Category Archives: Career

Turning a blind eye to the University of Alaska: Academic entitlement and survivor bias

On my daily 6 AM walks, I have been contemplating why there has been no surge of support for faculty and students in the University of Alaska system. The anger makes for an energetic walk and the walk serves as a cooling mechanism on the anger. The answer I loop back to is elitism.

Twitter, unlike Facebook, is mostly liberal and its users tend to have completed or at least had some higher education. I have felt, in the past, that Twitter was a positive professional networking tool and generally supportive of real issues faced by minorities and the growing problems in neoliberal academia. Now, I realize it is not so simple and only selectively supportive.

I think I started to understand how elite the vocal academics on Twitter are when I saw a thread on whether it is OK to ask a graduate student to pay half the open access fee. The replies were visceral and unpleasant, smacking of entitlement in their assumption that anyone publishing with a student has resources the student doesn’t have such as a funded lab, ICR to spend on publications, and/or disposable income to support students out of pocket. Come on, even in the sciences, not everyone has a lab let alone lab funds and some universities do not distribute ICR to PIs (UAF Fisheries only gives $500 flat to PIs). So, check your entitlement and realize that the 99% have different experiences that might justify a PI and a student talking through the costs for open access–high citations but great personal cost. Some profs are just as poor as the students. I have colleagues who are crippled with student loans and personal debt accumulated from career investments in the hopes they would pay off someday. They have old cars running on the hope they will last because taking on a car loan is too much. Many are at universities that have been faced with draconian budget cuts and receive no support for conference travel. In my own experience, six years of teaching intensive positions not only handcuffed my early career research efforts but cost me dearly in terms of personal finances.

To compound the myopic view from the top is their unchecked survivor bias. A moaning tweet from a student who was critiqued in a grant application for productivity was accompanied by a clip of his CV. There are many reasons the critique may have been valid. The first that comes to my mind is that if you are born of a rich lab with massively-authored papers flying out the machine at a rate of 10/year, 9 papers in 5 years is unproductive. Another is that the quality of the papers is low (quality is not assessed by a ‘lab’ name or a specific journal). Another is that the contribution to authorship is not clear–what did the student actually do? A long list of publications doesn’t mean you actually were heavily involved in any of them. One angrily supportive response to this student was that the one Nature-fill-in-the blank was enough to show productivity. Sorry, it’s not. That’s like saying, ‘my daddy drives a Porsche’ so give me a Porsche. I know nothing about this student nor do I care other than to use it as an example of how, to put it bluntly, a student in a well-funded lab is expected to do more because they have more of everything. Sadly, a student struggling in an under-funded program is then compared against this rubric. The context of the work used to matter, not the metrics that surround it. The 1% of academia have internalized the neoliberal message that there are certain hallmarks of success that can be neatly summed in numbers, such as the impact factor of a journal, the number of citations you have, or the amount you earned in funding. Contemplate Gregor Mendel. His work was not cited or appreciated or valued in his time. He was told to give up his science and get back to his ecclesiastical work. Hell, even Darwin didn’t bother to cut open the journal that contained Mendel’s answer to the problem of heredity. By modern academic standards, and certainly according to our 1%, Mendal was an academic failure at a backwater institute who was unproductive with low citations on one article in a low impact and obscure (e.g., not English language) journal–he didn’t even have a grant to do his work! The father of genetics as viewed by the neoliberal academic.

The last example of elitism that has been badgering me for months is how many people are humbled and honored to be starting new jobs, got promoted, got this award, and the list goes on. You are not humbled because you are bragging about it on social media. You are not honored because you secretly feel it is the pay-off for your hard work. What you are is excited and relieved to escape the terror of the alternative pathway in life. Just stop. Announce a new job without the passive-aggressive emotions. Bear in mind that the other half of your Twitter feed are your opposite numbers who can’t get jobs and are leaving academia. You didn’t make it because you earned it or deserved it and you arguing otherwise is saying that those who haven’t made it don’t deserve it–just like you didn’t until you had your break. Luck and possibly knowing the right people (if you are in the UK) are the keys to your success. This is not a meritocracy and no one has a boot-straps story that isn’t simply survivor’s bias. My career trajectory is luck, just as much as anyone at the 1%. We ALL work hard and we all deserve stable and steady employment. We all have our academic strengths but many of us have never been given the opportunity to develop a competitive portfolio and will not likely make it. Hard work doesn’t pay off for everyone and that’s where luck and entitlement come into play.

In the midst of all this, there has been no voicing of concern about how to stem neoliberal assaults on higher education or even expressions of sympathy for the white-knuckled months UA faculty must now live through before learning whether they will be retained. Everyone knows about it–ignorance is not the problem. What happened to the solidarity expressed for UK academics who were taking a hit on their pensions? As a point of comparison, we don’t have pensions at UA and our system opted out of social security leaving us with only our savings in retirement. So, it isn’t the scale of the problem–Alaska is bigger than the UK but less populated and our educational system is more vital as it is the only one (in the UK, there are ~130). 2500 people have already been forced to take 10 days of unpaid leave to deal with immediate budget shortfalls. While our scholarship money has been given back and there is a bill to pay us enough to get through the year (assuming no governor veto), that is a short-term measure. The outcome is the same–we will be one UA Fall 2020 and that one UA will see a huge reduction in faculty and therefore student services. The University will shrink by selling assets and buildings and cancelling educational efforts. Enrollments, our only source of revenue, will drop because there is no point investing your education in a dying system. And, to be clear, grants (which we awash in) are not revenue but offsets to research costs. How will we maintain costly research with infrastructure reduction? Not very well and granting agencies may be leery to invest in those who have Alaska-based research needs.

The nuclear winter of neoliberal values projected onto higher education in Alaska is coming. We have been living under severe budget cuts for about five years now and it has changed us. There are emergency counseling sessions across campus with dial-in available. There are emergency financial planning sessions available as well. Many people have fled to other jobs (some lateral moves, some steps down from full to assistant professor, and some out of academia entirely). The escape routes are not well lit and there is no support at the other end. The tone on the ground is like a back-alley black market with secrets and rumors being traded as rapidly as deals are made that provide a false hope X department will be saved or Y faculty will be valued high enough for retention.

Why is this happening? According to the elite of Twitter via their messages of support to other academics , it is because we didn’t work hard enough, we didn’t earn it, we aren’t good enough. One of the few reactions to the crisis in Alaska I received is one that I pass on to you should you ever face anything near to what we are currently facing: good luck with that.

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Filed under Alaska, Career, Conflict, Ethics, Higher education, Hostility, neoliberalism

Higher Education in crisis

I am currently doing a certificate in academic practice at Durham University. My two projects for the certificate have focused on the intrusion of neoliberal values into higher education in the US and the UK. Put as succinctly as possible, one project focused on the challenges I face (as a result of these values) as a researcher-educator and the other on finding out if students have internalized these values (they have).

The crisis in the US has been emerging for quite some time. Having served on several hiring/tenure review/grant committees and gaining insights into what colleagues find of value in a CV (b/c that is what you are at application), I have become increasingly nonplussed at what counts as value: money first and pubs second but with enough money, pubs are assumed to come after (often doesn’t happen because they are busy writing next grant). What about teaching? The same is true now in the UK despite the upcoming TEF. Unis are firing staff/faculty (or inviting them to apply for voluntary redundancy–Durham, Manchester, anyone else?). Decisions are made on the REF-line and accountability is taking over the real job of the uni–education first, research second.

Since when do scholars have to fund the university? Is this a new vanity biz?  Oli Mould tweeted about a gig economy for HE recently and Lorna Richardson suggested Lecturoo. While it sounds funny to think about academics biking about with big packs of books and teaching supplies on their backs for a quick lecture, maybe it isn’t too far from the truth given the value of teaching in HE right now.

If you have a stack of grants, your output and teaching record are secondary, if at all, considerations. But, consider this, grants are not peer reviewed by more than a handful of people in the field (who may even have a vested interest in what you propose to do). Publications are not only peer-reviewed but then open to the public (see scihub for almost anything behind a firewall)–a lasting record. With grants, there is no endorsement of quality by the community writ broad. At the end of your career, will you be remembered as that scholar who pulled in 2 million, 5 million, 10 million a year but are you someone who changed things, advanced knowledge, broke a mold, caused a paradigm shift, shook the world (or at least those into your area of research)? History has proven the latter are remembered regardless of where they are and what they have had funded. Will the future leaving parties of retiring profs be a read-out of the numbers they have brought in? And, we say goodbye to Prof X who raised 80 million in her career. Doing what? No one cares anymore.

The words you write and those they reach are at the heart of the enterprise. Basic research has its place but without a voice–a person–to communicate it, it loses value. The future of our universities in the US and the UK are terrifying. IN the UK, the REF has inculcated a terror in my colleagues worse than the terror some US scholars feel with tenure–keep your head down and get your REF-able work out and your REF-grants in and focus on the bottom line…of the budget.

What happened to supporting and celebrating the best minds? Actually, I think there is more celebration and support for creative thinkers and scholars in various industry outlets–at least there the neoliberal values are apparent and expected.

The Titanic is sinking.

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Filed under Career, critical thinking, Ignorance, Normalcy, Science

Academic entrepreneurship

I recently read Paul B. Brown’s October 2013 Forbes’ article on the habits of successful entrepreneurs. As with most habits of successful people, the applications extend beyond the specific profession of the group studied. Academics–especially those of us creating new fields of interdisciplinary study or working in new, less traditional, or less well-established areas of inquiry–can benefit from these approaches.

1. Determine your goal, take a small step towards it, assess. Academics are trained to have long vision–we tend to set a goal and then build a master plan to achieve it–especially those with a focus on grants-writing or book proposals. That might not be the best practice: as Brown puts it:

“They [entrepreneurs] deal with uncertainty not by trying to analyse it, or planning for every contingency, or predicting what the outcomes will be. Instead, they act, learn from what they find, and act again.”

At some point, small steps become impossible but they are a way of starting. For instance, an expository blog post may serve to float initial ideas if you have adequate followers or a way to get the post out to fellow researchers.  This can work in the sciences too–piloting new ideas to a full research design can be a costly exercise. But, playing with an idea in writing and how it might be developed and tested is a cost-free approach that might net valuable peer pre-review.

2. Start with a market need. Do we have market needs in academia? In a sense, we do. There are certainly trendy topics that crop up for a time in job ads. The trick that every PhD student attempts to learn is gauging the timing of the trend: jump on it too late and your research is stale before you get a job but jump on it too early and your research is regarded as esoteric or boutique. There are also subtle paradigms in academic disciplines that frame what constitutes significance or value in research. If you can speak that language or win that argument, you are meeting a research community need–explaining the value and significance of your work (and therefore validating the discipline).

3. Don’t set out to be rich. This is easy: don’t set a goal to be a hot shot! Set the goal to engage intellectually with problems and questions that inspire you. Picking something that interests you while also playing to the market are not mutually exclusive events. Reconciling what you want to do with what might have a chance of success is a constant life compromise. Most aspiring hot shots I have seen do exactly what Brown says greedy entrepreneurs do:

“…if your primary objective is to get rich quick, you are bound to cut corners, short-change your customers, and fail to take the time to truly understand what the market needs.”

Cutting corners with research (trendy terms to dress up old ideas, overlooking problematic findings, spamming multiple journals with the same hackneyed piece–in short, spin and spam) short-changes the community by flooding the publishing market with papers that have no citation half-life. So many academics fail to making a meaningful contribution because they fail to understand what research will advance the discipline (rather than their own career). Journals are rife with the publications of ‘young Turks’ who, to an extent, are validated by the publication list on their CVs. But, is there quality? Take Manchester City: when I first started supporting the Citizens, they were a mid-table team in good years. An influx of oil money made them flush with cash and star players. A few high profile wins were the same as a few quick sales. Becoming and remaining champions is another story–that is where City are today after learning a hard lesson. Top researchers who transcend their own disciplines are engaged intellectually with their work and less concerned with a specific career trajectory.

4. Marketing. This is also a dangerous area because marketing is about competition and I dislike the increasingly corporate model of competition that many academics are buying into. Choosing a venue in academia is daunting. A small exploratory paper, pilot/case study, or theory piece could be tested in venue where it might be not be received with open arms (to gain perspective) or in one that will receive it positively. Most academics have received incendiary negative biased feedback from a reviewer that clearly was emotionally invested in some aspect of the work (e.g., a theoretical approach, a controversial hypothesis). That unearned wrath may beuseful. As Brown says:

“Making the world’s best videocassette recorder does you no good, if what people really want are DVRs.”

Some aggressive and competitive academics try to flood the market by exploiting multiple publishing venues with variations on the same paper (a violation of copyright that increasingly go unnoticed due to the dearth of publishing venues). This appears successful in the short-term but isn’t sustainable–especially if you need cash for your work. For example, evaluating grant proposals is a different state of mind than when evaluating a paper because the grant has a price tag.

“Tempting as it may be, don’t try to buy your way into markets where you offer the same product at a lower price. That’s where you’ll be vulnerable.”

Marketing is a strategy to get your product into the world but once your product is in the world, it has to stand on its own. If you are researching something with no staying power or substance or haven’t acquired the needed skills or background to do the work, you will only frustrate and annoy readers/reviewers. In the end, your cheap product will look even cheaper next to the ones with quality.

5. Financing. The successful entrepreneur (this includes biotech companies) starts with an average of $110,000–that is chump change in the grand scheme of modern business. Academics know this game better than the would-be entrepreneurs: we call it seed money (internal grants, student research funds, fellowships). The challenge in obtaining seed money is for those without permanent affiliations (adjuncts, term faculty) who may not be eligible for these awards. Having been in that position, I know how it curtails many a brilliant idea and slows the research process! The applied idea here is to focus on the small step from tip 1–maybe some things can be done without money or with crowd-sourced money (there are academic versions of kick-starter!). The hard point for academics is the actual financing of the project (some people can get by with a budget of $5-10K but my current grant is bulging at the seams to fit into a $300,000 price tag–I really need twice that amount to complete one portion of the project). Grant funding is drying up for the sciences (and there never was much for arts and humanities to begin with) so this will be an on-going problem to solve. Brown doesn’t mention it here but backers are how entrepreneurs try to solve this problem: academics will have to spend more time creatively finding non-profit and for-profit sources of funding rather than traditional government funding schemes. Forced into the non-government sector, academics may find fortune–the process of obtaining the money can be very quick–but may also find new challenges (how to find funding sources and pitch research successfully to applied and for-profit agents).

6. Team building or Anti-Micromanagement. Team work is an organic part of the sciences but less so in the social sciences and unnatural in the arts and humanities (I think/hope this is changing). Not having the burden of doing all the work is game-changing but letting go of controlling all aspects of production is difficult for many academics, even those already working in a team setting. The compelling argument to let go of micromanagement is:

“Since everything will have to flow through you, you will create a bottleneck”

Bottlenecks slow traffic and reduce variation (in the genetics world). Having a team means more ideas and (what we all want and need) faster results that also have quality. Managing that team effectively means that you can’t control all aspects of what the teams does.

7. Play to your strengths. I like how this is operationalized:

Wherever there is great innovation, there is a dreamer and an operator; an “idea man” and someone who turns those ideas into reality.

Some of us have great ideas but are not successful with fabricating their reality. Others are great at making an idea work. Some rare few can do both but, for the majority of us, finding others that fill in your weaknesses is key. The temptation is to find others like yourself–shared mindset/shared approach and strengths will enhance the outcome. But, finding someone who is not like you (aggressive where you are conservative, acting where you are thinking) may be the better strategy to getting something published/awarded/conducted/etc.

8. Obstacles to assets or Be Pollyanna. By taking all feedback (no matter how vicious or negative) as steps forward, you are able to recover more quickly and be more successful. You will find the truth eventually (e.g., your idea was bad, your methods were flawed, you need better techniques) so why not find out before the other guy who is thinking about doing the same thing you are doing. The other guy will still be stuck in the past while you move ahead with a fresh idea, new methods, refined techniques. But, if your research is DOA with a ‘do no not revive’ order?

Accept the situation to the point of embracing it. Take as a given that it won’t ever change, and turn it into an asset. What can you do with the fact that it won’t ever change? Maybe it presents a heretofore unseen opportunity. Maybe you build it into your product or service in a way that no competitor (having not acted) could imagine. Could you do it on your own? Could you take the idea to a competitor and use it as your calling card to look for the next job?

Maybe you were struggling in the wrong venue. Maybe you were trying to force a new idea into the canon rather than introducing it in small pieces that are more palatable to the old guard. Maybe you didn’t notice that your interests have taken you into a new field but you were still peddling your ideas to the old one. Maybe you hit on something great but need more training or different/new collaborators to make it better or legitimize it. Maybe your ideas have a market value–here, I mean, maybe you can apply your research to a non-academic job.

My final two cents is that the scholars I admire (and this includes some junior academics, some of whom do not yet have a permanent position) share the above perspective: they have intellectually greedy minds that engage fully and quickly with their work within their current capacity. As a consequence, their capacity expands with opportunities, jobs, grants, publications, collaborations, etc. This won’t be everyone–it won’t be me–but I think it is a good way to think about research because it is proactive. Brown sums his ideas better than I can:

Successful people work with what they have at hand – whatever comes along – and try to use everything at their disposal in achieving their goals. And that is why they are grateful for surprises, obstacles, and even disappointments. It gives them more information and resources to draw upon.


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Filed under Career, critical thinking

The Smell of Tenure

Fear is an emotion associated with the stress many people experience when preparing for tenure. Humans can ‘smell’ fear, probably via pheromone receptors that have migrated from the VNO to the nasal epithelium.

I take a little liberty with the title of this blog post because the probability is (probably!) low that a tenure file reviewer would be able to detect even a cumulative pheromone signal of fear from a stack of tenure files. On the other end of the tenure file, however, the fear signal may be quite high. The ability to detect fear in conspecifics (here, other tenure hopefuls) has deep evolutionary roots: in the absence of other sensory input (usually visual), an olfactory stimulus for fright or flight serves the same purpose. Be alert! Follow the pack!

When it comes to the tenure process, there is so much variability across institutions but fear tends to be an overwhelming trait for many. Does this happen in the tenure process when pre-tenure faculty are threatened by tenured faculty or pre-tenure faculty internalize the culture of fear surrounding the tenure process? Some tenure situations warrant fear (e.g., a divided department, unclear guidelines or rubrics, high institutional expectations) but not all. My feeling is that a tenure culture that generates fear pheromones promotes alienation of affection in pre-tenure faculty for their work–the post-tenure slump (see here and here) may even be affected by this. The old adage to find something and do it well regardless of what it is rings true here (see here and here).


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Filed under Career