Tag Archives: academic

Money for nothing, research grants for free

This really is not some value-neutral fascinating social phenomenon such as the currently  en vogue “academic acceleration“: it is a bad use of academic time! Sure, some of the literature discussing “acceleration” is good, but I have a feeling it dance s around the subject a bit too much. Thanks to Jan Blommaert for calling the spade a spade (and apologies for the distasteful crib of Dire Straits lyrics in the title):

After submitting, we heard that a total of 147 applications had been received by the EU. And that the EU will eventually grant 2 – two – projects. In a rough calculation, this means that the chance of success in this funding line is 1,3%; it also means that 98,7% of the applications – 145 of them, to be accurate – will be rejected. And here is the problem.

[M]any millions’ worth of (usually) taxpayers’ money will have been used – wasted – in this massive and mass grantwriting effort. Several hundreds of researchers will have been involved, each spending dozens if not hundreds of their salaried working hours on preparing the application, and hundreds of university administrators will have been involved as well, also spending salaried working hours on the applications. These millions of Euros have not been used in creative and innovative research – they weren’t spent on doing fieldwork, experiments or tests, nor on writing papers and holding presentations in workshops and symposiums. They were spent on – nothing.”

Jan Blommaert, “Rationalizing the unreasonable: there are no good academics in the EU”, 10 June 2015, https://alternative-democracy-research.org/2015/06/10/rationalizing-the-unreasonable-there-are-no-good-academics-in-the-eu/

(Image: Milena Kremakova ®2007)

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The disposable academic

An old article in the Economist about what happens after PhD (spoiler: not so good things)… still true.


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The life of a postdoc on a T-shirt



If you stopped drinking coffee for a week or two, assuming your research doesn’t suffer from this violent caffeine withdrawal, you can buy one here with the money you save:


via fellow postdoc and researcher of academic precarity, Mariya Ivancheva.

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UK women academics in 1974

This page and every sentence in it wins the prize for most depressing work-related reading of the month. I keep realising that I must have grown up on a different planet. I really hadn’t realised how recently things were shockingly horrible in what we in the East thought of as the enlightened Western Europe. For all the ills in the socialis bloc, at least scientists and engineers were, and still are, equally divided by gender… (See e.g. The chart on P.21  of this 2012 report on gender in science in the EU)

Excerpt from “The academic labour market” edited by Gareth Williams, Tessa Blackstone and David Metcalf, Elsevier, 1974 

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Postdoc and motherhood in Austria or Germany: is it good or not good?

Everyone agrees that postgraduate, postdoctoral and other early career researchers struggle with reconciling the geographical demands of their careers with personal and family life. A lot has been said (informally over a drink or during conference coffee breaks) and written (on blogs and in academic journals) about the fact that the current academic system is unkind and detrimental to researchers’ families, relationships, childbearing decisions, parenting, other care responsibilities, and mental health. Everyone (including myself) has a bunch of criticisms and reasons why the institutional conditions in academic employment are not optimal. But in terms of what these optimal institutional conditions are, can, or ought to be, there is no agreement! I find it fascinating how much opinions on this can differ. Here are two articles I read recently. I struggle to disagree with both. And yet, they have opposite arguments. The first one argues that in Germany mothers are pushed out of the labour market because of societal expectations to be “perfect mothers”, and in comparison, in France mothers are far more relaxed, they trust the state childcare services more, and return to work much earlier instead of “devoting themselves wholly to their offspring”.  The article is not specifically about academia, but I have heard similar sentiments expressed by some of my interviewees in Germany who, for example, felt excluded and unrespected by their colleagues after one or two maternity leaves. The second article praises Austria’s system (which is similar to the German one) and says that it enabled the author to combine work and family life.

Article 1 (in German):“Es wird ein Mutterkult betrieben”

Article 2: A European postdoc for the family, by Michelle Gabriele Sandrian

I guess all should be read in context. The second article (the one which praises Austria’s Mutterschutz law) is written by an American researcher who has been exposed to a much less kind system (to me it sounds unthinkable that in the US there is NO paid leave for new mothers AT ALL). However, it is very important to notice also the hidden injuries of the more protective German (and Austrian) system, pointed out in the first article by an author who has experienced motherhood and work in both Germany and France.

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A few related articles about Germany:

Gender Inequality in British and German Universities, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, Volume 37, Issue 5, 2007

Academic career structure in Germany (online resource)

Gender Inequality in German Academia and Strategies for Change, 2001 (free PDF)

FRAUEN IN DER WISSENSCHAFT: Wo sind sie bloß?, Die Zeit, 13/2014

Attitudes to gender equality issues in British and German academia (in English, free PDF)

Paths to Career and Success for Women in Science, 2014 (Google book)

Kind da, job weg
Warum die Babypause zum Karrierekiller wird
Aussortiert und abgelegt

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The post-PhD career is [not] like a fairytale

Read this fairytale substituting “Ivan” for “PhD-student”, “Tsar” for PhD-advisor, “Firebird” for tenure, and “Gray Wolf” for the pitfalls of academic life. Don’t forget that this is a fairytale and in real life by far not all Prince Ivans marry the princess and life happily ever after. Not to mention that Elena the Fair may also be on the PhD job market and then they would have the Two Hero Problem. [I’m not even beginning to say anything about the gender politics of fairytales]. The crossroads is the “what now” moment after your PhD where all possible roads lead to problems.

Which head to slay first: PhD student adventures

Which head to slay first: PhD student adventures

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Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird, and the Gray Wolf

(translation of a classic Russian fairytale edited by Anna Anashikina, reposted from http://www.therussianstore.com/blog/the-tale-of-ivan-tsarevich-the-firebird-and-the-gray-wolf/)

A Very long time ago in a certain kingdom there reigned a Tsar who had three sons, the first was Dimitriy Tsarevich, the second – Vassiliy Tsarevich, and the third – Ivan Tsarevich. The Tsar had a magnificent orchard, where grew his favorite magic apple-tree with golden apples. However every night a Firebird fell into the habit of flying on that apple-tree and tear away few apples. Its feathers were red-and-gold, and bright as a fire, her eyes were like Eastern crystals.

The Tsar ordered each of his sons to catch the Firebird alive and promised a half of the kingdom for that. The two elder brothers fell asleep while watching. On the third night the youngest son, Ivan, went to the orchard. He saw the Firebird, crept to it and grabbed it by the tail. But the Firebird managed to get free, leaving to Ivan only a bright tail feather. Since then the Firebird stopped visiting the orchard, but the Tsar ordered his three sons to find and bring him the Firebird alive for the half of the kingdom. All three sons saddled their horses and rode their ways.

Ivan rode far away and get to an open field, where he saw a sign-post with the following words: “If you go to straight, you will be cold and hungry; if you go to the right, you will be alive and healthy but loose your horse; if you go to the left, you will be dead but the horse will be alive and healthy.” Ivan Tsarevich decided to go to the right, he rode two days and on the third day he met a big Gray Wolf, who tore the Ivan’s horse in pieces.

Ivan walked all day long, he was very tired, and suddenly the Gray Wolf overtook him. The Gray Wolf felt sorry for Ivan and offered his assistance of taking him to his destination, since he killed Ivan’s horse.

Ivan Tsarevich got on the back of the Gray Wolf and they were on their way to a kingdom where the Firebird lived. The Tsar of that kingdom after listening to Ivan’s wish to take away the Firebird, agreed to give his Firebird to Ivan in exchange for a golden-crested horse from the neighboring kingdom. The Tsar who was the master of the golden-crested horse agreed to give away his horse in exchange for a beautiful Elena the Fair, who was the daughter of the next kingdom Tsar. However, with help of the Gray Wolf, Ivan managed to get the Firebird for his father, and the wonderful horse and Elena the Fair for himself.

When they came to the border of Ivan’s father kingdom, Ivan and Elena said good-bye to the Gray Wolf and stopped to rest. While they were sleeping, Ivan’s two elder brothers, returning from their unsuccessful expedition, came across the two and killed Ivan. They threatened Elena to kill her as well if she will tell anyone what had happened.

Ivan Tsarevich laid dead for thirty days until the Gray Wolf found him. The Gray Wolf got water of death and water of life and revived Ivan. Ivan got to his home palace on the back of the Gray Wolf just at the wedding day of his brother Vassiliy Tsarevich and Elena the Fair. There Ivan, with help of Elena, told his father what had happened to him. The Tsar got so furious with his elder sons that he threw them to prison.

Ivan Tsarevich and Elena the Fair married, inherited the kingdom and lived in love for many years.

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The price of a citation, or How did King Abdulaziz University get in the world’s top 10?

According to a great recent blogpost by Berkeley academic Lior Pachter, there is something very fishy about university rankings.  In last week’s global university ranking published by the US News and World Report (USNWR), the top 10 universities listed in mathematics are:

1. Berkeley
2. Stanford
3. Princeton
5. University of Oxford
6. Harvard
7. King Abdulaziz University
8. Pierre and Marie Curie – Paris 6
9. University of Hong Kong
10. University of Cambridge

The USNWR rankings are based on 8 attributes:

– global research reputation
– regional research reputation
– publications
– normalized citation impact
– total citations
– number of highly cited papers
– percentage of highly cited papers
– international collaboration

Now, how did KAU end up in the top 10?  Its chair received his PhD in 2005 and has zero publications.  Its own PhD programme is only two-years old. It has separate campuses for men and women.  The author, and probably many other mathematicians, have never heard about KAU. Apparently, the secret of the ranking success lies in the fact that,

“[a]lthough KAU’s full time faculty are not very highly cited, it has amassed a large adjunct faculty that helped them greatly in these categories. In fact, in “normalized citation impact” KAU’s math department is the top ranked in the world. This amazing statistic is due to the fact that KAU employs (as adjunct faculty) more than a quarter of the highly cited mathematicians at Thomson Reuters. “

The article goes on with a very interesting and evidence-supported discussion of the ranking system, and of the particular approach taken by KAU in order to put itself on the world’s mathematical map. There are also comments by various academics, a few of whom work for KAU. Well worth a read if you have time to be scared about the $$$$$future$$$$$ of global academia.

Pachter’s blogpost raises some very interesting questions about the future of global academia. First of all, it is not at all surprising that universities from the periphery (the “global south”, as we sociologists like to call it) are trying to gain prestige and put themselves out there.  It is also not surprising that some, which are very affluent, will attempt to buy their way in the global academic system. In fact, by doing so, they are merely using loopholes and bugs – which to them are “features” – in the ranking and prestige system created by old-world academia. Our indignation at this, while justified, is also somewhat hypocritical: after all, they are simply taking the “money makes research go round” principle that bit further. Academics and administrators in US and European universities should take this as a warning – a mirror held up to our own academic institutional  practices which may be less blatant and aggressive, but are nevertheless often the same in their nature.  UK universities in particular – more so than in the rest of Europe, but still less so than in the US – are also doing their best to hire highly-cited academics.  I’m not at all worried about universities from other places taking the lead in research, and no doubt many of the names on the list are doing just that.  What is really worrying is the increasing overreliance on numeric indicators of academic quality as a substitute for much more detailed, more qualitative indicators.  I think that we… or someone? but who? well, we – vice-chancellors, academics and administrators – should take the hint from KAU’s success on paper and change the system of science quality assessment not just by tightening existing loopholes, but by not relying on simplified indicators at all.

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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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