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..
Meeeeow! The Third Academics with Cats Awards launches today!
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.
We’ll automatically put your cat pics into the appropriate category, feel free to get creative:
- Academics and their Cats
- Bonus: Academics without Cats! By popular demand, we’ll pick a non-feline furry friend to represent the academics sans chat!
- 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.
Deborah is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Duke University and co-winner of the first Academics with Cats Awards.
Nadine is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature, a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker, and an academic with both cats and dogs.
Cristina is an avid golfer, Sci Comm expert, and tweeter.
Glen is the founder of Academia Obscura. A catless academic, he started #AcademicsWithCats to fill the void.
I say the key to good academic writing is saying complicated things as simply as possible. Winnie-the-Pooh says… pic.twitter.com/iYKFa4YxN2
— George Gosling (@gcgosling) March 9, 2015
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.
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.
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 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.
Dear Sir, Madame, or Other:
Enclosed is our latest version of Ms # 85-02-22-RRRRR, that is, the re-re-re-revised revision of our paper. Choke on it. We have again rewritten the entire manuscript from start to finish. We even changed the goddamn running head! Hopefully we have suffered enough by now to satisfy even you and your bloodthirsty reviewers.
I shall skip the usual point-by-point description of every single change we made in response to the critiques. After all, it is fairly clear that your reviewers are less interested in details of scientific procedure than in working out their personality problems and sexual frustrations by seeking some kind of demented glee in the sadistic and arbitrary exercise of tyrannical power over helpless authors like ourselves who happen to fall into their clutches. We do understand that, in view of the misanthropic psychopaths you have on your editorial board, you need to keep sending them papers, for if they weren’t reviewing manuscripts they’d probably be out mugging old ladies or clubbing baby seals to death. Still, from this batch of reviewers, C was clearly the most hostile, and we request that you not ask him or her to review this revision. Indeed, we have mailed letter bombs to four or five people we suspected of being reviewer C, so if you send the manuscript back to them the review process could be unduly delayed.
Some of the reviewers’ comments we couldn’t do anything about. For example, if (as review C suggested) several of my recent ancestors were indeed drawn from other species, it is too late to change that. Other suggestions were implemented, however, and the paper has improved and benefited. Thus, you suggested that we shorten the manuscript by 5 pages, and we were able to accomplish this very effectively by altering the margins and printing the paper in a different font with a smaller typeface. We agree with you that the paper is much better this way.
One perplexing problem was dealing with suggestions #13-28 by Reviewer B. As you may recall (that is, if you even bother reading the reviews before doing your decision letter), that reviewer listed 16 works that he/she felt we should cite in this paper. These were on a variety of different topics, none of which had any relevance to our work that we could see. Indeed, one was an essay on the Spanish-American War from a high school literary magazine. The only common thread was that all 16 were by the same author, presumably someone whom Reviewer B greatly admires and feels should be more widely cited. To handle this, we have modified the Introduction and added, after the review of relevant literature, a subsection entitled “Review of Irrelevant Literature” that discusses these articles and also duly addresses some of the more asinine suggestions in the other reviews.
We hope that you will be pleased with this revision and will finally recognize how urgently deserving of publication this work is. If not, then you are an unscrupulous, depraved monster with no shred of human decency. You ought to be in a cage. May whatever heritage you come from be the butt of the next round of ethnic jokes. If you do accept it, however, we wish to thank you for your patience and wisdom throughout this process and to express our appreciation of your scholarly insights. To repay you, we would be happy to review some manuscripts for you; please send us the next manuscript that any of these reviewers submits to your journal.
Assuming you accept this paper, we would also like to add a footnote acknowledging your help with this manuscript and to point out that we liked the paper much better the way we originally wrote it but you held the editorial shotgun to our heads and forced us to chop, reshuffle, restate, hedge, expand, shorten, and in general convert a meaty paper into stir-fried vegetables. We couldn’t, or wouldn’t, have done it without your input.
Doing a PhD is one of the greatest trials you will ever experience in your life. It is physically and mentally grueling, you will be challenged and pushed to the limit every single day, and the pressure levels are so high they will bust you right into the sixth dimension if you’re not prepared or strong enough.
So yeah, they are not for the faint of hearted. That is, if you want to succeed by pushing yourself to the limit, excel in everything that you apply yourself to, and grow to become more powerful than you can possibly imagine (compared to the wimpy undergrad you used to be). But I imagine you wouldn’t even be doing a PhD if this wasn’t your mentality anyway.
I’m a strong believer in committing yourself fully to something if you believe in it, and doing everything within your power to achieve your goals. A PhD is basically a 3-4 year long single project that you can, and should, dedicate yourself too. Now that I’m nearing the end of my own challenge, I wanted to share some simple things with you all that might help in some way.
1. Don’t compare yourself to other people, especially researchers
Every day, you will see other people achieving their own things. Encourage the success of others, but do not think that this means your own work has any less value. I think this competitive nature of academia is one of the main causes of Imposter Syndrome for researchers. Acknowledge that others will succeed, and that your own successes will come too. Which leads on to…
2. Be content with your successes
Celebrate all the things! Get a paper published? Awesome! Abstract accepted for that conference? You’re amazing! Get some code to run? Get a beer! Accepting that your successes, no matter how big or small, are meaningful is a great step towards acknowledging your personal worth. Both to yourself and others. That doesn’t mean rub them in other people’s faces; simply allow yourself to enjoy the feeling of completing something that meant something to yourself or others. It took me about three and a half years of my PhD to get there and realise ‘Oh. Maybe I’ve finally done something good.’, and then it was like a cascade from there where every achievement began to mean something and excite and motivate me even more. My only wish is that I’d realised this sooner.
3. Social media is a doubled-edged sword
Social media such as blogging and Twitter are amazing to learn for personal development, networking, and science communication. The negative side of this is that social media emphasises point 1 in this list. People basically pump out all of the good things in their lives, and it’s like having 1000 marginally interesting success stories pummeled into your face on a daily basis. That is not healthy, as it becomes too easy to see this as a single timeline of success that you could not possibly live up to. This is why it is so essential to know that if you do use social media, what you’re looking at is a multitude, and not a single narrative of another person’s life.
4. Challenge everything, especially that which seems normal or is the status quo
Universities are places were freedom of thought and freedom of expression are standard. Note that this doesn’t mean you are at liberty to be a dick, and simply do or say things without thinking them through. If someone tells you to do something ‘because that’s the way it is’, challenge it. Conforming to expectations is not only boring, but changes nothing. Research and academia are places to unleash yourself and your creativity in ways that you will never get in a standard workplace, and you should embrace the opportunity. Rules are meant to be broken.
5. Having a relationship during your PhD is insanely difficult
A PhD is so time consuming it’s ridiculous. When people say they work 45 hours a week, a PhD student replies “Oh it must be nice working just a part time job..” This impacts quite a bit upon the hypothetical ‘work life balance’. I’m not gonna sugar it up, there is no work-life balance. Work becomes your life. Even when you’re not working on your PhD, you’re thinking about it. Trying to reconcile this with a love life is insane. If you can find a significant other who understands this, keep them for life. If they don’t, it’ll make the relationship all the more difficult. It’s not about placing one person/thing above another, but recognising that at certain times there are certain priorities that have to take precedent.
6. Take every opportunity to travel
PhD students can be blessed with unparalleled chances to roam the planet. We get to attend conferences, workshops, talks, and do our research in some of the most exotic, weird, wonderful, and exciting places on the planet. Embrace this chance, as you probably won’t get it ever again. Never be afraid to try something or somewhere new, and embrace every opportunity as a new learning experience.
7. Take every opportunity to learn
A PhD is a learning experience. Don’t ever feel stupid for not knowing something – no-one knows everything, and the whole point of research and education is that we’re forever pushing our boundaries by discovering new things. What is obvious to some people is clearly not to others, and you should not be afraid to ask questions, or be made silly for asking them. Over the course of 3-4 years for a PhD, you will be constantly learning new things, expanding your knowledge horizons, and acquiring new skills. Some times, you won’t even recognise that you’re picking up or developing skills. Often it’s worth going out of your way to try new things: a foreign language or a new coding language, creative writing, yoga, art, baking – anything that helps you to enhance yourself.
8. Use your spare time to learn ‘secondary’ skills
By ‘secondary’, I refer to those which are not strictly to do with research. These include learning how to write for non-specialist audiences through blogging as a form of science communication, learning marketing, advocacy and community building skills as a form of networking and promotion, and social media usage in order to more effectively communicate with a diverse range of audiences. These skills are invaluable and can open up a multitude of new opportunities, and if you learn to integrate them into your daily workflows can become valuable extensions of yourself.
9. Learn to code. For the love of God learn to code
Coding is frickin’ difficult, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Some people have a knack for it, others don’t. In the modern age though, the ability to code, or at least read or execute code, is so damn important. I’ve only learned how to use a bit of R during my PhD, but this basically saved my research just by learning the basics. Websites like CodeAcademy are super duper useful for picking up coding skills, and good fun and free too.
10. Some people are assholes, and there’s nothing you can do about it
The common asshole can often be a difficult species to find. Common traits include: 1. Talking about others negatively behind their backs; 2. Only ever talking about themselves and their activities; 3. Interrupting you to tell a story that’s just oh so much better; 4. Poisoning the way you think and act so that you begin to question yourself, but not in a good way; 5. Sapping all of your time and energy to deal with them and their problems; 6. Taking everything from you, but never giving something in return. One thing I’ve learned is not to engage with people like this. People who are not helping to build you are not people to surround yourself with, and are best removed swiftly and painlessly from your life. This also accounts for serial harassers, some times even people under the facade of ‘close friends’, and those who refuse to be held accountable for the words they say and the actions they perform. There is a whole world of amazing people out there, and do not settle for people who act like shit and treat you like anything less than you deserve.
11. Be there for other people as much as you can
I might have mentioned this once or twice, but doing a PhD is fucking difficult. Some times, those most in need are those who hide it most. Learn to read the signs of when people might be struggling, and be there as a stone pillar for them when they need it most. This is just part of being a good friend, and some times for people simply knowing that someone is there for you can make all the difference.
12. Don’t sacrifice your mental or physical health for research
At Imperial College, almost every grad student I know was suffering from some sort of mental or physical health issue. Alcoholism, depression, anxiety, stress, insomnia – the list goes on. The pressures of academia are insane, and don’t kill yourself just to get out a paper or do another experiment. Everything that needs to get done will get done with time. You work more efficiently by pacing yourself. Staying healthy in body is also a path to staying more healthy in mind. I started running during my PhD, and found that after a while I was able to focus more, sleep better, and not be so damn exhausted all the time.Also, don’t over-caffeinate – quitting ten shitty cups of coffee a day was awesome, I gained the ability to think again. If you’re a coffee fan, have one or two a day strategically. Drink a glass of water in the morning as soon as you wake up, and stay hydrated during the day. Don’t binge on carbs, and try and have a healthy diet. This shit actually works, is ridiculously simple, and you’ll feel a positive difference. Meditation can also be a powerful method for clearing your mind and helping you to focus – apps like Headspace are great for starting with this.
13. Publish the shit out of your PhD as much as possible
I’ve written about this one already here.
14. Learn how to empathise with others
This is a ridiculously powerful way of thinking, and very difficult to grasp. I’m not sure I’ve got it yet fully, but is something I try all the time. My parents always used to say to me ‘treat others how you would like to be treated’, and being able to place yourselves in the shoes of others and understand their feelings is important for this. By doing so, you’ll be able to understand the problems of others more easily, and generally perceive everyday issues in life from a more enriched diversity of views. It also means that you’re not thinking about things selfishly, shallowly, or narrowly. I got sick of people in London being so self-centred about their thinking, when it came to personal and academic issues, and is actually one of the key reasons why I left London and Imperial College in the first place.
15. Learn how to think about problems from a range or perspectives
Problem solving is an intrinsic part of academia. Shockingly, problem solving is not easy, either to do with research or real life situations. Being able to consider problems from as diverse a range of perspectives as possible is a very powerful tool for understanding and resolving them. Learn to be solution-oriented, focus on the positives, and consider how other people are perceiving a situation and what the implications of this are. Follow thoughts and actions through like a web – consider all possibilities and all implications of this. Through this, often the optimal solution will emerge, and you will be braced for all possible outcomes.
16. If you recognise that you have a weakness, do everything you can to overcome it
Part of self-development is recognising that you are not perfect. Everyone has weaknesses, or parts of themselves that can improve – if you can’t think of anything, think harder, or stop being so arrogant. Learning what these traits are is the first step towards building upon them. For example, if you have an issue with approaching new people and initiating conversation, slowly build up your confidence in smaller steps by approaching groups, people who you know from social media, or by planning out the first few lines of a conversation in your head in advance. For every problem, there are a thousand solutions – you just have to find that which suits you the most!
DISCLAIMER: These views are based on my own experience, and might be utter bullshit.
1. NOT LIKE THIS…
2. ALSO NOT LIKE THIS…
3. OR LIKE THIS…
4. NAILED IT.