12 Things I Learned About Academia from Google Suggestions

1. University is free in Germany, but elsewhere it’s just business. It is also like riding a bike.

uni is

2. Academia is a pointless, broken cult.

academia is

3. There are many misconceptions about us academics. We are often happy, but not always. We are rarely important, and never well paid!

are academics

4. We are many things:

5. We are not the problem…

academics aren't

6. …but we aren’t everything either.

academics are not

7. Economics students are promiscuous and selfish.

economics students

8. History students are just promiscuous.

history students are

9. As for law students, well…

law students

10. A PhD can be problematic, unless it is in dance.

my phd is

11. Don’t expect to much help from your professor…

my professor doesn't

12. …nor from the hot-but-lazy TA.

my teaching assistant is

Many questions remain.

do academics

 

What does Google suggestions say where you are? Tweet your screenshots to @AcademiaObscura with the hashtag #GoogleAcademia.

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10 Quite Useful Tools for Academics

Gone are the days of type-written papers and literature reviews built on index cards. In the age of information overload and email overwhelm, we need all the help we can get to stay sane and productive. I rely heavily on the 10 tools described here, and I hope that they might lighten your load a little too. 

Many of these tools require an initial time investment and/or steep learning curve before you realise their full potential, so I don’t recommend trying to integrate them into your workflow all at once. Start with one or two that you think might be most helpful: if you are about to begin a PhD, get friendly with a citation manager; if you have 8 post-its permanently affixed to your monitor, get your shit sorted with Trello. 

1. Citation manager
If I could give only one piece of advice for those starting out in academia, it would be this: use a citation manager! I use Mendeley, and get along reasonably well with it, but I recommend fiddling around with a few before settling (try Zotero, Papers, Endonte). Ultimately, the particular platform matters much less than the absolute necessity of integrating some sort of citation management software into your workflow. It may seem like a chore at first,1 but you’ll be glad you put the effort in.

scrivener-logo2. Scrivener
Whereas Word and its ilk are digital extensions of the typewriters of old, Scrivener is a word processor built from the ground up to redefine the way we write on computers. Scrivener is at once simple and versatile, and flexible enough to complement the way you think and work when writing, whatever your style. I put snippets of writing onto virtual note cards and organise them by theme. The cards are easily edited and reorganised by dragging and dropping, while the powerful export function turns it all into a formatted and ready-to-go doc file.

evernote3. Evernote
The Chinese word for computer literally translates as “electric brain”, and this is exactly how I would describe Evernote. I use Evernote as my second brain, a giant electronic notebook brimming with everything from research-related news stories to recipes. You can clip direct from the web, add photos from your phone, or email notes directly to your account. It is available online and syncs across all devices, so you can access your stuff wherever you are.

trello logo4. Trello
Trello is a sort of virtual pin board. Pre-Trello, I would have at least 3 to-do lists on the go at any given time and would waste an inordinate amount of time faffing around with them. Now, together with my calendar, I use Trello to organise my entire life. I have changed the way I use the app a few times based on my needs at the time, so I recommend experimenting until you find what works best for you. Currently I have four main columns: One Big Thing (i.e. my primary task for the today); “Three Smaller Things”, in case I get my one big thing done; “Later” (for everything else); and “Done”.2 I also colour code, because why not.

Gloriously simple, and incredibly effective.

My Trello setup Colour coding: red=work, blue=PhD, green=blog, orange=admin

On older Trello setup, before I started prioritising one big thing per day.
Colour coding: red=work, blue=PhD, green=blog, orange=admin

unrollme5. Unroll.me
If you want to reach the holy grail of inbox zero, Unroll.me is going to help you get there. It “rolls up” all of your regular email subscriptions and newsletters 3 into one neat bundle and sends it to you daily/weekly at a time of your choosing (I receive mine every day at 4pm, the time that I am usually started to either fall asleep or look at cats on the internet anyway). This reserves your inbox for priority emails and stops you getting distracted by junk during the day. Unroll.me detects new mailing lists and allows you to leave the messages in your inbox, add them to your rollup, or unsubscribe 4 This nifty little app has spared me the distracting allure of 12,000 emails in the two years since I started using it.

twitter6. Twitter
Academics are notoriously sceptical of the merits of Twitter. Despite initially sharing in this somewhat understandable reluctance, I am now a full convert. I use Twitter to keep up to date with news and developments in my field, request articles that I can’t access, and chat with other researchers. As long as you are vigilant not to let tweeting take up too much of your time, Twitter can be incredibly useful.

freedom7. Freedom/Anti-Social
While studies show that looking at pictures of kittens increases your productivity, wasting your day on the internet probably doesn’t. Freedom will lock you out of the internet for a designated period of time.5 The only way to get your connection back is to reset your computer, which is enough of a pain in the arse that you probably won’t do it. If you really do need the internet (e.g. for research) you can use Anti-Social instead, which only locks you out of particularly distracting sites. 

coach me8. Coach.me
Coach.Me is a motivation app for building good habits. You set up a checklist of things you want to do on a regular basis, and tick them off daily. I used it to get over my lifelong habit of biting my nails, to start brushing my teeth after lunch at work, and, during writing periods, to commit myself to X pomodoros a day. Not especially sexy, but eminently practical.

9. A clipboard manager
Modern academic writing involves as much copying and pasting as it does scribbling or typing, yet most of us still make do with the one-shot copy and paste feature built into our computers. I do not say this lightly, but a clipboard manager will change your life. The main advantage is the ability to copy more than one item for pasting later (if you’ve ever copied something only to forget to paste it and remember an hour later, you will understand the importance of this simple extension), but most of them have other handy features too. I swear by Copy’em Paste – while the $15 price tag might seem steep, it is pretty reasonable for an app that I use unthinkingly hundreds of times per day. 

10. An external hard drive/Dropbox/Drive/Crashplan
Computers die, so you should back up regularlymore or less constantlyas if your life depends on it. Invest in a decent external hard drive and make use of the backup software on your computer. Hard drives also die, so sign up for an online file storage service and put an extra copy your most important files in there too. I use Apple’s Time Machine to back up everything to an external drive (a recurring task in Trello nudges me to do this weekly), and I copy all my essential documents to dropbox as well. Better safe than sorry.

Already using these tools? What has your experience been? Did I miss something? Comment below or tweet @AcademiaObscura.

 

  1. Does footnoting ever not seem like a chore?
  2. When a task is done I drag it here – I could just delete it, but I find dropping something into the done list seriously gratifying
  3. To distinguish this from unsolicited emails, i.e. spam, the tech community coined the term “Bacn” to describe “email you want but not right now”
  4. Be careful though: it doesn’t actually unsubscribe you, it just funnels the messages away from your inbox, never to be seen again. This could be problematic if you stop using Unroll.me later and find a sudden influx of all this junk you thought you were rid of. Caveat emptor my friends.
  5. Yes, it is a damning indictment of our culture that ‘Freedom’ means turning off the internet so you can get more work done. Don’t hate the player…
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11 Essential Hashtags for Academics

Academic twitterJust over a year ago I began tweeting as @AcademiaObscura, and in that time I have converted from a twitter sceptic to a fervent advocate. Twitter, and other social media tools, can be invaluable for connecting with others in your field, disseminating your work, and keeping up-to-date with the latest research and news. Indeed, once you are past the hump, Twitter becomes useful for all sorts of things. If you are new to Twitter I highly recommend the Thesis Whisperer’s explanation here (scroll down a little to the using twitter section) and LSE’s guide.

Hashtags are a great way to follow specific discussions, and a number have become staples of the academic twittersphere (side note: I use Tweetdeck to follow numerous hashtags simultaneously – intro here). This list is an attempt to introduce the essentials. Special thanks to Raul Pacheco-Vega, whose extremely useful post provided the basis and inspiration for this.

1. #PhDchat
The hashtag for all things PhD, PhDchat is a staple of academic Twitter, having been initially started all the way back in December 2009 by Nasima Riazat (@NSRiazat). A great place to discuss your research progress, get tips and tricks, share experiences etc. Structured sessions are also hosted:

  • UK/Europe: Wednesday nights, 7.30pm-8.30pm GMT (hosted by Nasima herself)
  • Australia: usually the first Wednesday each month, 7pm-8pm Sydney time (hosted by Inger Mewburn – @thesiswhisperer)

More: There is a satisfyingly geeky analysis of the #PhDchat community here.

2. #ECRchat/#AdjunctChat
As above, but specifically for ‘Early Career Researchers’ (ECR) and adjuncts.

3. #AltAc/#PostAc/#WithAPhD
A trio of useful hashtags for those trying to find alternative academic paths, get out of academia altogether, or figure out what to do with a PhD. Jennifer Polk (@FromPhDToLife) is your go-to person on all of these!

600_3663352324. #shutupandwrite
‘Shut Up and Write’, aside from being a great mantra in general, is the name for informal writing groups convened the world over. I guarantee that attending such a group will be the best decision you ever make in terms of writing productivity. But if there isn’t a group near you (and you don’t have the inclination to start one) you can join one virtually through twitter! They take place on the 1st & 3rd Tuesday each month (#suwtues):

5. #AcWri
AcWri, short for ‘academic writing’ is a great place to find helpful tips, motivational tidbits, and articles about the writing process itself.

6. #ICanHazPdf
Have you ever gone to download that crucial paper you need only to find that it is behind a paywall? If your institutional subscriptions don’t cover what you are looking for, simply tweet the details of the paper along with the hashtag and an email address. Usually someone will come through with the paper pretty quickly. Don’t forget to delete your tweet after!

More: Check out some interesting analysis of #ICanHazPdf here and here, and critical discussions here and here.

7. #ScholarSunday
There is a tradition on Twitter of doing #FollowFriday (or #ff) for short – sending a tweet with a few names of people you recommend to others. Raul Pacheco-Vega created Scholar Sunday to go a step further, calling on academics to share not only who they recommend, but also why.

More: discussion from the hashtags creator.

8. #AcaDowntime
Amongst all the writing, teaching, and general stress of academic life, it is more important than ever to set aside for rest and relaxation. #AcaDowntime calls for academics to share what fun things they are up to on their weekends and in their free time. Hopefully we can foster a culture of work-life balance and encourage us all to take time for ourselves.

More: I asked academics what they do in their ‘free’ time. Here’s what they said. Also read “The Workaholic and Academia: in defense of #AcaDowntime

9. Whatever is used in your field
There are many subject-specific hashtags: #twitterstorians, #realtimechem, #TrilobyteTuesday#archaeology#gistribe#runology (for the study of runes, not running)… Poke around a bit and you are bound to find something to take your fancy!

(Just for fun)

10. #AcademicsWithCats Are you an academic? Do you have a cat? Then this hashtag is for you. All the cute cats and kittens you could ever need, often in academic settings.  

More: A day in the life of an academic, with cats; The first annual Academics with Cats Awards.

11. #AcademicsWithBeer If you don’t have a cat but you do love beer, this one’s for you! We have Elena Milani (@biomug) to thank for this recent edition.

More: Read the call to arms (The King’s Arms, that is).

Did I miss anything? What are your favorites? Please post a comment or tweet me @AcademiaObscura. Happy tweeting!

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What PhD Life is Really Like

Mairi Young is a PhD student at the University of Glasgow, researching why people are scared of the dentist (sort of). She is also a foodie and self-confessed junk food lover, blogging over at The Weegie Kitchen.

When you’re studying for a PhD, you will be perpetually presented with two semi-rhetorical questions:

  1. Wow, you must be really smart?
  2. Wow, so you’re gonna be a Doctor!?

Regardless of how tedious these become, you better get used to it because it’s all any non-PhD-student really understands about it. We minions in the lower echelons of academia know it’s a different story altogether.

Whether you’re embarking on a PhD, you know someone studying a PhD and you want to understand their life a little better, or if you’re doing a PhD and just procrastinating today (I’m not here to judge, man) I’ll share what PhD life is really like.

Source: exloringhandhygiene.wordpress.com

Source: exloringhandhygiene.wordpress.com

We’re old, and a student

PhD students are generally older than your average Undergrad or Masters student. We have (considerably) less money than anyone else our age, we shop at Lidl and Aldi, and a night out/celebration are limited to:

  • Student clubs at the weekend – We can have a night out and taxi home for less than £20 but this involves warm syrupy cranberry juice mixed with paint stripper vodka in a plastic cup surrounded by girls wearing shorts/heels/crop tops and boys who resemble our baby brothers; or
  • Fancier pubs during the week – There are fewer crowds, so you can actually chat to your pals, cocktails come in REAL glasses and are often half price during the week. The problem is you can only really go out with your PhD pals because everyone else has to be in the office for 9am.
Source: author's personal collection.

Source: author’s personal collection.

What’s your PhD about anyway?

Let me tell you right now, 90% of people who ask this question aren’t interested in what your PhD is about at all. The other 10% is made up of:

  • Your Supervisors – You take up a lot of their time so naturally they are interested but this interest is VERY low down in their list of priorities;
  • People at a conference who are researching something similar – These people are the tiny percentage of people who actually understand your research and who are genuinely interested. Believe me, this is rare.

So how do you deal with this question from the other 90% of people who don’t care and are asking out of politeness? Well, you reel off a small catchy sums-it-up-sentence people can relate to

For example:

I’m researching why people are scared of attending the dentist.

People love this, and it generates a discussion that most people can join in with. Is it what my research is about? No.

My research evaluates the efficacy of interventions by oral health support workers trying to engage hard to reach families, typically people with a fear of attending the dentist, regarding oral health behaviours. My working title is:

Optimising the role of the Dental Health Support Worker in Childsmile Practice: A qualitative case study approach. 

You see the distinction?

The Doctor thing

Most people who know me, and my journey to get here, get excited about the whole ‘becoming a Doctor’ thing. I appreciate their support but I can’t share the enthusiasm because the shiny appeal of being Dr Mairi Young is well and truly lost.

Let me take you on a journey:

  • 3-6months into a PhD you’re worried about being found out as a fraud to even consider being awarded the doctorate. You’re convinced the University has made a mistake and will call you any day now to kick you out.
  • 1st year you have no idea what to do, so you wing it.
  • 2nd year you worry whether you’ve got enough time to do all your research and writing.
  • 3rd year you panic because you don’t think you’ve done enough to even put together a thesis.
  • By 4th year you’re worrying about PostDocs, Viva’s and the sheer cost of binding the thesis.

By the time your graduation comes around, you’re in the gown and you’re being handed the piece of paper which allows you to call yourself Doctor, you’re already in a Post Doc post and that journey has started all over again.

Forgive us if we aren’t all that excited about being called Doctor. It can feel like something of a consolation prize.

Endless corrections

11704948_10153079810253736_7499609512061010656_nThe one thing I miss about undergrad life was handing in an essay and never seeing it again. You’d receive a mark and that was it: a pure and beautiful cycle of hard work and reward.

This doesn’t happen at PhD level. 

In a PhD you will spend weeks, if not months, tirelessly working on a chapter to make it perfect. You will submit to your supervisors and wait. And wait. And wait. Then you get corrections back.

That beautiful piece of work you worked yourself to the bone for returns covered in incomprehensible scribbles. Deciphering these scribbles will become a skill fit for your CV. Once you’ve deciphered and amended the chapter to perfection, submitted the chapter and waited, and waited and waited…. You get corrections back again.

Thus it continues until the day the thesis is bound and submitted. It’s thoroughly de-motivating and an exhaustive task.

Endnote (or Zotero/Mendeley etc.)

If I could give PhD students one piece of advice for the future, it would be this: learn how to use Endnote.

I’m 2 years and 10 months into a 4 year PhD and I still don’t really know how to work EndNote.

Supposedly it makes your life easier because you can ‘cite while you write’ and compile your references at the click of a button. Yet as I still don’t really know how to work Endnote chances are I (and a couple other PhD’ers I know) will be typing ours out manually.

Please know I’m not lazy, and I’ve not been avoiding the issue. I simply never fully appreciated the time I had on my hands in the first 6 months of my PhD. Back then, I had all the time in the world to spend learning the detailed intricacies of useful software. 3 years in, I don’t have this luxury anymore.

phd 3

Council Tax

Quite possibly the saving grace of the whole PhD malarkey: No Council Tax.

I did my Undergraduate degree, MSc and PhD back to back which means I’ve been studying for 9 years (with a year to go *weeps*). I have not paid council tax at all during this time. I truly believe Glasgow City Council has a ‘Mairi Young Is At It / Must Investigate’ file because after 10 years at 3 different universities, they must be thinking “Surely she’s scamming us?”

Even though I receive a tax free stipend (which FYI is an absolute joy to explain to the Inland Revenue) it is a measly amount, so the saving I make not paying Council Tax means I can afford to live on my own, a luxury I never want to give up.

Undergrads

Contrary to popular opinion, PhD students don’t dislike Undergrads, we’re just jealous of them. Undergrads have it easy and they don’t even know it.

At that age you don’t mind living in a tiny single bedroom and sharing a kitchen with 7 other people so long as it’s within walking distance to class and the student union. You don’t mind living off 9p noodles, cereal and toast. You can sleep during the day between classes, be told exactly what to study to pass the module, submit an essay and never see it again, and you have a whole summer each year in which to relax and enjoy yourself.

PhD students don’t have such luxuries.

We’re too accustomed to the finer things in life: expensive complicated cocktails, antipasti and fresh flowers every weekend. We also read journal papers in bed to catch up with reading, which throws a downer on any romantic relationship, and we stress out over how to afford a suitable outfit for a conference on a measly PhD stipend.

If you’re an undergrad and you see a PhD student tutting at you in the library for browsing Asos rather than working, please know we don’t hate you, we’re just green with envy that our lives are no longer like that. I’m sure you can empathise. By the time you end up doing a PhD, you’ll feel the same, I promise.

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The Workaholic and Academia: in defense of #AcaDowntime

Gemma Aherne is a PhD candidate at Leeds Beckett University. She originally posted this piece on her blog following a debate about #AcaDowntime on twitter. It is reposted here with permission. You can follow Gemma on twitter @princessjack.

palm

In 2012 my husband was in Intensive Care, or ICU as we like to call it in the UK. I was told he would most likely die. It was traumatic. My husband spent 3 weeks in an induced coma. It was terrifying. When he woke up still worrying about work more than his near-death predicament, a very wise nurse told him “There ain’t no pockets in a shroud”.

I can tell you there aren’t any publications either. Or titles. Or accolades.

I’m sure we have all had these moments. Losing loved ones, facing severe ill health, caring for ill relatives or friends. And we all see what matters in life is our health and wellbeing, and that of those we care about.

Yet in academia, workaholism is rife. It is normalised and dare I say it revered. If you loved your work enough you would answer emails whilst on annual leave/ at a funeral/ on maternity leave/ sick in hospital. You love your work, so why not do it 7 days a week?

Academia offers flexibility in working hours, which is why it appeals to me. But sadly flexibility often is often translated as available at all hours and working constantly. I’m here as an early career researcher to say no. If this is what academia is, I don’t want it. I love my work, I am so grateful to get paid work that I feel passionate about. But I am entitled to a life outside of it. We all are.

Spending time with your loved ones is not a privilege. Never let people tell you it is. Taking time out to rest, or watch Netflix, or read fiction, or watch films with your kids, or play with your pets, this is not a luxury. It keeps you well. Visiting your elderly relative in hospital, not a privilege. Seeing your old neighbour in a care home rather than taking on yet more additional work, not a privilege.

Not rushing back to work after a painful hospital appointment or upsetting health session, not a privilege. It’s called looking after yourself. I spent my time in 1st year trying to work the day after 2 operations, during my husband being re-admitted to hospital and the day my mum told me she was ill. Utter nonsense! Why? Because I felt guilty for a second off. Guilt and fear that I wouldn’t catch back up.

I wrote about self-care and the Ph.D here and I wrote about the trauma of research here. I have written on Happy Ph.D and M.E here, and blogging with health problems here.

Today I am working on a rare Sunday. Why? Because I am visiting 2 babies tomorrow on Monday afternoon. Since Christmas I have limited my working hours. I am more productive as a result, healthier, happier, and all my relationships have improved. I am a workaholic by nature, it’s anxiety for me and having health issues that I have to pace and deal with. But at Christmas when I felt guilty for having time off, I said no more. Friends on minimum wage didn’t feel guilty for taking time off. They felt lucky if they were able to take some time off, but not guilty. Why is it that guilt is so common place in academia?

I now do 40 hours a week. In marking season I will do more, or if I get a wave of energy for writing a chapter I will binge. But I take days off. Weekends off. I make plans. I enjoy my life outside of academia. I took my first holiday abroad in years in June. It was glorious. And that’s ok. It doesn’t make one less committed.

Today I see the #AcaDowntime hashtag. How good I thought! Let’s challenge current working expectations. It is not privilege to have rest time. Yes, we have times in our life where we are juggling jobs working all the hours we can to survive, but let’s call that out. Let’s not compound it as legitimate. It’s not showing off to join in with the hashtag, it’s challenging the dominant narrative that we must live to work.

Recently I read this For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University. Number 10 in the paper stood out to me:

Reach for the minimum (i.e. good enough is the new perfect). Rather than getting caught up in measuring worth by the number of peer-reviewed journal articles published or grant dollars procured, reach instead for the minimum numbers necessary to achieve important benchmarks (such as tenure and promotion). Reaching for the minimum allows for a focus on quality – rather than quantity – and acknowledges the need for balance. Imagine, too, an alternate CV or annual report with all of the other items of life included: relationships tended to, illnesses overcome, loved ones cared for, hobbies cultivated. Be unwilling to be undermined or belittled for not conforming to hegemonic agendas that are devoid of the responsibilities and joys of life beyond the ivory tower.

The authors continue:

Slowing down involves resisting neoliberal regimes of harried time by working with care while also caring for ourselves and others.

A feminist mode of slow scholarship works for deep reflexive thought, engaged research, joy in writing and working with concepts and ideas driven by our passions. As a feminist intervention, slow scholarship enables a feminist ethics of care that allows us to claim some time as our own, build shared time into everyday life, and help buffer each other from unrealistic and counterproductive norms that have become standard expectations. Slow scholarship has value in itself, in the quality of research and writing produced, and also enables us to create a humane and sustainable work environment and professional community that allows more of us to thrive within academia and beyond.

This all day long. Our colleagues and friends who are mothers shouldn’t be answering work related emails on maternity leave, or feeling their part-time position upon their return means they don’t care enough, or they are lacking. Our colleagues with health issues, or caring for family or friends with issues, should not feel they have to choose between some respite, however short, or doing the obligated extras.

Academia actively promotes workaholism and that’s wrong. We need to look after our health.

I love my research, I feel lucky that this is my job. And thus it is easy to get sucked into working non-stop. But I have other commitments and things that need tending to in my life. If I have to choose between extra work and my loved ones, or resting up, or enjoying a hobby outside of my job, I am going to pick the latter. Not because I am not committed enough but because that’s what keeps me well.

I love the fact that in the Psychology department of my university there are a wonderful bunch of critical feminist researchers. They don’t email outside of 8-6 Mon to Fri. They actively encourage life outside the academy. And they are successful, kind, caring, and bloody brilliant.

We need to work and we want to make a difference in the lives of marginalized groups. We are very lucky to have this opportunity. But let’s remember that to carve out time for ourselves, or to opt for a radically different format of working, is not selfish or lazy, it’s absolutely necessary.

I shall follow and support #AcaDowntime. And tomorrow I shall look forward to meeting those two babies.

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The Portrayal of Academics in Kids Books – a chat with Melissa Terras

Melissa Terras is Director of the Centre for Digital Humanities and a Professor of Digital Humanities at University College London (UCL). She is also an expert on the portrayal of academics in kids’ books, having meticulously analysed over 200 titles. Melissa took some time to chat with me about her fascinating project. You can check it out here, and follow Melissa on twitter @melissaterras.

“I have a son, aged 7, and twins, aged 4. We buy, and read, a lot of books”, Melissa tells me when I ask how this all started. “One week I spotted a couple of profs in books, so I tweeted about it and posted pictures on a tumblr blog“.

Dr Seuss, Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? Random House Books for Young Readers, 1973.

One of the original cohort, Dr. de Breeze. Dr Seuss, Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? Random House Books for Young Readers, 1973.

This on-a-whim posting ultimately turned into a full-blown research project spanning four years and costing somewhere in the region of £2,000. Melissa has amassed a library of books, containing 281 academic characters. Each character is meticulously logged, along with various attributes, in a big spreadsheet.

The earliest appearance of an academic in a kids book goes all the way back to 1860, a time when the world had far fewer higher education institutions. Indeed, given the exponential growth of universities and the publication of 1.6m English language kids books in the intervening 150 years, 281 academics seems disappointingly low.

Also disappointing is the unrepresentative picture that the books paint. “There are some truly lovely books”, Melissa says, “but there is also a lot of lazy stereotyping”. Academics tend to be either crazy evil egotists (like Dr Frankensteiner, the “maddest mad scientist on mercury!”), whilst the Professors tend to be kindly, but baffled, obsessive egg-heads who don’t quite function normally. 

Across all the books, there are a mere 13 women and 3 minorities represented. Only one character is both – Professor Wiseman from Curious George, is a described as “American, likely with Indian ancestry”. There is some surprising variety though – Professor Peabody is a vegetable.

Professor Peabody, by Giles Reed, Illustrations by Angela Mitson. 1979. Studio Publications (Ipswich) Limited.

Professor Peabody, by Giles Reed, Illustrations by Angela Mitson. 1979. Studio Publications (Ipswich) Limited.

Doktor Bunsen van der Dunkel, rocket scientist, in: Moon Man, by Tomi Ungerer, 2009, Phaidon Press Inc, NY.

Doktor Bunsen van der Dunkel, rocket scientist, in: Moon Man, by Tomi Ungerer, 2009, Phaidon Press Inc, NY.

“I am often searching for new finds in the little bits of spare time I get throughout the day, dipping into library catalogues during quiet moments or introductory presentations at conferences”. Fortunately she hasn’t always had to do the digging herself, as librarians from all over the world have been contacting her to help expand the search.

The project hasn’t only been a source of enjoyment, but also a welcome slice of solitude: “I am used to working on projects with 15 people, so it is a treat to be doing something that is truly mine.”

The project has had surprising benefits for Melissa’s work: “By searching catalogues for these very specific items I have learned a lot about library systems architecture”. One example, which links back to Melissa’s core research on library and archive digitisation, is on-demand digitisation – she found that you can pay a small fee to have works from certain libraries digitised for you.

Professor Blabbermouth on the Moon, by Nigel Watts, illustrated by Jamie Smith. 1996, Scholastic Children’s Books, London.

Professor Blabbermouth on the Moon, by Nigel Watts, illustrated by Jamie Smith. 1996, Scholastic Children’s Books, London.

I ask Melissa if she has any favourite characters, and her passion really shines through as she recalls the eccentric Professor Blabbermouth (she’s “as bright as buttons” with “enough university degrees to paper her toilet walls”!) and Dr. Hatchett, who, having failed to find an academic job after her English Literature PhD, now teaches primary school pirates. Boffin Boy, a book written for older kids that are struggling with reading, has proven consistently popular with the whole family.

Like all great academic projects, the work here is unlikely to ever be finished. So what’s next? Melissa is currently working on a paper setting out her findings, but after that there is the entire non-Anglophone world. Melissa has already found 50 or so books in Dutch (which she can speak a little), and thinks it likely that a treasure trove of characters awaits in other languages.

The research clearly demonstrates the need for some more representative characters, and I suggest that Melissa could make her own foray into the world of children’s books. “I would love to do it”, she says without hesitation, “but I can’t draw and I’ve never written for kids! What I’d need is a partner”. Hopefully a future step for the project will be a book that academics would be comfortable happy to read as their children’s bedtime story

Until then, we will have to make do with male, mad, and muddleheaded.

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Male, Mad and Muddleheaded! The portrayal of academics in kids books

2014me_weeMelissa Terras is Director of the Centre for Digital Humanities and a Professor of Digital Humanities at University College London (UCL). She is also an expert on the portrayal of academics in kids’ books, having meticulously analysed over 200 titles. You can check out the project here, and follow Melissa on twitter @melissaterrasCheck out the interview with Melissa here.

Like many academics, I love books. Like many book-loving parents, I’m keen to share that love with my young children. Two years ago, I chanced upon two different professors in children’s books, in quick succession. Wouldn’t it be a fun project, I thought, to see how academics, and universities, appear in children’s illustrated books? This would function both as an excuse to buy more books (we do live in a golden age of second hand books, cheaply delivered to your front door) and to explain to my kids – now five and a half, and twins of three – what Mummy Actually Does.

seuss

Dr Seuss. Credit: London Public Library (CC BY-NC-ND)

It turns out it’s hard to search just for children’s books, and picture books, in library catalogues, but I combed through various electronic library resources, as well as Amazon, eBay, LibraryThing, and Abe, to dig up source material. I began to obsessively search the bookshelves of kids books in friend’s houses, and doctors and dentist and hospital waiting rooms, whilst also keeping on the look out on our regular visits to our local library: often academics appear in books without being named in the title, so don’t turn up easily via electronic searches.

Parking my finds on a devoted Tumblr which was shared on social media, friends, family members, and total strangers tweeted, facebooked, and emailed me to suggest additions. People sidled up to me after invited guest lectures to whisper “I have a good professor for you…” Two years on, I’ve no doubt still not found all of the possible candidates, but new finds in my source material are becoming less frequent. 101 books (or individual books from a series*) and 108 academics, and a few specific mentions of university architecture and systems later, its time to look at the results from a survey of the representation of academics and academia in children’s picture books.

What are academics in children’s books like?

The 108 academics found consist of 76 Professors, 21 Academic Doctors, 2 Students, 2 Lecturers, 1 Assistant Professor, 1 Child, 1 Astronomer, 1 Geographer, 1 Medical Doctor who undertakes research, 1 researcher, and 1 lab assistant. In general, the Academic Doctors tend to be crazy mad evil egotists (“It’s Dr Frankensteiner – the maddest mad scientist on mercury!”), whilst the Professors tend to be kindly, but baffled, obsessive egg-heads who dont quite function normally.

The academics are mostly (old, white) males. Out of the 108 found, only 9 are female: 90% of the identified academics are male, 8% are female, and 2% have no identifiable gender (there are therefore much fewer women in this cohort than in reality, where it is estimated that one third of senior research posts are occupied by women).  They are also nearly all caucasian: only two of those identified are people of colour: one Professor, and one child who is so smart he is called The Prof: both are male: this is scarily close to the recent statistic that only 0.4% of the UK professoriat are black. 43% of those found in this corpus are are elderly men, 33% are middle aged (comprising of 27% male and 6% female, there are no elderly female professors, as they are all middle age or younger). The women are so lacking that the denoument of one whodunnit/ solve the mystery/ choose your own adventure book for slightly older children is that the professor they have been talking about was actually a woman, and you didn’t see that coming, did you? Ha!

total no

The earliest published academic in a children’s book found was in 1922 (although its probable that the real craze for featuring baffled old men came after the success of Professor Branestawm, which was a major international bestseller, first published in 1933, and not out of print since). The first woman Professor found is the amazing Professor Puffendorf – billed as “the world’s greatest scientist” -,  published in 1992, 70 years after the first male professor appears in a children’s book. 70 years (although it is frustrating that the book really isn’t about her, but what her jealous, male lab assistant gets up to in her lab when she goes off to a conference. More Puffendorf next time, please).

There is also a more recent phenomenon of using a Professor as a framing device to suggest some gravitas to a book’s subject, but the professor themselves does not appear in any way within the text, so its impossible to say if they are male or female.  Male Professors in children’s books have appeared much more frequently over the past ten years: women not so much.

What areas do these fictional academics work in? (There is an entirely different genre of children’s books covering the lives of real academics – but that’s for another obsessive compulsive mini research project). Here we identify the subject areas of the 108 academics:

field

Most of the identified academics work in science, engineering and technology subjects. 31% work in some area of generic “science”, 10% work in biology, a few in maths, paleontology, geography, and zoology, and lone academics in rocket science, veterinary science, astronomy, computing, medical research and oceanography. There is one prof who is a homeopath, and I wasnt sure whether to put them in STEM or Fiction, so I plumped for STEM as they seemed to be trying to see if homeopathy worked (I like to presume all the academics here have proper qualifications, but who knows if fictional characters can buy professorships online these days). Subjects classed as Fictional were serpentology, dragonology, and magic. Arts, Humanities and Social Science subjects identified are archaeology (6% of the total), and linguistics, psychology, arts and theatre.

27% of those with an academic title make no reference to what type of area they supposed to work in: they are generally just trying to take over the world. Just out of interest, the female academics identify their subject areas as serpentologymathspaleontologyecology, and three generic scientists (with two further unknown subjects), so its not as is the women are doing the “soft” subjects in children’s books, when they actually appear.

Not all of these academics featured are humans: 74% are human, 19% are animals, 4% are aliens, 2% are unknown, and 1% are vegetable.  There are no discernible trends regarding animals that are chosen to represent wisdom – its not like they are all owls – with three mice, three dogs, two toads, a kingfisher, a gorilla, a woodpecker, a pig, a crow, an owl, a dumbo octopus, a mole, a bumble bee, a shark, a cockroach, and a wooden bird. If you spot any defining similarities there, let me know.

There are some other fun trends to note. 46% of those humans featured are bald (higher than the average percentage?) – no women are bald. 35% had very big, messy hair, and it seems to be that if you are in academia, you should be a bit disheveled, in general. 45% have white hair – but none of the women have white hair. 13% had ginger hair (higher than the average percentage?). 37% had moustaches, and 16% had beards (higher than the average percentage?) – but no women had facial hair.  What they wore is also interesting:

attire

Labcoats, suits (but not if you are female!) or safari suits (but not if you are female!) are the academic uniform du jour.

The names given to the academics are telling, with the majority being less than complimentary: Professor Dinglebat, Professor P. Brain, Professor Blabbermouth, Professor Bumblebrain, ProfessorMuddlehead, Professor Hogwash, Professor Bumble, Professor Dumkopf, Professor Nutter, and two different Professor Potts. There is the odd professor with a name that alludes to intelligence: Professor I.QProfessor InklingProfessor Wiseman, but those are in the minority.

What types of book are they featured in? 82% of the 101 books are fiction stories, and the theme of the stories tends to be “academic is out of touch with how the world works, with hilarious consequences” in the case of professors, or “is evil and wants to take over the world, but is thwarted by our plucky hero (never heroine)” in the case of doctors. 7% of the books are factual, using a fictional academic to explain how science or experiments work, and 1% are cookbooks.

The remainder, 10%, are a curious genre I have called “tall tales” – where the fictional academic character is brought in to bring gravitas and explain something, but the explanations are either fictional or bordering on fiction. Its a curious blend of science and fiction: they are not traditional stories, but work in a way which subverts the traditional children’s science books, injecting fiction into the process (not very succesfully, in most cases).

What can we draw from this? If you are going to be a fictional human academic in a children’s book, you are most likely to be an elderly, old man, with big white hair, who wears a lab coat, has facial hair, works in science, and is called Professor SomethingDumb or Dr CrazyPants, featuring in a story about how you bumble around causing some type of chaos. Close your eyes and think of a Professor. Is this what you see? Or this?  (One wonders how much well-circulated images of Einstein have perculated into the subconscious of writers and publishers to emerge as the obvious representation of an academic in children’s illustrated books).

Universities in Children’s Picture Books

What about the universities themselves? They dont feature as often as the academics associated with them – the focus of children’s books is seldom about such an institution that will have an effect so far in the future of the reader, although some characters plan well ahead in advance. Lectures, when depicted, are obviously very boring and impenetrable. University buildings are like castle schools for grown ups or  the site of secret underground lairs or the best holiday park ever. There are a couple of sweet kids books from the USA that attempt to describe the university campus and rituals of specific actual colleges – Baylor University and Boston College.  But in general, the children’s books revolve around the characters, rather than the fact they are in a university, per se.

Why is this relevant?

Obviously, this has been a bit of a fun project. Given the lengths gone to to gather this corpus of children’s books, it is unlikely that any individual child would happen across all of the books noted. It’s actually interesting to think how few children’s picture or illustrated books feature academics or academia (at time of writing, Amazon lists 1.3 million books in its children’s section, and 101* different books (or books series) were identified in this project). While no doubt there are other books out there not on the list, this has been a darn good crack at finding as many as possible, not only in the English Language. Professors and academic Doctors in children’s books are a useful device on occasion, but really are not terribly frequent in the scheme of things.

That said, the difference in gender, and how women and men are represented, and the underepresentation of those who are anything but white in children’s books about academia, is shocking, especially given that almost all scientific fields are still dominated by men, and women are frequently discriminated against and although 46% of all PhD graduates in the EU are female, only 1/3 of senior research posts are occupied by women.

At a time when researchers are asking if available toys can influence later career choice, can the same be said about books? At a time when it is becoming the parents’ job to encourage girls into science and technology – and to educate all children about science and engineering careers – does the lack of anything but white, old men as academics in children’s books reinforce the impossibility of anyone other than those making a contribution? At a time when the leaky pipe of academia shows that women are leaving in droves at every level of the academic ladder, should we be worried that there are no female academics in children’s books above middle age?

Laugh at this analysis if you will, but sociological analysis of other children’s books has shown that

there is a hidden language or code inscribed in children’s books, which teaches kids to view inequalities within the division of labor as a “natural” fact of life  – that is, as a reflection of the inherent characteristics of the workers themselves.  Young readers learn (without realizing it, of course) that some… are simply better equipped to hold manual or service jobs, while other[s]… ought to be professionals. Once this code is acquired by pre-school children… it becomes exceedingly difficult to unlearn.  As adults, then, we are already predisposed to accept the hierarchical, caste-based system of labor that characterizes the… workplace. [link]

Another analysis of 6000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000 suggests the gender disparity, and the lack of women characters, sends children a message that “women and girls occupy a less important role in society than men or boys”:

The messages conveyed through representation of males and females in books contribute to children’s ideas of what it means to be a boy, girl, man, or woman. The disparities we find point to the symbolic annihilation of women and girls, and particularly female animals, in 20th-century children’s literature, suggesting to children that these characters are less important than their male counterparts… The disproportionate numbers of males in central roles may encourage children to accept the invisibility of women and girls and to believe they are less important than men and boys, thereby reinforcing the gender system. [link]

As for the diversity issue – in general, children’s books have been shown to be stubbornly white, even though “children of all ethnicities and races need role models of all ethnicities and races. That breeds normalcy and acceptance, and it’s good for everybody. [link]” What we are seeing here in this corpus, then, is a microcosm of what is happening in children’s literature in general, although played out alongside an ongoing debate about the involvement of women and minorities in the academy. That doesn’t make it ok, mind.

There are wider nuances, though, that don’t just involve headcounts of men and women, black and white. Children’s perceptions of scientists have been shown to be based on various stereotypes, and the stereotypes of academics presented and promulgated in these books is the product of writers and publishers who, taken together, quite clearly don’t think academics are much cop, which will percolate back to those who read the books, or have the books read to them. Academics are routinely shown as individuals obsessed with one topic who are either baffled and harmless and ineffectual, or malicious, vindictive and psychotic, and although these can be affectionate sketches (“bless! look at the clueless/psychopathic genius!”) academics routinely come across as out of touch weirdos – and what is that teaching kids about universities?

In this age of proving academic “impact”, it might be not so bad for us to be able to show we were relevant to society? That there is more to academia than science? Or for the kids books I show my kids to have more positive and integrated representations of professors and academics? Perhaps this is not the role of kids books though, and I should just be telling my kids my own tales of academic derring-do.

I mean, who would spend two years gathering a corpus of kids lit for fun, and then count how many beards the people in the books had. Weirdos. Weirdos, the lot of them.

This post originally appeared on LSE’s Impact of Social Sciences blog and is reposted with minor formatting/spacing modifications under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License (and with permission of the author).

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7 Academic Struggles Predicted by Late 19th and Early 20th Century Autobiographies

avatar_cee947a27aed_64By Alice Violett. Alice is doing a PhD at the University of Essex on the public perceptions and personal experiences of only children in Britain between 1850 and 1950, and blogs at Alice in Academia. Alice likes reading, music, and cats.  You can follow Alice on Twitter @pokesqueak.

My PhD, which is partly about the experiences of only children between 1850 and 1950, has lead to me reading many, many autobiographies. Many are pretty dull (male politicians who skimmed over their childhood years, I’m looking at you!), while others were quite interesting, keeping me reading long after the useful information had been extracted.

Now and again I would come across a funny or odd anecdote that served no useful purpose for my thesis but seemed worth saving. So I did. Upon reflection, I realise I’ve essentially collected an allegory for the academic experience.

monk-big-book1. When the book you need to read is unnecessarily dense

Gay rights campaigner Antony Wright’s uncle, aunt and cousins moved to South Africa in 1933, prompting a wave of creative writing:

I wrote several stories about my cousins’ adventures in the African bush … One vivid phrase I remember (because it caused the grown-ups so much amusement) described how, hearing a loud noise, Bobbie turned and ‘beheld a lion clearing its throat’. Fiction has never been my strong point, and I suspect such purple prose might make even a Barbara Cartland blush. 1

2. When you’ll do anything to get a research assistant

As a child, artist W. Graham Robertson happened upon a spellbook with instructions on ‘how to raise a Fairy’:

“Take the blood of a white hen.” – How could I take the blood of any hen, let alone that the hen would be my uncle’s, and I felt sure he would not care for its blood to be taken? Would the Fairy object to the hen’s being cooked, as, if not, I could save some gravy from dinner?

I gave up on my study of Conjuration, which in most cases seemed to require a little private abattoir of one’s own, for want of proper professional guidance…2

3. When reviewer three questions your knowledge of your own work

Fuller-Maitland liked to play with the boys next door:

One day, as we were all playing in their garden, my nurse hung her head out of a side-window and shouted, “Master John, jest you come in, and don’t let them little Nickles teach you any more bad words!” … To me personally it was galling to be considered as the humble learner in the branch of study indicated. 3

4. When colleagues competitively compare workloads

Music critic John Fuller-Maitland’s aunts moved to Brighton for their health:

One was heard to say, “I hear that Anne calls herself the queen of invalids; and everybody in Brighton knows that I am the queen of invalids”. 4

Your colleague's conference is here. Probably one of these.

Your colleague’s conference is here. Probably one of these.

5. When your colleagues conferences are in more exotic climes than yours

Sociologist and historian Alan Fox, as an impartial outsider, was often called upon to judge which of his better-off friends had it best:

Which did I think was better; ten days on the Belgian coast or three weeks at Dovercourt?5 

[NB: Dovercourt was a popular English seaside resort in the 1920s and 1930s, but is much less glamorous these days!

What even is that?

What even is that?
Credit: a hilarious complaint letter to Virgin, published by the Telegraph.

6. When the conference food options are puzzling

Fuller-Maitland’s parents were worried about his health:

I had to consume a sponge-cake and a glass of port in the middle of the morning for no special reason that I can recall. I have no doubt that this habit sowed the seeds of gout, from which I suffered a good deal at an unusually early age.6

7. When you need to impress an important potential contact

giphyAs a young boy, politician Sir George Leveson Gower was instructed by his uncle how to present a bouquet to the Empress Eugenie at a garden party:

When the Empress came the next day, I got confused, made my bow to my uncle, and as I presented my back to her and was dressed in a short white petticoat, the effect was unconventional.7

Some of the autobiographies I’ve read hadn’t been borrowed from the library in years, and it seemed like a shame to send them back without noting down some of their less relevant content.

Resurrect an old book from the storeroom today!

  1. A E G Wright (Antony Grey), Personal Tapestry, (London, 2008), p. 13.
  2.  W. Graham Robertson, Time Was, (London, 1931), p. 20.
  3.  J. A. Fuller-Maitland, A Door-Keeper of Music, (London, 1929), pp. 16-17.
  4.  J. A. Fuller-Maitland, A Door-keeper of Music, (London, 1929), p. 8.
  5.  Alan Fox, A Very Late Development: An Autobiography, (Coventry, 1990), p. 20.
  6. J. A. Fuller-Maitland, A Door-Keeper of Music, (London, 1929), p. 17.
  7. Sir George Leveson Gower, Years of Content, 1858-1886, (London, 1940), p. 2.
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Academia: Survival of the Bitterest?

t4_-1069229323Jan Klimas is a scientist, artist, thinker and writer who’s interested in communicating with the public and using art to blend boundaries between the two disciplines. Check out his blog, and follow him on twitter @janklimas.

 

In dance, I call it Survival of the Bitterest. The choreographers who stick around are often the ones most comfortable feeling bitter and resentful. My artistic mentors were brilliant artists. But I do not want to live the lives they led.

Andrew Simonet

choreography-Amy-Siewert

Academia: a bitter dance for survival (Photo: David DeSilva)

What do dance and science have in common? What makes a successful choreographer or scientist? In this post, I speculate about the bitterness of the academic dance for survival. The academic competition is cruel and uneven. The fittest may not survive, but the bitterest thrive.

Before we dive deep into the murky academic waters, let’s define our objectives. Is survival worth the fight? Is it really a fight, or just a game? Survival is “a natural process resulting in the evolution of organisms best adapted to the environment” – academics would give anything to be the most evolved and the best adapted.

We strive to get tenure. Other occupations call it a permanent job. Few make it and most have to fulfill harsh criteria to keep their tenure, bringing in a lot of research funding, or taking on a heavy teaching load.

monkeys

Source: Oui Stock Images

Papers are the currency of our world. The one who has the most is the richest. Because money follows money, the more articles an academic co-authors, the higher her chances of getting more money (i.e., more research grants). Like tokens of appreciation, authorships on papers are gifts that some scientists give to each other as a gesture of appreciation, friendship or a promise of a future token. Agencies give grants to people with most of these tokens. Journal editors publish their friends’ work.

In such a system, the most published may not be the best; instead they are the most popular or they know how to play the system. In such a system, novice scientists’ willingness to park their writing integrity is challenged. Some may find refuge in writing non-academic literature, but for most, the peer-reviewed “romance” pays the mortgage.

Some big research centres are like fiction factories. They pay people to write articles; the purpose of those articles is to bring in more cash. Fiction factories operate like famous brands, where the name of a famous academic becomes a brand instead of signifying who wrote the paper. James Patterson, for example, “heralded as the world’s best paid writer, is the world’s most successful fiction factory,” writes Michelle Demers. Just like Patterson, the chief scientist comes at the end of writing, puts a few finishing touches and their names on the final product.

The road to tenure is paved with the PhD students that an academic supervises. This inflates the need for scientifically-trained workforce whereas the sole purpose of taking on a PhD student is, in many cases, to get the professor closer to the tenure. We don’t need so many PhDs. “PhD ‘overproduction’ is not new and faculty retirements won’t solve it,” writes Melonie Fullick in her speculative diction at University Affairs, “Yet somehow no matter how many PhDs enroll and graduate, academic careers are the goal.”

Overproduction-dependent career progression and dubious writing practices are only two of the many symptoms of a sick system. The best way to navigate such an unhealthy organised science is to bring both passion and dispassion to the task. Build up a dispassionate, bulletproof shield of resilience, unless you are willing to get sick yourself.

Some are born resilient. But for most, it takes years to become hardy. Much like Erickson’s stages of psychosocial development, resilience grows in stages. A crisis happens at each stage of development. A developmental task must be fulfilled for progress into the next stage. The infant learns hope by resolving the trust vs. mistrust crisis. A young adult breaks through the isolation, discovers intimacy and acquires love.

My own anecdotal evidence suggests the following developmental stages of early academic career: i) solitude, ii) despair, iii) good science/bad science, iv) fear and loathing, and v) workaholism. Getting through these stages takes you pretty far on the bitter road, but get ready to be the bitterest if you want to stick around.

Stages of development

  • Solitude: For the extroverts, this stage is excruciating. As they focus on the work, their social networks suffer. The computer becomes their best friend. Introverts find working alone easier, but it can be hard at the start. The junior scientist embraces loneliness in exchange for better concentration.
  • Despair: Some come into academia with genuine prosocial intentions. When they hit the brick wall of loneliness and parked integrity, they collapse. Too much science is done only for the sake of science and for personal interest. Finding the right balance between the need for helping others and promoting oneself moves the young scientist to the next stage.
  • Good science vs. bad science: OK, so if I can’t change the world through science, let’s just do it right so that the bad guys don’t win. Unlike fairy tales, the good scientists don’t always win. Bad science informs policy. Bad science receives funding. The fight for good science is endless. New researchers must decide which side of the battle they join.
  • Fear and loathing: power and control, greed and envy are common in academia. Fear is a natural reaction of junior scientists towards the loathsome deeds of some senior scientists. Scientists are humans too. They err. Some err too much and don’t acknowledge their mistakes. It is up to the junior scientists then to stay or to leave the kitchen if they can’t stand the heat. Learning to detach resolves this developmental conflict.
  • Workaholism: The balance is not static. It changes all the time. Latch on to the dynamic, forget about the static. The early-career scholar’s task is to make a healthy lifestyle their number one work tool.

The path to academic success is rough and bitter. Bitterness is the key to survival, but happiness lies in enjoying the journey, rather than focusing on the bitter end.

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