Some sporadic insights into academia.
Science is Fascinating.
Scientists are slightly peculiar.
Here are the views of one of them.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Take my advice (or don't)

Academia is a complex, challenging, highly competitive career and it is easy to feel lost. In the absence of a simple route from PhD to professor, we are forced to hunt for advice.
The problem is how does one get good advice? There is certainly no shortage of it; advice can be found everywhere, from your mate in a pub beer garden; to colleagues, coaches, mentors and heads of department; through training courses, conferences and lectures; to books and the infinite echo chamber of the internet. Some of it is excellent (may I, ahem, recommend this excellent blog), some of it is excrement.
The problem is not really finding advice, but in acting upon the right advice. It can be because the advice is poor, but more often it is because the recipient is not receptive because of hubris, egocentric bias, emotional investment, mistiming, lack of head space, failure to understand or advice saturation.
Here are five scenarios in which advice, however good, may not be acted upon:
Unique and beautiful snowflakes: all of us face different challenges at different times. These challenges are different to those faced by the generation before us (the people we often turn to for advice). The circumstances and career path for me as a lecturer are different to the professors in front of me and the postdocs behind me, leading to a misalignment of advice and problem.
Change sucks: sometimes to act on advice requires change. Change is hard at the best of times; change when it implies you have been doing something wrong, impossible.
You just don’t understand me: incorporation of feedback is inversely proportional to emotional investment. Often the advice sought concerns a piece of work into which you have invested considerable effort, sweat and tears. It is easy to confuse feedback with criticism.
Ostrich approach: additionally, if the advice received about a paper or grant identifies a problem that is difficult to solve, it can be easier not to address it and hope that the reviewers don’t spot the same problem (trust me, they always do).
I just want to be loved: however, sometimes when we say we are looking for feedback, we are actually looking for validation. Honest feedback may be useful in the long run, but when you have hit a wall, there are times when encouragement and support are more valuable.

So how to get more out of advice received?

Respect your elders. The first place most of us look for advice is senior faculty, and there are two good reasons to listen to them. First, academia hasn’t changed that much since monks set up the first universities, so their experience is still relevant. Second, senior faculty sit on the grant panels and promotion boards that you are targeting. They know what works and more importantly what doesn’t work. If they raise red flags about your work, it is likely that their peers, who are evaluating you for real, will raise the same red flags. Don’t ignore feedback identifying problems in your work, however difficult they are to fix.

Role model(s). We all need a role model – someone who has got to where you want to be, in whose footsteps we can tread. Of these people, there will be some people with whom you resonate more, whose advice is phrased in a way that is easier for you to take. Identify them and turn to them more often.

But don’t stop at one – have many role models. The routes to the end are many and varied. Different people have different skills and experience that you can draw upon. Jim Collins, who teaches and writes about leadership, advises establishing your own personal board of directors. I use Peter for politics, Robin for Research, Alan for all matters recruitment, Charlie for choice words of support and Sarah for sense and sensibility (admittedly, I am lucky to have friends whose names conveniently align with their expertise).
They don’t all have to be university-based: people outside academia have useful opinions too.

Negative role model. While there are people with whom you resonate, there are inevitably others with whom you don’t, be it a bad ex-boss, an uncollaborative collaborator or a conniving colleague. Identify patterns of behaviour in these people whom you find loathsome and make an effort to do the opposite.

Be clear what you need. Advice can be great and there is no shortage of advice or people willing to give it. Don’t be shy about approaching people; everyone likes to give advice. But be clear in your mind when you need overly honest feedback and when you need a hug. Compartmentalise advisers into those who will give you the unpalatable truth and those who rose-tint your world. And when you do approach someone, be very specific with the questions you ask; if you say “what should I do with my life?” a professor doesn’t know where to begin. If you say “I am considering x or y but not sure how to think about it. I’d love you thoughts”, then it’s easier to engage and be practical.

Stress-test it. Finally, we are scientists, we test hypotheses. Take this approach to advice. The best way to decide whether to follow someone’s advice, is to see if it actually works. However, don’t let the adviser know or they may not be so forthcoming.

This article first appeared on the Times Higher Education website on 10th October 2016

Tuesday, 1 November 2016


On Saturday 29th October, The Rt Hon Glyn Davies MP declared on Twitter that: “Personally, never thought of academics as 'experts'. No experience of the real world.”. This is a widely held, but wrong belief and twitter was quick to point this out to Glyn Davies and the world. The reasons why fell into three categories – prior experience, the job of a modern academic and the research we do.

The first stereotype is that academics have never left university and are perpetual students so cut off from the “real world” of work outside the ivory tower. But it was clear from Twitter that academics come from a huge range of backgrounds working in environments as diverse as prisons, schools, hospitals, cell centres, shops, banks and the armed forces. This work was either done in a previous life or as a means to subsidise student fees in order to become established. Or in several cases as part of the academic role - as Doctors, dentists, civil engineers, scientific advisors, legal experts etc.
The second stereotype of academics is that we sit in common rooms smoking pipes, drinking sherry pondering the nature of life. If only! I’ve written about this before, but the life of a modern academic is extremely varied. As researchers, we are essentially running an average size, not for profit, small business (SME) with an annual turnover between £100-500k. In order to sustain that company we need to apply for funding; manage the funds we have; purchase materials and equipment – some of which is extremely specialist, even unique; train and manage staff working with extremely dangerous materials; publicise the current work and plan the next round. As teachers we need inspire and educate the next generation with teaching styles from 300 students in one lesson to small group tuitions to practical labs and thesis supervision. On top of this we are expected to help with the administration of large complex organisations with upwards of 10,000 staff. All of which are skills I would argue are pretty standard in the ‘real world’ outside academia.
The final pernicious stereotype is that the research we do has no impact on the problems of people who are not academics; essentially we are using public money to navel gaze enabling us to show off to other academics for no actual purpose. This is also false. There is an increasing emphasis on the ‘impact’ of our work and whilst there are arguments for whether pure research is better than applied and whether the metrics of impact are valid, there are clear examples of how academic research directly impacts on the world outside the university

However the final word needs to go to this gem, for pointing out the irony of an MP critiquing the worldliness or otherwise of academics: