Funding & Research Culture (podcast extract)

This episode is an edited extract from a ‘Beyond Phrenology’ podcast episode where Dr Madhur Mangalam chatted with me about the impacts of research funding challenges on academic culture and individual well-being. The conversation addresses the need for a shift towards more supportive and diverse cultures, the complexities of academic career paths, and the importance of leadership, mentorship and job crafting. We also discuss the implications of international academic norms on individual career choices.

Overview:

[00:00:43] Research Funding Challenges and the Unsustainability of Current Models

[00:04:57] Promoting Emotional Intelligence and Leadership in Academia

[00:15:14] Navigating Career Paths Across Contexts

[00:24:38] On Privileged Positions and Playing the Game

[00:29:02] Wrapping up

[00:30:53] End

Related Links:

Madhur Mangalam, University of Nebraska at Omaha

BeyondPhrenology (YouTube)

BeyondPhrenology (Spotify)

Daniel Goleman – Emotional Intelligence

CAL99 episode: On research identity, meaningful work and funding

TEDx talk from 2016: The craziness of research funding. It costs us all.  

Online Academic Leadership Development Course – sign up by March 7 2024!

Transcript
Geri:

Welcome to Changing Academic Life. I'm Geraldine Fitzpatrick, and this is a podcast series where academics and others share their stories, provide ideas, and provoke discussions about what we can do individually and collectively to change academic life for the better. How do we navigate the challenges of research funding? While at the same time, trying to promote a collegial culture, that values wellbeing. That's for the good of science and scientists and society. This episode is an extract from a recent conversation. For another academic related podcast called 'Beyond Phrenology'. The host is Dr. Madhur Mangalam from the university of Nebraska at Omaha. And the trigger for him contacting me was an old TEDx talk I gave in 2016 on the craziness of research funding. So prior to this extract, we had been discussing the challenges around research funding and so on. And here we move more to positioning the funding issue into a broader context of research culture. Culture and we discuss themes that you will have heard me talk about If you're interested in the full episode, I'll include the links in the show notes. This extract comes from the second half, starting at around one hour and nine minutes. So, enjoy this and you might find other episodes in Madhur's podcast of interest as well.

Madhur:

So right now we are in a situation where funding levels have not increased overall. Right. Compared to how many researchers we are. Proportionately funding has not increased. Right? So it's kind of a, like a oil well, which is depleting, and now you have to burn more oil to get that oil from it. Right? So your overall productivity is going down, number of papers are rising, but definitely not the productivity in proportionally. Yeah. Right. So do you think this will be sustainable in the long run? I mean, how far can we stretch this system?

Geri:

No, it's not sustainable. And one of my particular concerns is when it's ultimately not sustainable for doing good science, for solving the hard problems that we have right now that we were just talking about. Yeah. And it's not sustainable for human beings. One research study, and I can't remember now who wrote it, but talk about academics having a higher level of stress and burnout than the general population. And that's just getting worse. Yeah. So we're burning out human beings and our best brains who we want to be working on these problems are getting into these really stressed states of on the treadmill where they're not actually able to produce the good work and they're just producing, you know, churn outs of proposals and papers. And that's a human impact, which has a science impact and a societal impact. And yeah, it's not sustainable, which is why I'm very concerned about not so much the funding, the funding just being, I don't know, both sort of a driver and a, and a symptom of why we need to shift to more collegial supportive cultures that value well being, that recognize the diversity of individuals that recognize, what's needed for people to bring their best selves to work and to be at their most creative, most collaborative. It needs a different skill set than what we're training people for right now.

Madhur:

Peter Thiel has an interesting quote, right? Uh, where, he talks about, that we wanted, to have. Flying cars, and we got like a 140 character Twitter, in terms of what we expected the technology will bring and what it actually brought. So he also talks about, you know, in the same kind of conversations that, we have a system, we have set up a system where we are not selecting scientists, we are selecting good grand writers. Mm. Uh, so, so there's a natural selection. Good game players, you can say. Good game players, yeah. Uh, you know, even from my personal experience. Yeah. Mm. Exactly.

Geri:

And we should be selecting people who are good knowing themselves and what they bring. We should be selecting people who are good at, empathy and compassion and being able to work with other people. We should be selecting people who have good leadership skills, who have good interpersonal skills, who are able to live with uncertainty, you know, because research is fundamentally uncertain.

Madhur:

But how do we do that? Because those are the things you cannot quantify, and have a number for that, right?

Geri:

No, no. And that's one of, it doesn't fit in a spreadsheet. It doesn't fit in a spreadsheet, yes. Yep. And I know that some people are starting to include questions in interview protocols for promotions or job applications that might be about. Tell us about your leadership skills or, you know, like a collaboration that worked and again, we can game the system, but I'd, I'd like it part of our training, so that it just becomes part of the skill set that we have, whether that's starting at school, teaching people social emotional skills. Emotional intelligence became very popular. Was it in the 90s that Danny Goleman made the concept more popular? Oh, I can't remember what, what the timeframe was, but there's been a lot of work done in the interim, and I know that there was a lot of work going on by Salovey and various people before then on this area, but in terms of bringing it into public discourse, I know that there are many, many programs in schools from primary school up that are about teaching kids some of these fundamental skills about how to recognize and manage their own emotions, how to, how to, you know, those interpersonal skills and how to manage relationships and how to manage conflict. And, there are also a whole lot of skills needed in terms of just Dealing with how we structure time, how we look after ourselves as well, and how we value that. I know that I'm, I'm in the middle of marking some assignments. As I said, I'm, I'm teaching this PhD course about from surviving to thriving. And one of the things that I got them to do, we, we. Given them lots of tools and resources for different aspects around whether it's knowing your values and strengths, because that helps you make choices in how you do your tasks or what career paths might look like, at least the qualities, even if not the label, give them lots of skills about valuing well being and recognizing how Being well isn't a nice to have, but is a fundamental requirement for being able to do good science. We do things about how to say no, and manage boundaries so that you can as part of that, how to build collegial relationships, how to have difficult conversations. And I'm just in the middle of marking the reflective journals that they had as they tried out various tools and techniques. And. One thing that just keeps coming up for me is like the students saying again and again, there are so many things here that are so simple, but they make such a huge difference. Why haven't we heard about these before? And so I'm hoping that some of our students, who've gone through this will be starting to be part of the next generation of researchers that will change cultures. Be part of changing academic cultures to be more collegial and supportive and collaborative to recognize individual contributions and diversity in a different way beyond just notions of gender and race, which are very important, but yet diversity is much more than that, especially for the purposes of science. And we also have a leadership development course with Austin Rainer from Belfast, Queens, Belfast, that we run for Informatics Europe. And that's trying to teach academics about how to do leadership in a different way. Because again, we're never taught about how to do leadership, how to be leaders, right? You know, we, we may be sent on training courses about how to manage the budgets in the university system or how to write a grant proposal. There are many courses on that. Not taught about those.

Madhur:

Their leadership still is, uh, their leadership role is like this, you know, like if I have got this funding, let's say like 500k or a million dollars from the public funds and I'm hiring a postdocs or PhDs. I am paying your salary, so I will dictate the terms, right, rather than understanding that you have been just selected as a facilitator of providing this funding for this human growth, resource development, rather than you being there, but you know, they're benefactors.

Geri:

And there's so much, again, like there's, it can get complicated because where. Now, if you're on the tenure track path, your case for promotion or your case for tenure in three, four years may in large part be dependent upon the outputs of this postdoc or this PhD student, you know, because that's part of the funding and that's part of what you're going to be judged on. And so that can create a lot of pressures for you where it can play out in not like you don't mean to everyone's got good intentions, I believe, generally but because you're operating from your own sort of stresses about, am I going to tick all the boxes or get enough eggs in my basket? You then create a whole lot of pressures on your students and expectations about working ridiculous hours or having to be perfect or having to drive more and more papers because we can always do one more paper or run one more experiment or or whatever and that's not the way to develop people. It's not the way to get good outputs.

Madhur:

I agree. So I was kind of fortunate to be in a different situation during my PhD. So that was a traditional psychology department where we were funded by a TAship. So we used to teach or, you know, be a grad assistant with a faculty. So of course the TAship was lower compared to, you know, typical stipend if somebody, if a faculty has their own fund. But still, it was sustainable. And that allowed us a lot of room because there was no pressure. You could continue your PhD, you know, for large number of years. And the PI also did not have pressure that they need to get this fund to be, to be able to pay you. So that allowed a lot of room for thought, allowed a lot of room for learning. Yeah. Now, for instance, now I have my first two PhD students, and my startup includes two years of salary for both of those. Now the thing is I can give them a lot more room, okay, to explore, but I also understand that it will be detrimental for them because if we as a group do not produce pilot data, uh, a good pilot data, and if we are not able to hit a grant within two years. How will I fund their, you know, the PhD, right? I know, yeah. So, because we do not have that kind of a TSA program where I am right now. So, uh, that creates like a lot of pressure and that definitely takes away a lot of flexibility, which they might have had. Uh, you know, in a, in a more secure setting.

Geri:

Mm. Yeah. I know. And this is where I was saying it's very complex about having people whose jobs depend on you. And this is where we need different employment models in universities, different funding models that allow some longer horizons for people, and some continuity. And I, again, I know from a university admin perspective, that can be challenging because if, if at our university they converted all of our current postdocs on short term contracts into full time contracts just to give people some continuity or some confidence for career paths, that would be unsustainable. They don't have the budget. It also has implications for space, you know, buildings, you know, like just desks and minimal requirements of what's needed to, for someone to have a healthy workspace. This is what we were just saying. It's really, it is really complicated. I know that there are no easy solutions. I think we, we do need to recognize though, the human costs of many of the performance measures and research assessment measures that have been in place to date. And, are there ways that we can compromise, do a little bit of in between work and so I'm really, the short term contracts for postdocs and researchers just breaks my heart because I have people in our own lab, who, don't have permanent contracts and they're great people and, you know, they're trying to work hard on projects and helping put in new proposals to get more funding. And they come up to a time limit of how long they're allowed to be employed for as well. So there are European laws around that and on short term funding and they also have, family commitments, so they're not. As flexible as some other academics to go, okay, my six year, eight year contract as a postdoc period is limited. And I have to leave now so I can move to another country. A lot of people don't have that flexibility. And if you're in a town and this is the main university for this area, they're your job prospects. And, you know, as a pI or a faculty member, I was also aware of the expertise that we would be losing, where you'd spent, there'd been a whole lot of time and people had built up all this expertise and were really valuable members and could just hit the ground running and do amazing work. But then they hit against some arbitrary time limit, have to move on. So then you've got to start again with someone brand new. And I know that's growing, that's growing capacity and stuff, but yeah, again, at what human cost.

Madhur:

We do lose a lot of talent from academics. I mean, I have so many talented friends who finally left academia because they would have been okay. Had they been given a decent salary, their expectation was not too high, but a decent salary to live with the family and the ability to do research. But we do not have that model right now. We have, the only model we have is like a pyramid PI model. So, so, uh, you know, or you just keep doing it as a postdoc with a soft salary. Yeah. So, so we need like more common positions somewhere in between for people who just don't want to do research.

Geri:

Indeed. At the same time, I also am a big believer, in the beginning we said about lots of things happen by chance and you can, you always sort of end up orienting to the same sorts of things because that's where you're at your best or that's what you love doing or that's what's important to you. And so I am also really clear in talking to PhD students and postdocs. really early from the beginning that academia is not the one and only option. Right. And you can actually be happy. In many different career paths, they all be different. They always involve trade offs. Every option involves trade offs of one sort or another. That, you know, like, if you can really get more clarity about who you are, as we said at the beginning, what you bring, where you're at your best, what are your strengths, what are your values. You can find ways of playing those out in multiple different career paths, in different ways, in different contexts, with different impacts, but you can still wake up in the morning excited about what you're going to do at work. You know, and a lot of the research suggests that even if we have, I think some of it points to about 20 or 25 percent of our time at work, enabling us to do this sort of stuff that lights us up, that's enough to make it, make it work for us. You know, you talked about the bad PhD earlier.

Madhur:

No, I agree with you. I mean, uh, just because you did not continue, that doesn't mean that doesn't make you a sellout or like, uh, you know, not a capable PhD or not capable academicians. Academic success has a lot to it than just being like a good researcher.

Geri:

Yeah. I, one of the things I'm also encouraged by, in some countries, you know, some institutions is recognizing different sorts of career paths within academia that that some people Brilliant researchers and really not very good in front of the classroom as teachers. Other people are really good mentors, facilitators, supporting students and growing people. I work with a colleague who's the most brilliant teacher, he, you know, innovative, excited about what he's teaching, gets students enthusiastic, does all sorts of interesting things in the classroom that I would never be able to do, it's just not my not my skill set and, but not necessarily, you know, brilliant researcher. But shouldn't be, and should be recognized and rewarded and have a promotion path, a career path that rewards excellence in teaching or excellence in research or excellence in research management or, whatever. And there are things happening where that's starting to be accepted more.

Madhur:

Right. So do you think, uh, this, like, let's say that, you know, assume, let's be optimistic and, assume that things will change for good. For the system to become more sustainable and also to enrich more early career searchers. Would it be within the same funding agencies, shifting the mandates or would it be, or do we actually need interventions where we like at the congressional level that we have new bodies with a completely different mandate and slowly. You know, kind of depleting these institutions existing on the resources and shifting those resources to the new model. So will the change be from the inside or will it be a slow demolishment of the current establishment?

Geri:

And like, this is where it's a really complex space because I, if I just bring it back to my own situation, so It's important to me to say to students, you know, like, we don't expect you to work weekends or after hours, we want you to have a life, there's more to life than work, like these are a reasonable number of publications to aim for. So we try to create some sense of balance because we know that if we can create the conditions where people are well and healthy and have a balanced life, well not balanced because there's no such thing as balance, but have different aspects in their life when they come to work, they will be, you know, all of the research is clear that they will be more creative, better problem solvers, better collaborators and so on. And so they're likely to produce good outputs. I'm saying to people this is good enough. Like it's really good enough. You're doing great. And then they go for, they want to go, I'm going to pick on the U S because I think it's, there's a particular culture there. Now in our area, sometimes you even need publications at key top quality venues to even get into a PhD program.

Madhur:

Oh, so, uh, literally like this is actually the reality. I mean, you can't get a PhD, scholarship or, or entry to the graduate program if you don't have publications. And I don't blame that because when I applied to that school, I had eight publications, like during my master's and two years of work after my master's. So if I have like a two year internship after my master's that I published and I had eight. And you have a student, you know, maybe bright, maybe brighter, with no output, faculty is inclined to take those who actually have. Publications.

Geri:

I know. And I know that that's the culture in the U. S. And so if we're working in a different culture and we have students coming through bachelor's and master's programs, but there's nowhere near the emphasis on publications. You know, the occasional master's student, bachelor's student may get a publication, especially if they happen to be working on a project. that the supervisors set up or some other funded project that they contributed to. But it's not normal. Like most master's students, good master's students won't have a publication. So they come out of that system and then they go into a PhD program. If they decide they want to go to the US, they're not going to be competitive. If I've got people coming out of PhD where we, you know, like the, some of the rules say, some institutions say like three good quality publications is around what we expect, but you know that they want to go to the U. S. for a postdoc and to be competitive there for a postdoc, anyone else in the pool will have 12, 14, and then 15, it becomes this arms race.

Madhur:

I had about 25 plus, around 28 when I was, when I graduated with a PhD. And really, even then it was very hard for me to find a postdoc. It was not everyone took it. I had very few options even after that.

Geri:

I can try to change the culture locally and say. You know, like you've got enough, you're going to burn out if you just keep working every weekend to get yet another paper, yet another paper, and they're not going to be of good quality. And that's why I'm hoping that the push for quality over quantity might stop some of that arms race. But we're operating in an international culture, so I can do that in my own group and it may not fit the rhetoric of the faculty. So the faculty may have stronger requirements, you know, and it may not fit the rhetoric of what the national body that government is putting in place and saying to the universities they want to evaluate their performance on in order to get the next five year funding for their budgets. And it may not fit with international context, if people want to be mobile, because there's a lot of mobility in the academic sector. So I think some of these initiatives like DORA, the San Francisco Agreement, like COARA at the European level, may be starting to change, but it's got to be, it's got to be an international change. And that means multiple levels, you know, like governmental levels, funding agency levels, university levels, faculty levels, group levels, individual supervisors. I

Madhur:

mean, I mean, there is some, some stuff, for instance, when we apply an NIH grant and you apply for an NIH grant, it allows you to put only four different areas of contribution, four or five, and each of those, you can list only four publications. So basically you cannot list more than 20 publications in the whole biosketch, right? So that kind of controls for, because then you can look at, are, are, are themes consistent? You know, is it the similar kind of work or is it just a number of publications which are, you know, so likewise in grad applications, right? In grant applications we can have like, you know, in your CV you actually fill in the CV rather than actually having your own format. And you have like, like, you know, name your two best publications. And you will be evaluated on those two best publications and not at that level, for a master's student and not on like whether you publish like 10, you're mostly like co authored with someone.

Geri:

That's encouraging. And it would be really good if faculties doing searches for employing people. Yeah. Did a similar thing.

Madhur:

Uh, but, uh, for a person who is like. You know, early career, the only option that person has is to just go with whatever the system asks. I know. And just give the deliverables, right? Deliverables. Yeah. So, so, so where do you stand on that?

Geri:

I'm, I'm acutely aware of the privilege position that I'm in to be able to speak about these things. I'm also acutely aware of the privilege that I've had in my career trajectory that I have been, I guess, ahead of the wave of a lot of these pressures, where I was never, I never felt personally driven by these sorts of pressures. If I was driven, it was more by my own wanting, my own criteria that I put on myself. And I, that's what I was saying before about, you know, like, I'm conscious that I might say to a student, you're good enough, you've done enough, it's good work, you know, you're allowed to have other things in your life beyond work. And I know that I might not be doing them a favour in setting them up for different career paths if They want to go to the U. S. and, and everyone else has got 28 publications. So for me, it's about helping them understand what the trade offs are. And it can be that you choose to play the game now, in order to get to there and then be part of trying to change the dialogue. I think that people who are more senior in their careers have a real responsibility to step up and be part of the conversation and just call out some of these practices and some of the gaming practices and, and arguing for different ways of, of engaging, running their labs in different ways. I don't know, it's just. It's not about all these brownie points that we get. It's not what's important in life. And the usual thing of when you get to your deathbed, are you going to, you're going to be saying, Oh, if only I had have got that journal paper published, you're not going to be saying that. And how do we just keep it in perspective? And how do we give people a decent living, that allows them to make good choices? So I think that senior people got a responsibility. I think in. Mentoring and, and supporting younger people, making clear the values that you hold as important, helping them navigate and understand the trade offs. And in the middle of that, I'm a big believer in this concept of job crafting, which I sort of alluded to before, which is, if you are having to play the game, because this is where you're at, and you recognize that, you know, the change that we want to see is going to be further on beyond when you're going to be needing to have your next career steps. Are there ways of making more intelligent choices where you can still play the game, but you're making choices that are much more aligned with your own values? And what's important to you where you're making choices on research topics or projects, connect to your strengths, connect to your values and work on things that you care about. Because you can still get the outputs, but they'll be outputs that you'll be prouder of. So you can still aim to play the game, but can we find ways to shape and craft our research identities? Again, I just did a podcast on this. The last one I put out was about trying to navigate that tension of research identities and how to play the game. While still being true to who we are, and part of that is finding out about who we are, like, what is my research identity? And how do I step into that? And being clear about the compromises that I'm prepared to make right now. As we've said, everything's a complex space. And so I'm trying to be part of changing the conversation and the culture in the small spheres of influence that I might have. And I, you know, yeah, I always say to people what are the small things we can all do to be part of that change. We can all be part of changing academic life for the better.

Madhur:

Yes, I hope so too. So thank you, Professor Fitzpatrick, have a great, day ahead and, we look forward to having you, once again, when we have more cases.

Geri:

And that was an edited extract from the interview with Madhur Mangalam that he did with me for his Beyond Phrenology podcast. I made mention about our academic leadership development courses. And if you're interested in being part of that, And you are listening before March seven. That's March 7th, 2024. You might be interested in signing up for the next iteration of the online academic leadership development course that Austen Rainer and I co-facilitate for Informatics Europe. It'll be starting later in March and I'll put a link to this in the show notes. We put an emphasis on the course in developing the social and emotional skills that are a key part of being a good academic leader developing people and creating collegial cultures. So join us in being part of creating the change we want to see. You can find the summary notes, a transcript and related links for this podcast on www. changingacademiclife. com. You can also subscribe to Changing Academic Life on iTunes, Spotify and Google Podcasts. And you can follow ChangeAcadLife on Twitter. And I'm really hoping that we can widen the conversation about how we can do academia differently. And you can contribute to this by rating the podcast and also giving feedback. And if something connected with you, please consider sharing this podcast with your colleagues. Together, we can make change happen.

Share this Episode:

Related Posts