Academia: Leadership and Training Required

If you know someone who works in academia, chances are they’ve told you that research takes time. A lot of time, that is. But does it have to?

It’s 3:15pm on an overcast Wednesday afternoon. A group of PhD students, postdocs and senior academics sit down to discuss their latest paper. They’re “just finishing” the write-up, almost ready to submit to a journal. This phase has already been in motion for months, and could well take another week or two.

Of course, this sounds monumentally inefficient to corporate ears. In a world where time is money, three months of tweaking and wrangling could not be tolerated. So why is it acceptable in academia? Because nobody is in charge! Many universities suffer from a middle management leadership vacuum; the combined result of lack of training and unwise promotions.

It is ironic that renowned bastions of learning have fallen so far behind their industrial counterparts when it comes to research efficiency. When you consider that lecturers need no teacher training, supervisors no management expertise, and interviewers no subconscious bias training, the problem becomes less surprising. No wonder academia is leading the way on gender inequality.

The solution – a cultural shake-up. Universities must offer more teaching-only posts, breaking the vicious cycle which sees disgruntled researchers forced to lecture badly, and excellent teachers forced out from lack of research output. Senior management should mandate leadership training for group leaders and supervisors, empowering them to manage effectively and motivate their students. Doctoral candidates, for that matter, might also benefit from a course in followership, the latest business fashion. Perhaps most importantly, higher education needs to stop hiring, firing and promoting based purely on research brilliance, with no regard for leadership, teamwork and communication skills.

Conveniently, higher education has ready made role-models in industrial research organisations. Bell Labs is a good example. Not long ago this once famous institution was in the doldrums, even forced to shut down for a period. But under the inspirational leadership of Marcus Weldon, the laboratory is undergoing a renaissance. Undoubtedly much of this progress is built on Marcus’ clear strategic goals and emphasis on well-organised collaboration.

Universities might even find inspiration closer to home. Engineering departments worldwide are developing ever-closer ties to industry, with beneficial effects on research culture. From machine learning to aerospace, corporate backing provides not only money but also business sense and career development. These links advantage researchers with some client-facing facets, not the stuffy chalk-covered supermind of yesteryear. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for pure research – far from it. But insular positions ought to be exceptional, rather than the norm.

At the Scopus Early Career Researcher Awards a few weeks ago, Elsevier CEO Ron Mobed rightly bemoaned the loss of young research talent from academia. The threefold frustrations of poor job security, hackneyed management and desultory training hung unspoken in the air. If universities, journals and learned societies are serious about tackling this problem they’ll need a revolution. It’s time for the 21st century university. Let’s get down to the business of research.


5 thoughts on “Academia: Leadership and Training Required”

  1. I agree with some of this, but I don’t think more teaching-only posts are the solution. Teaching-only posts are increasing anyway, and for the most part they’re orthogonal to academic culture, because the people in them are too overworked to bother with research and too disenfranchised to have an impact on how universities are run. While I do think that lecturers ought to be better at teaching, I also think that a lot of what lecturers teach isn’t really amenable to a more industrial attitude: either it’s too specialized for a state of the art to emerge, or it’s material that really ought to be taught somewhere else (pre-meds should be going to med school instead of getting a bachelor’s like they do in many countries, and learning any physics they need there, intro physics in general should be taught in high schools).

    1. Interesting comments, Matt. I think I broadly agree with you – I took up something of an extreme viewpoint to provoke some debate. I do however, think that lecturers should be afforded more chance to develop their non-academic skills. A lot of the time I hear undergraduates complaining about lecturing styles, but this never gets fed back to the academics in any meaningful way, so there’s no development. Some kind of mandatory training and peer review of teaching could only be a good thing in my opinion, provided it was calibrated in a fairly “light touch” way. I for one would love to have some evaluation of my teaching, which might help develop my presentation style for seminars too!

  2. At some point every physics student gets this nagging feeling that things could be much petter. Topics could be taught much more effectively, there should be a lot more discussions etc.

    A good starting point, I think, would be full time lecturers, which are hired based on teaching skills. However, the roots possibly lie much deeper. If you haven’t already, you should have a look at Disciplined Minds by Jeff Schmidt. I studied physics in Germany and Schmidt talks about how physics is taught in the US. Nevertheless, I was often spooked how acurately he describes my experience during my studies (although I certainly do not agree with everything in his book). Quote:

    “The typical course features three 50-minute lectures per week. A pattern is usually quickly established in which the professor repeatedly fills the blackboard with equations, copying from handwritten notes, while the students try to copy each boardful into their own notes before it is erased to make room for the next. Professors usually tell their classes to feel free to ask questions, but their rushed answers quickly convey a different message-that questions impede their race to present their voluminous notes in the allotted time. Hence, after the first two or three lectures, students ask few questions, and those are usually minor points of clarification: “Shouldn’t that be a minus sign?” or “Is that a theta squared in the numerator?” “

    1. I completely agree that often the lecture style stymies true understanding by suppressing deep questions. However I’m not sure that the solution is full time lecturers with no research responsibilities. I think that teaching and leadership skills should simply be valued more highly in the hiring process. That way we’d organically reach a good balance of research, management and teaching.

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