Sunday, 29 March 2015

Musings on academic careers - Part 1

As promised, I'm going to put down some thoughts on academic careers. In doing this, I should put my cards on the table and point out that while I am a full-time professor of astrophysics of the University of Sydney, I didn't really plan my career or following the musings given below. The musings come from take a hard look at the modern state of play in modern academia.

I am going to be as honest as possible, and surely some of my colleagues will disagree with my musings. Some people have a romantic view of many things, including science, and will trot out the line that science is somewhat distinct from people. That might be the case, but the act of doing science is clearly done my people, and that means all of the issues that govern human interactions come into play. It is important to remember this.

Now, there may be some lessons below for how to become a permanent academic, but there is no magic formula. But realising some of these lessons on what is at play may help.

Some of you may have heard me harp on about some of these issues before, but hopefully there is some new stuff as well. OK. Let's begin.

Career Management
It must be remembered that careers rarely just happen. Careers must be managed. I know some people hate to realise this, as science is supposed to be above all this career stuff - surely "good people" will be identified and rewarded!

Many students and postdocs seem to bumble along and only think of "what's next?" when they are up against the wire. I have spoken with students about the process of applying for postdocs, the long lead time needed, the requirement of at least three referees, all aspects of job hunting, and then, just moments from the submission of their PhD, they suddenly start looking for jobs. I weep a little when they frantically ask me "Who should I have as my third referee?"

Even if you are a brand-new PhD student, you need to think about career management. I don't mean planning, such as saying I will have a corner office in Harvard in 5 years (although there is nothing wrong with having aspirational goals!), but management. So, what do I mean?

Well, if you are interested in following a career in academia, then learn about the various stages and options involved and how you get from one to the other. This (and careers beyond academia) should be mandatory for new students, and reminded at all stages of your career that you need to keep thinking about it. What kind of things should you be doing at the various stages of your career? What experience would your next employer like you to have? It is very important to try and spot holes in your CV and fill them in; this is very important! If you know you have a weakness, don't ignore it, fix it.

Again, there is no magic formula to guarantee that you will be successful in moving from one stage to another, but you should be able to work out the kind of CV you need. If you are having difficulties in identifying these things, talk with people (get a mentor!).

And, for one final point, the person responsible for managing your career is you. Not your supervisor, not your parents, and not the non-existent gods of science. You are.

Being Strategic
This is part of your career management.

In the romantic vision of science, an academic is left to toddle along and be guided by their inquisitive nature to find out what is going on in the Universe. But academia does not work that way (no matter how much you want to rage against it). If you want an academic career, then it is essential to realise that you will be compared to your peers at some point. At some point, someone is is going to have a stack of CVs in front of them and will be going through them and will have to choose a subset who met the requirements for a position, and then rank those subset to find the best candidate. As part of your career management you need to understand what people are looking for! (I speak from experience of helping people prepare for jobs who know little about the actual job, the people offering it, what is needed etc etc).

I know people get very cross with this, but there are key indicators people look at, things like the number of papers, citation rates, grant income, student supervision, teaching experience. Again, at all points you need to ask "is there a hole in my CV?" and if there is, fill it! Do not ignore it.

But, you might be saying, how can I be strategic in all of this? I just get on with my work! You need to think about what you do. If you have a long running project, are there smaller projects you can do when waiting to spin out some short, punchy papers? Can I lead something that I will become world known in? Is there an idea I can spin to a student to make progress on? You should be thinking of "results" and results becoming talks at conferences and papers in journals.

If you are embarking on a new project, a project that is going to require substantial investment of time, you should ensure something will come from it, even if it is a negative or null result. You should never spend a substantial period of time, such as six months, and not have anything to show for it!

Are there collaborations you could forge and contribute to? Many people have done very well by being part of large collaborations, resulting in many papers, although, be aware that when seeing survey papers on a CV now as "well, what did this person contribute to the project?".

The flip-side is also important. Beware of spending to much time on activities that do not add to you CV! I have seen some, especially students, spending a lot of time on committees and jobs that really don't benefit them. Now, don't get me wrong. Committee work and supporting meetings etc is important, but think about where you are spending your time and ask yourself if your CV is suffering because of it.

How many hours should I work?
Your CV does not record the number of hours you work! It records your research output and successes. If you are publishing ten papers a year on four hour days, then wonderful, but if you are two years into a postdoc, working 80 hours per week and have not published anything, you might want to think about how you are using your time. 

But I am a firm believer of working smarter, not harder, and thinking and planning ideas and projects. Honestly, I have a couple of papers which (in a time before children) were born from ideas that crystalised over a weekend and submitted soon after. I am not super-smart, but do like to read widely, to go to as many talks as I can, to learn new things, and apply ideas to new problems.

One thing I have seen over and over again is people at various stages of their careers becoming narrower and narrower in their focus, and it depresses me when I go to talks in my own department and see students not attending. This narrowness, IMHO, does not help in establishing an academic career. This, of course, is not guaranteed, but when I look at CVs, I like to see breadth. 

So, number of hours is not really an important issue, your output is. Work hours do become important when you are a permanent academic because all the different things, especially admin and teaching you have to do, but as an early career researcher, it should not be the defining thing. Your output is. 

Is academia really for me?
I actually think this is a big one,  and is one which worries me as I don't think people at many stages of their career actually think about. Being a student is different to being an postdoctoral researcher, is different to being an academic, and it seems to be that people embarking on PhDs, with many a romantic notion about winning a Nobel prize somewhere along the way, don't really know what an "academic" is and what they do, just that it is some sort of goal.

In fact, this is such a big one, I think this might be a good place to stop and think about later musings.

6 comments:

  1. But I am a firm believer of working smarter, not harder, and thinking and planning ideas and projects. Honestly, I have a couple of papers which (in a time before children) were born from ideas that crystalised over a weekend and submitted soon after. I am not super-smart, but do like to read widely, to go to as many talks as I can, to learn new things, and apply ideas to new problems.

    One thing I have seen over and over again is people at various stages of their careers becoming narrower and narrower in their focus, and it depresses me when I go to talks in my own department and see students not attending. This narrowness, IMHO, does not help in establishing an academic career. This, of course, is not guaranteed, but when I look at CVs, I like to see breadth.

    Geraint, I have come across this phenomena a lot over the years.
    We at The MAS hold our Forum each month and invite scientists like yourself, to bring us up to date with the latest research, on various subjects.
    These forums are made available to the public for free, and are advertised in the local media, schools and University websites.
    Unfortunately, the turn out over time has been poor at best.
    A disappointing situation.

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  2. By poor, I direct this comment to the university students.

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  3. I basically agree with everything, but note that there are some other problems as well.

    Academic jobs are rare. In the interest of academia, they should go to the people who are best qualified. Sometimes they don't. I won't mention any names, but every person who lands a good job and as part of the package negotiates a job for his or her spouse, who otherwise would never have had a chance, is taking a job away from someone else who deserves it more. Some of the excuses I've heard are really lame: "It's not a permanent job, it's just a five-year fellowship to tide me over." Well, I would certainly still have an academic job today if I had had that undeserved (from the point of view of "what's on the CV") five-year fellowship when I needed it. "Oh, it doesn't take anything from anyone, since they created a new position for me." Well, the money had to come from somewhere. At least indirectly, that's one less job for someone more deserving. The only case where this might not apply is someone who lands a position with negotiable salary and, having negotiated the sum, says "Pay me a regular salary and pay my spouse the rest". OK, here one could perhaps argue that since the total sum had already been negotiated, no harm is done. But would it otherwise have been necessary to negotiate such a high sum? Even if the money is not a problem, something else is. This person puts "permanent position at prestigious institute" on their CV, which helps them advance somewhere they otherwise couldn't, perhaps after the divorce from the leading spouse. That is unfair. There are very probably more deserving people who could have made more of such a position.

    In some sense, this is related to the dual-career couples. Yes, it's fine if the institute helps in relocating, contacting local authorities, organizing things, etc, especially in a foreign country. But giving the trailing spouse a job? In essence, the trailing spouse gets a job which would not have resulted out of own qualifications because of having sex with a certain person. In any other context, inside or outside of academia, this is simply unacceptable behaviour. And don't tell me how difficult a time dual-career couples have. Sure, it's more difficult to get two jobs at the same institute than to get one (which is difficult enough). However, a family can live on one academic salary. If it is money you want, you're in the wrong business. Yes, people in academia should be paid enough, but people who don't deserve a position based on their academic merits should not be. And people who have families where the spouse is not in academia can be in a much worse situation. In many cases, the spouse cannot work at all in another country, or only after several years of re-training or whatever. These people have a much heavier burden on their academic careers, but the dual-career couples don't care about that.

    Unfortunately, it is now politically correct to do everything one can to help dual-career couples. Unfortunately, this is often conflated with real issues, such as making it easier to combine a career (not just in academia) with a family, preventing discrimination, etc. So, wearing my cynic's hat, my advice for a successful academic career is: Seduce the most promising colleague you can and muster enough humility to play the trailing-spouse role.

    My wish is that the academic community take a zero-tolerance policy towards awarding positions based on anything other than academic merit. I think the only way to achieve this is to have recommendations made by a committee with no conflict of interest and make the decision public: Publish the list of all applicants, ranked in order, with reasons for the ranking. If the employers override such a recommendation, they need to, publicly of course, give a very good justification.

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    Replies
    1. Part of the point I am trying to make is that it is important to realise that science is not the fantasy world of the textbook (or dreamt up by the young researcher) but is a career involving interactions with people and committees etc. If you go into with your eyes closed, thinking the prospects of getting a permanent job is simply related to what's in your head, then you are going to get burnt. There is much more to it than that (including the issues you raised) and it's important to realise that.

      >> academic community take a zero-tolerance policy

      I think you would get the same outcome. The perceived "excellence" of a candidate is still based on many things outside of the thoughts in their heads.

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    2. Yes, there is certainly more too it than just doing good work. Some things should be necessary: the ability to work with other people, at least to some extent; the ability to convey one's results to other scientists and to the public; the ability to organize things, bring in grant money; etc. Lots of things which Helmut Schmidt called "secondary virtues". Means to an end, and they shouldn't become ends in themselves, but necessary.

      Then there are things which should not play a role. Take the standard recommendations, whether or not you agree with them: number of papers, number of citations, spending time at more than one institute, bringing in money, good at organization, whatever. There are a few people who are several-sigma deviations in the negative sense in most or all of these categories, but still have good jobs. Almost always, the reason is obvious if one knows a bit about them; often, they are the trailing spouse in a dual-couple hire. I think it would be good if the community actually did discuss this a bit more. As it is, it's almost a taboo to even bring it up. (This is not always the case, of course. I know of one case where some students didn't even realize that two members of staff were married, even though they had the same surname.)

      Another problem is the lack of job security. Even if the best candidate is always hired, one can only hire from the pool of applicants, missing even good people who left the field not because they weren't good enough, because they were, but for other reasons. Sure, the absolute geniuses don't have a problem, and complete failures won't stay on, but most of us are in-between, and most people who get jobs are in-between. Someone whom I'm sure you've met once told me that had his wife not been rich then he would no longer be in astronomy today, because he couldn't have survived on the low salary while working with <prestigious professor> at <prestigious institution>.

      Once at a conference, at dinner I happened to sit across from a well known senior scientist. The topic turned to the one we are discussing now (not due to me). I remarked that, due to lack of job security, some really good people do leave the field. He looked around the room and said "I've heard that before, but where are these people. I don't see any of them here. Do they really exist?" I thought he was joking, but was astounded to realize that he meant it in all seriousness. One would think that an astronomer, of all people, would understand selection effects.

      I think that some folks don't want to discuss these sorts of things for several reasons. One, some depend on cheap labour. Two, some feel accused that they might not really have been the best candidate for their own position (even if they were)---it just opens a can of worms. Three, there are a few people who enjoy being the wheeler-dealers, which they couldn't be to the same extent with a more objective system.

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  4. I know people get very cross with this, but there are key indicators people look at, things like the number of papers, citation rates, grant income, student supervision, teaching experience. Again, at all points you need to ask "is there a hole in my CV?" and if there is, fill it! Do not ignore it.

    Unfortunately, some people succeed by publishing many papers which are not very good. Some employers do look at just the number, and not the contents. While it might help in getting a job, I don't think people should be encouraged to take this route.

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