Every attempt to manage academia makes it worse

Very important stuff when it comes to measuring academia.

Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week

I’ve been on Twitter since April 2011 — nearly six years. A few weeks ago, for the first time, something I tweeted broke the thousand-retweets barrier. And I am really unhappy about it. For two reasons.

First, it’s not my own content — it’s a screen-shot of Table 1 from Edwards and Roy (2017):


And second, it’s so darned depressing.

The problem is a well-known one, and indeed one we have discussed here before: as soon as you try to measure how well people are doing, they will switch to optimising for whatever you’re measuring, rather than putting their best efforts into actually doing good work.

In fact, this phenomenon is so very well known and understood that it’s been given at least three different names by different people:

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Academics Supporting Academics

If you hang out in the academic circles of Twitter or the blogosphere[1] you’ll find many frightening stories about the cutthroat and ruthless nature of the world’s self-appointed thinkers. Bullying in academia has its own Wiki page (don’t be too shocked, academia is also an industry that hosts regular edit-a-thons of Wikipedia), and is frequently the topic of thinkpieces in your favourite left-leaning media (again, don’t be too surprised, we’re also an industry that writes for a living).

Bullying in academia is a problem, and early career researchers are frequently left unsupported. But this is not the only story. I’ve heard tales from my own university that make my skin crawl, but I think it’s equally important to highlight when things work well. I have always been incredibly lucky to work in supportive teams, and I’d like to think I help to support my colleagues, so if you want to change the culture of your academic workplace, here are the things that work for me:

1. Ask for help

SRUC recently hosted Temple Grandin for a series of talks, and I was invited to talk about my research as part of an early career day. I’m not the kind of person who gets nervous about talking, but presenting your research, that you’ve just written a book on, to one of science’s biggest characters is not a normal kind of talk.

I asked for help.

My colleague, Jess Martin, pictured to my left in this Tweet, sat with me as we flicked through my slides. She gave me some brilliant advice on my slides, and then she gave me some tips for coping with nerves during presentations. I think it’s important to point out that these are skills I have, I win competitions (and book deals) on these skills, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need help sometimes. As academics we like to  believe we are experts, that we have irreplaceable skills. If we don’t believe this then everyone is our competition . . .

Here’s the thing, every woman in that photo could do my job better than me if they put their mind to it. We are a strong team, not when we scrabble for funding scraps, but when we sit down together to see where we can learn from one another.


2. Acknowledge your colleagues

She won’t thank me but I want to call Jess out specifically here. Jess is one of these people who will always have time to help you if you ask for it. Jess also uses peoples names.

In a meeting, when Jess wants to echo someone’s idea she says “Jill’s point was a good one…”. I’ve started trying to do the same. “I agree with Bob”, “I missed what Alice said, can you say it again?”

I often find myself in meetings where there is a spread of paygrades around the table. You and your fellow early career researchers will not be on the radar until you all start speaking about your achievements. Don’t push your own agenda at the expense of others. When Bob makes a good point, tell people it was Bob’s idea.


3. Think about wellbeing

I have another set of colleagues, Kirsty Hughes, Sharon Boyd and Jessie Paterson, who are very engaged with workplace wellbeing. They organise various sessions to get us thinking about things other than work. I’m going to be talking about video games for my team later this month. They’re not mandatory, but they’re there. Just before Christmas my boss was teasing me for me affection for glitter as we made some Christmas cards, and then we pondered our approach to one of my current projects.

Good bosses are very important here, and another place where I’ve always been incredibly fortunate. But even if you don’t have a supportive boss, think about how you and your colleagues interact. Working in Scotland my colleagues and I are big fans of the pub debrief, but there’s plenty to be said for walk-and-talks out in nature, for crafting sessions and opportunities to explore hobbies.

Hobbies teach skills you can bring into the workplace, my photography and videogaming are both things I can use in my role, but that’s not the real gain here. Work shouldn’t make you sick. It’s as simple as that.


4. Go home!

Don’t be part of the culture that normalises sleeping under your desk. Go home at a reasonable time. If you are sending an email to a colleague and you see their out of office is on, it’s very easy to delay an email so it gets sent when they’re back, and it takes very little extra effort on your part. Turn off email notifications on your phone, turn off your inbox’s ability to pop up every time a new email hits your inbox. If you have a short question why not visit your colleague’s office, instead of sending an email?

Don’t fall into the trap of saying “this is how it was for me, this is how it’ll be for my students”. I hope the future generation has a better life than ours.


5. Reflect on feedback

This is the one I find most challenging. I like to think of myself as amazing at all times, but I’m not. I do things wrong, I lack several skills, I have a long way to go. I found my Higher Education Academy application to be a revelation in this sense. I still struggle to take feedback on board, but I like to think I’m getting there.

Trying to hear feedback as about the work, and not about me, is not easy. On the whole academics are good at things and don’t like failing, but our work is always about failing. You’re never going to answer that question perfectly, you’re never going to be perfect. Let yourself be messy, let yourself fail, give yourself space to grow. How else will you know when you need to go to your colleagues for help, or when it’s time to stop bashing your head off the keyboard and go for a walk?

Self-reflection isn’t easy, but there needs to be a lot more of it in science.