Category Archives: Sandbox

Academic Rapunzels, or Leaving academia – but hitherto?

This article is about the emotional effect of leaving academia. There is little actual talk about emotions in the article. It is largely an optimistic-sounding story of a career in science communication after a PhD. But why is there so much effort to justify this career “turn” and why is it so heavily about rebranding, organizing, management, objectives, timescales? Why is the first of three main lessons that unemployment is not the same as failure? A society must be very confused if enough people in it genuinely believe that work – or rather paid employment – is the sole kernel of their identity, and that unemployment equals failure.

So while the article sounds like a happy ending to a previously stormy journey through the post-PhD career, it is actually an article about what is wrong with the academic system. It is about leaving research, but not really leaving it, and instead finding work in the fringes, or what I like to think of as the scaffolding of research. It’s an article about an academic system which tricks a lot of people into thinking they are welcome, and then kicks them out because there is not enough space (or funding) for them. There may not be enough room in the lab, the lab is a cut-throat business, only the very best make it. Yet there is always room for one more in the scaffolding! We can always do with more people to take care of the scientists! These academic caretakers are doing a valuable job, some are happy and find their skills well applied, others swallow their disappointment because they are making a living and are even close to what used to be their dream. But why are there so many administrators, communicators, managers, strategists, and so few researchers, or “students” – as academic authors used to like calling themselves in papers only a few decades ago? And why is it mainly women who take these timid career paths out-but-not-really-out of academia, while male PhD holders end up in industry jobs in larger numbers?

The article reminded me of those multiple, identical articles I’ve read about how to find work abroad as a trailing spouse. The authors are all women, and they all say that while real jobs are hard to come by, look how great it is that we now control our own schedule and can work on our own macbook in a hipster cafe. And when you look at their signatures, they are all “freelance writers” or “professional bloggers”. And they do that because that’s what they chose to do. They combine work with family because that’s what they chose to do. And have time to bake cookies (and keep applying for jobs and not getting them) because that’s what they like. I am being cynical, but the point is: when lots of people choose something, they are clearly being reasonable. Being a para-academic who hangs on like Rapunzel on her own hair from the fringes of the academic scaffolding, over the abyss of unemployment, is clearly one of the open paths, or at least a path less closed than its alternatives.

I have no answers – only questions and quibbles.


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The mathematicians of Surathkal

all emphases mine

Family influence and/or patriarchal power over their children’s education and career paths and aspirations:

“Sabari […] wanted to study medicine. “My grandmother and several others at home, practise home medicine.””

““At teen ages, we do whatever parents tell us to,” she said candidly. “They said take science in 11th and 12th standards so I did.”

“Manasa was lucky because her father was the math teacher. Only one other student at her old school continued to 11th standard.”

“If they [students] join a B.Sc. in maths because they were forced to, then they will soon know the reality, that what they were taught till then is not enough.”

Parental power sustains and reproduces unequal gender roles

Parents don’t want to send their daughters out of the state. I’m in NIT-Surathkal because I come from Karnataka itself. There are constraints.”

“In a society like ours, doing a PhD. is not always encouraged, especially for women as there is an opinion among families that the man must be more qualified. The women agree that they have heard people say things like “who will search for a boy now (now that she’s a PhD.)”.

Managing the dual face of patriarchal power through humour. Family poses both an “enablement” and “constraints” (Sen); parents exercise their freedom to translate their own experiences into shaping your children’s future (“he wasn’t able to finish 10th standard”). Feeling “grateful” and “lucky” for being allowed to flourish against the odds of one’s birth gender!

“Manasa B. counts herself lucky to have a father who is very particular that all his three children be well educated. “He wasn’t able to finish his 10th standard and he was determined that we do.” While she’s grateful for that, she knows that marriage will eventually come into the picture. “They’ve told us that in between studies if we ask you to get married, you can’t say things like ‘no, only after I finish’.” In her case, Manasa joked that she is off the hook until her elder sister gets married.”

Defying family:

“Sabari says that she had to fight a lot before she was allowed to come to NITK for her PhD.“Right before I joined here, one prospective groom came asking for marriage. My parents asked me to stay back and get married. I said, no I will go to Surathkal. If he agrees to let me, then good.”However, he didn’t, and Sabari proceeded with her plans.”

Willpower – but curbed by “adaptive preferences” (Sen):

“Manasa B. realised early on that she had a penchant for mathematics but her only ambition then was to become a teacher.”

Enablements and constraints, tradition:

The intersection of gender and class opens some future avenues and closes others. However this isn’t as black and white as the concept of “discrimination” may suggest: it is overt discrimination, but also internalised beliefs that lead people to put brakes on themselves and those others whom they love and over whom they have power (their children).

“Tenth standard is the highest education students were allowed to reach, especially girls. For the boys, it is better now but back then nobody sent their children out of the village to continue studies and there was no science college nearby.”

Where you go to school matters,” says Manasa. This becomes even more evident, she says, when they interact with their contemporaries from the IITs, IISERs – India’s top research institutes. “That’s when we realise how much we know and how our background and school education plays a role.”

Some constraints are self-restrictions: 

“Manasa said that the will to learn beyond what is considered ‘necessary’ is not something everyone has.”

“From basic education itself, students are hating mathematics a lot.”

“Conversion factors” (Sen) are initiatives, institutions, spaces, “arenas” that help level the playing field for people who have had different starts in life BUT these conversion factors can only ever begin to solve the problem:

“It always helps to collaborate with peers and arenas where they can do this are at government-funded training programmes for mathematicians – specifically the ATM schools (Advanced Training in Mathematics Schools) for teachers and Ph.D. students; and MTTS (Mathematics Training and Talent Search) for B.Sc. and M.Sc. students. […]“These really help. We learn a lot,” says Manasa. At these camps, though, women remain a minority. 

Locked in, or “having a family while female”. Family situation determines professional choices, identity, delineates freedoms. Babies are “not easy to manage” but they are also “our strength”. Female time itself is different: marriage serves even as an anchoring point in time.: “I started my Ph.D. in my sixth year of marriage” rather than “I got married right after I got my undergraduate degree”. To continue with other pursuits, such as a profession, or a passion, women have no other choice but to pass on care and household labour to other women, sometimes across generations (in other cases across nationalities). Unsurprisingly, very few women continue into marriage (in this micro-unrepresentative sample 1 in 5, but this is a very similar optimistic round-up of the actual overall proportion of women with children in science).

Only Kumudakshi is married among the five. She got married right after B.Sc. and has a baby now. “I started my PhD. in my sixth year of marriage. It’s not easy to manage with a baby but they are our strength.” She admits that she is able to do this because her mother lives with them. “Otherwise, managing this would have been a bit difficult. Someone should be there to take care of the house and things.

The generative and motivational belief in the dominance of personal willpower and tenaticy – but intertwined with a false consciousness

The hope? Willpower to discover and pursue your own grains of talents, develop personal tenacity:

“actually, I don’t think it’s true that students will do better in private schools. If they want to study, they will study anywhere.”

Yet, with the above statement – which I’m sure she sincerely believes, not least because I notice the same contradictory tendence in my own thinking and that of many people I’ve talked to –  the same mathematician actually contradicts her own experience when she compares her own educational journey to that of her colleague, the maths’ teacher daughter:

“had told me [the journalist] earlier that her experience studying at a government school was not as challenging as Manasa K.J.’s.”


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Sociologists vs statisticians tweet

A brief comparison of the first tweets of the WES: Work, employment and society (sociology) conference in Leeds and the RSS – Royal statistical society conference in Manchester which are happening at the same time. 

How do sociologists vs statisticians tweet about a talk they like? Adjectives vs nouns+verbs!


“Genuinely one of the best opening plenary talks I’ve ever listened to. Succinct and sophisticated #Wesconf2016”

At the same time the typical response to a good talk at the RSS conference is more matter of fact and informative:

Xia-Li Meng giving brilliant talk on big data at #RSS2016Conf ‘the bigger the data the more likely you will miss the target’ #RSS2016Conf

Or humorous: 

Coffee in hand. Let’s bring on the stats. #RSS2016Conf

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Apparently someone came to this blog by searching for “active learning in maths good or bad”… I wish I could tell them, without active learning there CAN BE no maths. Maths is all about DOING it yourself. But what do I know, I’m just a sociologist who thinks maths is fun.

Passive learning in maths!?

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Why do (male) academics dress badly, and what about the women?

When I first began to move to and fro between the Social Studies and Maths and Computer Science buildings on campus, and attending various events in both (and occasionally in the hyper-fashionable Arts Faculty), I couldn’t help but notice a relieving and liberating feature of departmental life which is rather different in those different departments: fashion. Going to Maths suddenly meant I was suddenly among others who seemed to think it was ok to wear whatever they are comfortable in. It has also been nice to not have to notice what my interlocutor is wearing (or feeling obliged to pass the usual compliments about their cool new jumper or dress, or feeling rude when forgetting to do so). Fieldwork didn’t quite change the way I myself dressed – but it did made me more likely to wear the more comfortable clothes more often, compared to the slightly more complicated outfits.

However, the interesting point here is that this is a warning sign to never take my own fieldwork judgements at face value. I am clearly in the minority with my reduced appreciation or understanding of fashion, and as anything unreflected, this might cause problems.  I have since come across a number of articles (in newspapers, so far no serious research) bemoaning the state of academic dress and comparing (unfavourably for the sciences) across departments (like this recent one  by Jonathan Wolff in the Guardian), or this one expressing sheer personal anxiety about what to wear at a large anthropology conference by Carole McGranahan et al. There are also advice articles to women working in academia by Francesca Stavrakopoulou. The author refuses “to wear the male uniform” because:

“… a male academic can afford to look scruffy if he chooses: no one will question his intellectual or professional authority. Male academics who wear jeans, hoodies and t-shirts are “lads” to their students, and “good blokes” to their colleagues. Older men who wear scuffed shoes and a fraying tweed jacket, accidentally accessorized with a splodge of egg yolk down their tie, are “eccentric” or “distractedly intellectual”.  But a female academic who looks similarly casual, or scruffy, or unkempt, risks becoming the target of a range of sexist assumptions: she must be a student, or a mother distracted from the job by childcare, or a woman too old to need to bother about her appearance.”

I have to say, I have often been mistaken for a student. But it never occurred to me to think of this as a bad thing, because, well, I do look and feel like one. And because looking like a student is less effort, ergo it leaves more spare energy for work – just like Jonathan Wolff writes, “There we have it. Academics dress badly because we are so fulfilled in our work.” I actually think we are all students of our subjects, although perhaps others prefer to call themselves “academics”. It is helpful for getting to things for free, too, sometimes. Perhaps I’m not well suited to understand the fashion, or social science point of view of things, but as long as I remember that not everyone agrees with me and pay attention to the majority who don’t – for example, already several of my female interviewees in the mathematical sciences find fashion important and find it annoying that they aren’t “taken seriously” when dressed as they like –  it should be ok…

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Maths, active learning and metacognition

An interesting article about a new book which explains how we learn to learn, and how to teach students how to think: “Critical Maths for Innovative Societies: The Role of Metacognitive Pedagogies”.

“College professors often point out that their students never learnt how to learn. Derek Cabrera was surprised to find that even the “cream of the crop of our education system” was not good at dealing with novel problems in unstructured assignments. As PISA shows, across OECD countries, about one in five students is able to solve only straightforward problems – if any – provided that they refer to familiar situations. Too often, we teach students what to think but not how to think.

Yet, there is an engine we can use for that and it is called metacognition, which means “thinking about your thinking”, and regulating it. Metacognitive pedagogies improve academic achievement: content knowledge and understanding, and the ability to handle routine and unfamiliar problems. And they also boost affective outcomes, reducing anxiety and improving motivation. Struggling students greatly benefit from these pedagogies, but not at the expense of higher achievers.

Metacognition is about taking ownership of your learning and maximising it. “It turns you from being a consumer of learning to being a researcher, a co-producer, an explorer and that’s a much more exciting, exhilarating world. You discover how to learn better” Stephen Heppell argues. He also points out that metacognition makes students “do 20% better – you get an extra Friday every week”.”

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Why there are so few women in tech…

Why are there so few women in technical professions? Are women bad at programming? Do they keep rejecting programming jobs? Do they fail to fit into the culture of tech companies? Actually, all of these reasons aren’t true.

Here’s a nice long (and depressing) article (don’t forget to read the comments, as well as this discussion thread)…


What do women think? (some quotes from the article on valeeywag)

“They didn’t want us. Too many still don’t. –spence900


“I no longer touch code because I couldn’t deal with the constant dismissing and undermining of even my most basic work by the “brogramming” gulag I worked for. And that started even when I was in school. I was the ONLY female in my university’s mid-level programming courses and even though I worked to hard to always be in the top 95% of the curve, if a pasty white guy with thin-rimmed glasses and a tee-shirt with an “ironic” phrase doubted me, I was wrong.

I spent my life around midWestern dudes and high school jocks, but there is no misogyny like silicon valley nerd misogynywhoa-disillusionment

And more…

“Dude, I have a Masters in CS, programming certifications, experience in mobile dev, and years of experience. I am also a woman, laid off in January. I have yet to find a job. I’m either too “senior” or “not senior enough.” Sight unseen I’m rejected many times.

I am not entry level so I can’t be one of the token hires to show that a company supports women in tech […]

Somehow women in tech may get the mascot entry level coding jobs, maybe, but there ARE some of us with experience that hit a block as soon as we are out of entry level and remain in tech, not switching to project management or marketing.

I’m quite often the finalist in interviews, never being hired. And their teams remain all dudes. I’m told I’m too senior when I apply down the experience chain. I still do it, because I need the regular gig. The truth is, most places where I live won’t hire women beyond entry level in development groups and if you are beyond that with experience managing dev groups even, with a Master’s degree even, forget it. Perhaps someone who does some html work or marketing, but not in the tech group. I’ll hit the nail on the head perhaps sooner or later, but it’s very ironic they like to say they are begging for talent. But they have to have a certain look. And not be over 35.

I was told to get more education, experience, etc, got it and even then, my progress up the chain had at least a 5-7 year lag to any dude with less education and experience. Why did I get a Master’s in CS, because I had to to prove things. Why did I get certifications? Why do I go the extra mile outside of work? Because on the face of it, a dude is given credit for just looking like a dude in tech. Even with these things, I just may be considered on par with a dude without them most of the time.

Not all places are sexist, not all upper leadership is sexist, but the places that aren’t are so few. […]

Fuck the whole tech business for telling Congress they cannot find talent so give them more H1-Bs. There are people like me out there and most of us are just not the ingenue anymore. I have to say, dudes are always surprised when, after forties, mid-forties, unless they are directors or VPs, they are not hot on the market anymore. It happens to dudes too, and often the most Libertarians of them are shocked when at fifty, they are laid off for just being old. It happened to a dude I know recently. That kind of thing they thought only happened to the unqualified or maybe whiny women or something […]

I do think it’s a load of crap when you see support for getting girls in tech, when there are women in tech. It’s the same crap – as long as you are entry level and no competition for jobs, then it’s okay. That is the case everywhere from Google to Etsy to most hip companies. Seriously, Etsy brags on bringing in da womenz to code. At entry level. Where older dudes can schoolz the womenz on being developers, women far away from threatening the dudes who have real power in their tech. Meanwhile, they had and have higher level jobs in tech that they claim they cannot get women to take – they interview and no woman they like will work for Etsy, so they HAVE to fill all with men. At some point, they just gave up (they wrote this to the public) and put effort into only entry level bringing the women in. I guess bringing them in at a higher level would be quite upsetting. Or just one into tech management. MMMM, how’s about hiring just ONE woman as a tech director from the outside or something, Etsy? Meanwhile they get pats on the back for having a caste system, essentially, institutionally put in place.

Ironically, it can be the older “conservative” businesses where it is less sexist and ageist. Ironically I tell you it’s many times the men older than 45 that have given me my best jobs – those chubby old graying dudes, not the biker, 10% body fat dudes. The hipsters, they are actually more sexist as a group. So you can take that as you will. –ReadyReady

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Jigsaw puzzles. (a post not about mathematics)

Warning: this is not a post about mathematics. But it might fit into the jigsaw puzzle in the end, who knows!

You know what happens when you are making one of those jigsaw puzzles?

Of course you do, you spent your childhood doing those. I did as well. I only had a couple of ones with 1000 pieces, so I did them over and over again. I adored the feeling of assembling a story, even the same, one, out of 1000 small, tangible, concrete, cutely shaped individual pieces none of which bore any resemblance to the final picture. I would keep the ready picture for a few days until it started getting dusty or it was getting in the way too much, and then break it up into pieces and put it away in its box until the next weekend. This was often tomorrow.

But I digress. What i wanted to say was this: when you are making such a humongous puzzle, the board seems huge, twice as big as it should be or more, and all the pieces don’t fit. There are moments of desperation and triumph, of visual aesthetics, of ambiguity and choice. Jigsaw puzzles to me are one of the most beautiful sensory and mental experiences in the world. And then at some point towards the end, when the picture begins to take shape, the pieces suddenly fit and areas which appeared remote and disconnected, neatly tesselate and intertwine with each other. Suddenly everything fits on the white plastic board which my mother found somewhere in the street once and cut it up into two pieces for me, one for a small puzzle and the other for a larger one. I am the same scrounger as my mum. I walk in the streets picking up various bits and pieces, I love flee markets and second hand shops and pavements. I am a “Sachensammlerin”, like Pippi Longstocking.

But I digress again. You know how in the beginning, and also for a whlie longer, all the squares of the puzzle don’t fit, and it’s a big mess, and you have no idea where you are going, but it’s so marvellously disorganised you want to prolong this time forever and not complete the puzzle. I love doing puzzles slowly, bit by bit, savouring every pair of fitting opposite lines. Letting my eyes glaze over the pieces to imagine the picture shaping up in the background. Touching the different shapes, classifying the pieces into similarly shaped and seeking out the odd ones. The odd ones, they are my favourites. I love it so much I often stop in the middle of it, just before I’ve found a mate for a certain piece, just when I am on a wave of finding many fitting pieces. I want to slow it all down, cut the moment in half, stay suspended in mid air beween the first piece and ne of its four long-lost soulmates. Some pieces have fewer than four and others more. But most have four, it is the jigsaw piece nature to have four mates. Just like the flowers of the lilac: they usually have four petals, but if you look long enough, you might find one with only three, and polyamorous ones with five or even six petals. When you find a lila flower with more petals, you must eat it and make a wish. If you find one with less, make sure to forget about it quickly because it is bad luck. Once I found a lilak flower with seven petals. I ate it, of course, although i suspected that pollution from the local oil plant Neftochim might have been the cause.

But I digress again. When you’re doing a large puzzle, the pieces don’t fit on the board just yet. But if I could decide how things go, my puzzle would be so large that I would never quite figure it all out to the last bit, and there would always be mysteries and hidden links between disparate pieces. Berlin is exactly a that sort of a puzzle.

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Gender and maths

One fascinating feature of the contemporary German language is its attention to gender. I don’t mean just that words necessary must “agree” with gender in the grammatical sense, but also that the abstract person tends to be carefully addressed as “She or he” and also the endings of words are carefully tailored to reflect both genders, and more recently, also multiple genders (I’ve been told that you could write Physiker/innen or Physiker_innen, where the / or _ signifies “all others”). Here is the example that prompted this post: the title of a course in mathematics for physicists at the TU-Berlin

Mathematik für Physikerinnen und Physiker IV

It would be interesting to read something about the history of how German became gender aware. For now all I know is based on observations [and my own improving, but still very far from good, knowledge of German].

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