You Must Be Very Intelligent – The PhD Delusion

Most academics are so passionate about their work that it is a struggle to separate work from life. I have long resisted this urge, trying my best to keep the inbox off over the weekends and taking proper holidays (i.e. non-academic books only). This reluctance extended to banning anything vaguely academic from my personal world, including academic novels and films depicting campus life. 

The Groves of Academe, Mary McCarthy’s deliciously scathing commentary on liberal arts schools, was the first to change my mind, and just in time. The rise of the academic novel in recent years has seen the publication of many truly unmissable books that beg to be read, from The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s ambitious and intellectual murder not-so mystery, to Lab GirlHope Jahren’s quirky memoir and ode to friendship, plants, and the tenacity of the unsung women of science.

A new addition to my growing collection of academic novels recently landed on my desk – Karin Bodewits new book You Must Be Very Intelligent: The PhD DelusionYou Must Be Very Intelligent promises a “witty, warts-and-all account of post-grad life” featuring “success and failure, passion and pathos, insight, farce and warm-hearted disillusionment.”

As Karin puts it:

Ever since I finished my PhD, I knew I had to write this book. While it isn’t a diary of my time as a PhD student, it isn’t quite a work of fiction either. If it were, I would probably have described some secretive, unethical research taking place in dank basements beneath cloisters, proving that scientists are amoral psychopaths (I did meet some people I could imagine creating a three-headed sheep for shits and giggles but I never actually saw anyone trying it).

I nonetheless saw stuff that was dramatically dark, barking mad and hilariously ridiculous, but in an everyday way. I saw the monsters beneath the meniscus of human nature surfacing in a supposedly sedate world; of frustrated egos the size of Africa, where competition is pathological, volcanic rages seethe and tin pot dictators are drunk on oh-such petty power. It’s a world where glory is the goal and desperation is the order of the day; a world where young adults are forced into roles that make Lord of the Flies look like Enid Blyton.

It was an education. And it taught me to be wary of education.

Karin kindly agreed to share a couple of chapters, including the all-important Chapter One, and Chapter 35 (look out for the surprisingly saucy illustration of academic ”collaboration”!).

Karin Bodewits has a PhD in Biology from the University of Edinburgh. In 2012, she co-founded the company NaturalScience.Careers. She published her first book, a career guide for female natural scientists, in 2015, and just won the Science Slam in Munich. She writes short stories, career columns and opinion pieces for magazines like Chemistry World and Naturejobs.

 

Full disclosure: I didn’t get paid for this post, but I did get a free copy of the book. I do have a fledgling Amazon affiliate account, which means that if you buy the book after clicking on a link here, I get 3 cents or something.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Email this to someone

Doodling for Academics

In recent weeks, I have been slowing down a little in an attempt to find some of that ever-elusive ‘work-life balance’. Amongst other fledgling self-care efforts, I have started exercising again (following an unintentional but extensive hiatus) and reading more. Now, I am adding colouring to my list of relaxing activities, and here’s why.

A few months ago, I was contacted by University of Chicago Press asking if I’d be willing to take a look at a new book, Doodling for Academics by Julie Schumacher. This sounded like a lot of fun and the book is awesome, so I was happy to provide a blurb:

The wonderfully weird illustrations in Doodling for Academics brilliantly capture the bizarre highs, and arcane lows, of academic life. Full of fun activities to pass the time at staff meetings, this book will be a quirky addition to any academic office.

In Julie’s own words:

The original idea for Doodling for Academics came from University of Chicago Press editor Christie Henry. When she proposed it to me, my first instinct was to dismiss it, but then I found myself laughing while day-dreaming through a few possible images. I had never collaborated on a writing project before, so the matching of concept, illustration, title and caption for the forty different panels was initially overwhelming. Illustrator Lauren Nassef and I exchanged hundreds of emails and drafts, and had several very long conference calls, but never met until after the book was finished.

As soon as copies became available, my department chair held a coloring party. We stuck our finished artwork on the staff fridge when we were done.

I loved the book so much I asked the publisher if I could post a few free pages for fellow academic doodlers to print out and colour in. Three free doodles are provided below, and you can click here to get your hands on the full book, which contains 40 of these wonderfully silly and snarky illustrations.)

 

Julie Schumacher is professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of the best-selling Dear Committee Members, winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor. Lauren Nassef is a freelance illustrator and artist living in Chicago.

Full disclosure: I didn’t get paid for the blurb, but I did get a free copy of the book. I also didn’t get paid for this post, I just wanted to share the fun so I reached out to the publisher for the free pages. I did however set up an Amazon affiliate account (an idea I had only when finding a link to buy the book for this post), which I believe means that if you buy the book after clicking the link above I will get 3 cents or something.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Email this to someone

This Study is Subject to Certain Limitations: Overly Honest Academic Caveats

Alison Edwards is an independent researcher, translator, editor, writer, and lover of tennis, infrastructure, and collared shirts done all the way up. This post originally appeared on her blog The Rogue Linguist. Follow Alison on twitter @rogue_linguist

This study is subject to certain limitations. For starters, it is imperceptibly different to the last six studies we salami-sliced into articles. Just as with those papers, we tortured something out of one and the same dataset and had a copyeditor repackage the intro so that it looks sort of newish.

***

One possible objection to our work may be that it appears to have insubstantial theoretical underpinning. That would be a correct, if mild, assessment, given that it has no underpinning of any kind at all.

***

The literature review can at best be described as thin, as we read exactly none of the papers referred to. Instead we pursued the following three-pronged information-gathering strategy. 1) We took what Author X said about Author Y’s work and passed it off as our own interpretation without bothering to cite Author X. 2) We perused the reference lists of previous papers and intuited the content of seemingly relevant articles from their titles alone. 3) On a few rare occasions we were compelled to hunt down a paper ourselves; a shout-out to Sci-hub and internet piracy is in order here. In such cases any direct quotes come from the abstracts, as that is as far as we got in terms of actually reading them.

***

The results of the study are tempered somewhat by the fact that we plucked the methodological technique out of thin air, neglected to validate it in any way and described it in as deliberately vague terms as possible. As a consequence, future researchers trying to replicate the study will almost certainly get entirely different results.

***

This study requires the reader to ingest a good dose of LSD before reading.

***

The generalisability of the results is limited due to the sample size of exactly N=1, namely my three-year-old daughter. Oh sure, I’ve dressed it up as a qualitative, longitudinal study of child language development, but Blind Freddy can see I’ve just recorded my kid at random, cherry-picked a few select utterances and even mimicked her myself when her actual developmental process didn’t align with the fictional one I invented for the paper. Oh, and I don’t have a daughter.

***

At this point in time our conclusions necessarily remain tentative, as we came up with them at the tail end of a heavy night of drinking long before actually having conducted the study. Only by a great leap of the imagination could one accept that they genuinely follow from the results.

***

The device tested in the study was developed by the same body that funded the research. In this sense, should one wish to be all pedantic about it, one could speak of a so-called “conflict of interest”.

***

Arguably, this is actually a pretty solid study in terms of execution; it’s just that the entire underlying premise is wildly wrong. In our view, the traditional imperative to come up with something both well-considered and well-executed falls beyond the scope of the present study; we leave it to future researchers who are more masochistic than ourselves to rectify this minor shortcoming.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Email this to someone

How ‘broken’ is academia, and how can we fix it?

Jon Tennant just finished his PhD in paleontology. This post originally appeared on Jon’s blog, Fossils and Shit. Follow him on twitter @protohedgehog.

In every coffee break conversation, you hear murmurs of a ‘broken academic system’. Hallways whisper secret conversations about the latest case of professional abuse, the tenured professor still writing papers on a type-writer, and the grad student that mysteriously disappeared just 6 months in.

I’m going to try and outline here what I have seen in my experience and through many discussions with an enormous variety of people about what the most pressing issue in the current system is.

It’s all about power, and the abuse of it.

Academics who are embedded in a position of status or power must have successfully navigated the academic webways, played the game just right, in order to be where they are now. This must be true, based on the virtue of the fact that they are there.

These very same people are those who control almost everything – they sit on your hiring committees, they are the gatekeepers to journals, they review your grants and decide who or what receives funding. They also are the ones with the capacity to create real, systemic, and cultural changes, because they are the ones pulling all the strings.

However, by the very virtue of being successful, they can easily become blind to the faults of the system, because you can’t see them as negative when they have worked for you in a positive manner. Because they have overcome obstacles, they fail to see why others cannot in the same way, or that these obstacles impact upon different people in various ways – typically disadvantaging the already disadvantaged most. By definition, marginalised communities are invariably under-represented, but are often the very common and real victims of faulty systems. But when do we ever hear their voices?

Success in academia, or any walk of life, blinds people to the reality of failure. For whatever those reasons might be. How common do we see the attitude of “It’s not a problem because it doesn’t happen to me.” in academia? “I made it here, so others can too.”

This sort of ignorance and lack of empathy results in a system that constrains innovation, stifles cultural adaptation, and defines inertia as the norm through a system of fear. Fear because you can’t challenge this status quo, as it’s the members of it who are going to decide if your paper gets accepted, you get hired, or you get that grant. They decide if you are able to pay your rent and feed your family.

This reality is a huge problem, as those who wield this power won’t always do so. They’ll try to for as long as possible, but it is the grad students and postdocs (early career researchers, ECRs) who will inherit the system. But they aren’t having much say in what it is they will inherit.

Students of today are growing up in a very different web-powered digital world. This world is all about creation, innovation, and the freedom to share knowledge and ideas. But ECRs are penalised for speaking out and challenging and creating, because at the moment they have no power in the system. You can look at the table and watch the game, but you don’t have any chips so you can’t play.

A consequence of this is that diverse voices are not invited, welcomed, or recognised to be at the tables where the important decisions are being made. The top of the system, where all the power is, represents a culture of replicas, of clones, the same demographic who know how to play the system to win the game. It will rarely be success based on individual prowess or skill, but a process of a thousand small events with a thousand different players that were leveraged at the right time, with just the right amount of luck, that manifests itself as personal achievement and results in acquisition of power.

It’s these very same people though in power who don’t want to undermine the foundations of their own success. It makes perfect sense – that’s human nature. A researcher would have to have a serious foot-shooting fetish to point out the flaws in their own achievements. But this means that the ‘elite’ by default choose ignorance over empathy, over generational sustainability, over using their power selflessly to help others.

There are some people at the top who have gained better awareness, and who listen to others and try to induce positive change. But they remain a minority, and we as a culture and a community have to do better to increase social mobility and increase engagement that transcends academic hierarchies.

One solution to this is to have grad students and postdocs better represented in the places that are deciding the future structure of academia: every hiring panel, each grant committee, engaged in advisory roles for every policy process.

If we do not do this, we are left with the very same people who won the long game dictating the rules for future students based on their own minority experiences, rather than the unheard and unseen majority. All the time, we lose our best and brightest as they become disillusioned with the system, and are chased out for one reason or another – just another leak in a very patched-up pipeline.

What I want to see more of is senior researchers listening more to ECRs, to their experiences, their problems, their requests. I want them to embrace empathy for those who haven’t won the game, or refuse to play it. I want them to use this to build a better future for everyone that breaks down power dynamics, embraces diversity and encourages equity, and creates a better environment for innovation to flourish without fear.

Let us be brave and challenge the status quo, let us create, let us think outside the box. Isn’t this is what research is supposed to be about, after all?

Note: Parts of this discussion are chopped up on Twitter here.

Edit: I’m much less interested in responses to this about how the system has benefited people (i.e., the “It’s worked for me so what’s the problem” mentality). That’s not what this is about. I’m interested in finding out why it doesn’t work or hasn’t worked for those who are worse off. #notallacademics, right..

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Email this to someone

The Third Annual Academics with Cats Awards!

Meeeeow! The Third Academics with Cats Awards launches today!

cat logo

How to enter

Tweet your finest cat pics (preferably with an amusing caption) to #AcademicsWithCats. We’ll collate them and our expert panel will shortlist the best.

Entries close Wednesday 30 November.

CATegories

We’ll automatically put your cat pics into the appropriate category, feel free to get creative:

  • Academics and their Cats
  • Writing
  • Outreach
  • Teaching
  • Bonus: Academics without Cats! By popular demand, we’ll pick a non-feline furry friend to represent the academics sans chat!

Dates

  • Friday 18 November: Launch!
  • Wednesday 30 November: Entries close
  • Monday 5 December: Voting opens
  • Sunday 11 December: Voting closes
  • 12-16 December: Winner announcements

The shortlisting panel

The shortlist will be diligently put together by the following panel of experts.

Chris BrookeChris Brooke
@chrisbrooke
Chris is a Lecturer at Cambridge and co-winner in the first Academics with Cats Awards.

Deborah Fisher
@DrDeborahFisher
Deborah is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Duke University and co-winner of the first Academics with Cats Awards.
Nadine MullerNadine Muller
@Nadine_Muller
Nadine is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature, a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker, and an academic with both cats and dogs.
Cristina RiguttoCristina Rigutto
@cristinarigutto
Cristina is an avid golfer, Sci Comm expert, and tweeter.

Camera 360Glen Wright
@AcademiaObscura
Glen is the founder of Academia Obscura. A catless academic, he started #AcademicsWithCats to fill the void.
Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Email this to someone

6 Phrases that Should be Banned

By Dr George Gosling

Academia, whether that means teaching or studying, is ultimately a matter of communication. Our words are the lifeblood of what we do. So I regularly find myself stuggling to suppress my inner pedant when I read phrases that I know simply don’t do what they’re supposed to. So, if for no other reason than to release the build up of pedantry, here are my top six offenders. Of course, these are things for which I’d never dream of marking down a student, but I might counsel them against. If you use them all the time, it’s nothing personal.

  • It could be argued that…

This is one that gets used endlessly in student essays, and it’s hard to blame them when it’s used so frequently in academic texts. Unfortunately it is absolutely meaningless. Anything could be argued. I could write a blog post putting forward an argument for the sun being The Great Mother Satsuma, but I’d struggle to make the case convincingly. One of the things students find hardest to master is acknowledging complexity while still putting forward a strong argument. For me, this is the wrong side of the line. Arguably, starting a sentence by sitting on the fence like this is a bad habit to get into, as you can easily find yourself opting for this over and over, and miss the fact you haven’t actually argued anything. If you’re not convinced, attribute it to someone who is.

  • On the other hand…

There is a simple way to structure an essay: argument, counter-argument, conclusion. It is easy, but I tend to advise against it. This is often a shock to those students who’ve had it drummed into them at A-Level. Structuring an essay this way is not wrong. It’s actually a straightforward way of producing an acceptable essay. However, it’s a really difficult way of writing really good essay. This is because it creates a number of traps – forcing you to simplify the discussion into two sides when it’s probably much more complex, and making it all too easy to avoid actually having an argument of your own until the closing sentences. No. Start with the argument and then make the case.

  • a biased source

In fact, in my seminars I recommend students ditch the term ‘bias’ altogether. There is no person, no document (no historical witness or source) that is not biased in some way or another. Again, it’s meaningless. The problem here is that labelling a source as biased sounds like you’ve actually said something when you haven’t, making it all too easy to move on to the next point without actually having made one at all. Instead, identify the perspective from which a source is written, or from which they see events. That really can tell us something.

  • some historians

What happened is history (the past). How we interpret, explain and debate the cause, impact and meaning of what happened is History (the scholarly discipline). This wouldn’t be possible if all historians agreed, so there is some sense in distinguishing between the ideas and opinions of some historians and others. The problem is the obvious question it prompts: which ones? Not specifying implies historians are interchangeable, that the positions we take are random. We’re not and they’re not. This is why labelling historians as traditionalist and revisionist likewise falls short – suggesting it’s a fluke of timing. Once again this phrase only does half the job.

  • …but then she is a feminist historian

The objective historian is a myth. Once we recognise we are all biased commentators it can serve as a useful myth – giving license to rigorously question our own assumptions against both the available evidence and the wisdom of the crowd. This is a good thing, yet it’s often cut short by the negative connotations of bias. Labelling the premise of the historian’s assumptions should be a helpful way of engaging with their perspective on the past, but instead is often used to dismiss alternative interpretations rashly. Most typically I see this dismissal – sometimes this bluntly – to reject the arguments of feminist historians. Although I’ve never encountered this said of a male historian.

  • as to

I used to use this all the time about a decade ago, and there’s no zealot like a convert. The reason as to why I turned against this unnecessary flourish is that it’s pretentious. I’ve never used it when speaking, so why when writing? It’s the over-compensating that comes from not feeling you have the authority to write about a given subject. There will always be an element of fake it ’til you make it, but this is too transparent a disguise it be any use. Good academic writing is a matter of saying complicated things as simply as possible. Decide what needs saying. Say it plainly. Then stop.

This post originally appeared on Dr George Gosling’s blog. It is reposted here under the terms of Creative Commons license BY-NC 4.0. Dr Gosling is a Historian of medicine and charity in modern Britain and beyond. Follow him on twitter @gcgosling.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Email this to someone

On Commonplace Books

By Steven Hill

The commonplace book is a seventeenth century innovation, and the idea is a simple one: A notebook for capturing interesting quotes from reading, ideas, snippets of text for writings, diagrams, sketches, anything that comes to mind. Over time these notebooks developed into personal anthologies of thought and reflection, and were often accompanied by elaborate schemes of indexing, so that the entries could be located and themes extracted.

The age of the internet has the potential to be the golden age of the commonplace book. First we have an unprecedented opportunity to read and access texts of all sorts, and secondly it is simple – no more complicated than ‘copy and paste’ – to bring elements of text together into places where search tools allow the rapid compilation of themes.

A drawing from Henry Tiffin's Commonplace Book (1760)

A drawing from Henry Tiffin’s Commonplace Book (1760)
Source: Peabody Essex Museum

I have been using Evernote as a commonplace book for a number of years. All sorts of things get saved into my Evernote notebooks, some of them automatically, and then the search function allows later retrieval. For example, a quick search for ‘commonplace book’ reveals that, rather spookily I was contemplating drafting a blog post on the topic exactly a year ago today. I was also able to identify previous reading I had done about commonplace books, and a quote from ‘Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation‘ by Steven Johnson:

The great minds of the period—Milton, Bacon, Locke—were zealous believers in the memory-enhancing powers of the commonplace book. In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations.

The search also provided me with a link to a related piece I had read by James Gleick on digitising books.

The commonplace book was a powerful idea in the seventeenth century but digitised text takes it to a new level. This idea is explored and developed further by Johnson in a blog post. In this post Johnson points out that searching for text can, in an instant, assemble a type of commonplace book using an algorithm. The google search I linked to at the beginning of this post is an example. The search results are presented in a particular order, and to an extent that order is customised to the individual. A new association of words and ideas is being created, specific for the reader, and in no way predictable by the authors of the original texts:

What you see on [a Google search results] page is, in a very real sense, textual play: the recombining of words into new forms and associations that their original creators never dreamed of.

Johnson goes on to consider the value that is created through these new combinations of text:

When text is free to combine in new, surprising ways, new forms of value are created. Value for consumers searching for information, value for advertisers trying to share their messages with consumers searching for related topics, value for content creators who want an audience. And of course, value to the entity that serves as the middleman between all those different groups.

And there is a following discussion on paywalls and technologies that prevent text to be mined and combined in new ways. The whole, long post is well worth a read. His conclusion is that access to text and reasonable re-use rights are central to ensuring that the potential benefits of the internet-enabled commonplace book. In Johnson’s words we need text to be in a commonplace book, not a glass box.

This is one of the reason that open access to the scholarly literature is so important. At the moment much of the scholarly literature is, at best, in a glassbox and at worst in a locked chest for which only a select few hold the key. Not only does the scholarly literature need to be made more available, but also licensed in such a way that re-use and re-purposing is possible. As Cameron Neylon has recently argued permissive licensing is essential. Access through glass boxes, like the Access to Research initiative is also deeply limited in its value.

I wonder what those seventeenth century ‘commonplacers’ would make of all this. I think they would be amazed by the potential of the digital commonplace book, but shocked to see how we have locked away some of the most valuable text, preventing real value to be obtained.

This post originally appeared on Steven Hill’s blog, ‘Testing Hypotheses…‘ It is reposted here under the terms of Creative Commons license BY-NC-SA 3.0.  Steven is the Head of Research Policy at the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Follow Steven on twitter @stevenhill.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Email this to someone