Saturday, July 28, 2012

Contrary thoughts on standard academic whining

I don't usually read TREES, but someone tweeted this paper, and I wanted to give my thoughts. The paper isnt particularly bad, but it just summarizes in one place all the whines I see all the time, and puts them together in one place. I don't know the authors. I assume it was written by Grandpa Simpson.

I am a newbie in academia, just barely a 2nd yr assistant professor. Sprinkle salt liberally.

There is too much measurement in academia: I don't really see this. In my experience, people do measure h-index, number of pubs, etc, but then use this as one of many factors in making decisions. In my position, the person who got the offer before me (and turned it down, obviously), had fewer pubs in lower journals than me, but the department made the same choice I would have in offering her the job first: she had a better, more interesting, more creative narrative than me. I am also thinking of one department chair-ship I am privy to the details on, in which the administration went with the person who had fewer papers and lower h-index in part because of the perceived quality of the papers, and in part due to unmeasurable gut feelings. These stories are typical in my experience.

I suspect that measurement is often used as an excuse when people are rejected for other, qualitative reasons.

And I have to add in here: the opposite of too much measurement is not academic paradise. It's extreme nepotism. Ask someone who has worked in the Italian university system.

Researchers are judged by the amount of grant money they bring in: BFD. That's how universities make their money, in overhead. That overhead rains down on people who have less remunerative interests. The opposite of judging based on grant $ is no soft-money institutes, and much greater competition for the few slots.

Standards for productivity have gone up: The numbers they give don't make sense. Standard have quadrubled in a "few" years? What's a few, like 4-5? I dont know. I don't buy it.

I do have a theory though. I call it the neuropolarbear theory of academic titles.
It goes like this.
The names we used for academics 50 years ago (or whatever halcyon age you want to look back to) are different than the present.

50 years ago                 Today 
Grad student                 Grad student
Assistant professor       Post-doc
Associate professor      Assistant professor
Full professor               Associate professor

I bet that salaries on the right hand side are better for each category than they were 50 years ago.

Anyhow, even if standards have gone up, this needs to account for the increase in startups and salary that support those increasing standards.

"This volume of papers is attained via large laboratory groups and research consortia, which in turn require massive amounts of funding". So more money is being put into the system and more papers are coming out. Why is this bad?

[To be continued in part II]

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