On success and reward in academia

So it’s been six months since I blogged here, which is frankly atrocious. Having said that, it doesn’t really feel like six months, because everything is whooshing past at such a rate (although interestingly, while we all like to agree that time is speeding up as we get older, the evidence for this is equivocal).

Anyway, time to fill the void. Hi, void. How are you?


I’m coming to that, but I need to tell you some stories on my way there.


(Aside: are you following @FEMINISTHULK on Twitter? You should; CAPS LOCK has never looked so attractive.)

This post is coming out of several conversations I’ve had recently about what it’s like to be an academic, and how academics spend their time. I think a lot of this is really not transparent to people who don’t work inside academia; a lot of the time, I don’t think it’s all that obvious to students, either.

First up, here’s Mark Changizi on why he just left academia:

You can’t write a grant proposal whose aim is to make a theoretical breakthrough.

“Dear National Science Foundation: I plan on scrawling hundreds of pages of notes, mostly hitting dead ends, until, in Year 4, I hit pay-dirt.”

Lots of research is by nature theoretical and speculative, the kind of thing you just need to chew on, indefinitely, until you make a breakthrough. But increasingly, funding bodies are turning away from this sort of thing in favour of applied research. Indeed, there’s a massive hoo-hah about HEFCE‘s new Research Excellence Framework (the thing that used to be the Research Assessment Exercise — that is, the attempt to objectively measure how “good” a university department’s research is) and exactly what they mean by ‘impact’.

It’s pretty hard for theoretical research to have impact. (I guess the clue is in the word ‘theoretical’.)

Mark again:

in what feels like no time at all, two decades have flown by, and (if you’re “lucky”) you’re the bread-winning star at your university and research discipline.

But success at that game meant you never had time to do the creative theoretical leaps you had once hoped to do. You were transformed by the contemporary academic system into an able grant-getter, and somewhere along the way lost sight of the more fundamental overthrower-of-dogma and idea-monger identity you once strived for.

Mark’s a theoretician, an absurdly talented one (I can’t even envy him for that, because he’s such a nice guy) — if anyone should be able to thrive within academia, it’s him. But he’s gone, because universities are changing from environments in which academics are free to consider ideas and theories into income-seeking machines.

Wait — you thought universities were about educating people? Well, keep reading, but you might want to be sitting down.

Mark’s experience is different from mine — he’s a theoretician, and I, after many years of not knowing how to describe what I do, have finally started calling myself an applied cognitive psychologist. (My mind is much better at applying theory to existing situations than it is at coming up with entirely new ideas about how the world works.) But what our experiences of academia have in common is that it’s hard to find anyone who will reward us for doing the things we do best, even when those things are ostensibly pillars of academia.

Example? Sure. Here are the things about my job that people senior to me notice whether I am doing:

* Authoring research papers (preferably in high-impact journals)
* Bringing in money through grant funding
* Bringing in money through other means (such as knowledge transfer or consultancy work)
* Attracting negative feedback from students
* Giving a class lower- or higher-than-average marks
* Completing the requisite admin tasks required for my teaching
* Meeting my personal development goals for the year
* Turning up to the relevant staff, admin and committee meetings

Here are some things about my job that nobody senior to me will notice whether I am doing unless something is on fire:

* Teaching well (unless I am namechecked by students right in front of them)
* Reviewing and revising my lecture notes from one year to the next
* Keeping up to date with developments in the theory and practice of teaching and learning
* Being involved in learning and teaching projects at a university-wide level
* Innovating in my teaching (and encouraging or helping others to innovate)

Above all, as I found myself explaining to an incredulous American friend last week, it is pretty much impossible to get promoted on the basis of being a stellar university teacher. I don’t actually think I’m a stellar teacher — but what I’m saying is, there’s no real incentive even to try, because all I’m doing, in striving for teaching excellence, is making work for myself: not only do I have to try to squeeze all this teaching innovation in, I also have to find time to do and write up my ‘real’ research.

So what have I been doing since February? I can’t believe I’m about to type this, but here goes:

leaving the office on time, and going to the gym.

This would be the bit where I proudly announce that I now have a life, right? But actually? I’m exhausted. And it’s not from going to the gym. I’m exhausted because it’s nearly impossible to do my job inside contracted hours if you care about teaching quality. Or if you have many research projects on the go that might one day lead to publications; I have about five of these, and they eat up time and money with no guarantee that the results will ever be publishable, assuming I even have the time and energy to write them up.

teaching vs research time.png

(Disclaimer: the above graph is purely conceptual, being based on no data whatsoever, but I think most academics would recognise it.)

Did you know that academics are estimated to work somewhere in the region of 50 hours a week? Why? Well, as I can now attest from personal experience, it’s the only way they can get anything done.

So where have I been? Mostly, trying not to have a breakdown. Trying to balance having a life with conducting teaching and research to a high standard. Trying to find a balance between using the summer to write up my research findings and taking the vacation time I’m owed (and which I never have time to take during term, because, hello, teaching and admin). Trying to rationalise what I can do, and what I can’t. Practicing saying ‘no’.

It is hard. And the students are back in just over a month and I do not feel rested at all, and I haven’t done half the work I hoped to. And last summer was exactly the same.

So, void, that’s where I’ve been. Interesting times.

It’s not all doom and gloom. I’m learning things about myself, like for instance that I’m a ninja copy-editor — when you give me your poorly-written paper to co-author, I will turn it into something sublime, geeking out for hours while my fourth cup of coffee in a row goes cold. (Now I just need to figure out how to work this way with all my co-authors.) I’ve embarked on a big e-learning project, more about which soon. And I’m slowly getting more clarity about what I want and don’t want in my job. These are all good things.

And the gym? I’ll definitely keep going to the gym. Being fit is great, but more importantly, you should sponsor me to run a half-marathon for charity :)

Thanks for listening; it’s nice to be back.


Filed under my stuff, other people's stuff

19 responses to “On success and reward in academia

  1. Sadie

    I think the fact that the funding model in higher education rewards research, not actual education, is a huge problem – the complaints I hear from academics are mostly about being too busy teaching to write papers, apply for grants or even just get their research done. And really, both are essential to the success of the sector – but that doesn’t mean that everyone has to do both!

    (Oh, and the not-enough-hours-in-the-day thing? That’s not just you. Where the heck has my nice quiet summer when I was going to do lots of development work gone?)

    • Thanks for commenting!

      And really, both are essential to the success of the sector – but that doesn’t mean that everyone has to do both!

      I think I agree with this, but to me it gets a bit sticky when people start down this road, for reasons I’ll try to elaborate concisely here:

      The argument that research and teaching might be separate endeavours usually seems to end up at “we should have separate teaching and research universities”. We’ve been here before, in the polytechnic era (indeed, where I work is a former polytechnic, though one that’s now trying, as a university, to compete with institutions who have been honing this stuff for, literally, centuries). I still don’t entirely know how I feel about a potential return to that state of affairs (it’s a very Battlestar Galactica-esque “all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again” kind of a thing). I do believe that the best university teaching should be coming from people who are at least on some level engaging with the research, or it will be stale and irrelevant.

      Another issue is that I enjoy both activities (though I know plenty of people who’d rather just do research all the time, but that doesn’t always pay for itself, so that’s where undergraduate teaching comes in). I do have colleagues who are almost entirely one or the other, and who seem relatively content with things as they are; I suspect those of us in between are the ones angsting over all this.

      • Triplewicky

        Welcome back! As usual, I find the whole HE teaching vs research thing simultaneously interesting and frustrating. I got the chance to teach during my stint of postgrad study and found it hugely enjoyable and challenging, but the institution I was at didn’t value teaching at all, and made it clear that if I was to continue there, research would need to be my primary focus. In addition, my research tends to be very much driven by serendipity and curiosity, which makes it very hard to write research proposals about it… so, I left and I’m now looking into teaching in FE in an attempt to have that as a priority, and take the pressure off my meandering researchy thoughts. I agree, though, that the best situation is where one activity informs the other in a virtuous circle!

        • Hi!

          my research tends to be very much driven by serendipity and curiosity, which makes it very hard to write research proposals about it

          Wait — are you me? ;)

          I wish you every success in FE; from talking to friends who work there, it kind of feels like you might get more control of your environment than in HE, though I don’t know if that’s an accurate perception (and you get longer holidays too! At least, in the UK you do; I can’t speak for elsewhere).

  2. Mmaestro

    Not actually a surprise, but depressing nonetheless. I mostly hear about this sorry of thing from people trying to balance academia and parenthood (well, who am I kidding, motherhood), and it seems like the whole system is set up to make it impossible to have enough time foyer academics and anything else. That more and more, the academics isn’t even productive either I think its going to come back and but the universities in the ass, because lose that, and what incentive does anyone have to put up with it? I hope someone important reads this and realizes there needs to be some change, I’m guessing in funding. Some sort of discretionary fund, without ties to results. I always thought of that as government’s role. Immediate results can be funded by industry, they’re’s profit there. The other, pie in the sky stuff really ought to be funded by government precisely because no one else will.

    • Hey, thanks for commenting. I think there are plenty of people making this work, so to the people at the top, the system doesn’t necessarily look broken. I’ve met parents (you’re right, it is almost all mothers) who are struggling with the demands of academia, and parents who are coping — though “coping” looks a lot like “working odd hours/at weekends/on vacation time”.

      Government seems to be in the business of farming out as much as possible to the private sector, so I probably wouldn’t look there for blue-skies research funding.

  3. “And I’m slowly getting more clarity about what I want and don’t want in my job.”

    I think this is a really good thing even though it might not feel like it right now. Not least because being worried about not doing things you value well is exhausting (on top of all the actual work). And being clear on what you value and what you don’t give a damn about, and what you are willing to put up with in order to keep the stuff you love, might help with lots of that under the surface exhausting stuff.

    There must be a way to get more of that co-authoring mojo into your research life.

    • Thanks for this, Jo. It’s a process! I guess I’m working through it. And yes, working out how to harness my co-authoring mojo is something I’m keen to do, now that I’ve finally figured it out. All thoughts welcome!

  4. Hi,

    I like the blog. But I wonder how your public identification of your employment puts you in a vaguely liminal public/private space for this?


    • Hi TAL! I’m liking your blog right back :)

      Yeah, it’s a sticky issue. When I started blogging here I was doing so anonymously, but I did a lot of thinking and reading about identity online and decided that I could be more authentic (and people could trust my content better) if I decloaked.

      It’s still something I wrestle with, because (as in this post) I’m sailing quite close to the wind when I’m honest about what life in academia is like. It probably helps that this blog doesn’t have a very high profile; I could reasonably have added “blogging about my job” to the list of things nobody senior to me will notice unless something is on fire ;)

      Another mixed blessing of being identifiable is that it keeps me honest and fair, because I’m accountable. I’m fairly sure that it’s stopped me, on several occasions, from saying things that my institution might find defamatory (which isn’t to say that I don’t think them, but putting them in print is a whole ‘nother thing entirely).

      What’s the view like from your side of the fence?

      And hey, are you on Twitter? I’ve pretty much given up on RSS, but I’d love to stay up to date with your blog, and Twitter’s a good way of doing that (it’s also good at driving site traffic, if you care about that sort of thing).

      Thanks so much for stopping by :)


      • Hi Chris,

        Thanks for the detailed response. I think your decision to unmask is a rather brave one. Sharing one’s thoughts always carries some degree of personal peril.

        Academic blogging in Aus is generally discouraged unless it is a Research Group/Content only blog. I cannot think of anyone who actually blogs in the format of a professional journal, for instance. Job security is pretty tenuous here at the moment :)

        I think authenticity is an interesting issue. I use the blog to get a sense of humour about the job/institution, which I can’t do in my normal job or academic writings. So while it is quite authentic in a sense of my personal identity, it is rather inauthentic from an institutional standpoint.

        Looking forward to reading more of your blog,

        PS – I do use twitter, but not with any competence or understanding of the medium whatsoever

        • Sharing one’s thoughts always carries some degree of personal peril.

          True. Hopefully I’m on the right side of the brave/stupid line ;) Job security has entered the ‘interesting’ phase in the UK as well; we’re all just waiting to see, I guess.

          So while it is quite authentic in a sense of my personal identity, it is rather inauthentic from an institutional standpoint.

          I think this touches on one of the really interesting questions in academia: is possible to be completely yourself while also representing the institution? Answers on a postcard …

          I’ve found Twitter incredibly useful with regard to blogging: it brings traffic to the blog, and also allows a degree of discussion about things that just doesn’t seem to happen in blog comments a lot lately. By having that discussion, more people are then more likely to follow up on blog posts that I link to, so we build a community of sorts. But I guess it depends on what you want out of the whole thing; some ideas here.



  5. Hey Chris, I don’t have anything deep and meaningful to say about the struggles of academia – but just wanted to say hello! It’s not a void out here.

  6. What? How dare you post when I’m not keeping up with blog reading?

    Sheesh – I read that Feb post title every day for MONTHS!

    Very interesting post – and appallingly brave, I would imagine.

    Thought-provoking too about the mid- to long-term societal impacts of academics needing to fit with metrics that don’t support either teaching nor innovation.


    Love reading your writing… (No pressure.)

    • How dare you post when I’m not keeping up with blog reading?

      Hee. To be fair, it was just the once ;o)

      Bless you for checking back; I truly haven’t had the energy to be here, but I love that someone noticed.

      Um, well, hopefully I’m not tempting fate by adding “blogging about how academic is affecting my life” to the list of “things no-one will notice”.

      Thanks for reading, and commenting – I genuinely hope that I’ll be a more regular presence here in the next few months. It cheers me up no end when people take the time to comment, too :)

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