How to Not be Boring on Academic Social Media

Author: @TheLitCritGuy

For many academics it may seem that the rise of social media is yet another means of potential procrastination. Yet increasingly, certain academics have turned to social media not just as a way of accessing entertainment or as a tool for networking but as a means of engaging audiences in a brand new way.

Perhaps the most famous and well-known is @NeinQuarterly, an anonymous account that blends aphorisms, jokes and an expert level knowledge of German literature and culture to produce a fascinating and hugely popular account. Started by a former professor of German literature, @NeinQuarterly’s unique aphoristic and satirical style now appears in print in German and Dutch newspapers and last year saw the publication of Nein: A Manifesto, a book collecting his finest material that’s been published in multiple languages. On YouTube there is aside from John and Hank Green’s famous ‘Crash Course,’ PhilosophyTube, an account started from nothing just a few years ago that now has around 60,000 subscribers following their videos on Masters level philosophy.

Personally, my own anonymous account started for far less career-minded reasons. Having finished my Master’s degree and with a twitter account that I didn’t really use, I decided to dedicate it to talking about the thinkers and ideas that had intrigued me during Masters study and provoked me into applying for a PhD. I decided to cover literary theorists and critics who had been only briefly touched upon during my undergraduate degree. However, after starting the account I was convinced it would be largely ignored yet after tweeting to a few more widely followed accounts it picked up a surprising number of engaged and highly curious followers. Almost immediately, issues such as a posting schedule, what to talk about, and even the limits of my own knowledge became something that had to be dealt with. With a vocal and supportive group of followers I was forced to honest about my own limitations, my own inexperience, and allow myself to discover the liberating freedom of telling followers that I don’t know; that I would love to know more about something (something almost unthinkable in the high pressure environment of PhD research). The pressures of normal life meant that often the account became deeply personal as well as something academic and this seemed to only further the connection between me and the great groups of people who followed the account.

On top of this, anonymity comes with certain benefits that using social media with a name and a face doesn’t carry. From behind the “persona” of TheLitCritGuy my opinions don’t need to be run against what my institution or its managers might deem to be acceptable. Anonymity also allows the freedom for a kind of character to emerge. Behind anonymity, anger at the conditions of higher education for ECRs and students can be expressed more forcefully, and I also get to mash up jokes with theory without worrying colleagues will take me less seriously.

For academics who wish to take to social media and use it in a way beyond networking or sharing cat videos there is no sure fire way of doing things, but in the course of my own experiment there are a few things that I’ve found to have worked.

Firstly, have a distinctive voice. Anonymous accounts do not necessarily have a name or a face, but they depend upon having a distinctive perspective to offer. From Twitter the pseudonymous accounts @EthicistForHire and @CrankyEthicist from the name alone, immediately offers potential followers an insight into their account and what they are like.

Secondly, have a purpose. One of the most successful anonymous accounts in #AcademicTwitter, @AcademicsSay posts collections of jokes that connect really strongly with academics – jokes about coffee, about being overworked and the ever present catchphrase that ‘you should be writing.’ These highly sharable posts always keep the account highly focused and with a clear sense of purpose allowing it to grow to being followed by hundreds of thousands of people.

Thirdly, find your audience. Rather than just post into the void, the best academic accounts use the tools of social media to find an interested audience. Most notably, there are hashtags like #twitterstorians, where historians post and organise their thoughts, allowing an audience who want to engage with historians to find them. I always try and organise my own posting under #TheoryTime, allowing followers to keep up with what I’m talking about and catch up on topics they may have missed.

Fourth, expand. Whilst my own twitter account was successful, I quickly encountered the limitations of the form. I decided to expand my account into a research blog, as well as using the platform I built on twitter to write on new websites, bringing @TheLitCritGuy to a much wider audience.

Finally, connect. Whilst people follow an account or watch a YouTube channel to gain knowledge, using social media allows for academia to become more personally relatable – rather than a hierarchy of a teacher with students, twitter becomes a space of conversation and mutual education. Whilst I try and keep the important details of my life private from my account, a few personal details, personal opinions, and replies to followers makes the account more vibrant, more interesting and much more fun for those following.

It is this that makes anonymous accounts so effective too – outside of the structures, rules and roles of university networking, the anonymous account can become a place where academic researchers get to connect directly with an audience. Impact becomes something more than just a metric as people get to connect with academics beyond the realm of university organised public engagement events. Furthermore, this use of social media allows the public to see what life as an academic can be like, in all of its good and bad points.

Behind the anonymity of a nameless, faceless account I’ve shared some of the struggles of being an early career researcher, news about the state of the wider UK HE environment and the sheer joy of teaching as well as sharing and talking about my own research and intellectual passions. Whilst anonymous accounts bring a certain degree of freedom, there is the pressing awareness that my account won’t necessarily benefit my career within the university system. However, as more academics take to social media, using anonymous accounts allows for a new kind of creative, flexible academic to emerge, more closely linked with the public rather than embedded within the ivory towers of the university system.

I’ve received countless tweets, Facebook messages, and emails from people across the world, who, through various pressures felt they couldn’t pursue their own passion for literature and theory – needing a job, or dealing with their children they feel like they’ve missed out on a swathe of knowledge and it’s a genuine privilege to answer the questions and learn from them. Whether it be emailing economists about Foucault or letting a nursing student know more about phenomenology using social media has shown me that beyond the limits of the university classroom, people are curious and searching for new ways to be engaged and to learn. Social media can change how we teach and spread knowledge beyond the limits of the university and through anonymity academics might well find the freedom to connect with the public like never before.


Could Parental Leave Actually be Good for my Academic Career?

Author: David Kent
Original: University Affairs | The Black Hole

Last autumn, I started my research lab at the University of Cambridge’s Stem Cell Institute, but this coming summer I’m doing something completely different – I’m taking parental leave with my first child. I must admit that at least some inspiration came from my brother, who took a term off with his second child and said it was one of the best decisions he’d ever made.

It’s been a tough journey to get a group leader position – 11 years of intense research-focused time, most of which were spent in a complete black hole of uncertainty with respect to my future career. And now, I won’t be in the lab for 14 weeks – we’ll see how it all works out.

Reaction to my decision amongst non-academic family and friends was pretty much universally positive, but reaction from academic colleagues was highly variable – a substantial number of whom think I’m absolutely crazy to take off so much time within the first year of my research lab’s existence. I wasn’t too surprised by this, having emerged from the North American system where parental leave is much less generous than in Europe. What I didn’t expect were the other reactions …

In November, I was at a national cancer conference and at one of the evening receptions I spoke with a female scientist from another U.K. university about women in science. Over the course of the discussion, I mentioned that my partner and I would be taking advantage of the U.K.’s new “Shared Parental Leave” policy, with my partner taking 8.5 months of leave and me taking 3.5 months. She said she was shocked and surprised that a brand new group leader would take the time off, but also said “good for you.”

The next evening is when things really hit home though. After the conference dinner I was on the dance floor and a complete stranger came up to me and asked, “Are you David Kent?” I assumed she had seen my presentation earlier in the day until she continued, “the David Kent who is taking parental leave as a new group leader? I just wanted to say thank you.” We chatted a little and it was as simple as this: a male group leader taking parental leave was just not that common, especially not a 3.5-month block of time. The professor from the other night had clearly gone off and told her colleagues and word had spread.

Here I was being showered with praise for taking 3.5 months off work and feeling pretty good about my decision until I did a quick comparison to my partner’s situation, also an early career scientist. Not only would she be taking nearly three times the amount of leave, but she’s also been carrying a baby around for eight months whilst undertaking world-class research. Is there a small fan club of approving academics lined up to congratulate her on the brave decision to spend time with her child? Not that I’ve seen.

So, in effect, my taking a short block of parental leave has boosted my profile in the eyes of some academics and her taking a longer block will put her in the challenging position that so many young female academics find themselves in: trying to play catch-up and pretend that children haven’t impacted their careers (many do not acknowledge children on CVs, job applications, etc., for fear of being viewed unfavourably). The science community needs to embrace rather than shun such individuals.

Overall, if universities want more women in science, then the way we handle babies and families needs to change – men need to be as “risky” to hire as women. But change does not come overnight and it does not come easy. As a start, more countries (and institutions) need to have “use it or lose it” policies, such as exists in Quebec – the father is given a block of time that the mother cannot use. Universities and individuals need to fight for this. Countries such as Sweden have seen incredible results from such policies and are amongst the world leaders in having women in senior positions. For science specifically, granting agencies need to behave like the European Research Council with respect to eligibility windows and like EMBO for postdoctoral fellowships – creating small allowances for young parents that make the journey just a little bit easier.

Or perhaps we should just force them all out of science – that seems to be the way things are currently set up and it makes me worry for our future science workforce.


It’s OK to Quit Your PhD

Author: Jennifer Polk
Original: From PhD to Life

Occasionally I’m asked about quitting, particularly “quitting” a PhD program. This happened several times last week, when I was in Vancouver.

Contrary to what you may hear or what your own internal critics tell you, there’s no shame in moving on. I remember a long post on a Versatile PhD forum from “PJ,” an ABD thinking about leaving instead of spending another two years (minimum) to finish their PhD. In response, one commenter wrote, “But the real question is, do you want to be a quitter? Now, not everyone will view that question the same, and I’m sure many will say that equating quitting a PhD program to being a quitter is not valid, but in reality, it is.” No! Thankfully, most other commenters on the thread offered more nuanced and helpful reflections and advice. “Finishing is not just about the destination,” one former tenure-track professor pointed out. “If that’s the only thing you want, then it’s a tough few years ahead.” Indeed.

Before you make the decision to leave, separate your inner critic – who may well be reflecting outer critics in your life – from what you know is right for you. Trust your gut, not your gremlin. In my experience, this is a decision that individuals make and re-make over time. I’ve worked with a few clients who’ve contemplated not finishing their PhD programs. While you figure out what you want, it’s ok to be ambivalent, carrying on the work but distancing yourself psychologically and emotionally from academia. What are your goals? Once you know them, you can determine the correct strategy to move toward them. (With thanks to Harvey P. Weingarten’s recent post.)

The “no one likes a quitter” attitude that exists in graduate school and perhaps in academia writ large isn’t warranted. There is nothing inherently good or bad about completing a PhD. It’s only a good move for you if it is a good move for you. While individuals who depart sans degree will come to their own personal conclusions about their decisions, the wide world rarely cares. It’s instructive that in PJ’s original post, they mentioned that their former undergraduate professors were unanimous in advising them to quit. I’ll let English professor (and graduate advisor) Leonard Cassuto speak for ideal advisors everywhere: “Most of my advisees finish their dissertations and get jobs. I’m proud of them. But some walk away – and of that group I’m just as proud” (Graduate School Mess, p. 121). I feel the same way about my own clients, whatever path they choose to take.

A while back Christine Slocum reflected on her career journey in a Transition Q & A post. She’d completed an MA and then two years of a PhD program, then moved on before achieving ABD status. In her post she explains there were several reasons for her choice, including feeling burnt out, lack of community in her department, and desire to start a family. Pursuing the doctorate no longer meshed with her goals: “After some soul searching, I remembered that the reason I was pursuing sociology in the first place was to better understand the mechanisms of social stratification because I wanted to better understand how to undo it. ​Four years of graduate study [later,] I felt like I had enough that the next five years would be better spent working for an NGO, nonprofit, or government position getting practical experience in the field.”

Heather Steel made a similar decision when she decided not to continue her PhD in the midst of dissertating. She learned important information about herself during graduate school. “There were parts of my program that I enjoyed very much (classes, having the chance to read and think, teaching, and my colleagues), but in the end,” she realized, “sitting for hours in front of a microfilm reader to write something that few people would actually read was not fulfilling.” Heather learned that she enjoys “research in small doses, not projects that take years to see results.” When I did an informational interview with her during my transition, I learned that she didn’t regret her choices. Her career has continued to progress since then.

When I was in Vancouver, a graduate student in the audience at one of my talks shared his own story: He’d been enrolled in a PhD programs years before, then left. But here he was back doing another doctorate! He was nearly done, and this time around he knew it was the correct path for him. I know several people who’ve done similar things, for a variety of reasons. Fascinating, eh?

If completing your PhD is the right move for you, carry on. Get support and help wherever you can find it, go part-time, or take a break or leave or absence. Make whatever changes you need to smooth your journey. But if the doctorate no longer makes sense — your goals have changed, you’ve learned more about yourself over the years — then I’ve got your back (in spirit) in deciding not to continue. You’re not “quitting” or “leaving”; instead, you’re embarking on a new, better-for-you path, taking what you learned and experienced and applying it in a context that’s more suitable to who you are, how you work best, and where you want to go. That’s risky and brave, but it’s also just you standing up for yourself. It took me until after my PhD to do that. Feel free to do as I didn’t.


Scientists Have the Power to Change the Publishing System

Author: David Kent
Original: University Affairs | The Black Hole

Earlier this month I read an article by Julia Belluz that ripped into the scientific publishing system. The saddest, and truest, sentiment of the article can be summed up in the following quotation:

“Taxpayers fund a lot of the science that gets done, academics peer review it for free, and then journals charge users ludicrous sums of money to view the finished product.”

This is certainly not the first attack against the publishing process nor the first to encourage open-access publishing. In the remainder of her article, Ms. Belluz focuses on the role that governments can play in getting more scientific research freely and instantly available. In sum, she suggests that government funding agencies (e.g., the United States National Institutes of Health or the Canadian Institutes of Health Research) could refuse to give grants to those scientists who did not publish in open-access journals.

This is a laudable, and indeed it is the approach being taken bit by bit by funding agencies – the Wellcome Trust in the U.K. for example has a very robust open access policy that includes providing grant funding for the open-access charges. While this will certainly get more research out sooner and without charge, I believe it misses out on an important aspect of the power dynamic that plagues the scientific publishing process.

The fact is that journals with high impact factors wield enormous power because they hold the key to scientists’ careers – the field has become so obsessed with metrics that it is insufficient to be a good scientist with good ideas and the ability to perform good research. As things stand now, if you want research grants (and in most cases, this means if you want a job), then you need to publish a paper (or several!) with a big-name journal.

So what can scientists do? Well, it turns out scientists are involved in just about every aspect of the publishing power dynamic. First, one needs to understand what’s at stake. Scientists want big name papers for three main reasons:

  1. Grants
  2. Jobs
  3. Recognition

However, papers in big-name journals do not directly give you grants or jobs, nor are they the only way to be recognized as a good scientist. Other scientists make these decisions, but far too often their judgment is impacted by the glitz and glam of the big-name journals.

Jobs are often won by those doing research that has good institutional fit – they bring a novel technology, a new way of looking at things, or a broad network of excellent former colleagues – but jobs are often lost because the candidate is “not fundable.” The latter is more often than not decided based on where they have published and how a grants panel will view them. So it basically comes down to who can get grants. And who generally decides funding outcomes? Scientists.

I wonder how many grant panels have heard the phrase “the project looks good, but the candidate has only ever published in mid-range journals.” Indeed, I know several scientists who rank applications based on a candidate’s publication record irrespective of how good or bad the project is or how well-resourced the working environment is.

One suggestion: Ban the CV from the grant review process. Rank the projects based on the ideas and ability to carry out the research rather than whether someone has published in Nature, Cell or Science. This could in turn remove the pressure to publish in big journals. I’ve often wondered how much of this could actually be drilled down to sheer laziness on the part of scientists perusing the literature and reviewing grants – “Which journals should I scan for recent papers? Just the big ones surely…” or “This candidate has published in Nature already, they’ll probably do it again, no need to read the proposal too closely.”

Of course I generalize and there are many crusaders out there (Michael Eisen, Randy Sheckman, Fiona Watt, etc.) pushing to change things and I mean them no offence. I just wish that more people could feel safe enough to follow their lead. In my own journey to start up a lab, I am under enormous pressure to publish in a big journal (i.e., my open-access PLoS Biology paper doesn’t make the grade and open source juggernaut e-Life has yet to achieve high-level status despite its many philosophical backers).

So, in sum, scientists in positions of power (peer reviewers, institute directors, funding panel chairs) are the real targets for change. Assess based on research merit, not journal label. Let’s make journals tools of communication, not power brokers of scientific careers.