Dealing with Referees at journals

This post follows an interesting recent job as an adjudicating editor for a paper that underwent two rounds of review, was rejected and sent back under appeal. The first round was: reconsider and submit elsewhere. The second round was: submit elsewhere, accept and submit elsewhere. This scenario is most authors’ worst nightmare: almost there but not quite. The appeal was textbook “How to not convince an editor to overturn the referees”, which is sad because it can be done, but it takes a very calm head and good tactical approach. It’s far from the first time I’ve seen cases where the authors’ have written an appeal that’s about as successful as the Vasa as an adjudicating referee or editor, so I figured I’d post some useful observations for how to or not to deal with referees when you don’t have a full hand of accept or accept with very minor revisions come back. (n.b., points below are not limited to that most recent paper or entirely motivated by it).

Being annoyed is ok, just don’t let it show: Everyone hates rejection. The key is to not show it. If that means sitting on the reports for two weeks fine. If that means walking around the corridor telling everyone how much those comments suck so they can remind you they get the same too, that’s also fine. Running, boxing, smashing plates, whatever it takes, expel the rage, get a zen like calm, then move on.

Ad hominem attacks on referees never work: Seems obvious I know, but you see them again and again. The editor is always going to side with their referees unless they’ve said something mind-blowingly stupid or inappropriate. Even if they do, you can be tactful about it. Questioning the referee’s competence, haste, or mental state is never helpful. Accusing them of impropriety, deception, etc. likewise.

Forget guessing who they are: You are always wrong. I’ve only ever seen one exception. It was clear the authors thought Person X was Referee F. Person X was certainly a referee, but they were Referee Q instead, and actually on their side. Some referees are good at masking themselves. They have the advantage in that. Don’t play this game, you never win.

Be unemotional in your response: A good editor will know you’re angry and just ignore any emotion and vitriol in your argument. A bad editor will let it colour you. Either way, it’s not the shown emotion that’s your worst enemy here. It’s the fact that the emotion kills your ability to carry off a very cool objective argument. If you have a strong point, you can back it with facts. You don’t need emotion. If anything, you can be completely concessionary and your argument will still draw blood if it’s sharp.

If you disagree, back it with facts and literature: The editor is not a fool. They will back their referees as an a priori position, always, but they are open to logical argument. Make sure that argument is as clear for a non-expert as you can make it but absolutely backable with evidence. It can help to point out what the referee is right about along with what they are not right about, because it’s rare that someone is 100% wrong. Be reasonable.

Make sure your logic is bulletproof: Try to anticipate counterarguments: where can you be defeated? Avoid things that are easily shot down. For example, saying that the fact that a report was returned within a few days means a proper job hasn’t been done is dangerous. Does the fact that a referee took 3 months mean they thus spent the entire 3 months on the report and it’s intrinsically better as a result? Probably not. Argument killed. Don’t put forward an argument that you cannot logically defend.

Always look to make concessions: Taking up “The referees are stupid, we’re changing nothing…” heel-dragging stance will always get you nowhere. In contrast, pointing out that a referee is correct or perhaps not completely correct, but you can see why they got confused and made changes x, y and z to make sure no one else gets confused the same way will get you everywhere. Editors love the hell out of this. The referees can be wrong and the editors will still find their value. They are the canary in the coal mine for your paper. They point out the obvious flaws could statistically hit 1/n of your readers (where n = number of referees) based on a small discrete sample. Fix the holes.

No tinfoil hats: Do not ever go down the path of accusing the whole set of referees of some kind of intrinsic collective bias against your field or against experimental/theoretical papers or against your work. The referees don’t know who the other referees are. They cannot be part of some crazy Illuminati-style conspiracy against you. Even if you suspect it, just don’t even go there…

Look where the train crashes: If a referee gets hung up at some aspect of the paper and then says they can’t see the significance or impact or whatever, it’s usually a sign that you lost them. A lost referee is rarely going to write an eight word report “I don’t get any of this, reject it”. What they normally do is pick it apart on the bits they know, and then reject the paper on the criteria. This will look like they only made technical arguments and have no justification to reject. The actuality for an editor, who knows who the referees are remember, is that it points out how broad your audience can be, because you can rely on people the same distance from your field as that referee having equal struggles with the paper. The clue for you is that the hang-ups point out where you start doing a bad job keeping your readers. This can be a powerful tool for improvements. Don’t think ‘what’s wrong with the referees?’, think instead ‘what do their comments tell me about how far they got in before I lost them?’. It could well be the first column, in which case you have a lot of work to do. All is not lost though — I have seen this fixed and turned into acceptances before (and done it myself too). It just takes some very clever mastery of techniques for handling referees.

The higher the journal, the broader the referees: It stuns me how many people submit to high impact journals somehow expecting that the set of referees will only contain experts in their tiny little subtopic. And then decide the way to rebut referees is to attack their technical expertise level. The higher journals never give you this set of referees, they want to find out what will happen to this paper in a diverse(read as non-expert) audience. That doesn’t mean they’ll send you to people who are clueless about the topic. But they will send you to people that are far enough away that they’ll get lost if you haven’t written your introduction and conclusions exceptionally well. If your referees don’t get it, I’m sorry but it’s not because they aren’t expert enough to appreciate it, it’s because you haven’t done a good enough job at writing for a broad audience. The only way to make amends in an editor’s eyes is to resubmit with major improvements on this side, no matter what round of revision it is. If you don’t, an editor can rarely help you because the referees’ comments stand and there’s really no way out of the fact that if they didn’t get it, the readership probably won’t either.

Just because you made revisions, doesn’t mean referee won’t still reject: Another flawed expectation from some authors. Some referees have a high bar, particularly in the top journals. Sometimes the paper is improved, but it’s still just not there. Some authors have a lottery approach to this, they grudgingly give concessions and go through rounds of revise and resubmit or revise and submit elsewhere until they find a set of referees that will take the work. The better approach is to keep working on improving your writing and upping the effort you put into making revisions. On the latter, always give 110% to revisions, go the extra mile if you can. Referees and editors are so used to crappy rebuttals and pathetic changes that even moderate efforts can have massive positive impact.

In the end, key points here, respect the referees, look for the hidden clues about how to make improvements, if you must argue then back it with facts, and sell on the improvements you’ve made rather than going head to head. I’ve never seen anyone go from reject to accept simply by going to war with the referees. It’s a losing strategy 100% of the time.



The Changing Conference Culture Club.

In my last post on conferences I wrote at the start about an experience earlier this year where a comment was made about how remarkably diverse the program was and a colleague said to me “I think that says more about the kinds of conferences that he attends and helps to organise than anything else”. On the flight home, I thought about whether I should have minimum standards for attending a conference and came up with some. I figured I’d start very conservative, in the hopes I wouldn’t start excluding anything too soon, and ramp upwards. As a scientist I like to be quantitative, so let’s be. Gender diversity is the easiest to set quantitative measures for. So my baselines for 2017 to attend a conference were >10% women speakers or I won’t speak and >5% women speakers or I won’t even attend. For the former, saying no frees up a slot that can be used to improve the ratio. For the latter, I’m affecting their bottom line, which should thereby hopefully affect change Darwin-style. My plan was to increment these by 1.5% per year such that when I reach 65 (2040) those thresholds are 44.50% to speak and 39.50% to attend (hell, if we don’t have that level of equality on this front by then I will explode). Other measures of diversity are harder to put precise metrics on, but include fair distributions on nationality, subject area, etc.

Remarkably, I am already running out of fingers to count the number of conferences I’ve had to bail on since February. Those following me on twitter will know of two I’ve mentioned recently. The first was an internal UNSW physics workshop, with 3 women in 36 speakers that, at 8.3%, just crossed my threshold for 2017 to attend. Just this week I was rather disappointed by the ICONN nanoelectronics program, which has 7/7 male invited speakers, and all up 2 women in 40 speakers (contributed + invited in nanoelec only). At 5%, this is below my 6.5% limit for 2018, so sadly, I won’t be seen at ICONN-2018 (sorry folks). To their credit, they are 4:4 on plenary speakers, 11 in 58 at invited across all streams and some of the other streams aren’t nearly as bad, but things can be much better, and as we all know ”the standard you walk past is the standard you accept”. The last ICONN nanoelectronics program, for example, was 1:1 on plenary, 2:2 on invited speakers and 29% women speakers across the whole program — a program I wouldn’t find myself not speaking in through my minimum standards until 2029 and happy to attend as long as it’s before 2033 (whether I’m still in academia in 2033 is another question of course, especially when making this much trouble for the establishment :D).

Today, another conference I would be strongly encouraged to attend and support came across my radar (Thanks Sharath) — IUMRS-ICEM 2018. Get the flames of your barbecue ready folks, there’s more wurst here than a German butcher’s shop! Not only does it have 10 out of 10 male plenary speakers, but the invited line up has 10 women in 168 invited speakers. Yes, you read that right. Of all the plenary and invited speakers, less than 5.6% are women. Already below the 11.50% needed for me to bother submitting an abstract and the 6.5% needed to see me attend. Why on Earth would I advertise or support it? What it needs is to be shunned and ridiculed! I’ll stop here, as those three aren’t the only ones, and I don’t want to be a bore.

While running this week I was thinking more about how we affect real change here, especially in light of what I saw with ICONN, where lobbying for change, putting ‘right-minded individuals’ on committees, setting examples in past programs, etc. seem to not be affecting lasting change. My idea is “The Changing Conference Culture Club” (definitely not inspired by a certain band playing ICC Sydney tonight), and here is how it would work. It’s a website, in a similar vein to Publons, where scientists can do two things to help:

  1. The first is to publicly commit to minimum standards for attending and speaking at conferences. Members can keep a list on their personal page of the conferences that they’ve attended because they’ve met the standards and the ones they’ve declined because they haven’t. The site would then, at the start date for a given conference, collate stats for all the people who aren’t going to that conference because standards aren’t met, multiply that by the relevant registration rate, and inform the conference organisers by email (and on the website) how much they lost in registration fees for not having a properly diverse program.This is wallet democracy at it’s finest, folks, and Darwinism in action. We simply starve the worst conferences of funds until they collapse, and support those that do the right things with more funds. It’s not as though there aren’t enough conferences begging for the scant research funds most of us get these days.A useful extension would be to approach conference sponsors to commit to the program also, such that sponsorships are contingent on meeting set standards. The corporate responsibility factor here could be quite strong, and help to affect change.
  2. The second is to accumulate a track record of involvement in the organisation of conferences that do meet standards for diversity. The intention here is twofold. The first is to reward conference committees and their members for making gains in this area. In the same way as Publons does for peer review, this enables you to build proper metrics for this important contribution to healthy scientific society. The second is to enable committees to recruit members with a strong track record in building high quality conferences that also meet acceptable diversity standards. Make no mistake, conference organisation and committee membership is a line item in most scientists’ CV, and it should come with the requirement to demonstrate real outcomes on diversity targets.

With carrots and sticks like these, maybe we can convince conferences to start doing a proper job rather than making endless excuses… All it needs is an organisation that cares with some available resources and we’re away… an undertaking like this needs more than one onboard but count me in if an organisation with resources is happy to push this along.

Last comment. Please don’t be afraid to email conference organisers to express your disappointment with their program regarding diversity issues. It is easy for them to say ‘well there’s little complaint, so perhaps it’s just you’, right up until everyone is hassling them about it.












How to organise a conference that makes science a better place…

I was recently at a conference where, at the end of the session, a distinguished old fellow stood up and interjected on closing comments to congratulate the committee for putting together the best conference session he’s ever been to in terms of women giving talks. It was a respectable 43% for 7 speakers (kudos to the organisers), but what a colleague whispered in my ear as we walked out to tea nailed it: “I think that says more about the kinds of conferences that he attends and helps to organise than anything else”. Exactly. It’s 2017, and a diverse speaker line-up should be the norm rather than the exception at a well organised conference these days.

Despite that, I still see myself asked to speak at or participate in organising conferences that are miles from sensible expectations for diversity of speaker line-up. The tragedy is that this is really not hard to achieve if you follow a few guidelines along the way.  You can even take a conference that’s been a weisswurstfest for years, and more or less immediately turn it around. And if you succeed, you help make it easier next time, and the time after, and so on. Here’s how it’s done:

0. The buck stops with you: As chair you and you alone are responsible for whether or not you meet your goals. You either make excuses or you make it happen, because it’s perfectly doable. You might not always succeed, but that’s certainly not because it’s impossible. Make sure you start early, because leaving it late makes the task of achieving your targets much harder.

1. Unstack your committee: The whole thing starts with the right program committee. If you don’t have diversity on your committee, then you are behind the 8-ball from scratch. Recruit with an eye for diversity (be it topic, experiment vs theory, nationality, gender, age, etc.) and be clear about your aims in this regard when recruiting members. Diversity of speakers should be discussed right from Day 1.

2. Set targets and minimum standards: You should have a target and you should have a floor of acceptability, since sometimes you will aim high and miss (especially if you are trying to fix a long history of imbalance). For example, each plenary from a different continent with no more than two from the same. Or gender balance at 50:50 but inside 65:35 at minimum. Or whatever it is. Decide these as a committee, as you all need to be mutually committed to them. If there is a particular imbalance you need to fix on a particular conference, choose it as a focus.

3. Assemble plenary and invited speaker suggestion lists: Make it clear that you expect the committee to provide diverse suggestions and that the process will not end until your lists meet or exceed your targets (not the minimum standards). As chair you need to lead by example on this; your own suggestion list should meet the targets or even exceed them (to cover off others). Do not do only the plenaries and not the inviteds at the same time; the invited list gives you depth to cover losses on your plenaries list without losing diversity. Make sure both lists have at least 50% more candidates than you are looking for, ideally 150%. Leftovers from the plenaries list can fall onto the invited list (or be on both).

Mostly in a conference that lacks diversity, it’s not that there’s a shortage of good diverse speakers, it’s that there’s a shortage of them on the starting list for ranking and the whole thing propagates from there.

4. Rank your plenary and invite lists: With a properly diverse starting list, the final ranked list is usually diverse even at the top. Bear in mind that merit and quality are not the same thing. If I had a dollar for every ‘great scientist’ (on merit) I’ve seen give an awful talk I could retire now. I’ve seen lots of great talks that inspire great discussion & new ideas without the speaker being the most meritorious also. Do what’s best for your program and will best appeal to a maximally diverse set of possible registrants.

5. Invite & lock in plenaries: Start with the women on your plenary list, they have far more challenging logistics regarding family care responsibilities (n.b. note about starting early in Rule 0). Doing this first also gives you the scheduling flexibility you need to make the program work. Reserve some budget to support childcare requirements if needed and requested (irrespective of gender). Use your inviteds list to fill holes in the plenaries as you work through. Make sure you have proper diversity at plenary level before moving on, like Rule 1, this sets the tone for everything that follows.

6. Invite & lock in invited talks: Same process as Rule 5. There is no excuse for this to not be diverse also. Be conscious of the fact that you can correct ‘small sample size’ issues at plenary level at the invited level as long as they aren’t too obviously egregious — Do not take this as an ok to give up diversity at plenary level thinking you can use invited level to fix it, that never works.

7. Make your call for contributed talks: Do this after you have plenary and invited talks confirmed and you have the committee, plenary speakers and invited speakers listed on the conference website. It is then obvious that you encourage diversity in participation (your actions are congruent with your words) and this should flow into the contributions that you receive. You may wish to encourage diversity in contributed talks, but if your line-up is right, you barely have to, especially if you have a few conferences worth of history in doing it.

8. Select contributed talks: Again, if everything is done right, your ranked lists will still be diverse even near the top, you shouldn’t have to tweak much to meet targets. That said, don’t be afraid to do so if needed, especially if you’re likely to hit your minimum standards. Some might argue this is not choosing ‘on merit’ but merit and privilege/compounded advantage are entangled. A part of a role of a conference is to expose new ideas and work; if you keep inviting the same speakers year in year out because of merit you both artificially generate merit and fail in your role to expose new ideas to an audience.

9. Talk frequently as a committee about diversity: You should be talking about this at each stage. Be willing to call out bias in selection without hostility or being offended about being called out on it. Have a committee rule that issues should be raised, high expectations set, and that making excuses such as ‘____ type of speaker just doesn’t exist’ isn’t good enough. You can always ask friends of friends to help suggest people if you don’t know.

10. Create a supportive environment: Have a conference code of conduct, make it clear on the website and in the conference book. As chair, be willing to enforce it if required.

11. Help the next conference: Be willing to share your plenary and invited lists with the next committee. This can give them a head-start and help ensure they don’t invite the same people again and again for lack of imagination. Be willing to advise the next committee if needed. Don’t let them make excuses for why it can’t be done. After all, you’ve done it, right?

12. Be selective about the conferences you associate with: Support the conferences that are good on this, avoid the ones that aren’t. This is the only way we see dinosaurs off to extinction and evolve to a new normal.

Bunged pipelines, professorial pensions and academic exit strategies

This is a post that has been fermenting for a while (with a small beery blow-out a few weeks back) and has now reached critical mass after I read a really nice article in the Guardian titled “Should ageing academics be forced to quit?”. It unleashes a new term “Bunged pipeline” that’s the finest I’ve seen since #ponzidemia, to quote directly:

“But a third inequality exists, so conspicuous that many of us don’t even see it. And that is the ageing population of (largely white, male) professors, who, since the 2011 law abolishing a mandatory retirement age, are holding onto their posts for longer than ever before. This is a problem because there are a limited number of professorships, and there is an ever swelling glut of PhD students and trainees looking to make a career in science.

This pipeline is not leaky – rather, the tap is on full and someone has stuck a bung into the other end. Something, as they say, has got to give.”

It sure as hell does! This problem doesn’t just hold at Oxford, it holds everywhere I’ve ever worked and visited as an academic (some much worse than others). It leads to an interesting question, one I was rhetorically asking the same evening this fermenting post prematurely blew the seal on the fermenter — Why the hell are these guys still here? Haven’t they got something better to do? Why don’t they get a life? Why not retire from science at 45 or 50?

I see three answers to this question, mildly inter-related and yet sometimes decoupled. They are:

  1. What I call the ‘professorial pension’, a nasty mix of tenure, weak payscale design.
  2. The twisted value systems of academia (and the old-boy feedback loop).
  3. The lack of established exit strategies.

I’m gonna start with 2, as I’m writing to a personal time limit today (practicing some mad journalism skillz). How does society define success in academia? What stereotype does it assign? Excepting the mad Einstein trope, what we’re normally presented with is the esteemed old gent, aged and wise, able to present a long CV full of awards and accolades and admissions to distinguished academies. This is a golden period of getting to hang around as the local reigning silverback, resting on your laurels, passing forth pronouncements of great wit and wisdom that are hungrily received by the next generation.

With the possible exception of Feynman (own set of problems), the scientific role models we’re all presented are largely devoid of any other kind of a life beyond this. We enter academia bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and within the space of a Ph.D. and a postdoc, we’re easily sold on this line that all we should want in life is to be the grand old distinguished professor. Diversity is a relatively recent thing in the grand scheme of science, and it’s only now many of us see this as a cookie cutter we have no desire at all to fit. But in the good old days, the trope was magic, and given how many older professors I see desperately trying to fit that classic stereotype, it’s very clear that it has serious sway. Societal value systems are important, they’re the yardstick we use to define our own self-esteem. They drive us to leave communities when we don’t feel like we fit (part of why we have a leaky pipeline in terms of diversity in science), they also drive some of us to stay…

If we want to fix the “Bunged Pipeline” we really need to redefine success in academia. Perhaps it needs to be more like professional sport, we come in, we reach our peak, and then we retire to contribute elsewhere. Where the people who hold on too long risk real ridicule and loss of face, much like Michael Schumacher and Bjorn Borg and Mark Spitz. Maybe in academia it should be all about picking the right time to go, and your currency is then about what else you managed to do for the world thereafter. After all, I think it is pretty widely acknowledged that scientists do their best work in their 30s and 40s, despite there being a few exceptions (good policy is all about catering exceptions well).

In my view, the old world picture of academia and senior professors is now so obsolete as to be totally comical. I’m not sure about the younger generations, and while there are some of my Gen-X colleagues who are sold on this dream, many of us quietly ridicule the whole charade with a 50%/50% mix of mockery at the inability of many of them to even deal with, e.g., an online form, let alone big data, and jealousy at how good a deal they have, one that we or any generation following us will ever receive, which brings me to 1.

Look in many university departments at who is carrying the hard graft of making the department work and it’s almost always the most senior people who aren’t yet full professor. I know in my own department, with the exception of the head of school, the key tasks are all carried by young cadre of A/Profs and Senior Lecturers. The key reason for this is what I call the ‘professorial pension’ and feigned incompetence. The academic system is designed as a game of snakes and ladders with lots of ladders and some snakes down low that basically throw you out of the game entirely. Pay scales with level, and so the higher you go, the more you get paid. And don’t think this is just about that single magical Professor (E1) pay grade, the only one you ever see on a HR website… there’s a set of unlisted levels up there that you only find out about through some special linear combination of jealousy, boasting and alcohol or getting promoted to Prof. yourself. As someone famously quipped ‘Level E is the new Level B’. And in the gold old days, there were even special deals like free parking, cars, paid mobile phones, etc. as grapevine has it. I suspect this is mostly gone now.

The kicker is once you’re up there, you just never come back down. Imagine that, you get that magic promotion to Professor and, presuming you don’t do something so bad as to get fired and can avoid your department being disbanded entirely, you will be paid at least $180k for the rest of your working life, and then a super-sweet defined-benefit pension deal thereafter (separate ponzi for a separate post). Why the hell would you do anything to benefit your department any more? It’s not like you have to take on any of these admin or leadership roles to get ahead. And hey, suppose you can’t bring yourself to say no, you can always bungle them just badly enough that no one ever gives them to you again, yet not so bad that you get fired. You become a member of that special class of ‘basket case’ professors, the ones that can’t be given tasks because they won’t get done or will end up as a disaster. It doesn’t take long in your life as a senior lecturer or A/Prof. to find yourself carrying a sea of key tasks, and when you say ‘but who else can do it’, be worked through a list of “What about Prof. A? Nah, he’s a basket case, can’t give it to him. What about Prof. B? Oh, you should see what happened last time he got given a task…” Nothing like being able to just leave a disaster for others to clear and walk away with that swagger that only a guaranteed income can provide (“the more you ignore it, the cooler you look”).

There’s other problems that come from this ‘professorial pension’, beyond a bunch of overpaid professors, past their prime, contributing little to their departments, while collecting a huge wadge of the departmental budget. What about the leadership of actually transforming the higher education system into something that is sustainable, via serious and possibly quite unpopular reform at the senior professoriate level, i.e. pulling out the bung? There’s little drive to do that either. Always back the horse called self-interest, right?

I’m going to credit my colleague Dane McCamey with this solution (he may well blame me instead for this crazy idea), but one wonders if it’s high time that the university system decoupled salaries from promotion, which is probably more palatable than my earlier suggestion of having ‘academic demotions’ (i.e., snakes at higher levels) in light of 2 above. Why should a professor at level E1 contributing much less to their university and department than a senior lecturer at C3 get paid so much more? And I’m not talking about on an annual basis here, I’m talking about the E’s who’ve done bugger all for years but still collect that fat premium? How is there going to be an incentive to either a) keep pushing your envelope, or b) go do something else and make room for the next generation, if you simply have to show up each day to keep earning the top salary in the remunerations structure no matter what you do?

Just to be clear, I wouldn’t go so far as tying salaries to publishing metrics and grant incomes and such in a linear and unsmoothed way — having salaries that fluctuate massively with your fortunes in massively over-subscribed fund lotteries or your ability to wring papers out of savagely underpaid Ph.D. students will create a whole new world of pain — but perhaps a way to unbung the pipeline is to stop making the system so financially comfortable for all the old professors who are jamming up the system? Perhaps they need to be re-exposed to the reality of needing to make useful contributions at a level commensurate to what they’re being paid. And if they aren’t, then there needs to be a financial incentive to do so.

Lastly to 3, maybe if we fix 2 and 1 above, there would become at least a slight incentive to leave academia, at least more than there is now. But will people take it if we don’t provide pathways to do so? In my opinion the career development structures in academia are woeful. In recent years, they’ve gone from nothing at all to an illusory minimum of an ‘annual performance review’ and a few voluntary half-day courses provided, if you can find the time amongst all the other tasks you’ve been lumped with. Of course, the people who’d love to do them and have some aptitude can’t because they’re too busy carrying all the load, and the ones who should and could have no incentive to anyway (Hey, I’m an E1 and tenured, why the hell should I develop myself, I’m fine).

Some of us, myself included, aspire to one day leave academia and contribute elsewhere in society. This is good for the universities in many ways, not the least in that it fixes the ‘bunged pipeline’, but that it enables them to broaden their impact on society. But the current behaviour by universities is quite the opposite — to declare an interest in stepping off the academic ladder is very dangerous (I take some risk in just articulating it here) because your colleagues will rapidly question your commitment to the research cause. This carries strong negatives in terms of allocation of funds and critical support both internally and externally. It also provides a disincentive to leave, which just naturally reinforces the exact problem we have now in 2. above.

Universities really need to do a much better job of helping their people to leave, and this should be, as all good things are, a mix of carrot and stick. The stick was mostly dealt with above on 1. The carrot is that universities can provide, as a fringe benefit, the exact thing that’s needed for their staff to take new careers — retraining. There’s a golden opportunity here for universities to generate something that has great reward for their business but near negligible cost. All academic staff should have, as a fringe benefit, the ability to sit one course a semester for free — they don’t have to take it, but they can. It can be anything they like, but it must count for proper credit on a real academic transcript and be accruable into a full degree. The university should also establish programs that enable more senior staff to build pathways out of academia into new sectors of society, e.g., industry, government, etc. Let me give an example for how this works.

Professor X gets to 45. It’s clear they’ve peaked, their field of research is getting tired, and they’d need a major reskilling beyond what a sabbatical can provide to stay at the pointy edge of science. Maybe they aspire to do something else anyway. University builds a plan to keep them going to a mutually agreed retirement point at 5 year horizon with sensible wind-down. They might want to go into public policy, so they do some subjects related to that for free in the background. They might want to go into data analytics and be short on the modern edge on the computing side. They might have, at 25, turned up a career in investment banking, and want to learn some finance and take their skills across. The university can help smooth the path via relationships with employers, etc., perhaps get them into some internships as the very end of the 5 year window approaches. It’s win-win here — Prof X gets to do something new and the university has someone placed in industry that they have a good link to (and substantial good will since they helped them get there rather than just suddenly dumping them on the kerb with a redundancy package). The universities also get to more sustainably manage their HR resource over time to ensure it stays current and modern, using a resource they can easily provide very cheaply, namely access to reskilling and existing links. It’s the kind of leadership in reform that I was hinting at earlier.

OK, that’s word and time limit for me. Quick acknowledgements to Marguerite Galea’s twitter feed for making me spot the Guardian article on the bunged pipeline, discussions on this topic with colleagues both IRL (Dane McCamey about better balancing pay with contributions & Merlin Crossley about how things can be improved for younger academics and how I need to think more pragmatically about this, in particular.) and online (too many to name all, but Mel Thomson is a key one).

The looming extinction of the Australian postdoc & other scientific labour force nightmares…

I’ll preface this by saying I always appreciate any research funds I can get from the Australian taxpayer via government grants. This is was initially intended less a typical ‘not enough money’, although I’d always like to see more especially if we aspire to be an ‘agile innovative’ economy, and more a ‘here’s the trend I see and what the outcome will be.’

A recent task, amongst many others, has been locking down what’s possible budget-wise for the ARC funding I was very fortunate enough to receive last year. Conventional wisdom in the early 00’s was: DP = 3 year postdoc + healthy operating funds. In the late 00s and early 10s, this became: DP =  2 year postdoc + healthy operating funds. So I was rather stunned last night to find out that in the late 10s, it now means: DP = 2 year postdoc + in debt to tune of at least $10k by the end of year 2, i.e., year 2 has zero opex budget!

Let me explain more. The DP in question has a budget of $100k + $100k + $100k, the usual roughly equal split the ARC system tends to produce. There’s a minimum level you can fund a postdoc (at most places it’s lv A6) and in real terms it amounts to $110k in 2017 and $115k by 2019. A $100k budget for year 2 clearly doesn’t work, unless you want to make someone already on a short-term contract living in an expensive city take a 3 month unpaid holiday in the middle of the 2 year contract if they want to actually be able to do science (an annual cleanroom budget for a postdoc is $5-10k alone, forget all the other opex you definitely can’t do science on $600 opex budget!).

For many, the first response would be ‘but wait, you hire them halfway into the first year, so roll some of the 1st year cash forward and it’ll be ok’. OK, that worked about 3 years ago, but I’ll let you model this yourself, it doesn’t work now. You need them to start in Oct or Nov of yr 1 for that trick to play out in the black, soon it’ll be Dec 31. So what do we do? Sit on our hands for a year before we can hire? Come down to 1 year postdoc contracts, which only hurts mobility of scientists even more? Before I go down this road, let me show you some more numbers.

First, let’s look at historical trends. I’ve been in the ARC system since 2003 so that’s as far back as I can go for now (it’s enough). In Figure 1 below I plot three things. First, in black, is the *actual* annual average award amount for ARC grants (this is not request, it’s award — an interesting addition later might be a plot of request-to-award ratio, although we all know how that one plays out). Taking the average is fair I think as normally the annual real award amounts are roughly balanced. There are two data points for 2017 as I’m a very lucky person this year (one’s mine, one’s an external I’m co-CI on), but it gives some idea of spread. Second, in blue, is the full cost of a base level postdoc in the corresponding year. Third, in red, is the APA stipend, which is there for comparison and to illustrate a side issue.


Two trends are evident. First, the annual post-doc cost is rising much faster than the typical ARC award amount. The second is that the APA stipend is stagnant in comparison to the postdoc salary cost. To highlight this, I’ve made Figure 2 below, which shows the postdoc:student cost ratio. This is cost, those wanting to convert to salary should remove about 20% (the on-cost or ocs) from the postdoc cost to get the pre-tax salary.

postdoc to student cost ratio.JPG

The cause of the trend above is that the postdoc salary falls under university enterprise bargaining requirements, so it advances at approximately 2-3% p.a. depending on your campus. The APA is not, so it’s increase is almost negligible, especially compared to the cost of living in any Australian capital city. Often, we top them up with money that comes from ARC grants, but even this is small, and getting ever harder to fund.

The looming extinction of the Australian postdoc: So let’s come back to postdocs. I have a DP at $100k p.a. level. I now cannot hire a postdoc unless my university is willing to bankroll me (and every other DP holder) to $10k+ level of debt in Year 2, and even then, it makes the opex for the whole project so marginal as to not make sense. In many cases now, a successful DP needs more than one CI on more than one campus (both of mine for 2017), so the opex costs are much higher relative to award amount. We all know a 1 year postdoc is useless, both for them and for us, so what’s the solution? The solution is a) hire half a postdoc by sharing them across two DPs or b) just hire students instead as they’re cheaper by a factor of >4.

Let’s consider a). If I’m one of the few lucky enough to have two DPs I have complete control over, I can hire a 2 yr postdoc and have them do 2.5 days on one and 2.5 days on the other. If the projects are suitably aligned, this works ok for the postdoc, perhaps they get some papers out and find a next job. This is a rare situation these days. If I don’t, then my only option is to hire them 2 or 3 days on mine, and find another group who wants them for 2 or 3 days a week. I did this on the last year of a postdoc on my 2011 DP — the cash was running out, so I stretched them to their next job with 4 days on and 1 day in another group. What was the net result? They worked FTE equiv of 6 days a week trying to keep up with the demands (and that was with two bosses who have serious commitment to staff being good with work-life balance). Now imagine trying to be shared by two monsters who think postdocs should work 24/7 — Yep, bloody scary stuff.

The alternative is no post-doc at all. So let’s sum it up, as politicians love to do, in terms of job, job and jobs. Formerly, you could rely on each ARC DP meaning one job as a post-doc, but now, with the intersection in Fig. 1, you can only rely on at best 1/2 or perhaps 0 per DP — effectively the number of available postdocs per ARC project funded in Aus. should halve in the next 3-5 years accordingly. Jobs are vanishing. I’m the first case of this I can think of — I went from last month thinking of hiring two 2-year postdocs, and now I’m pretty sure I can only hire one, split over two projects. Multiply that across the community, and watch what happens.

Ph.D. students as slave labour with no future: What’s been long happening here is people don’t hire postdocs, they hire students. As a former acting deputy pro vice chancellor of mine used to wax lyrical, ‘ask for a postdoc and just hire 3 students instead’. Hey, now in 2017, according to Fig. 2, you can get 4.5 for a postdoc salary! Bargain!!

I’ve talked on twitter before how shitty the deal Ph.D. students in Australia get, and here’s yet another good example. Not only are they paid a pittance compared to what a real scientist gets paid, but their next step in the system is rapidly being obliterated by the fact that ARC annual award amounts are not even remotely tracking real salary growth (or opex cost growth or anything else for that matter — and that’s ignoring the influx of Profs into the Aussie system by universities aggressively hiring to improve international rankings).

I’ve spent a lot of time in Sweden in past 8 years, and if I talk to Danish or Swedish colleagues, they have the opposite problem. If possible they tend to hire postdocs over Ph.D. students because a) the costs are not that disparate, and as a consequence, b) why not get more experience if it doesn’t cost so much more. The ratio of postdocs to Ph.D. students in that system is pretty healthy. Ph.D. students in Scandinavia don’t make as much as postdocs, the similar cost is that the tuition becomes an on-cost rather than a hidden, as happens in the ‘tuition free scholarship’ system popular in Australia (don’t get me started on this exploitation-enabler, I’ll save it for a separate blog post). In Scandinavia, Ph.D. students are on contracts, they earn a sensible amount, they have proper rights afforded employees, such as paid parental leave. They can afford to get married, have kids, go out, rather than eat microwave noodles and live in their parent’s basement.

Taking my research group leader hat off for a second, if there was ever a time for Aussie Ph.D. students to collectivise and negotiate for a better deal it’s now. When I was on an APA in 1997-2000 it was $17k p.a. and I could afford my own apartment 2 blocks back from Bondi beach (albeit small but hey…), now in 2017 it’s only $26k and you have to live with your parents or share a bunk in a room in an apartment (ok, slightly melodramatic perhaps, or perhaps not, but you get the gist).

When the above happens, the system is gonna collapse spectacularly, but maybe we need that. Because at the moment, that black line in Fig. 1 shows Australian science as a patient with a gunshot wound slowly bleeding out. There’s only so much blood that can be spread so thinly between labour, operating budget, etc, all of which (except Ph.D. costs) are increasing at 3%+ p.a. whilst award amount is almost stagnant. Yet, if the success rate falls to increase award amount, the exact same outcome occurs in a slightly different way. So, as I see it, at 2017 in Aussie science, we’ve got shutdown on many minor organs, unconsciousness and a weak pulse. Death is not far away (about 5 yrs is my guess) unless we can do something about the amount of Cat 1 budget allocated by Government to keeping the system alive. Sure, I can see bandaids, but unfortunately, bandaids don’t fix bullet holes.

Why it’s imperative for EMCRs to reframe ‘merit’ & ‘opportunity’: Parting thoughts on #SciPath16

One of the joys of a conference in your own town is that you don’t have to catch any planes. So while the buses with my airport-bound colleagues are stuck in Sydney’s traffic, I’m home with a cold drink and a spare hour to brain-dump on my 2 days at the Australian Academy of Science’s wonderful Science Pathways 2016 meeting on science leadership for early and mid-career researchers. As my last event as an EMCR I feel extra compelled to write on my thoughts after this.

Often buried in every role model is an anti role model; in every example to follow an example not to follow. This is the human condition — we are all featured and flawed, gemstones with chips and scratches. We’re presented the shiniest gemstones of unobtainium as our lessons, but the real lessons are often in the chips and scratches, they tell important stories too. Often, they’re functions of their environment.

So amongst all the success and selling of ‘superheroes & superheroines’ and ‘rockstars’ there’s a murky edge of disturbing. A passing comment about managing someone who reads the paper during their breaks out of science as they clearly aren’t committed or passionate enough. Or a suggestion that going to a developing country with pneumonia demonstrates commitment to the job. Or a research-backed media presence that’s clearly more than what one person alone can produce, sold with glossy slides that all say ‘I’ and show one person. This was unmissable in the background discussion on twitter and in breaks during the meeting, all of the things above were highlighted, with alarm or suspicion, by other delegates.

For me, these are symptoms of a broken system, where the way we value scientific contributions is all wrong. Where one well rewarded way to ‘game’ the system and get competitive advantage is to abuse yourself, abuse your team, abuse your family to get ahead. Many will find my use of the word abuse inflammatory but see it from the perspective of students who are in the lab late at night mostly because they fear that the boss might come through late and bollock them for not being there or question their commitment & ‘manage them out’. Or a partner who carries most of the parenting burden for your job, and has given up their own hopes and dreams to do so. Or the kids who feel neglected, or see their parents separate and their home broken by one parent’s workaholism. Or, see it from the perspective of you on your deathbed (trust me, you may be there sooner than you think…), do you wish you had all those hours you wasted to failed grants and rejected papers and unpaid editorial positions back? Yep, it’s abuse, take the blinkers off. Why do we feel so compelled to do this? Why as a system do we award unhealthy and addictive behaviours? Were I a drug addict, I’d likely be fired, but if I’m a work addict, why is that suddenly so de rigueur? Likewise, if I’m an abusive jerk to my charges, why is that ok and accepted by senior management as long as I’m a ‘rockstar’ or high performer but a cause for my firing if I’m merely an ok performer? Why do we laud people who praise overworking when we know that it’s terrible for employee effectiveness?

Let’s see another angle. There was a comment in the final session that we need more EMCR focussed funding programs at ARC & NHMRC, there isn’t enough money. But hey, we already have them. You want more, Oliver? What? An ECR ask for more?

Why? More interestingly, why do we even need these programs at all?

The answer in both lines of discussion is that the whole framing of ‘merit relative to opportunity’ is broken — it is the number 1 thing that EMCRs need to focus on reframing if we want science to get better. Everything else is just band-aid solutions.

Back to funding for a second. Why do we have ECR funding? Well, it’s because if we don’t have it, all the money goes to the people with the greatest accumulated career ‘track record’. To pilfer from Gorilla biology (w/ a humble bow to @DrMel_T), it largely goes to the ‘Silverbacks‘ in each research area — the mostly beyond middle age, mostly male, mostly most institutionally privileged professors in the system. What we’ve done to fix this is to put in patches. We put in the ECR patch to shunt a little cash back to people in first 5 years. Then we put in an MCR patch (Future Fellows) to shunt a little cash back there. We put in an ‘opportunity’ patch to give appearance of properly facilitating career breaks. We run other demographic patches to help fix up holes for women and indigenous researchers and so forth. But where does most of the money still go? Of course…

And those patches are easily fixed — if you run the system, you can rule around them. Anyone who’s watched ARC publication lists go from last 5 years to last 10 years to forever (and for emeriti that’s a lot of achievement!) will know this. What EMCRs often don’t see coming is the ‘valley of the shadows’ right after the EMCR schemes end, this happens irrespective of where you end the EMCR programs.

Think about this like a pair of pants. You can only put so many patches over the holes before they’re no longer worth wearing… There comes a time to get a new pair of pants, and we’ve well reached the time to get a new framing for ‘merit relative to opportunity’, because if it’s a good one, there isn’t a need for all these ‘patch’ schemes to fix inequities in the funding system. There isn’t a need to work 14 hour days 7 days a week (or think you should try to), or get on planes when the risk you’ll be hospitalised on the otherside is obvious and real.

There’s two aspects to this. Merit and Opportunity. Let’s deal with these separately for a second.

Opportunity: Currently opportunity is mostly just enacted for extended absences from the traditional academic pathway. It is a system that ignores the majority and deals with the few — we should have this but can we do better? Yes, we can.

The problem with ‘opportunity’ assessment is that it entirely ignores the people who don’t even need or use it – the people who already have massive resources at their disposal and can beat everyone else to death with them. Do we ever properly consider their massive opportunity?

Anyone noticed how, for all the pages and pages on ROPE in ARC grants, there’s never any clear quantitative summation of how much resources were made available that went into producing a given CI’s achievements? How assessors aren’t even explicitly asked to comment on opportunity explicitly as its own required line item? How there aren’t very pointed questions, structured in a properly equitable way, that enable the P in ROPE to be properly and meaningfully assessed across *everyone* across all proposals, not just the few who need an offset.

We need structures & metrics to properly tabulate, quantify and meaningfully assess opportunity as much as we have these things to quantify outcomes already, flaws and all. We need to do this without the obfuscation of written prose, same as we have for outcomes now. Until we have them, there will always be a skew in favour of cumulative merit over a proper performance:opportunity ratio that enables EMCRs, women, etc to fairly compete in the system.

Merit:  Currently, whether you’re an ECR or an emeriti, it all comes down to this: Whoever has the most papers, citations, funding, h-index, equipment, students, etc. wins, pure and simple. Even if you fix opportunity above, ECRs will *never* win a proper share of resources or be fairly valued without patches to the system. Why is what we value simply this, irrespective of role, whether it’s the person at the lab bench doing the science, or the leader of a small lab group, or the Director of an Institute, given that those roles are so disparate in their skills and requirements? Why do we see earning money as such an important key indicator that you should earn yet more money? Why is input considered an outcome? Ultimately, it’s simply because merit by accumulated advantage benefits the people with power over how the system runs — there’s no problem for them in this, so clearly, there’s no problem and no need for a solution either (except patches to assuage complaints about how rigged the system is).

The only way we build a fair scientific system is to properly define what we value in the context of the decision being made. This can, and possibly should, be different for funding, tenure, promotion, etc. Ultimately, much of the latter is influenced by funding (as Nikola Bowden pointed out this afternoon), so let’s start there…

Since I’m a physicist, I’ll be ARC specific for now. There’s been lots of talk about cutting track record down from 40% to less (I’d say 25%, but anyway) let’s consider instead that what we do is fragment that score into pieces consistent with what we value in a project. So, let’s first ask, what do we value in a good solid team project? We want strong intellectual leadership, it could be one but more ideally a few people with the creative, strategic and team leadership skills that together enable the project to be conceived and driven. They may have an advisory or oversight group. Under them, we want a set of small teams of active researchers lead by capable junior investigators, driving components of the overall project. Together we want a team that, from bottom to top, adequately covers the skills and demands of the project so that a vision translated into a sensible x year package of work can be meaningfully attempted. We need to know who that whole team is to meaningfully assess it. And lastly, we might consider how good the members making that team up are as individuals. Not all teams are equal; this matters, but it shouldn’t be 40% of the decision making process.

So what we’re looking at is 10% strength and appropriateness of leadership team and oversight group (if there is one), 10% strengths of hands-on team for project, 10% on how suited the overall team assembled is to realistically tackle the project and 10% for excellence of researchers (what was once track record and worth 40%).

How we assess excellence of a researcher should likewise depend on career stage. It doesn’t need page after page to assess like current ARC proposals. It can be dealt with in 2 pages per person like it is in almost every other funding system (many of which are far more equitable than what we have here in Australia currently).

For people up to 10 years post-PhD it should entirely be about outcomes and skills, more or less how we assess ECRs now. Are you producing good papers, can you demonstrate output from different teams, how well do your skills fit the project?

For people in the 10-25 years post-PhD range this is about a growing role in project leadership. Less focus on authorships near front of papers, more focus on authorships near back of papers and good mentorship of students and junior post-docs (given assessment for 25+ this should include last authorship as one closes in on 25 years). Some account for growing skills at management, leadership, outreach, community engagement, etc. Growing visibility in the field.

For people 25+ years post-PhD it is all about leadership and mentoring. Papers count for zero, publishing metrics count for zero, things about you as an individual count for zero. Leadership is not about you, leadership is about your team and what you give to them. You are there to serve not to take. Assessment would focus on ability to build teams, engage teams, manage them effectively, enable the next generation to be highly productive, strength of community engagement and translation into impact for end users. You don’t hire senior researchers for paper counts, or for a highly cited paper that they did 25 years ago. You hire them for what they bring on the human side of science. As a result, any serious funding agency or university would base this on formal 360 degree performance appraisal as a way to ensure that research teams really do have effective leaders and not the selfish micromanaging egomaniacs that often dominate science nowadays (the same people we were ‘acting out’ during the skits at last night’s fantastic networking mixer).

The goal here is to make senior researchers work to benefit the greater good of the scientific community not the greater good of their own accumulated merit and ego. It makes science into a proper team endeavour and it means it gets managed properly by people who have a real incentive to get proper training in methods for managing people well.

If there’s a lions share of the assessment on having a proper team and less on just ‘having big metrics’, then there’s much less incentive to hide inconvenient team members as happens now. Less incentive for department heads to send out emails with things like “Building the best team might involve … taking painful decisions to leave people off the list who might have helped with the research that has driven the application or actually prepared the application.” (yes, it’s a real quote, no, it’s not in my management chain & no further comment to avoid exposing the source to retribution). Why we accept this behaviour as academics is staggering when, if our undergraduates did it, we’d have them disciplined for student misconduct.

Let’s also see the benefits. There’s an incentive for people to be better trained in proper management and leadership, incentives not to be a monstrous leader, to actually care about building and operating proper scientific teams. There’s a proper career pathway that doesn’t involve working yourself into the ground for the sole purpose of massive accumulation of personal metrics and prestige.

Denouement: Ultimately, until we fairly define merit and opportunity and then combine them to properly assess one relative to the other for *all* researchers when combined as effective teams, we will never get a truly fair allocation of resources or systems for valuing contributions in science. We will always rely on patches to (very imperfectly) clean-up skews in the system. We will always have resources and people lost to ego wars and terrible leadership, and failures to effectively build team efforts.

Early and mid-career researchers, remember that you are a large constituency. There are many of you and without you, the folks at the top simply can’t survive (take your professor down the lab, give them a task and no instruction, and watch… 9/10 will likely emerge shaking and in tears — now imagine if they had to do the whole project themselves. 🙂 ). You are the engine of innovation in every country. This means you truly are in a position to reframe these aspects to be better, and advocate for that change. Don’t let the disempowerment that comes from bad leaders discourage you. It just takes resolve to properly define the terms, collect together and use strength in numbers as part of the advocacy. Events like this meeting are the catalyst for that.

The key point here: don’t set your sights so low. You don’t need more band-aid solutions, they only cover symptoms and don’t cure the underlying disease. What you need is proper change and proper leadership to drive it. Have high expectations, push the leadership hard, the ones worth their salt will step up to the task (and must if we want science in Australia to truly thrive).










Physchosis: How academia destroys your mental health.

Apparently I have one of the best jobs in the world. Yeah, I used to think so too. But it’s reached the point where I feel more like a slave, dreading getting up in the morning. I’m far from the only one. And when you see twitter academic parody accounts talking about guilt for not working on a Sunday night, and know that certainly it rings true for many of your colleagues, it’s clear there’s a serious problem.

I want to keep this one short, so here’s what I see as four key causes…

1. The relationship between what’s expected from you and the resources you have available to you are ridiculously non-linear: The resources available to two different researchers can be massively different. The obvious difference is budget, which can easily differ by three orders of magnitude, but there’s also time, which to some extent scales with budget as you need money to have people, access to infrastructure, access to ‘networks’ which in turn brings papers, invited talks, etc., and demands on time in the form of teaching load, service load, etc.

When you add all this up, it’s easy to have two people in the same department. Prof. A with a $10M p.a. annual budget, 10 postdocs and 30 students all producing papers with their name on the end of it, a near zero teaching load, easy access to the best papers, conferences and collaborative efforts. And Dr B with a $10k annual budget (if that), 2 Ph.D. students, a huge teaching load, and closed doors that must literally be kicked down to get outcomes that actually count.

That there can be orders of magnitude difference in opportunity is a fact of life that’s tough to take but survivable. What’s truly destructive is that the expectations in output don’t differ by orders of magnitude, in fact, they are often more or less the same. Even with almost nothing you’re still expected to produce high-impact papers, get invited talks, pump out seas of graduating students, on top of being excellent educators and writing a disproportionately larger number of funding proposals because most get rejected for funding.

The fact that many of us still do achieve this actually suggests that these folks with the much better resources are the underachievers. For every top paper your ‘breadline’ researcher produces, the ones with huge resourcing should pump out a hundred or a thousand. Few do and that’s fine. But you’ll never see management congratulate the breadline researcher on their one top-paper a year despite the adversity. Nope, they’re forgotten, or worse, told to lift their game, to aspire harder to excellence, as if they can conjure up more out of the almost nothing they have to work with in comparison. All the spoils go to the few at the top.

It doesn’t take long before giving your all and more for what feels like nothing in return destroys your desire for the job. It’s hard to go home every day, feeling like an underachiever or an unachiever, when your level of effort in any other job would probably see you as the top employee in the company.

2. Everyone has to be a chef and all the cooks are useless: There’s this crazy obsession in academia with ‘leadership’. I lead this, I lead that, nothing matters unless you’re the leader… us academics have even conjured up the most ridiculous of bullshit terms around: thought leader. You know it’s really bad when you mentor junior colleagues applying for grants or promotion or whatever, and have to tell them to remove statements about doing ‘behind the scenes’ work on projects and instead spin the whole thing as some kind of leadership. You know it’s really bad when people in teams squabble over who will be the ‘leader’, or cut it into little pieces they each can lead, and people don’t want to contribute unless they can claim a formal leadership role of some part of it. You know it’s really bad when everyone finds some little thing they can be director of, just do they can, you know, lead and stuff.

How it hurts is that much of what you do is not actually ‘leadership’ and what science, or any other job, needs is people who will do the hands on work. You take 10 foremen and put them on a worksite, does a hole get dug? No. You take 10 celebrity chefs and put them in a kitchen, do the dishes get washed or the potatoes peeled? No. Suddenly all the apparently mundane but nonetheless essential tasks become worthless. Why do them at all? Sure, we get paid, but in our job we don’t do things for the money, we do it because we get joy out of contributing. And when your contributions are worthless because they aren’t leadership, then why get up in the morning? When you’re told your teaching is good enough if students aren’t complaining, and to stop wasting time that could be spent on research instead, then why get up in the morning if you derive joy from teaching well? I could go on, but when most of your job doesn’t matter and isn’t recognised, then how can you expect someone to feel good about it?

3. We’ve perverted all the adjectives to the limit: You know you’re an academic when someone says something is pretty good, and you immediately know that’s code for mediocre or even crap. Good is terrible. Excellent is barely acceptable. Outstanding is good but rarely achieved. All through the culture you keep having these perverted objectives thrown at you — all the infrastructure needs to be world-class, the ‘pursuit of excellence’ is persistent and all pervasive. Journals and awards and universities can’t just be, they have to be prestigious or top-ranked. The superlatives are endless and excessive and they ultimately destroy your ability to retain perspective.

In many ways, it’s like having advertisements for luxury goods shoved in your face on a daily  basis. Before long, your nice old Seiko watch looks like total junk in comparison. With advertising, keeping consumers in a persistent state of dissatisfaction keeps them spending. In academia, it seems as though keeping academics in a persistent state of self-dissatisfaction and ‘underachievement’ keeps them working longer hours for and with less. The side effect in both cases is destructive mentally.

4. The culture of ‘only brilliance’ matters: A common thread in physics is the idea of meritocracy — that your success and value should be determined by your achievements as a scientist alone. There are lots of problems with this myth and many others have written about it. The one aspect that’s particularly destructive is that it makes a system that a) tolerates monsters and b) it strips your other qualities out of you as they don’t contribute to your success.

The former is easy and everyone knows examples, from the extreme, e.g., institutional responses to things like #astroSH, to the benign but still destructive, e.g. “At times he broke in on the initial sentence of the talk, refusing to let a speaker proceed until the point was clarified. Sometime clarification never came; I once witnessed the humiliation of a visiting postdoc who was forced to defend the first sentence he uttered for the entire hour and a half allowed for his seminar. No one dared restrain X.X. At first I imagined that his rigorous questioning was the by product of a pure search for knowledge and truth. Later I began to detect a latent glee with which he savaged the imperfections in other people’s talks. He enjoyed disorienting them.” [1] Often these monsters are exploiting their advantage/privilege via 1. to do these things and ruin the workplace for others.

The latter is more difficult to define, it is nebulous, stealthy and sinister like a slow-growing cancer, it is the system stealing your soul. Before long, you find yourself losing your sense of humour, losing your ability to relate to people, losing your ability to relax and not freak out in the fear of what more will land on your plate when someone knocks on the door or the phone rings. You find yourself slinking around the corridor, hoping no one stops you. You find yourself not listening to conversations because your brain is processing your to-do list, or not listening in talks and meetings because you’re on your laptop editing proposal text or writing an email or doing some ridiculous admin task. You find yourself avoiding holidays or activities with family and friends because you need to get job X done or deadline Y is approaching. You work on your down time, hell, you work all the time. Gradually you become a milder version of the monster that gets created in a system where the only thing that matters is your achievements, metrics and cv. It destroys you as a person and makes you start hating your job and hating your life.

When you add it all up, what you have is the perfect recipe for destroyed people, hollowed out souls who are nothing but work, people who should love their job but spend many days on the edge of falling to pieces, feeling like they’re worthless, deeply suspicious of their colleagues and how they might shaft them in the relentless competition for acknowledgement, which is designed by the system to be the only thing that provides job satisfaction. It’s the perfect recipe for mental dysfunction.

How to fix it? That’s harder and might be for another time…

[1] Emanuel Derman, “My Life as a quant”, Wiley NY 2004.