söndag 21 september 2014

Advice to young researchers

One of the senior researchers at my department took the time to write up a few pages of tips and tricks for budding researchers (ph.d. students who are finishing up their dissertation or newly minted ph.d.) on how to shape a great c.v. and make an academic career.

I wish I had had such a list when I finished up my own ph.d. In retrospect I think I was supremely ill prepared and I don't think that my advisor gave me nearly enough advice and guidance to help me make sense of what I was supposed to do to make an academic career. At the same time though, there was something I couldn't quite put my finger on and that rubbed me the wrong way when I read the list of tips and tricks, and, I guess I wasn't the only one. A colleague said it was great checklist for how to "level up" in academia (he added "...if that's your goal"). Someone else left an anonymous one-page manifesto at the coffee tables with advice that substantially contradicted the list of tips and tricks. I also understand the list has been a source of some stress for some of the ph.d. students, but it could equally well be framed as a source of support or at least a source of practical knowledge that is important for every ph.d. student to know, i.e. "everything you have ever wanted to know about an academic career but where too afraid to ask". The advice is very goal-oriented (mission: stay in academia) and instrumental.

When reading the tips and tricks, my thoughts went to a recent article by Mats Alvesson (2013), "Do we have something to say? From re-search to roi-search and back again". We all know what "research" is but what is "roi-search"? ROI stands for "return on investment" and roi-search is the "science" of how to optimally spend your time as a researchers to make the biggest impact in lists and in rankings. Roi-search tells you what to spend your time on and it transforms research into an instrumental activity. It's quite clear that Alvesson detests it and thinks it leads in the wrong direction (despite the utility for an individual researcher to adopt such a perspective). The tips and tricks that were circulated at our department are very much in line with the basic ideas of roi-search; this is how to go about to get a great c.v., to secure a position and to make an impact in the community of your choice (pick a community, position yourself in that community and stick to it). Here's a quote from Alvesson's article:

"Let me point at some orientations that may limit the creation and communication of meaningful knowledge for academics.
“I am a real researcher”. Habitus-ism. This could also be referred to as scientistic ritualism or the competent craftsperson. This orientation is one of embracing scientific rationality or, more generally, of being capable of mastery of journal publishing, either in a quantitative or a qualitative mode. Demonstrating one’s competence and value as a person who is able to write an academic article worthy of being published in an ‘A journal’ is here salient. Journal writing seems to be the key skill for many people to develop these days. Knowledge should be competently packaged in 8 000–10 000 words or text displaying all the skills needed to impress a specific journal’s reviewers and editor."

One example of the instrumental character of the tips and tricks is the advice on publishing: don't waste your results. "Make sure to frame it properly, publish it in the right "order" - that is, the key concept first, and then only later the method, the various materials you used to build the concept, and whatever". This makes eminent sense from the individual's point of view but, is it not at the same time dangerously close to suggesting we should all practice academic "salami-slicing" - dividing and packaging our research into the "least publishable unit"? And who is going to read all the papers we write? Perhaps that's a naive or at least an irrelevant questions. Perhaps academia is not about "having something to say" (Alvesson) but about bombarding journals and fellow researchers with academic papers and hope that some of what we write "stick" and is read and quoted by someone, somewhere? It is interesting to contrast this with a recent plea in the Chronicle of Higher Eduction to "stop the avalanche of low-quality research":

"Consider this tally from Science two decades ago: Only 45 percent of the articles published in the 4,500 top scientific journals were cited within the first five years after publication. In recent years, the figure seems to have dropped further.
As a result, instead of contributing to knowledge in various disciplines, the increasing number of low-cited publications only adds to the bulk of words and numbers to be reviewed. Even if read, many articles that are not cited by anyone would seem to contain little useful information."

Another example of the instrumental character of the tips and tricks is the part about community service. It states that you should not "selfishly focus on your own research", "you also have to be seen doing stuff for the community". Volunteering "makes you known outside the close-knit circle of peers focusing exactly on your topic". These tips redefines volunteering into something you kind of incidentally happen to do "for the community", but that you in the end really do in order to raise your profile and get recognition. The advice does not state that you "should" or that you "have to" do stuff for the community but that you "have to be seen doing stuff for the community". This raises the question of whether it's ok to pretend to do stuff for the community or to under-perform but over-promote your contributions to the community (etc.)?

Community service could on the other hand be framed very differently, as something you selflessly do for the community in order to support it and because you think the field you are active in is important and merits you support no matter what you get back from it (or don't get back). That is not the angle chosen here and roi-search could thus be a more suitable lens with which to analyse these tips and tricks, e.g. how should you husband your time to get the maximum bang for the buck? Perhaps the advice on finding and integrating (or ingratiating?) yourself into a tight community can be seen as a way to ensure that at least some people read and cite your work in a world that is saturated with research results but has too few readers?

One interesting (and depressing) second-order effect of current practices could be that "The pace of publication accelerates, encouraging projects that don't require extensive, time-consuming inquiry and evidence gathering". The above-mentioned article in The Chronicle of  Higher Education lists a large number of negative effects both for the individual, for the community and for Science in its entirety as the publish-or-perish ethos takes hold:

"Aspiring researchers are turned into publish-or-perish entrepreneurs, often becoming more or less cynical about the higher ideals of the pursuit of knowledge. They fashion pathways to speedier publication, cutting corners on methodology and turning to politicking and fawning strategies for acceptance."

Alvesson and The Chronicle is just the appetiser though. The real beef comes from Schwartz and his research on human values. I've come across his model before, but it all came together when I listened to a guest lecture by Pella Thiel earlier this week. Based on cross-cultural studies in several dozens of countries and with tens of thousands of respondents, psychologists have identified a number of human values that occur consistently. These values have been divided into no less than 10 different groups:

These groups can then be placed spatially, in a circle:

Using this model, it is easy to see that the tips and tricks for the most part relate to motivations that can be found in two of the groups, namely "achievement" and "power". Motivations in the former category are for example "influential", "ambitious" and "successful" and examples of the latter are "social recognition", "authority" and "social power". The thing is that people can be motivated by variety of different reasons to do research (or any other human endeavours for that matter). A few important features of this model though is that:
  • People can harbour many values but when one specific value is engaged, people opportunistically (then and there) tend to frame things in terms of that value and the group of values it comes from. If I make an argument for the importance of, say, self-discipline, or pleasure, or helpfulness, what I say will influence the listener then and there. The more often a certain set of values are engaged, the more important that set of values comes to be for my worldview. If I repeatedly talk about research in terms of authority and social recognition, I will over time strengthen those motivations and will tend to evaluate my own and others' research in these terms.
  • There is a bleedover effect in that values that are close to each other are reinforced when their "neighbours" are invoked (see the circle above). Engaging hedonistic values (pleasure, self-indulgence) will tend to strengthen also values having to do with stimulation and achievement and engaging universalistic values will tend to strengthen also values having to do with self-direction and benevolence.
  • While neighbouring values are compatible and strengthen each other, values that are opposite to each other are on the other hand hard to engage simultaneously. Engaging certain values tends to suppress opposing values in the circle (above). If self-direction is engaged, conformity and tradition tends to simultaneously be suppressed, and, if power is engaged, universalism tends to simultaneously be suppressed.

As stated above, the tips and tricks for the most part appealed to values having to do with achievement and power. What values and motivations do these tips and tricks miss out on then? Using Schwartz' model, it is possible to see that values having to do with "self-direction" are if not opposite, then at least perpendicular to values having to do with "achievement" and "power". Adhering to the advice given in the list of tips and tricks, a budding researcher might thus miss out on becoming a researchers who is primarily motivated and directed by "curiosity", "creativity", "independence" and "freedom". Being curious and independent might not necessarily be a hindrance to becoming a successful researcher, but it does on the other hand perhaps not help much if your goal is to maximise your H-index. Being too creative and craving too much freedom might obviously impede a more straight approach to having an impact and making a name for yourself in a specific academic (sub-)community.

Using Schwartz' model, the more worrisome part about the list of tips and tricks are the values that are suppressed by focusing on achievement and power, e.g. universalistic values such as "wisdom", "inner harmony", "broadmindedness", "social justice" and "equality". That sounds wishy-washy so how could that be translated to research-speak? A radically alternative perspective of what a researcher "should" do could be to start with the simple assertion that almost all Swedish researchers get their salaries from the state and from the taxpayers, and most of the research grants also come from "the people". Does that not imply that we are, or should be accountable to them in some way? Just as politicians are said to serve the people, perhaps researchers should too? An alternative advice to a budding researcher could thus be to choose an area of research that helps make our society a better, more just society or that holds great promise of being beneficial for humanity. How does your research, or, the area you do research in support peace, beauty, equality and justice? How does your research contribute to making the world a better place for both humans and the planet? It goes without saying that if you start asking questions such as these, you might end up doing something that is intensely meaningful for you, but might at the same time have a have a harder time acquiring the c.v. you need to secure a position in academia. That's a tough one and there is no simple answer that once and for all resolves this "tension". One of my very first blog posts, "Clueless AI researcher", was written in affect and was a reaction to listening to someone I felt had made The Wrong Choice in terms of his area of research.  

Having an interest in sustainability, such a perspective probably comes easier for me than for many other researchers. I live with the tension of constantly asking myself both what and where I should publish and what research (and teaching) I should conduct to do my bit for "saving the planet". I am of course not saying that everything I do, I do to make the world a better place. I don't live in the woods (like Jorge :-) and I'm also part of the academic system and the "rat race" to publish things and increase my status and my recognition. But being able to change perspectives and see things from another angle can also be a check on not adapting at too instrumental view of what I do and why I do it. 

It is interesting to note that achievement and power belong to the "self-enhancement" part of Schwartz' circle (above) while universalism and benevolence belong to the "self-transcendent" part of the circle. Self-enhancement is also part of being motivated by extrinsic values, i.e. values that are centered on external approval and rewards such as prestige, material success, social status etc. Self-transcendence is instead part of being motivated by intrinsic values, i.e. values that you find inherently rewarding to pursue such as self-acceptance, concern for others, social justice etc.

Do note that values are universal. They are not character traits and each of us is motivated by all values, but to different degrees. Do also note that you can choose to engage certain values rather than others and by doing so you will over time strengthen these and neighbouring values. We would thus all do well to now and then stop and challenge, encourage or even force ourselves to engage the pro-social values having to do with benevolence, universalism and self-direction in-between writing articles and shooting them off in the direction of prestigious journals that will increase our H-indexes and the glory of the university we work for in the increasingly important university ranking lists!

Comment: For more on applying Schwartz' model to HCI, do have a look at Bran Knowles' CHI 2013 paper "Re-imagining persuasion: Designing for self-transcendence”. 

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