices of STS researchers: how they publish and engage with the publishing industry, how they communicate their research, how they work with practitioners, but also if and what kind of impact STS research has beyond academia.

Doctoral candidates and selected senior researchers (who acted as facilitators and discussants) discussed their views and experiences in doing STS in working groups. Small group discussions addressed the issues of “social media” facilitated by Jan-Hendrik Passoth and Nicholas Rowland; “open access publishing” supported by Endre Dányi; “working with practitioners” facilitated by Ingmar Lippert; “academic careers” assisted by Jan-Hendrik Passoth and Nicholas Rowland; “science communication” facilitated by Sarah Rachel Davies, “digital interventions” helped by Paolo Magaudda and an ad hoc small group on “working with policy makers” facilitated by Marton Fabok. Les Levidow was originally scheduled to facilitate two workshops on “co-operative research” and “academic journals”, but had to cancel due to external circumstances.

Inspiration was derived from “good practices” of enacting STS in publishing and communication platforms, which can be also seen as materialized visions of doing STS. One example is based on the idea that the process of writing and publishing can be addressed by alternative forms of engaging with how texts are produced and distributed. The initiative taken by the young publishers Mattering Press is motivated by the belief that the way in which this takes place matters.3 Founded by a collective of formerly early career scholars in STS, they have now started to produce high quality, peer reviewed, open access books featuring relational research on science, technology and society and based on a collaborative and mutual supporting basis. The ambition is to experiment with the ways of producing academic books that break with the often asymmetrical relationships between publishers, authors, readers and networks of distribution. Instead, as Endre Danyi (co-general-editor of mattering press) explained, taking care of the publishing process and caring for all involved is the key to a different and STS inspired approach of publishing.

An example of how to experiment with communicating STS is the blog “installingorder.org”. Founders Jan-Hendrik Passoth and Nicholas J. Rowland shared their blogging experiences with participants. Their blog provides a public platform for discussing STS themes and is realized by a core group of bloggers and guest bloggers, but is open for participation. Additionally, it offers recommendations of literature to read and of lessons to teach (including teaching material). Discussions focused on what kind of writing style reaches out to specific audiences (such as either the wider public or STS scholars). Participants shared the motif of mobilizing alternative forms and pushing the limits of communicating, presenting and exchanging STS thoughts.

A source of inspiration for stimulating experiments in enacting STS can be found in what Law calls “avant-garde” – another ideal so heroic yet so difficult to enact in practice:

“Avant-garde works by undoing taken for granted assumptions […] it also tries to undo the groundings for policymaking, criticism, and puzzle-solving, and to show that these are not really foundations. That means that it proposes the unthinkable, or at least the unspeakable. […] Avant-garde never fits with established enactments of the real world. This means that it is inconsistent with the apparatuses of discipline with its journals, its institutions, and its funding bodies. […] But avant-garde, that loose cannon, must be protected. It matters in ways that start out by being unthinkable – and then, at least sometimes, come to matter in quite other, transportable ways.” (Law 2004: 8, 9, 11)

Relevant themes and related issues have been raised, but there will need to be more spaces to reflect on early career scholars’ contributions mediating between STS visions and external constraints. Therefore I hope the workshop is the beginning of discussion rather than an isolated event among early career scholars and across the scholarly generations in EASST.


  1. EASST Website: www.easst.umk.pl/easst-pre-conference-doctoral-workshop-torun/, accessed on 25th of November 2014.
  2. These numbers reflect PhD candidates across all disciplines. Since STS scholars can be found across diverse disciplines it is difficult to specify how they are affected by that.
  3. Mattering Press Website: www.matteringpress.org/, accessed on 25th of November 2014.

Author Information

Nina Amelung Summary: “Doing STS – within academia and beyond” was the theme of the pre-conference doctoral workshop at this year’s EASST conference. The article begins with introducing theoretical perspectives of STS scholars and theirs visions of doing STS, in order to reflect on the workshop theme. Furthermore, selected concerns of participants are addressed such as the interaction with the empirical field, communicating STS research and the demands of the job market. The article ends with examples of good practices of doing STS presented in the workshop and encourages to take up the ideal of “avant-garde” as a stimulus for doing STS.