A PhD journey involves plugging into a unique type of community. One worth fighting for

Ruth Winden and I speak about collaboration: “researcher culture uncovered” podcast s4ep5
If research community perspective interests you, perhaps also listen in to this recent podcast discussion I had with Ruth Winden – Careers Research Consultant at the University of Leeds. This blog intentionally contrast those podcast sentiments with the competitive challenge in a modern academic marketplace. I conclude that academics are, by-and-large, collaborators anyway.

scholarship is about advancing knowledge, not merely solving problems

These are wise words, offered early in my PhD by my supervisors. It nicely frames the priority of the research community, too. This is a community that I am beginning to feel more connected to, and relating more coherently with. If you are considering a PhD; or are curious to know what academic life feels; or if are also early in a PhD and are yet to connect more fully with your community, this blog is for you. I hope to convince you it is a worthy battle to enter – because of (and not despite) the conflicting nature of this world

The fog of war

I use the word “battle” provocatively. Primarily because there is an element of conflict that lives well in academic place. In the above flagged podcast I speak of the productivity of conflict, as a tool or communication device that has potential for positive ends.

The primary reason for using the word “battle” therefore, is to make plain this active engagement with debate. Get used to receiving criticism, because it is never short in supply. Harder still, is learning how to offer it back. Giving it back with all the same good intentions, and appropriate tone toward better outcomes both sides seek to collectively find.

I use the word “battle” also because it also points to an active role of conflict. Active, meaning that a vibrant research community is actively engaged in these productive challenges one writer/reader to the next writer/reader.

This positive battle is described as the “conversation” in academic journals. Each researcher is required to arrive with a paper that contributes to this conversation. The author therefore needs to know what has already been said, and be clear on which discussion they are placing their embattled position within. We are required to progress that conversation, or if we can be appropriately controversial, within that context, all the better. However, as was delightfully said by Dr. Tim Brady this week, “but only place your head in one guillotine at a time”. To extend the “battle” metaphor, this is to say, invite conflict from just one frontier at a time.

Next, I wish to highlight a second battle. One less wholesome, and I think one that is ultimately counter-productive to that first priority. This is the battle for attention, relevance, and (like most all public arenas) a tendency towards singular notoriety. I will first characterise a little more the first battle (i.e., referenced above). This offers a more concrete comparison to this less wholesome second battle. The first battle – that of a community in active constructive conflict – is paramount, and lives to the “scholarship is about advancing knowledge, not merely solving problems”. That means scholarship is about a clarity, or a revealing. Clear in research focus; clear in positioning toward betterment by a constant refinement, debate, or empirical accord. It implies that actions are directed toward something bigger than oneself. Therefore, for us wannabe scholars, before I can contribute to that bigger purpose I must arrive with capability – not just willingness to be involved. That means a hefty amount of groundwork I must commit to (mostly on my own). It is then a privilege to be invited to add to the discussions that are already going on. This is to the heart of peer review, and the difficulty and time needed to (perhaps and only eventually) add to what has come before. It is also the barrier to entry of this discourse.

“Battle” I now use in a sense more akin to the zero-sum game competition notions it more usually relates to (i.e., if I win, it means you must lose). This is the second priority, the business of academia.

This second battle, is the enabler of the first. That is to say, the academic institution is itself supporting that means to keep going. The business of academia is on the one hand an income, to finance all else; and on the other it is an output, being rated by standardised metrics of value. In this first hand, students pay to be taught; funding councils pay research grants – and both are matters of competition in finite pools. In this respect, all is standardised towards comparable metric. And as an academic, attracting funding and elevating the prestige of the school add self-evident value.

The relationship to incoming means is not new, nor a surprise. My 30 years in industry can be regarded in much the same measure. But revenue is but one metric; other metrics are also equally important as a means to keep going. This is the rating of universities, fields of study and research quality. It is student feedback; it is academic results; and, most markedly, it is now citation counts – the modern make or break of academic careers and institutions alike. These latter day metrics, are the more recent attempts to make the future user-comparison less arduous. The consumer metric, as if buying a commodity. These metrics have exploded into a binary of meaning in perhaps the last 20 years. And there is now plenty that is made plain to compare. This relates year-on-year, peer-to-peer; with a number attaching to most all scales and every career. The metric rated better universities, the metric rated better journals, the higher the ground from which to stand. The louder the voice in the debate. These factors now matter. They attract the incoming attention. If wishing to make meaningful the notion of “advancing knowledge, not merely solving problems”, it seems now that this is how the research community must more realistically relate.

There is of course nothing wrong with competition to keep matters effective and optimised. If value for money is the goal, then such metrics are all. However, is this really what we want research enquiry to be? Cheap and rated based on popularity? That’s not me. For me, I want to learn to make the harder more discerning choices. I am just about anti-establishment enough to see quantity over quality as something to be rebuked. To see institutional conformity to both be rules to learn, to more mindfully test to see if they break. I am also playground bruised enough to know popular is not always right, but more typically just an easier means to have less fights. Thankfully, that gives me grounding in confrontation and moments of diplomacy. I am however, now back at school and learning to fight more collaboratively. What excites me most in that regard is the realisation that once hubris is overcome, we can be so much more.

But enough about me, let’s talk about you… what do YOU think of me?

CC Bloom in “Beaches” 1988

Nine months into my PhD now, and I am beginning to feel like I belong. I am quietly going about my business, and seeing a glimpse of academic business, too. Academia, more than ever, is now a business. And this blog briefly outlines what that means. In my opinion it is an uneasy marriage of priorities: individual relevance; alongside knowledge creation. That is however a reality of a conflict that is unlikely to change any time soon. Any change is going to be in facing up to new emergent problems that are building from this unsteady foundations. We (you and I as wannabe scholars) are required to be known for our personal contribution and be unique; but we are most productive as a collective of conflict making the better ends meet. This is a contemporary source of many pressures and realities facing all in the academic community – a community who are first and foremost required to be knowledge seekers (not owners). This business end of academia seems to me a most distracting second priority. I think perhaps, it will nonetheless be a defining aspect the resulting pressure upon that community.

If you are therefore on the fringes of academia – if you have read this far, I suspect you are – and are thinking about diving in, this offers you a naïve perspective on what awaits – i.e., naïve as a perspective from a first year PhD (not a seasoned academic career pro). But if one thing is taken from this observation, make it this. In the modern era of landgrabs, and silos (and in most all walks of life) this academic community is one space where the people are not just here for the money, but are “advancing knowledge, not merely solving problems“. By-and-large therefore, this is a community that are all too willing to work collaboratively – and increasingly this means as cross-disciplinary and globally integrative ways. Very much the language I choose to speak. If you want more evidence of that community, just listen to what many have to say from within. Accessible here

The University of Leeds, Centre for Projects

I consider myself very fortunate to have landed in the Leeds Centre for Projects, part of the School of Civil Engineering. Both live within the natural sciences faculty at the University of Leeds. This centre for projects has only just launched, but it is filled with the sorts of people I like most. Highly collaborative, generous with their time, and clear in setting an agenda that relates to real world concern. There is no bigger concern than sustainability in projects (in my opinion). My research is motivated by that. The department I have joined lives by it, and populated by academic professionals driven by that same sentiment. My supervisors are also first rate – and as is their critique. The wider business of academia is one I am only just starting to see. I am minded to conclude that it is one of those places worth fighting for. You can find out more about Leeds Centre for Projects, here.

…to be continued