This is the third in a series of things I think academia would do well to look to and learn from business (also see how many business hats an academic wears and business advice books). When I left the business world and went back to graduate school in 1997, there were many things I liked better about the academic culture. But there was one thing that jumped out at me as immediately badly flawed in academic culture: meetings. Everything about them – when held, why held, how held. To be sure a good meeting is a combination of artful guidance by its leaders and participants and a bit of luck. But there are some clear rules of thumb that help.
In the first post in this series I argued that whether you know it or not if you are training to be a PI in an academic (or government or NGO) environment, you basically have to wear a bunch of different hats corresponding to all the different functions a business has from human resources to sales and marketing to management. What you may not know is that the business world is absolutely aflood in advice/self-help books on every topic under the sun. It’s a bit of a joke really. Every year hundreds of books come out claiming to show you how to be the best in the world. But people buy them. And read them. Even if they don’t want to they have to read some of them because they become the lingo du jour. It won’t impress the boss if you have a vacant look when she uses the latest buzz word. From my business days, I recall having to read a book called “Crossing the Chasm” before an executive retreat because the boss expected it and we were all going to talk about it. It was, to say the least, fluffy. It took a couple of hundred pages to say what could have been said in 20. And it was entirely anecdotal. It short it was a typical self-help book. One concept and a bunch of inspiration. And it was totally off target – it was all about moving from selling to early technology adopters to the mass market. Only our products were never going to move to the mass market. Ironically if you’ve ever flipped through an inflight magazine you will see an add promising to save busy executives time by provided digested versions of all the important business books for the year.
For those of you who identified some gaps in skills relative to the list I laid out and want some advice on where to go to develop some of those skills, I want to provide you my own version of the digest. Here I will summarize (but definitely encourage you to read) key points from four books to help develop some of the business skills most academics don’t get trained in. I’m not going to offer anything in human resources, accounting or general counsel (although see this post on intellectual property law). They are boring and country specific and most academics matter them with the patience and kindness of the people doing these functions in their university. And of course I am not going to refer you to a book to learn how to do your core function of science. But I’ve got suggestions for management, marketing, sales, and time management. And I’m not going to say this repeatedly. But every one of these books is short and fluffy and a very quick read. And easily available second hand (business books sell at much higher volume than academic books for some reason …). So if a book on my list interests you, I strongly encourage you to go read it. It will cost you $5-$10 and two hours.
I spent 9 years working as a computer consultant for a private company, consulting with many very large companies that are household names. At the age of 30 I left business for academia and for the most part am much happier and feel like academia is a much healthier place to work for me. But there are days and times I find myself remembering my days in business and wishing academia would be more like business. I’ve mentioned in the past that I think business has at least the potential for doing a better job of dealing with bullies and harassment. In general, I’ve found academics have a lot of curiosity about life “on the other side” and what areas businesses do things better. So I’ve planned a series of blog posts on the topic*.
This post is focused on using business language to be more clear about the roles a PI needs to fulfill (and for that matter most graduate students and postdocs need to at least begin learning how to do and in other cases outright take responsibility for on their own). I frequently make the following analogy with my graduate students. I tell students that they are president of their own company (which starts with only themselves as an employee but often grows to have a dozen or more workers) and they need to know and wear all of the hats a company president wears including human resources, marketing, etc. Even if we’re in academia and not profit-motivated, humans are humans, and human enterprises all have the same basic needs.
About a year ago, shortly after the March for Science, I wrote a three part series on living as a scienitst in a post-fact world (how we got there, why humans rarely use facts to decide what to believe, and why/how scientists should engage with policy). Peter Adler wrote a spirited rebuttal “Response to a post-fact world: in defense of the honest broker“. I responded at the time in the comments. But Meghan’s recent review of the Merchants of Doubt got me thinking about this again. So did an opportunity to shadow my representative in the Maine legislature for a day with my son. During that day I was introduced to one of only two scientists in that body out of 185 people (House + Senate).The two main topics of debate, solar energy fees and legalizing marijuana, both had substantial areas where science could have been informative, but seemed to have little to no impact on the debate, and for that matter the debate seemed to have little to no impact on the actual outcome. Rational discussion of facts is not really how policy gets made. So I want to return to my post-fact world claim that scientists need to become more engaged in policy and Peter’s rebuttal. In particular, I want to suggest that scientists get so muddled in how to relate to policy because we confuse two separate axes.
A good writer knows the conventions that their reader expects. Then they slavishly follow these conventions 95% of the time so the reader doesn’t get distracted by convention violations and instead keep their attention on what you’re trying to communicate. A good writer also occasionally and very deliberately violates these conventions as a sort of exclamation to highlight and emphasize points. Continue reading
I am convinced that most people become scientists not for the big overarching aims of science, but for personal reasons. Because I love the outdoors, plants, working with data, and a very flexible independent job would be four of mine. Others love working with their hands, a certain form of status, just love their species, etc. But none of these are the overarching goals of science. And even if I don’t think overarching goals are why we get into science, I do think most scientists are bought into the overarching goals of science as well. Certainly I think most scientists see themselves as truth-seekers. Can we be more specific about the overarching goals of science? I am going to argue that there are three major overarching goals of science:
According to a text mining analysis of the papers ecologists publish, the number of p-values per paper has increased about 10-fold from 1970 to 2010. Where 0 p-values was sufficient to get a paper published in 1930, about 1 p-value per paper was expected to be published in 1970, and now about 10 p-values per paper are needed in the 2010s (Low-Decarie et al 2014 Figure 2). Our science must now be at least 10 times as rigorous! The only thing in the way of the p-value juggernaut is AIC which has been gaining at the expense of slowing down p-value growth. I’ve already shared my opinions that AIC is appealing to ecologists for some not so good reasons. Here I want to argue that we have gotten into some pretty sloppy thinking about p-values a well. Continue reading
Academics generate a lot of intellectual property (IP for short). Arguably it is the main thing we do aside from teaching. And the IP landscape is changing rapidly both in and out of academia. This is yet-another-thing academics are supposed to be excellent at without any formal training. I don’t have extensive training, but I spent 10 years working in the software world and often was the lead business person working with lawyers to negotiate software contracts. So I have thought about these topics and how they are evolving. They seem to be evolving in some directions that don’t make sense to me. So I thought I would write a brief guide to the issues and raise some of the concerns I have. Continue reading
I have been working on writing one book and helping to revise another one recently. For a while I found it really hard going because I expected it to work like writing a paper (or blog post) is for me now. But gradually I came to realize that I needed to write in a different way and that in fact there were other situations when I wrote that way. I have gotten very used to writing with or from a point of view, where as for the book I was needing to go back to the way I wrote my very first papers – writing to find my point of view.
Note from Brian: This is a guest post from Thiago Silva a professor in the Geography department of São Paulo State University (UNESP), in Rio Claro, Brazil. A while back we had an ask us anything question on perceptions of ecology coming out of developing countries. This post stimulated a lot of discussion and it was suggested to solicit some first person experiences. This post is currently the last post on this topic (for a while at least). There have been a lot of common themes but also a lot of diverse perspectives. I encourage you to read them all!
So I had about 2400 words written about “Doing Ecology in Brazil”, after receiving Brian’s invitation to write this guest post (Thanks!). And I went on and on detailing the problems with funding, infrastructure, bureaucracy, and so on. Some of it echoed previous posts from Isabela, Pavel, Falko, and Marco, some was new. You can read it here, if you’d like, and it might help give context to what I say below. But as I wrote it, I kept having the feeling that “there was something else”, and when it hit finally hit me, I wrote this instead.
It is very noticeable that the posts were mostly negative, and focused on problems and frustrations. And from the start, I kept asking myself – “Why is this question being asked?”. No one would even think about asking “how much do scientists in the developed world contribute to ecological research?”, so the subtext is that scientists in developing countries are lacking in some aspect, and that begs questioning the importance of their contribution.
And it is true, we are lacking. In funds, in infrastructure, in opportunities, in stability, and so on. Everyone made that very clear. Although, let’s be honest, myself and the writers of the previous posts are still very privileged. Both Brazil and South Africa are part of the BRICS, and Brazil is the 9th largest economy in the world. We often receive exchange students from African countries at my university, and if you can ask them about research in Brazil, the picture will be way different. I remember witnessing a very heated argument between a bus driver and an African exchange student, who would just not accept the complaining by the driver and kept insisting that we had it great in Brazil. But we don need to go that far; just ask anyone working at a satellite campus of a smaller Brazilian university, somewhere in the interior of the poorest Brazilian states. Their reality is way, way far from ours. That was the second thought I kept having: how can I be so negative about being a researcher at a university consistently ranked among the best in Brazil, located in the state which alone contributes with about a third of the country’ s GDP and has a state science foundation with a budget comparable to the entire federal funding agency? Am I just ungrateful? Am I just being a Xennial?
And then it hit me. The dominating feeling of frustration that echoed in all the posts comes exactly from not being at either tail end of the curve. If we imagine Ecology or any science as a race*, our countries are not be leading, but we are close enough to see the leading racers. We are close enough that our universities, funding agencies, and even our peers expect us to race equally. And when we continuously fail to meet these expectations, we feel frustrated, and inadequate, and see ourselves as imposters.
But this is the thing, we aren’t failing because we’re not good enough, but just because we don’t have the same support system as scientists in the developed world (which was what I was initially writing about). We can’t get grants as large, and when we get we’re not paid on time or get the amount due. When we finally do get paid, then our money buys us less. And even when we can afford it, we get held back by paralyzing bureaucracy. And if we do manage to afford and have it, it will likely become impossible to maintain it because of the rollercoaster. And this is just the funding aspect.
Educational gaps also make a huge difference. We don’t speak the consensus language of science natively, nor are properly educated on it when young. Our entire education system is inferior at all levels, from primary to higher education, so we all need to work extra hard to bring ourselves to the level of the ‘developed world’. And this problem continues even after you “make it’; your supervised students will also be ‘behind’ students in the developed world in reading, writing, and overall learning. Look at the stats given by Falko. That means investing significant more time in mentoring and supervising students, so they can themselves become good scientists and make important contributions.
On top of this, there is the significant administrative overhead, as we receive much less support from our institutions, and most departments are understaffed. We have no grants offices, so each PI must manage every cent spent, keep track of every single receipt, and fill every single line of the insanely complex accounting spreadsheets. Even at the best research universities in Brazil, we have teaching loads similar to American teaching universities, but are expected to do research like we were at a R1 university. Oh, and with no TAs. If you follow Terry McGlynn’s accounts on working at a teaching university that serves underprivileged students, you have the picture of how it is to work at any Brazilian university. Except you still have the high-level research expectations.
So that is the gist of being an ecologist (or any scientist) in a wealthy developing world country. You haven’t really made the jump to the developed world, but you’re expected to act and deliver as if you had, even though about everything else in the system is lacking. And not just by your employers and funders, but mostly by your colleagues in your country and outside it. You will be seen as ‘less productive’ because you don’t have as many papers, even though it costs you many more hours of work and money to produce and document that same piece of knowledge. You will be seen as ‘less competent’ because you publish stuff on your small national journals, even if it is just because you cant afford to pay as often for revisions/translations and/or publication fees, so you can publish your work of the same quality on the consensus “Plan B” open access journals of the develop world.
And the worst of all is knowing that you could do all these, and be producing as much good ecological knowledge, if you had the same support system. Is the feeling of not being able to answer this really cool question because you can’t afford that one extra lab analysis or have the assurance that you’ll actually receive the grant that was awarded to you. Is seeing that question being answered by someone else, while the unfinished manuscript is still lingering on your computer, which you could have finished if only you had received that one piece of equipment in time, or the help of a TA, a research assistant, or a grant manager to free up some of your time.
And this shared frustration gets me both worried and angry. Worried because the pattern I’ve been observing is that to be “internationally recognized”, Brazilian scientists progressively sacrifice their humanity and that of the people around them. With every up-tick on impact factor and H-index comes an increase in questionable grant spending practices, questionable publishing practices, and more treatment of students, assistants and even colleagues as slave robots, fodder to be sacrificed to the publishing and funding gods. All of a sudden, being a ‘recognized scientist’ becomes more important than the science itself, and if that is what my future holds, I’ll pass. I know a lot of my senior, ‘recognized’ colleagues would criticize me, saying I just need to ‘man up’, and do what it takes, but as I’ve been saying more and more lately, if being a ‘leading scientist’ means betraying what I believe in, then I guess I’ll never be one .
And I get angry, because at the end, we’re chasing and being judged by standards that were not decided by us, which are based on working conditions and realities that are not ours, and that are even being increasingly questioned from within. After living in Canada for six years for my PhD, I returned to Brazil following a very unsuccessful foray into the North-American academic job market. At the time, I rationalized this ‘failure’ to myself by saying “Well, at least you wont have to work so hard”. And yet, now I find myself working as hard or harder, while ‘achieving less’ by the conventional standards, and I feel increasingly frustrated and betrayed by the system. But a lot of that is my own fault, by accepting and pursuing standards that should not apply to me.
So maybe we should stop asking the question that in truth is “how much do scientists from developing countries contribute to ecological research … by the standards of the developed world?” and just realize that of course we do contribute as well as any scientist, to the best of our ability, and often in important ways that aren’t recognized by the current standards. And we should be proud of that, and stop measuring ourselves by the standards of others. The best perk of being a developing anything is having the opportunity to learn from the experiences and mistakes of the developed, so we can skip steps and do better without having to copy or repeat them.
I would like to thank Annia Susin Streher for reviewing this first version of my rumbling, and both her and Tadeu Siqueira for long and repeated lunch and beer discussions over these issues.
* This is just a metaphor. We shouldn’t see science as a competition, and the fact that people do so is a large part of the problem.