Tuesday, 12 May 2020

How COVID-19 might alter the priorities of University Interview Panels

Universities are currently fretting over the seemingly inevitable gaps in next academic year’s finances. In the short term, staff recruitment is one obvious locus for cost constraint. Beyond the financial drive to slow or stop recruitment there are the practical matters of assembling interview panels, making appointment decisions, connecting new staff to university systems and the more existential question of whether they can usefully begin working remotely. However, at some stage, large employers like universities will return to something more like normal operating circumstances. Will recruitment decisions be shaped by different priorities post-lockdown?

Before answering this, it is important to make two observations. First, COVID-19 is extracting a terrible human cost from society. Our staff and student populations are experiencing anxiety, loss and isolation in the same way as everyone else. Second, the speculations expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of either the Chartered Association of Business Schools or of Heriot-Watt University.

Digital Skills

The most obvious pedagogical consequence of lockdown has been the wholesale switch to online supported learning. A few pioneering universities have been engaged in online learning at scale for some time. Many more have been quietly contemplating the balance of online and face-to-face learning for several years. Suddenly however, the whole sector has moved further and faster than anyone would have thought possible. When campuses do reopen, there will be far greater emphasis on online literacy in the recruitment process. Previously at an interview you may have encountered one or two random early adopters of this new fangled technology. Examples of innovation that I’ve encountered when interviewing have included the use of online polls, flipped classrooms, webinars, etc. Though not particularly revolutionary, such examples have tended to be reasonably well received. Going forward, everyone on the panel will likely have completed a “how to teach online” course offered by their own institution’s learning and teaching specialists or a third party provider. Being seen as an online enthusiast, innovator or expert will be both more important and more demanding for interviewees.

International Networks

In selecting new members of your university’s academic community, there’s an allure to marrying upwards. Recruiting early career academics from the best schools, preferably once they’ve been supervised to doctoral standard by the world’s leading scholars, is a familiar pattern. It promises a low-cost way to cross pollinate world-leading research culture with your own, perhaps less esteemed but no less ambitious culture. Research networks may matter even more since the ways in which such relationships can be nurtured in a post-COVID19 environment may change. The familiar practice of networking with leading thinkers at conferences was already under question in terms of environmental consequences. Now there are new reasons to worry about such mass gatherings. Coming with a pre-formed research network will make you an attractive candidate. Demonstrating the digital skills to build and expand that network will make you even more attractive.

Local Networks

It is striking that the university sector has resisted the kinds of consolidation and extinction events that have characterised other industries from retail to financial services and beyond. If you can access the best minds from the best institutions digitally, why would you go to your local, mid-ranked university? The answer may be a new localism. This must not be confused with parochialism. Many universities pride themselves on their civic mission and descriptions of them as anchor tenants or engines of their local economy are often hard earned. Few organisations are better placed to reach out into their local community to provide knowledge, skills, research and training. Both local and national governments will rarely have been in greater need of help in nurturing local economies and talk of levelling up will likely be taken up with renewed vigour. Knowing your local environment, creating and leveraging relationships within that local environment could go from being a perceived weakness in candidates to a source of real competitive advantage. Would an ivy league import be able to find their feet as quickly in your university’s community of public, private, family and charitable organisations? Maybe it’s a time for a new breed of local heroes. Those who can combine international excellence with local economic impact are likely to be in high demand.

NB. A version of this article appeared in Times Higher Education on 12 May 2020 and can be found here.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

The New Enlightenment ?

For PhD students it is easy to be fixated on individual scholars with high citation counts. Last week I had the privelege of being in the room with a group around 80 scholars of economics, management, strategy and organisation with a collective citation count in excess of 1 million! Here are some notes on their conversation which was about the need to reshape capitalism.

Credited as the father of modern economics, Adam Smith was a man of broad ranging interests. The Scot was born in Kirkcaldy and grew up in proximity to a port where goods were imported and exported thus shaping a lifelong fascination with trade. Following an education that took in the universities of Glasgow, Oxford and Edinburgh, he toured Europe as a tutor before returning to life in Scotland. This international perspective led influenced his writing and he moved to Edinburgh in 1778 where he took up residence at Panmure House, his last and only remaining home. Edinburgh at that time boasted a range of sparkling intellects that helped shape his thinking and writing about individual entrepreneurs and their collective behaviour in national economies.

Having restored Panmure House, the Edinburgh Business School (at Heriot-Watt University) in conjunction with the Haas School of Business (at UC Berkley) hosted a conference of contemporary scholars to discuss the challenges facing entrepreneurs and economies today. Gathered at what Professor David Teece called “hallowed ground”, a collection of academics whose writings have been cited over a million times discussed the challenge of reshaping capitalism?

Three interlinked themes arose over two days of discussion. The first relates to the importance of economic growth. The impact of inequality, be it in health, education or income, is something that concerns many democracies. The disparity between the haves and have nots has grown in many countries. In addressing inequality, the Group Chairman and CEO of private equity firm PAG Group,  Weijan Shan, spoke powerfully of his formative experience during large scale attempts to achieve equality. Growing up in China, Shan lived through the abolition of education for a decade and spent his formative years working 16 hours a day in the Gobi desert, harvesting reeds for a local paper mill. His book Out of the Gobi tells his remarkable journey via San Francisco, and a PhD under the guidance of David Teece at UC Berkley, to managing a large private equity fund from his current base in Hong Kong. He is perhaps uniquely well positioned to suggest that the end game of the new enlightenment should be growth not equality. In his own words, tens of millions died of starvation whilst hundreds of millions lived in abject poverty. Equality of itself is therefore not necessarily a positive aspiration. As Shan argues, he would probably have no concerns if Warren Buffett or Jeff Bezos were earning a few extra trillion dollars, if his own income was going up. Unrest and indignation are the products of a stagnating economy whilst growth is the most compelling route to inclusion.

A second theme was introduced by the historian and Stanford Professor Niall Ferguson who pointed to the enabling importance of the rule of law, especially in relation to trade. Ferguson noted that the fundamental ideals of socialism and capitalism, which have shaped political discourse for more than a century, are poorly understood by today’s electorate with the result that traditional labels of left and right are increasingly being usurped by a new politics. With adherence to the rule of law in place, the key decision facing entrepreneurs and the economies in which they sit is one’s attitude to redistribution. A generation of entrepreneurs, regulators and voters, who have grown up with the pervasive presence of information and communication, are beginning to make their way into the workforce. The high school and university curricula offered to the so-called i-Generation have not routinely offered a thorough grounding in our traditional political and economic labels. Worse, this same generation appear to have lost faith and interest in our political process and institutions. Rather than pledging allegiance to particular political parties, they are more likely to connect to issues and individuals. Greta Thunberg is not aligned to traditional political groupings of left or right, rather she is an example of challenge or issue based campaigning that are replicated in the #metoo phenomenon and many others. Modern entrepreneurs and economies face concerns of sustainability and responsibility that not in the forefront of Smith’s mind and a new focus on redistribution is required.

Finally, this all led to a third theme from the Panmure House conference, namely that of community. Having started with moral sentiments, Smith’s later work focused on The Wealth of Nations. Yet today, some of our global corporations are sometimes bigger than the nation states he would have had in the foreground of his attention. These new corporate actors are in part responsible for an unprecedented boom in global, social connectivity. Thus it makes sense to shift from a focus exclusively on the Wealth of Nations to one which encompasses the wealth of communities. Those communities may by constructed of surprising strata that don’t fit our conventional units of analysis such as young and old or left and right but they are the very communities that will mobilise and reshape capitalism.

As the gathering of great economic, commercial, organisational and political minds drew to a close, 80 scholars signed the Panmure House Declaration. It urges “international leaders to base their policies and decision-making on a set of common principles, as espoused and formulated by Adam Smith, which cherish the required values of an ethically-based liberal democratic system, a moral commitment to the well-being of our communities and affirm responsibility to protect economic, political and social freedoms, use resources wisely, avoid unintentional consequences, follow the rule of law, favour markets and prices as guides to resource allocation and take a long term view of private and public investments, to support inclusive economic growth and prosperity for all.

Will this declaration help reshape capitalism ? Only time will tell.

Robert MacIntosh,   9 July 2019

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Under New Management

The university sector is often accused of creeping managerialism. Some hypothesise that this is in response to ever fiercer competition for students, research funds and talent.  Others suggest that the contemporary obsession with leadership is part of the problem not the solution. Regardless of one’s viewpoint, there has been a noticeable increase in the number and type of senior management positions in our universities; some populated by academics and others by colleagues in professional services roles. Academic leadership roles are typically tied to a three or five year tenure, meaning that new bosses come around on a fairly regular basis. Add in the fact that individual academic staff are often accountable to different individuals for their teaching, their research and their administrative duties and it might feel that you’re under new management more frequently than a modern day Premier League footballer. How should you handle a new boss ?

A version of this article appeared in Times Higher Education and can be found here. Many of the themes it raises are equally applicable to the circumstances when you get a new member of a PhD supervisory team. I hope it it of interest and use.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss ?

New incumbents of leadership roles are usually keen to make their mark. After all, few careers are enhanced by a CV narrative that reads “2017-present: minded the shop and kept things ticking along.” Rather, your new boss is likely to want to be able demonstrate that they improved, streamlined or transformed the activities for which they are responsible. Such career narratives are reason why your new boss is unlikely to be the same as your old boss. Recognising this will help you cope with the inevitable trauma that comes when tried and trusted systems and processes are changed under the new regime.

Do your homework

Academia is a relatively closed community. Somewhere in your network will be colleagues who knew your new boss when she was a PhD student or who worked under him at his previous university. Ask around and ask what makes them tick. At the more experienced end of the leadership spectrum, your new boss may have fulfilled the same role in more than one institution. If so, it might be possible to spot a pattern in their tendency to centralise or decentralise or to adopt particular structures. In the corporate world such characters develop brand names such as Dangerous Dave and Fred the Shred. Of course, the more refined world of academia is above such nonsense. Isn’t it ?

Control, Alt, Delete

A new boss can offer those of longer standing in your current university the opportunity to press reset and get things back to “normal.”  Finally, they’ll cry, we can abandon the folly of X and get back to Y. In a shifting political landscape, you might want to get in early and make sure that your new boss is fully briefed on what they should prioritise. Stand a little further back from the detail however and you might see a pattern. Radical and ambitious entrepreneurs tend to be followed by consolidaters; dictators tend to be succeeded by advocates of participative democracy and so forth. A brief examination of the outgoing boss and the recruitment process might give valuable clues as to the priorities that your new boss was recruited to deliver. You can then judge how well these match with your own and to assess the potential for career-limiting consequences when ridiculing the old regime. It would be a shame to discover after the fact that your new boss and your old boss were in fact, former colleagues and remain close friends.

Actions speak louder than words

In the early days of their appointment, your new boss will be suffering from information overload. So many new faces, names to remember and issues to address. You face a choice between shouting first and loudest or being patient. Your long-term credibility might best be served by simply getting on and delivering. If the new regime wants more interdisciplinary research, focus your attention on how you can help. Academic freedom is so deeply embedded in our culture that doing what we are asked doesn’t always come naturally but maybe, just maybe, there might be merit in some of the new initiatives. Giving it your best shot might be invigorating and it will certainly give you something to talk to your new boss about.

Just ask

All of this is good advice if your new boss has been clear and directive in the early days of their appointment. If, however, they have been somewhat more enigmatic about their new priorities, what should you do? Deceptively simple though it may seem, you could just ask. Bear in mind that the tone of your enquiry will matter. Consider the subtle shift in object and emphasis in the following. Boss, do you have any idea what you’re doing? Boss, what should I be prioritising? The latter is the less entertaining but probably more sensible approach. My favourite variant of such questioning however, arose in the context of a leadership programme and was “how do you get the best out me?” Working through that simple question in both directions will provide a good foundation for your new working relationship. Incidentally, part of my answer to that question was never, under any circumstances, call me Bob!

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

The Future of Universities

This blog post first appeared on the Times Higher's website and can be found here.

The full text is ...

Universities have formed part of our landscape for almost a thousand years. Today, the higher education sector is populated by over 20,000 universities with various rankings that permit potential staff, students or research funders to make comparisons. Despite clear differences in research intensity, size and age, most universities share four common assumptions about how they deliver undergraduate education. Students generally attend campus; where fees are being paid, they are paid directly to the university; the default setting remains full-time study and all of the credits for your qualification usually come from the same provider.

Predicting the future of a sector isn’t easy. After all, most of us are struggling to create free time rather than worrying about how best to spend the time saved by flying cars and domestic robots.  Nevertheless, higher education does feel like it is poised on the edge of a revolutionary period. Some institutions have tinkered with the four assumptions set out above, whilst others like Woolf are making more radical moves. It may be timely to explore each of these assumptions in turn and see what lessons other industries might offer.

Going to university has always been something of a rite of passage; leaving home for the first time, making new friends and fending for yourself. All of this was easier when financial support, in the form of grants, was widely available. Today’s students, and their families, make major financial investment decisions when choosing where to go and what to study. The movie business has been facing a similar “place” challenge for at least two decades. If you wanted to see the latest release, there was no choice but to travel, pay for a ticket and watch on the big screen. The advent of video rental and now streaming has fundamentally changed the assumption that they customer has to come to your premises. The result has been an arms race. Movie theatres introduced IMAX screens, reclining seats, 3D systems and the like. Individual customers can mimic surround sound and big screens in the comfort of their own home. In higher education, distance and online learning have thrived in the postgraduate market but most undergraduates aren’t yet making the decision to learn at home rather than paying the sticker price for the full campus experience. Perhaps because of this, universities and private firms are building student accommodation blocks on the basis place will continue to be important.

A second assumption is that the transaction for a degree is between the student and the university with the academic as a salaried employee. There are subtle differences where funding comes direct from the government as is the case in Scotland but even there, the fees flow to the university which in turn hires academic and professional service staff to deliver the educational experience. In sports and entertainment, the power of the individual has grown whilst that of the corporate provider has weakened. Image rights and royalties now tend to flow to a smaller number of elite performers meaning that a higher proportion of the “fee” flows direct to the “talent”. The twenty teams in the English Premier League have a collective wage bill of a staggering £48m per week. Star academics do get well paid but imagine a parallel YouTube world, where the individual educator was selling their content direct to the student and keeping most of the fee. Surely that would be unworkable? Yet, Woolf is attempting to create a blockchain university with low operating costs and the majority of the money flowing to individual academics for the delivery of the educational experience.

This links to the third assumption, that students study for the totality of their degree with a single provider. Yes, it is true that most institutions will accredit prior learning to enable students to transfer in from another university but this is the exception not the norm. Health issues or simply realising that your first choice of degree wasn’t for you tend to be one-off situations looked at sympathetically on a case-by-case basis. The music industry operated with a similar mentality where customers had to buy a whole album until iTunes came along, allowing them customers to buy individual tracks. Since then, the ground has shifted again to subscription-based streaming from Spotify and other providers. What if you could build your own degree by choosing the best courses from a range of universities? In effect, you’d be creating your own academic playlist.

Finally, whilst post experience students studying MBAs and other postgraduate qualifications on a flexible, part-time basis, most undergraduates are still full-time students. The introduction of graduate apprentice degrees is chipping away at the accepted norm of full-time study followed by full-time employment for first degrees. Indeed, Sam Gyimah has already said that three year, full-time degrees should not be the norm and of course they aren’t in Scotland where undergraduate degrees tend to take four years. But both pattern and pacing count. A generation of students raised with the expectation that you can binge watch an entire series on the day of its release, or just as easily pick something up seamlessly after a lengthy break might begin to think about their degree studies in the same way. The traditional TV broadcasters have had to adjust their mindset in response to the bold strategic moves of new entrants like Netflix. Could universities cope with a mix of starting points and a range of paces from binge educators to meandering laggards?

Some of these assumptions are being stretched and tested by individual universities. Where it gets really interesting is looking at the assumptions as an interlocking set. IKEA, Amazon, Google and other global behemoths came at established markets with a distinctive reconfiguration the business norms used by existing providers. Other sectors have said it can’t happen here. Just ask your local bookseller, if you still have one. What if one university, a new entrant or an established player, were to revolutionise the university sector by offering more choice, more flexibility, lower cost and higher quality? Allowing students to pick and choose individual courses from leading experts at a range of universities, accrediting these to validate a degree that flexes from lightening quick to slow roast depending on circumstances and offering the option of dropping into and out of campus-based experiences as required. Then we’d all be losing sleep. Unless of course, we were working for the university that was reinventing the game.

Monday, 12 February 2018

The Robots are Coming ...

This article about the future of universities first appeared in Times Higher Education and can be found here. If you're doing a PhD there's a fair chance that you are thinking of working in a university. If so, read on ...

Bank tellers, hotel receptionists and assembly line workers might eventually be replaced by technology because their roles are structured and repetitive in nature. For academics there is the reassurance that teaching, grading assignments and undertaking research require the services of a living, breathing academic.  A permanent position is still just that, isn’t it?

In 2016, Ashok Goel of Georgia Institute for Technology introduced a new member of his teaching team called Jill Watson. Students loved Jill. She would answer questions quickly, politely and with the occasional jaunty “yep!”. She would occasionally say something odd but don’t we all? Since Goel didn’t initially tell his students that Jill was in fact an AI system he was forced to add a short delay to her responses. Otherwise her students might notice how much quicker she was at answering questions, even in the middle of the night.

Jill Watson’s status as a teaching assistant should sound a salutary note for those of us in higher education. There is widespread acceptance that human jobs will be lost to technology.  For understandable reasons we convince ourselves that the axe will fall elsewhere and will fall gradually. Perhaps this optimism bias flows from a tendency to focus on the nuance and subtlety of what we do and to disregard the monotonous regularity of many aspects of our work. Recently I met a board member from one of the world’s largest technology firms who confidently predicted that innovations such as AI would mean that higher education would be unrecognisable within a decade. S/he might be wrong, but as robots, and the underlying technology of artificial intelligence (AI), improve, academia seems ripe reinvention.  Just consider that by 2020, it is predicted that the numbers of students in higher education in China and India combined will have breached 60 million. A booming sector combined with the potential for technological disruption has left some UK university leaders feeling anxious, with the annual PA Consulting report on Vice-Chancellor sentiments suggesting that the sector could be facing a stormy period. 

In terms of both the structure of our industry and the underpinning assumptions we make about models of delivery, such stormy conditions demand a rethink. Edward Peck recently argued that the UK needs to move beyond a familiar but outmoded hierarchy of universities to celebrate more fully the achievements of our teaching intensive, research active universities. Many of our post-92 universities have made significant strides in infrastructure, pedagogy and widening access, yet Peck notes that they still lack the cache of elite Russell Group universities.  A diverse sector comprising different mission groups pursuing different audiences might, of course, be an indicator that our HE ecosystem is in rude health. Yet collectively, the strategic plans of UK universities are focused on growth underpinned by significant financial commitments to new and shiny buildings which largely reinforce traditional ideas about lecture theatres and laboratories. 

UK universities offer success stories in both importing and exporting. International student recruitment has been challenging given the policy context but significant numbers of applicants still want to study here.  Matching this inflow are growing numbers of transnational arrangements and overseas campus locations where UK universities are exporting to the world.  What we haven’t seen yet are global brand names setting up in earnest in our own back yard. There’s an awareness that this might happen and a recognition of the threat that more private provision might represent, but little concrete action to address this.   Maybe UK Vice-Chancellors are right to be a little worried but those outwith the sector see huge opportunities to deploy AI in ways which personalise learning economically and at scale.

On any given day, in subjects such as business, engineering and mathematics, there are probably hundreds of academics teaching roughly the same material to hundreds of roughly similar groups of students in lecture theatres around the globe. Universities aren’t well positioned to dominate the market for the learning materials being used because no university wants to adopt a competitor’s intellectual property.  Corporates however, might plausibly find ways to licence the Jill Watsons of the near term future. Several blue chip giants have both resources and insights (drawn from a sea of user data drawn from both staff and students) and would be well placed to offer lower cost, engaging, personal and efficient learning experiences.

There are both institutional and individual consequences of this line of thinking. Institutionally, universities need to consider their long term plans in the face of short term uncertainty.  New buildings and high quality academic staff are currently the mainstay of our answer to the question “why study with us?” Whether the new buildings and the wonderful staff remain as compelling when remote study, supported by AI / Bots offers similar knowledge at a tiny fraction of the cost is open to question. Indeed, it is a question that charitable bodies such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are asking. As individual academics then, we need to ask a more Machiavellian question. What can we do that AI cannot ?

When it comes to imparting knowledge, Jill Watson has already shown that AI is reasonably sophisticated in the role of teaching assistant.  Tutors may therefore attain endangered species status in all but the Oxbridge model of individual attention. In the lecture theatres however (whether real or virtual), academics need to focus on the things that AI cannot handle. There’s a reason that many stand-up comedians ask members of the audience “and what do you do for a living?” early in their show.  They’re not playing for time. Rather, they’re setting up the opportunity to improvise around some established material. Connecting pre-set gags to spontaneous observations about Joyce the plumber or Joe from accounts makes the room come alive. The ticket money seems worthwhile because you are watching a performance that is very much “in the moment”. The jeopardy of this crowd work and the concomitant risk of being heckled piques the audience’s interest. Skilled comedians then use callbacks to reincorporate earlier observations to produce an effect that is both cumulative and bespoke to this show, this evening and this place.  Perhaps the future for academics is to embrace the support that AI teaching assistants can offer us outwith the classroom whilst feverishly working to develop the performative aspects of our lecturing. Video capture and podcasting are all very well, but they aren’t live theatre.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Handling Revise and Resubmit Decisions

Publishing well is key to a successful research career yet, like many aspects of modern academic life, it is an activity that has intensified and industrialised over recent decades.  An abbreviated version of this article appeared in Times Higher Education and can be found here.  The full version is offered below:

The editors of top-ranked journals face a deluge of new submissions whilst struggling to convince their colleagues to take on reviewing work and to do so in a timely fashion. Rejection rates have soared and surviving 3 or 4 rounds of the revise and resubmit cycle is an exercise in creativity and persistence. The attitude of aspiring authors in the context might best be summarised by Baumeister’s observation that “in view of the misanthropic psychopaths you have on your editorial board, you need to keep sending them papers, for if they weren't reviewing manuscripts they'd probably be out mugging old ladies or clubbing baby seals to death."[1]
What follows is some advice on how to survive and thrive in the land of revise and resubmit.

Have a Tantrum
If you’ve received a revise and resubmit (R&R) the world is telling you something. If it comes from a low-ranked and/or new journal, things are really bad. They should be thanking you for your wonderful research and asking if you have any friends that have papers looking for a home. If it emanates from the editorial offices of a prestigious journal, an R&R carries confirmation of your talent since the vast majority of poor quality submissions will have been instantly desk rejected. Journal editors the world over long for an editorial bot that can generate thousands of “Dear [name], thanks for your paper on [topic] which we’ve rejected because [select from a short list of socially polite reasons]” per hour because they currently have to draft them by hand. Logically however, an R&R from a good journal indicates that you took a piece of well-executed research and spent a reasonable amount of time working on version 1.0 of something that is dear to your heart. To see it eviscerated by an editor and three reviewers is traumatic and outrage is a normal human response. Have a tantrum, howl at the injustices, rail at the minor technical inaccuracies or the typos littering the pages of insults masquerading as “advice”. Nothing will change but it will get the inner toddler out of your system.

Take Time Out
Continuing the Super Nanny theme, once you’ve had your initial tantrum, take some time out. You’ll no doubt have been set a deadline by which the editor(s) would like to see a revised version of your paper. Take the first week of this to get some perspective on the situation.  As an author you need to move from a place of indignance to one of perseverance and willingness to try, try, try again. The temptation of course, is to obsessively read and re-read your R&R over those first few days but this tends to further foster the heat and hurt of your initial reactions. Put the paper, the project and the R&R to one side and do something else for a while. If you have co-authors, form a pact to abstain from group therapy for a time but only on the proviso that you come back together at an agreed time. Break the time out into two phases. A few days of complete abstinence from the paper, the anger and the worry over the consequences for your career. Then a second phase in which you allow yourself to begin to move forward by gathering together copies of anything that the editor or reviewers might mention in their voluminous notes.  The better the journal, the better qualified and more experienced the reviewers. Each will likely have noted several of their own papers as well as schools of thought, bodies of theory or methodological traditions that they’ve used to poke holes in your argument. The editor, motivated by the citation stats for their beloved journal, will also likely have mentioned several things from previous issues to which you could usefully refer.

Think Learning Opportunity
In all probability, your R&R will have come with a cover note from the editor pointing out that you are invited to undertake a high-risk resubmission.  Don’t be despondent; few people receive a low-risk resubmission these days even at rounds two, three or four. Instead, allow yourself to be excited that you’re still in the game.  Eventual publication is still possible and you’ve had somewhere in the region of half a day of free consultancy from some of the very best qualified people on the planet.  An editor, who will be an exceptional scholar and a very experienced publisher, has read your work at least twice in round one.  The first would be a relatively quick skim read to establish that your paper was worth reviewing. The second would be a more careful process of triangulating between the two and three reviews that s/he received.  Individual reviewers will have spent at least an hour, and likely more, reading your paper, thinking about it deeply and generating anywhere between a page and a paper’s worth of commentary. What a fantastic resource.  These individuals might sound like they want to incinerate your paper but in fact, they are merely doing what you do to every student essay that you receive. They’re pointing out how it could be improved. Yes, they’ll have spent a great deal of time showing where and how those improvements might occur. Yes, it is unhelpful that they have divergent views on some things. No, they won’t have been as gushing in their praise as you’d like. Remember this and embrace the free advice.

Ask for Help
Having survived the initial indignation just accept that your ultimate goal of publication rests on completely rewriting your paper, gathering new data, undertaking more and/or different analysis, connecting to different literatures or possibly all of the above. These new things might require some outside help. Even if you know the literature(s) well enough, some outside help can be invaluable in terms of the nuanced difference between reviewer #1 who says “add more blah” and reviewer #3 who says “not so much blah, thanks.” Your colleagues can add a tremendous amount simply offering a new reading of a subtly constructed sentence or endorsing that you have got the gist of what you’re being asked to do about right. In extremis, you might even write back to the editor seeking clarification on how to handle “blah-gate” given the divergent views of the reviewers. However, before doing so consider the following. First, the editor is busier that you are (at least in their world view). Second, the editor will be rightly wary of what they might perceive as an attempt to get into negotiations over acceptance. Third, whilst the editor will know that reviewer #1 is a genuine silverback in their community whilst reviewer#3 is more of an aspiring alpha, they certainly won’t tell you this.  Fourth, if the editor has given any thought to this they will have offered their view in the cover letter.  Finally, if they haven’t given any thought to the dilemma that you’re drawing to their attention, they might not react well to you pointing this out.

Write a Detailed “You said, we did” Letter
As you work on version 2.0 of your paper, create a second document into which you cut and paste the editor’s cover letter and the comments from each reviewer. This “response to review” document will have as much bearing on your success or failure at the next round of reviewing as the paper itself. Therefore, spend as much time crafting the detailed, forensic, hyper-linked and cross-referenced “you said, we did” letter as you do the revised paper. Use this as the basis for politely pointing out that reviewer #1 requested “more blah” whilst reviewer #3 wanted less. Speak to each independently by offering a point by point response to each reviewer’s critique. As you do so however, cross reference using your diplomatic skills to say that “we have added a few drops of blah in relation to your request but we done so mindful of the request from reviewer X to remove blah from our argument.”  Most reviewers will read their own review and your account of how you’ve responded first. Often, this is the first time that they’ll see what the other reviewers said about version 1.0. Understandably, this colours their judgement about whether to advise that your paper is accepted as is, proceeds to round two or is rejected. However, other reviewers will read version 2.0 of the paper on its own merits before settling on their recommendation. Therefore, both the revised paper and the accompanying “you said, we did” need to read well both independently and as a pair.  As your paper makes its way toward eventual publication, it is a question of eat, sleep, revise, repeat.

[1] Baumeister quoted in Bedian, AG (1996) Journal of Management Inquiry, 5: 311-318

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Supervising your First PhD

Here is a short video from the webinar that I ran in December 2017 for Times Higher Education ... just click here.