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My CV of failures (or “Look how bad I really am”)

Long time, no ramble.  Apologies; it has been an interesting and challenging few months for this particular academic rambler.

It has also been a period of reflection.  I think I have said before (but bluntly am too bone idle to check) that all too often academics are tuned to ‘broadcast’, rather than ‘receive’.  Too many academics are far too fond of the sound of their own voices, and take delight in proclaiming to one and all just how successful they have been with, for example, grant capture, paper writing, keynote speech making, etc., etc.  At times it is as if academics are paid to take part in an endless game of seeing who can urinate highest up a wall.

As I say, over the past three months I have had cause to stop, take stock and reflect on my own achievements.  But, unlike many of my wall-pissing, willy-waving colleagues, being the contrary soul that I am, I have reflected on my failures.  On the things that didn’t go as I would have liked them to.  It is an indisputable fact that if you want to succeed as an academic (I’ll leave it to you to define success in this context), you need to learn to fail.  And, boy, have I failed!  Consistently and regularly.  I’ve made it into something of an art form.  Whether it’s job hunting, grant applications or getting published; you name it, I’ve failed at it.

And so, as a bit of an antidote to the regular shameless self-promotion that goes on within the academic industry, I present to you my CV of Failures.  If nothing else, I hope that this litany of disasters helps someone, somewhere appreciate they that they are not alone with their failings.  We all have them, and maybe we should reflect on them a bit more.

I always maintain that nothing is ever lost, even if it comes to nought.  And so, whilst the list that follows is a long one, I’d like to think that I have learned something from each of them (even if it only that Reviewer#2 is an idiot).

 

ACADEMIC RAMBLER

Professor of Something STEMM-y, A UK University

My CV of Failures

1 Career Summary

1.1. Jobs I applied for, or was approached about, but did not get

Date Role Comments / Feedback
2016 PVC & Dean Final interview – “Lack of cultural match” (Although, if you’re interested, I still have the voicemail from the Recruitment Consultant pre-interview in which he says “The VC says, barring any major cock-up on your behalf, the job is yours”).
2016 DVC Research “Our internal candidate knows more about the University than you”.
2016 PVC Research Shortlisted by Recruitment Consultant. University then withdrew role and gave it to an existing PVC two months later.
2015 PVC Research Shortlisted by Recruitment Consultant. Car crash of initial meeting with VC.
2012 Professor Final interview. Described in feedback as “academically lacking” (i.e. you don’t have enough income or papers) and “intellectually weak” (i.e. you’re thick).
2010 Reader Not shortlisted for interview.
2010 Reader Not shortlisted for interview. (Yes, that’s a different one to the one above)
2004 R&D Manager Sideways move with existing (industry) employer. Feedback: “Well you can apply, but I can tell you now that you won’t get it. We like you where you are”.
1999 Planning Manager Promotion opportunity with existing (industry) employer. Feedback: “Frankly, you’re not as good as we thought you were”.

 

2 Research

2.1 Research grants applications that were not funded

Date

Funder

Value, £
2016 Newton Fund 35,000
2016 Industry 95,000
2015 FP7 Marie Curie Fellowship 180,000
2015 RCUK 375,000
2015 FP7 ITN

1,600,000

2015 Industry 73,000
2015 Industry 74,000
2014 Leverhulme Trust 196,000
2014 FP7 ITN 1,750,000
2014 Industry 72,000
2013 FP7 Marie Curie Fellowship 180,000
2013 RCUK 22,000
2013 RCUK 488,000
2013 Industry 71,000
2013 Industry 70,000
2013 Industry 114,000
2012 British Council 21,000
2012 RAEng 5,000
2012 RCUK 125,000
2012 FP7 Marie Curie Fellowship 180,000
2012 Leverhulme Trust 92,000
2010 RCUK 1,250,000
2010 RCUK 29,500
2008 Industry 118,000
2008 RCUK 249,000
2007 RCUK 121,000
2007 RCUK 120,000

2.2 Papers that were rejected

Date Journal
2017 Water Research
2017 Environmental Technology
2017 Science
2017 Nature
2016 Water Research
2016 Proceedings of ICE – Water Management
2015 ASCE – Journal of Environmental Engineering
2015 Water Research
2011 Nature
2007 Journal of Water Supply: Research and Technology -AQUA
2005 Journal of Water Supply: Research and Technology -AQUA
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Resigning – how hard can it be? (Or, we’ve got a form for that somewhere)

Warning: this was written in something approaching a fit of pique in an attempt to derive some sense of catharsis. The rigorous peer review and editing processes and standards to which Academic Rambling posts are normally subject have not been applied. Apologies in advance. Anyway, here goes …

 

Well, it has been an interesting couple of weeks in and around Rambling Towers, the upshot being that, having served over 12 years in my current ivory hutch, I have decided to inflict my own particular brand of academic incompetence and caustic wit on a different, unsuspecting HE institution. Yes, I have resigned. Well, at least I have tried to … but more of that in a few hundred words time.

So, I hear you ask (well I don’t, but I’ll imagine it) how has this momentous event come about? Well pretty bliimin’ quickly is the answer. I had a phone call from a Head Hunter … sorry “Recruitment Agency” (HE’s equivalent of Estate Agents in my view, but therein lies another tale for another day). Might I be interested in a new challenge, broadening my portfolio, blah, blah, blah? As it turned out, this one did in fact sound quite interesting, so having mumbled a few words of interest to HH man, I bashed off a quick CV and covering letter. Next thing, I’ve got an interview.

Well, when I say ‘interview’, what I mean is ‘car crash’. You know, the kind of thing that starts badly and gets increasingly worse for 15 minutes? I then spent 45 minutes contradicting or correcting everything that had gone before. I took the train home. My mobile rang a couple of times on the way. I ignored it because I really couldn’t face HH man telling me quite so quickly after interview that I was unappointable. I got home. The mobile rang at 7pm. I ignored it. It rang again at 9pm. Again I ignored it. Then the landline rang straight away. Ignored. 5 minutes later, the mobile rang. Ignored. The landline rang yet again. At this point my good lady wife, somewhat fed up with me, answered it. It was a rather exasperated Vice Chancellor ringing me to offer me the job.

And so, armed with my news, the following day I tentatively entered the office of my current Dean. An almost completely accurate transcript of the conversation follows:

Dean: Why would you want to leave?

Me: Well I’ve got as far as I’m going to get here

Dean: Yes

Me: You said that really quite quickly.

Dean: did I? Ha! <slightly nervous laugh>.

There followed a brief hiatus, whilst my prospective new employer and I discussed Ts & Cs and, what I believe are called ‘hygiene issues”.  And then, there it was, a nice shiny contract for me to sign.  Time to resign, I thought.

And, at that point, two things happened: firstly, I received an email from my Head of School, and secondly, I failed to resign correctly.

Taking these in order; on Saturday morning, at 10:14am, I received an email, part of which I have copied for you below:

“In terms of trying to get ducks in order, can you please:

  • Send me all teaching material relating to Module X, Module Y and Module Z (i.e., notes, handouts, coursework etc.). I appreciate that you will be returning to deliver your element of Module Z and would therefore appreciate having any examination questions and solutions for this module in advance of the deadline that has been set, i.e., before 30th
  • … (boring, irrelevant stuff) …
  • … (boring, irrelevant stuff) …
  • Create a depository [sic] before you leave of all relevant information relating to your impact case study including but not restricted to the underpinning research, examples of impact, any relevant text that you have written and a list of outstanding actions and relevant contacts.
  • Let me have access to the above depository [sic] once it has been created.

Apologies if the above comes across as formal, it is not meant to read that way.”

 

Well, at least he has apologised for behaving like a knob; that’s one plus point I suppose. So basically this is an email instructing me to do my job for the next 2.5 months.  I don’t know why he didn’t title it “Reminder of Contractual Responsibilities”. It’s interesting to note that he (for he is a he) is the first Head of School who has found it necessary to remind me that I need to do my job. In 12 years of teaching preparation and delivery, I haven’t missed a deadline. The thought that, because I am leaving means I will eschew all professional responsibility towards my colleagues and students shows a complete disregard for my values.  I think the best description of my mood at 10:15 am on Saturday was “insulted”.

I then tried to resign. Today I dug out my contract; the one that talks about the complete absence of holiday entitlement and the need to live within 20 miles of the University to safeguard the health and wellbeing of my horse (if that makes no sense, click here), and found that I needed to write to the Director of Staffing Services announcing my decision to leave.  And so I did just that.  I scanned the signed letter, attached it to an email and sent it off to said Director, with a note saying hard copy in the post. To be fair to said Director, she replied almost straightaway to acknowledge receipt.  But, it seems that since 2005 systems have moved on and a simple letter is no longer either appropriate or sufficient.  No; if one wants to resign from my current tower of ivory one needs to (and I quote) “log onto the portal and raise a ticket”.

WHAT?!!!!

“Log onto the portal and raise a ticket”.

Sorry, I think there has been some sort of misunderstanding here. I want to resign my position at this university; I don’t want to order a printer cartridge or book a train ticket.

But it was to no avail. It seems that managerialism and flow process have now reached even the most personal aspects of employment at a university. No longer is one required, or even allowed, to craft a lengthy missive describing the difficulty of the decision, the balancing of personal and professional issues, the memories garnered over the years and the thanks to all with whom one has worked. No, it’s simply a case of logging in, clicking a few items on drop down menus, save and send and then within five minutes an email to tell me that (and, again, I quote):

“Dear Staff Member ID Number 123456

Your request Reference No 123456 (Resignation from one or all of your posts at the University) has been assigned to FACELESS HR KEYBOARD JOCKEY.

You can track the progress of your query and send us updates using the HR Service Portal or, alternatively reply to this email.

If this query is urgent, please call us on 01** *** ****.”

 

Seriously, that is the resignation process at my university. Don’t you just love the personal touch? The care that must have gone into drafting that script knowing that it will be received by hundreds of people each year, some of whom will have given in excess of 25% of their working lives to the institution.

So, my experience of resigning can be summed up in two emails:

one from a Head of School who is pooing himself so much fretting about the possibility that I undergo some character transformation and leave him in the lurch;

and one from an utterly faceless HR department devoid of any human emotion.

Yes, I know I’m a dinosaur who is being dragged into, rather than embracing, the new world. Someone who remembers when Human Resources was actually called Personnel. But even so, is it too much to ask that I’m treated (a) as a professional, rather than a slacker and (b) as a person rather than an irritant.

 

Gimmee Medal!

Got an email today: ‘Dear Prof, I served as referee for XXX Journal 4 years, I had reviewed about 30 papers for journal. All the comments are high quality. (You may ask XXX [previous editor]). I would like to ask you if your journal can give me a Best Reviewer Award. With best wishes.’
I was just wondering if anyone else would like one while I’m at it?

The joy of examination boards (or “Is that Angry Birds?”)

It’s that time of year. The examinations have been sat; the marking completed; the moderation and numerical checking done and dusted. There’s just one thing remaining. Yep; the examination boards.

Over the years I have sat on many an exam board, both within my own institution and, in cases where others have been forced to scrape the barrel, as an external examiner elsewhere. Actually, I love being an external examiner; an exercise where I am given free reign to criticise people for doing exactly what I do, whilst simultaneously pinching all their good ideas and incidentally, as happened to me recently, finding myself having coffee with a Man Booker Prize shortlisted author, journalist and occasional celebrity*.

So I enjoy other people’s boards. Mainly because my input in the run up to the meeting is minimal and basically consists of me demanding pieces of obscure coursework, or asking a beleaguered academic why they are gave five marks to one student and four marks to another when their answers appear almost identical.  Or, as happened to me recently, just before I met up with the Man Booker Prize shortlisted author, journalist and occasional celebrity, asking a beleaguered academic why a student had managed to provide narrative solutions to exam questions that were exactly the same as the model solution.

The downside to external examining is, of course, that unlike exam boards at my own institution, I have to pay attention. I have blogged elsewhere about distraction techniques employed within my own ivory tower; however, similar activities are unwise when away from home as, when backed into a corner, the astute Exam Board Chair will often say “And I wonder what our external examiner thinks about this seemingly intractable issue?” At such times, it’s best not to be playing Angry Birds / Candy Crush Saga /  Words with Friends on your phone. Take it from the voice of experience; expunge Angry Birds from your phone before entering the board meeting.

Styles of exam boards vary, of course. Some being rather rigid, turgid affairs in which a fussy little individual insists on reading out every single digit on many large sheets of paper; others being rather more relaxed, skipping over straightforward cases, whilst spending an appropriate amount of time on the more troublesome issues and individuals. However, in my experience, all have thankfully have always striven to secure the best outcome for the students.

And yet, we live in a world where once the marks are agreed, they are locked down, a computer makes some buzzing and whirring noises, and then out pops a decision for each and every student. No discussion, no argument, just a decision. Oh yes, we may apply “profiling” in borderline cases, but even that is an entirely mechanistic process with no academic input.

So why do we need to coax and corral an entire department to sit for a couple of hours through what is basically a non-event? Has anyone calculated the opportunity cost of an exam board, and then considered how many such boards are taking place throughout the country? In my experience of external examining, there are three such meetings each year. And they’re the ones to which the external examiner is invited. Doubtless there are meetings in advance where the dirty laundry gets a good old going over. So yet more expense.

Now I absolutely do see the need for rigorous and robust examination boards. I absolutely do see the need for external validation of academic standards. But does the process really need to be so bloated and so demanding on time for some many individuals? One constant theme coming out of academia these days is the extent to which our academic staff are stretched in what they have to do and the time available to do it (don’t get me started on academic legs again – if you aren’t aware of my views on this, have a look at https://academicramblingsnet.wordpress.com/2017/05/11/the-quest-for-impact-or-stretching-my-academic-legs/ ). It just set me thinking; is this one area where we could make some relatively easy changes to processes, reduce a bit of burden, without compromising standards, and maybe make a few friends amongst the staff? I bet my Man Booker mate will have a view on that.

 

 

*Guesses as to the identity of my new found friend should be sent on a postcard or the back of a sealed down envelope to academicramblings@wordpress.com. First one drawn at random winds free subscription to this blog.

The joy of lecturing (Or “Why would I want to do that?”)

The decision for me to become an academic was made very early in life.  My father made a career from moulding young minds and exposing them to the wonders of applied mathematics.  I know this first hand, as his idea of childcare in the 1970s and 80s was to sit his children in the corner of his office whilst he growled at a succession of timorous PhD students.  It seemed to me like a wonderful way to make a living; wandering around a dusty old building with a piece of chalk, or maybe a pen and a piece of paper, and spending one’s time thinking deeply about a subject one cared even more deeply about.

That said, I also recognised that I’d probably make a better academic for having had a proper job beforehand, and so I spent 15 years in industry before being called to the service of ivory polishing in my tower.

I love my job; I really, completely and absolutely do.  For me, it is the best job in the world.  But there is one thing it most certainly isn’t. It is not the job and career that I witnessed my father having from the 1960s to the 1990s.  In fact, in his latter years, he couldn’t recognise the job that I was doing as being much like the one he had done.

Times change, and I’m not so much of a dinosaur that I can’t accept that.  We evolve, and so do our jobs; and even academics have to go along with that.  And so now we find ourselves kowtowing to external regulatory diktats such as NSS, REF, TEF, PTES, whatever.

We are awash with metrics.  If it moves, measure it and compare it to others in your competitor group.  If it doesn’t move, measure it and compare it to others in your competitor group.  And if it moves on the international stage, grab it with both hands and cling on, because that’s the future, y’know!

Now, to be honest; I don’t mind the metrics too much.  Actually, no; that’s not true.  I mind them an awful lot.  I hate many of them with a passion.  But I do recognise that they are there and form part of the game.  There’s no point in ignoring the rules of a game on a point of principle, if the game is going on around you at frantic pace.  So I accept the metrics, whilst hoping one day my plaintive cries of “this is no way to run academia!” may find a receptive ear.

But what I mind more than the metrics and the measurement and the executive management ethos and techniques (*see the footnote to this blog for a particularly toe curling example of this) that pervade our workplace these days, is the impact that these seem to be having on the future of academia.

I wrote a few weeks ago that the key output of my brief tenure as Head of Department had been to secure some new Lecturer positions.  We interviewed for one of them last week.  We found the majority candidates to be unappointable.  That’s not that they didn’t fit with us; we genuinely felt they couldn’t do the job.  Next week we are due to interview for the second role.  I got an email from our friends in HR on Friday to say that one candidate had pulled out.  His reason?  He’d got a three year postdoc elsewhere.  So, to be clear, we’re offering a permanent lectureship, and he’s taken a temporary fellowship elsewhere.

I called him and, after expressing my sorrow at his withdrawal, asked him why.  “Postdoc jobs are fun; we do research.  Lecturers project manage research, chase stupid admin targets, and occasionally stand in front of students to teach.  Why do that when I can do research?” was the dispiriting response I got.

But my concern is that it’s not just at the transition from postdoc to Lecturer where we have a problem.  The decline in numerate, STEMM-based PhD students is alarming.  Research councils have pumped money into doctoral training programmes into a relatively select pool of universities.  So the opportunities are there.  But where are the candidates?  When you have a minute, pop along to www.jobs.ac.uk or www.findaphd.com, and search for PhD opportunities in one of the engineering disciplines.  You’ll soon realise that if you fancy a PhD in something STEMMy, and you have a pulse, now is the time to go for it.  PhD opportunities with tax-free stipends of £19,000 lie unfilled. We have moved from a seller’s market, to a buyer’s market.  I worry that not only is the job (Lecturer) not seen as attractive by postdocs, but the career is no longer attractive to new graduates.

And what can we, as academics, do to address this?  Well obviously, we can extol the virtues of our subject and of research and teaching to those who will listen.  But the kind of people we want to attract are a long way from being stupid (or should be anyway).  However much we can say how wonderful it is to research or teach in our own subject, the realities of trying to do that in the early 21st century are all to obvious to anyone who wants to find out.

“Impact”, “QS league tables”, “REF”, “NSS”, “sector average”, “SSR”, “research income per FTE”.  Do you know what all these terms and phrases have in common?

My dad never used one of them.  And he was a very happy academic.

 

Footnote:

* Congratulations! You kept reading to the bottom.  For that, you win the prize of this anecdote.

I was recently summoned to see my Head of School; an individual I have known and with whom I have collaborated for over 10 years.  I knocked on the door of the outer room that houses Cerberus, sorry, … I mean, his PA.  I was instructed to wait whilst she went into the inner sanctum to see if the great man was available.  She returned, whereupon I was informed that “The Professor and Head of School will see you now”.

 

Good grief…

 

Editors and reviews (or, “excuse me, would you repeat that, please?”)

There are loads of websites dedicated to poor reviews, and so this isn’t going to become one of them.  For one, I could never hope to compete with the mastery of Academia Obscura for one.

However, it’s probably worth a word or two every now and then on the review process and, indeed, the editorial process.  I bashed out a few words regarding editing on the Academic Ramblings blog a week or two ago.  I didn’t realize that I would be following them up quite so quickly.  On that occasion I questioned the integrity of a particular (unnamed) editor who rejected my manuscript without review on the basis that it didn’t contain sufficient references to articles in his own journal.  To be honest, I thought that was pretty shoddy practice.

However, equally shoddy must be the practice of editors not reading reviews before sending them back to authors (which I hope is what has just happened to me; the alternative being that the editor believes that the review I have just received is adequate).

So, winging its way into my inbox earlier today, in response to a carefully crafted masterpiece summarizing three years hard research toil (if I say so myself) was this little gem (and I quote verbatim):

“It will be a fantastic work if the authors could deeply presented the dominating of study discussed in detail and less overstaffed on the majority of studies discussed, which may give necessary details in tables to show their similarities or differences, as well as, advantages or disadvantages by your own letters.”

Joking aside for a moment; I reckon the paper in question took me and my co-authors approximately three months of our lives to write; this following a three year period of research.  This is what I do for a living. This is what my career is based upon. Doing research and writing it up for publication in the hope that it may make a contribution, however small, to future well-being. And in response, I get this tripe.

It takes a lot to upset this particularly thick-skinned, rather gnarled, northerner. But I must admit to feeling more than a little insulted.

If the review even made sense, it would be described as perfunctory at best.   And yet, in response to our three months hard labour to summarize three years of work, the editor has seen fit to issue us with a 102-word review. That is 102 words each of which has a specific and well-understood meaning when read in isolation. But 102 words that are utterly incomprehensible in the order presented here. (As an aside, I reckon its the victim of some pretty dreadful work by Google translate).

I am genuinely stuck as to how I should respond to this one. I should emphasize that this is the only review that the editor has deigned to send us for the paper. So I now have to write a point-by-point commentary on how I have addressed the comments made. That, or pull the paper and send it somewhere else. The galling fact is that this is (supposed to be) one of the best journals in the field.   Actually, no; that’s not true. What I should have said is “this is the journal with the highest impact factor in the field”. (But therein lies a whole other blog, if not book). So perversely, pulling it now and sending it elsewhere would probably diminish the perceived value of the research. But at least if I do that, I wont have to try and decipher “less overstaffed on the majority of studies discussed”.

Adding this experience to the one that I mentioned at the start of this piece, I’m beginning to think peer review and editorial best practice may be broken. (Oh, and if you’re interested, I will gladly name names in private, when presented with the gift of Guinness).