Category Archives: Academic Life and Afterlife

My £30 DIY Computer

My Raspberry Pi on the kitchen table. The computer is in the small clear plastic box on the right of the picture.

I am writing this post on a computer that I built from parts that cost less than £100. I haven’t tried to take a computer apart or put one together since I gave up research about 10 years ago but my eight-year old grandson, recently expressed a desire to do some coding. I decided that I should build him a machine of his own to avoid the risk of him damaging the machine on which I make my living. I still remember one of my early coding mistakes. It destroyed months of work by several of the  researchers who used the computer on which I was learning.

The computer I built is a Raspberry Pi, product of a project that started at Cambridge University, to develop a computer that would be easy to program and modify. The aim was to get a hundred or so computers to use at university open-days so that students could get some pre-university experience of programming. By the time the first units were shipped in 2012 it was clear that the producers had underestimated demand. By 2016 over 10 million Raspberry Pis had been sold. I bought two, one for my grandson and one for me.

The cheapest Pi, the Pi zero, costs less than £5 for the main board. Ours are top of the range model 3Bs, which cost  £28 each. They have a 64 bit processor, a gigabyte of memory, WiFi, 4 USB ports and a HDMI display port. The main file-store is a 64Gb micro-SD card. I salvaged  two cards from disused mobile devices. I bought a couple of cheap colour displays but we could have used a digital or analog tv. I bought my grandson a combined keyboard and touch-pad for £17:50 and I am using a disused bluetooth keyboard and a USB touch pad. The Pi can use a phone-charger as a power source but I have bought a powered USB hub to make switching it off a bit easier.

The performance of the Pi compares favourably with the desktop computers I used during most of my career, although it is no match for my £2000 iMac. The operating system is Linux, which shares many features with the Apple Mac’s unix-based operating system. The memory and file storage are vastly greater than I had early in my career.

The computer on which I wrote my PhD thesis had less than a tenth the amount of memory (28K) and less than a thousandth as much filestore (256K). It was also the size of a wardrobe and it cost nearly twice as much as the first house I bought. If you compare prices then and now, the Pi system I built is an amazing bargain. For the current price of my old house you could buy more than five thousand of them.

Lists: Keep them Short; Use Bullets.

Oxford college eights training early on a November morning

This picture, which I took a few weeks ago,  reminds me of a story I heard when I was an impressionable undergraduate. Like many such stories, it sought to celebrate the extraordinary mental capacities of Oxford dons. The story was about overhearing  a snippet of conversation between two dons walking in Christchurch Meadow, which is on the left bank of the river in the photograph. The snippet was “…and ninthly….”.

The snippet encapsulated the idea that an Oxford don could perform the extraordinary feat of constructing and delivering a list of nine separate arguments, during a spontaneous conversation. Indeed the story leaves open the possibility that there were more than nine arguments because the conversation continued after the snippet.

The commonest mistakes in research-grant writing arise from the implicit assumption that the grant will be read by superhumans with the extraordinary mental capacity of this apocryphal don. Superhumans may read your grant application, but they will not make the decision, so you should not write for them. The decision will be made by a grants committee. They are ordinary people.

A grants committee cannot follow a long list of arguments. And if they cannot follow your arguments, they will ignore them. A big part of the task of writing a grant application is making sure that what you write is clear enough and simple enough for the committee to appreciate it and understand it.

This post explains that lists in a grant application should obey two rules:-

  • Lists should have fewer than five items.
  • Lists should be formatted, for example by using bullets, so that each item stands out.

Lists Should Have Fewer than Five Items

This rule is more generous than the rule I use myself. When I write a list in a grant application, I get nervous if it has more (or fewer) than three items and I find a way of reducing or expanding it it to three items. Before I tell you how to expand and reduce lists, I should explain why three is the perfect number of list items.

Three is the perfect number of list items because it is the minimal list. It is enough items to justify creating a list, but not so many that a speaker (or listener) is likely to forget an item or get the order wrong. The first step of the decision process is a short oral presentation of your grant application to the committee, who probably haven’t read it but who will probably try to read it during the presentation. If you have a few lists in your application (such as your research goals and your work packages) it allows the presenter to use a bit of rhetoric and to give the impression that they are giving a complete picture – “first …., second…, and finally….” without exceeding their ability to replicate a complex and poorly understood argument.

If you feel you need a list and you only have two items, you must expand your list. You can either split one of the items in two, or break down your topic in a different way, so that you arrive naturally at a three item list. In a grant application you probably need lists for the following categories:-

  • Research goals.
  • Aims
  • Objectives
  • Research questions
  • Hypotheses
  • Work Packages

If you have more than three items to list, you must get rid of some of them. You can omit items, combine items or create hierarchical ‘lists of lists’. In the example above, aims, hypotheses, and research questions are all different ways of expressing research goals and so you would only use one of them, unless the funding agency asks you to use more than one, which several of the UK research councils do. For example, the Social and Economic Research Council ask you two write about your aims and about your research questions, as if they were completely different. I always make it clear that each aim is also a research question.

Lists Should be Formatted

The reason lists should be formatted is very simple. The reader should be able to separate the items and see how many there are at a glance. If a list is written without any formatting, separating the items requires careful inspection. Most readers of a grant application do not have the time to do this. And they won’t.

Why did I relax my rule in this blog post?

Finally,  I should explain why, if I truly believe that three items is the perfect list length, I relaxed the rule for this blog post. And why did I then break even the relaxed version of the rule in writing the post: one of the bullet lists has six items.

I relaxed the rule to make it easy for you. My consultancy clients always complain when I try to persuade them to follow the strict three item rule. I don’t want you to complain, so I will allow you to create lists of four (or two) items in your grant applications if you want to. But you should bear in mind that if your grant application is competing with one that I have written, mine will have perfect, three-item lists and yours will be at a disadvantage.

I have put a six item bullet list in this blog post because it is a blog post, not a grant application. I do not want you to be able to tell all the details of my blog post to your friends in a conversation. I want you to stumble and forget some of the details so that you will tell them that they have to read the post themselves!

Catalogue

The posts discuss 8 themes:-

  1. How to write a Grant Application
  2. Strategy for writing grant applications
  3. Writing Style for Grant Applications
  4. Giving and Receiving Feedback on Grant Applications
  5. Dealing with referees reports and with rejection
  6. Interviews and Talks
  7. Software
  8. Academic Life and Afterlife

How to Write a Grant Application

Strategy for Grant Applications

Writing Style for Grant Applications

Friendly fire: Giving and receiving feedback

Dealing with referees reports and with rejection

Interviews and talks

Software for Writing Grant Applications

Academic life & Afterlife

Life After Academia

More enjoyable work and less of it!

More enjoyable work and less of it!

It is almost exactly 2 years since Parker Derrington Ltd opened for business and over a year since I  changed career definitively and gave up my university job to become a full-time businessman.

The change of career was a leap in the dark but 3 key facts convince me that I have landed on my feet:-

  • I enjoy my work more.
  • I do less work.
  • I earn more money.

Of course, things could be even better and I want to use this blog to improve them. This post is a review of my career change and an outline of what I want to do better. It follows one of the good practices I developed as an academic manager – annual planning and target setting.

When I changed career,  the target I set myself was to develop enough paid work to replace my salary before the end of 2015.  I had a 3-point strategy:-

  • Start a blog;
  • Build a website;
  • Offer free workshops to people I knew and generous discounts to people that I didn’t.

My plan was that the blog would bring people to the website; the website would bring clients; and free workshops would turn friends into clients. I thought that any client that had a free or half-price workshop would very quickly order a full-price workshop once they knew how good they are.

I was wrong both about free work and about discounts. Clients act as if workshops are only worth what they pay. They act as if my workshops are worth nothing. The workshops are very good but the attendees seem to expect them to be bad. And, they don’t lead to more work: clients act as if they  are reluctant to pay full price for something they have had free or half-price. So now I charge the full price and I offer new clients a BOGOF (buy one get one free – two days for the price of one). For many clients the BOGOF clinches the deal. I am careful to make sure that my invoice states the full price and applies the discount so that the client sees the full price even if they don’t pay it. Since I changed my approach, a good proportion of clients have asked for follow-on work at full price.

The website and blog, which I promote through Twitter, have also been very useful. Of the 30 different clients or organisations that have hired me, about 20 found me through the web site or through Twitter.

I met the target I set myself with a healthy safety margin. I earned more last year through the company than I would have done if I had stayed in my job. However, although my income is higher than it was when I was an academic, it is a lot less predictable. I never know when I will get offered work and the delays between working and getting paid are variable and huge. The fastest payer so far was the University of Exeter, which paid within 3 days of my invoice. I won’t name the slowest payer because, even though they took over 4 months to pay, they will probably be replaced by someone even slower quite soon. Almost all my business is with universities and  almost all universities are apallingly slow to pay their bills.

My next target is to change the  mix of work. At present it is about 60% teaching people how to write, 25% writing and editing, 10% consultancy and 5% coaching.  I’d like to do more writing because that’s what I enjoy most. It’s probably also where I add most value. Very few clients trust me to co-write their grant applications and papers but those few are delighted with the results: better papers and grant-applications with less effort.

My target for 2016 is to  shift the balance of business towards writing and consultancy. My strategy will be to use the blog, the website and direct contacts to promote writing and consultancy.

So do get in touch if you don’t know what to write, if you don’t know how to write it, or if you know what to write and how, but don’t have time.

A Good Book for Department Heads and Their Colleagues

DarthEvery academic head of department should read the book Getting to Yes. Although it is  a book about how to negotiate, originating in the Harvard Negotiation Project, it applies to a huge range of situations that are not normally thought of as negotiations. It is like a bible for the day to day business of running a department.

The book is also invaluable if you are an ordinary academic and you have to negotiate with your head of department  because it is about trying to produce an outcome that is good for both parties. This means that you can initiate the approach from either side of a negotiation. It also means that the approach works better if both parties use it.

The essence of the book is that there are four steps you should take if you want a negotiation to have a good chance of success. They are:-

  1. Separate the person you are negotiating with from the problem that you are negotiating about.
  2. Deal with the problem in terms of the interests of the relevant parties, and not in terms of the positions they wish to adopt.
  3. Invent options for mutual gain.
  4. Use objective criteria to evaluate possible solutions.

My experience, both as a head of department and as a manager of heads of department, is that these four steps are like four commandments for running a department in a way that supports academic endeavour. Let’s take them in order.

Separate the person from the problem

The first commandment is to separate the person you are negotiating with from the problem you are negotiating about. This makes it possible to turn negotiation from a confrontation into a collaboration in which people work together to solve a shared problem.

In management you get a similar benefit from separating the person from the problem: it reduces confrontation and makes it easier to solve problems. But you get several other benefits. For example:-

There is also a more general benefit of the first commandment. It makes it easier to manage people, especially people that you might be tempted to think of as “difficult’ and in situations that give rise to difficulty and disagreement.

Focus on interests, not positions

The second commandment is to represent the negotiation problem in terms of interests (what each party would like get from a solution), rather than positions (the  outcomes preferred by the negotiating parties). This makes it possible to look widely for ways of satisfying the interests of both parties and potentially to find an outcome that satisfies more interests for both parties than either of their starting positions. Part of the reason for this is that dealing with interests makes it possible to consider interests that are not strictly part of the immediate problem, such as the desire to maintain a long-term relationship, as we shall see when we get to the third commandment.

In management, the second commandment makes it much easier to change the way things are done in order to produce better outcomes. When people focus on positions, on what they do, it can be quite hard to persuade them to do anything other than what they have always done. Focusing on interests makes it possible to have discussions about the benefits of change without getting blocked by concerns about who does what.

Invent Options for Mutual Gain

The third commandment is to invent options for mutual gain. You add extra factors to the negotiation in order to make the outcome better for both parties. This is possible when something that is of great value to one party can easily be provided by the other.  A simple example is when a car dealer takes your old car  in ‘part exchange’ when they sell you a new one. Usually this creates mutual gain because the dealer will make an extra profit from your old car and because you will be saved the trouble of selling it yourself. This is why dealers pay unrealistically high prices for ‘part-exchange’ cars.

Inventing options for mutual gain is hugely important in management, both in dealing with individuals and in creating strategies for departments, faculties and institutions. At an individual level, you invent options in order to persuade people to  take on  tasks that they might otherwise be reluctant to do, although you also do your best to select  tasks that best suit each individual. At a broader level, inventing options is part of how you create strategies that reconcile apparently conflicting interests. For example, increasing numbers of UK institutions are creating graduate teaching assistantships (GTA), which pay PhD students to teach and, which, if they are well designed and implemented,  can improve both undergraduate teaching and research while saving money. I should emphasise that, for GTA schemes as for most strategic initiatives, good outcomes depend on good design and implementation: it is very easy to run a GTA scheme that costs money and damages both research and teaching.

Use objective criteria

The fourth commandment is: use objective criteria. In negotiating, when you make your criteria objective it becomes possible to discuss what an acceptable outcome might be, and to analyse outcomes and their implications.

In management, using objective criteria makes it possible to be rational about issues that otherwise can become emotional battlegrounds. Management decisions that can have huge emotive impact, ranging from failed applications for promotion to refusals to replace retired colleagues can be subjected to analysis and used to formulate plans for future success.

Work out your BATNA before you get stuck in and if you get stuck

There is a fifth step, which is more important in negotiations than in management situations. Before deciding whether to negotiate you should work out your best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA. You should review your BATNA if the negotiation gets stuck or if the other party refuses to act reasonably.  If it becomes clear at any point that your BATNA is better than the best you can get by negotiating, then it’s better not to negotiate.

How useful is the book?

I first read ‘Getting to Yes’ years ago, when I was a new head of department and had an acrimonious disagreement with my dean, which my coach suggested I might resolve  by negotiation. I read the book in an afternoon and it had a huge impact on my ability to operate as a head of department. I used to find that my successes in management could usually be attributed to following one or more of its commandments and my failures could be explained by not following them. I also found the book extremely useful when managing my bosses and I wished I had read it at the beginning of my career. When I was a dean I bought copies of the book for my reports to help them understand how to manage me.

On the other hand, the book’s influence on my ability to negotiate with the dean was less clear. When I had read the book, I asked him for a meeting. He refused to meet me; instead he resolved our disagreement by giving me everything I had asked for. I guess he must have decided it was his BATNA!

Giving up the day job

20140723_142237

My new boss after a directors’ meeting.

This is an exciting week for me. Tuesday will be my last day as a University employee. From Wednesday, Parker Derrington Ltd will be where I work.

I am truly delighted to be making this change. Early signs are that I will have more interesting and varied work, a nicer house and better integration with family life.

One of the things my first coach taught me about change is the importance of looking back  as well as  forward. It is important to acknowledge what your past contributes to your present. In my case the contribution is immense.  I started at university on October 5th 1971and have worked full-time in universities ever since. A substantial part of Parker Derrington Ltd’s stock-in-trade is what I have learned during 43 years in higher education.

A lot of my learning comes from mistakes. I make so many mistakes that I have become pretty good at learning from them. The key to learning is to take responsibility for the mistake and to treat it as a learning opportunity and not as an opportunity to assign blame.

I started my mistakes early in my university career. I went to Oxford University to read medicine. This was definitely the wrong subject. I probably also chose the wrong college and maybe even the wrong university. The learning points were:-

  • Pick a subject that you will enjoy, rather than one that appears to lead directly to a well-paid job. I should have chosen economics or engineering.
  • Try to imagine how you will feel about everyday life as a student. I came from a state school and had very limited finances. In my college I constantly felt ever-so-slightly inferior to the well-heeled public school types who surrounded me. There were colleges where I would have felt more comfortable.
  • I have a heretical view of Oxbridge. I think that the quality of Oxford and Cambridge comes at too high a cost. They both take disproportionate shares of national research resources and weaken our great civic universities. However, given that they do exist, if you get the chance to go there you should: they are good places to study.

At Oxford I switched out of medicine, became obsessed with science and with a desire for a university career. I went to Cambridge to do a PhD on the development of the visual system, a subject that I had begun researching as an undergraduate. The good thing about this choice was that Cambridge was unquestionably the best place for this subject in the UK and in the top 2 or 3 in the world. The bad thing was the way I made the choice – Cambridge was the only place my fiancee could get a job. I guess that was about the last time I acted to improve my work-life balance.

I left Cambridge equipped for a stellar career in neuroscience. I had a personal fellowship that paid my salary and allowed me to work anywhere I wanted. I chose Peter Lennie’s lab in Sussex. This was a good choice for science – we produced two field-defining papers on the physiological organisation of the visual system. It was a bad choice for my career.  My plan was to become well known outside Cambridge, and return as a ‘grown up’. Bad plan: once I left Cambridge, I pretty much didn’t exist.

Sussex was a particularly bad choice for job-security. When Margaret Thatcher’s government slashed university spending in 1981, trendy lefty places like Sussex bore the brunt of it. Just as my funding ran out, the University had to cut its budget by 10%. My boss was head-hunted for a brilliant career in the US. Foolishly I chose not to go with him. The next thing I knew I was looking at adverts for graduate entry to the police force and applying frantically for grants and fellowships.  In the end I had two choices for continuing as an academic. I was offered a fellowship in Durham, with a salary, but no funds for research, or I could stay at Sussex and work for somebody else, on a funded project on bees. I chose Durham because I knew nothing about bees and didn’t want to work on somebody else’s project.

Durham  was another bad choice. It was a good job – 5 years of salary and complete scientific freedom – however I now realise that I would have learned a lot by working on someone else’s project and would have had a wider range of scientific choices when I became independent. I would also have stayed living in Brighton, which was then and is now a lot more fun than Durham.  I was too keen to stay in control of my scientific agenda and not keen enough to broaden it. I think the fact that I opted for comfortable independence in the 1980s was part of the reason that I found it convenient to move from research into management 22 years later.

In those 25 years I had three more jobs, three more bad choices.

  • The first was a lectureship. My fellowship at Durham had a fixed duration and I became increasingly anxious about whether I would be able to secure a ‘permanent’ job at the end of it. So 18 months before it ended I accepted a lectureship in the medical school at Newcastle. Although this was a permanent job, I was scientifically isolated. Consequently, although I was more successful than most of my colleagues in winning grants and writing papers, and I was unique among them in being invited to sit on research council grants committees, I couldn’t get promoted.
  • Eventually I decided that I deserved a professorship and applied for and got a chair in psychology at Nottingham. I was at the stage in my career when I should have become a head of department but nobody in Nottingham, me least of all, wanted that.
  • Ten years later I moved back to Newcastle to become head of department. This move killed my research but gave me the opportunity to discover – much to my astonishment – that I loved management. I find it to be a similar intellectual challenge to research but much more fun because of the infinite opportunities to help people develop by coaching, training and mentoring them.

Now, ten years and two jobs later, I have decided that I would like to stop moving from job to job and settle down. By far the easiest way to do this is for Amanda and me to set up a consultancy and offer our skills on the open market. So far it feels great. I have worked in a variety of organisations in the UK, the US and Austria and it’s great fun. It doesn’t feel as if I am giving up the day job at all. It feels as if I have extracted the nicest bits of it for myself and left the rest behind.

 

 

How to write (and read) references

I believe he has a perfectly charming wife

DarthI have a very simple approach to writing references, inspired by the story behind the quotation  “I believe he has a perfectly charming wife”. According to a story circulating in Oxford and Cambridge in the 1970s the quotation is a complete reference, written according to the principle that a reference should say all the good things that you can honestly say about its subject.

I used to believe that the principle was sufficient. A reference like the quotation, that says nothing about the candidate, is a dire warning. However, in the real world, where references are commonly leaked to their subjects, it is not enough, so I have added another principle. I include important and relevant facts but I take care to express them a really positive way. I’d say that I use two principles to guide my reference writing.

  • Use facts to tell the story.
  • Express the facts in a really positive and upbeat way.

Structure

In addition to these principles I find it helps to use a standard structure. I write a reference in  three parts. The first describes how and how well I know the subject; the second covers things I know directly because of their relationship with or work for me and the third covers what I know indirectly because of their work with or for other people.

Starting the reference with a description of how and how well I know the subject helps the reader to decide how much weight to put on my assessment. Writing brilliant undergraduate essays for me in fortnightly tutorials 10 years ago is less relevant than working under my direct management line last year.  This is also the first part that I write because it helps me to compose the more difficult parts of reference both by allowing me to warm up by writing something easy to write  and by jogging my memory for the really important facts that will follow.

Positive references

Facts improve a positive reference because they allow the reader to make their own judgements. It’s frustrating to read a reference that really only tells you that the writer likes the subject of the reference and thinks they are wonderful. Saying what the subject has done and what were the consequences is much more useful.  Bear in mind that things that are important to you may not matter to the reader and vice versa, so it is much more useful to them to get information about how subject has done their job than to know you think they are wonderful.

References for people you hardly know

Facts are very useful when you have to write a reference for someone you hardly know. Most former undergraduates come into this category. When I was an academic I had 30 or 40 tutees whom I would meet seven or eight times a year, in groups of ten. When they left after three years I could just about remember their names. Fortunately a detailed marks transcript provides an excellent set of facts around which to frame a reference.

Negative References

Facts are pure gold when you have to say something negative in a reference, particularly now that even a confidential reference can be obtained through a Freedom of Information request. My approach is to state facts that give a very clear message but to put a positive spin on them.

I once had to write a reference for someone, let’s call them Dr D*. Dr  D was a delightful person but  never quite learned how to run an experiment in my lab. They had applied for a job in Professor Q’s lab, which was much more complex than mine. I thought they would be a disaster and I thought it was important to say so clearly in my reference. A bad post-doc can cripple a PIs prospects. In my reference I wrote about how difficult Dr D found the complexities of the lab and how hard they worked to learn what they needed. I said that after more than a year in the lab Dr D knew about 90% of what was needed to carry out an experiment.

This statement was defensible if Dr D should ever get to see it. It was arguably a bit generous. There was a catalogue of minor disasters to justify it, each of them excused by the statements like “It’s very complicated to operate that piece of equipment”, or “I keep forgetting that you always have to do Y before Z“, and the like. Although I had stated an uncomfortable truth, it was a truth supported by evidence and I had stated it in a very positive way.

The statement was a clear warning to Professor Q*.  The glass that was 90% full should have been overflowing.  Imagine my surprise when Professor Q gave Dr D a job. I was less surprised a few years later when Professor Q took me to task for writing such a glowing reference for Dr D. She clearly hadn’t read it carefully.

Reading a reference

It is essential that you read a reference carefully and look for statements of fact. Sift the facts and decide which of them allow you to draw important conclusions. Usually the conclusions will be run of the mill. They will confirm important but dull facts like employment history, reporting lines, and achievements. For this reason most employers require a reference from the line manager. I always insist on one. I don’t expect to learn much from what it says but I do think it’s important that someone has a good enough relationship with their boss that they can ask them for a reference.

References almost always contain a lot of unimportant stuff about who likes (or is prepared to say that they like) whom.

Just occasionally a reference will contain something really important. It could cripple your lab to employ a post-doc who can’t quite do an experiment after a more than a year of struggling to learn how. Professor Q discovered this the hard way. She could just have read the reference.

*Neither Professor Q nor Dr D exists. I have invented them both to make a point.

Dark Matters: Benji and the assumption of reasonableness.

Benji

Professor Benji

A couple of weeks ago I received a lesson in management from Benji, our miniature schnauzer.

The lesson was about the assumption of reasonableness, which is a huge help in dealing with difficult behaviour of any kind. Whenever you are faced with difficult behaviour you should strive to make the assumption that the behaviour is well motivated and that the apparently unreasonable behaviour is the result of an honest mistake – either of interpretation on your part or of execution on the part of the other party. If it is at all possible for you to make the assumption of reasonableness, you should use it to guide your actions.

I don’t say that you have to believe the behaviour was reasonable, rather you should consider whether it could possibly have been reasonable. If the behaviour could possibly have been reasonable, no matter how improbable it might seem, it is better to act as if you believed that it was. There are three possible outcomes, which you can categorise as win, win, lose.

  • The most likely outcome is that subsequent behaviour will prove that the assumption was correct. This really is the most likely outcome. Cock-ups are much more common than conspiracies. Most people are reasonable all of the time and pretty much everybody is reasonable most of the time.
  • Even if the assumption was incorrect, you may find that your reasonable response puts you in a position to influence future behaviour and make it more reasonable.
  • In the worst case scenario, that the assumption is completely and irretrievably wrong, you are more likely to get good evidence of that if your behaviour is pushing towards reasonableness.

On the other hand, if you go for the evil twin, the assumption of unreasonableness, you get a lose, lose scenario. The two possible outcomes are:-

  • The motivation for the behaviour was, in fact, reasonable. In this case you will be in the wrong and, unless the other party adopts the assumption of reasonableness you will have a damaged relationship.
  • The motivation for the behaviour was unreasonable and you lose all hope of retrieving the situation without external intervention. My coach, Andrew Scott, gives some interesting case studies that illustrate this in his blog.

I am working with Andrew on his book, which will explain how he resolves situations like this. Until it is published, which will probably be next year, just take my advice and adopt the assumption of reasonableness.

DarthI don’t claim that the assumption of reasonableness is always easy, but I do think it’s always the best thing to do. That’s because it usually works. It works whether the difficult behaviour is an edict from your boss, a revolt by your students, a hostile email, or, in the case that provoked this post, a dog barking in the middle of the night and then pissing all over the kitchen floor.

It takes some effort to be reasonable when you find yourself standing barefoot in a puddle of cold piss but it is worth it. It turns out that Benji has quite severe diabetes. His high blood sugar overwhelms his kidneys and they produce masses of urine, so much that he was drinking about 15% of his body weight of water every day.

Over the last couple of weeks we have been gradually increasing Benji’s insulin dose. His drinking has reduced by about 50% although his blood sugar isn’t yet under control.  It will probably take another couple of weeks to get his dosing right, but at least he hasn’t wet the floor since we started the insulin

Dark Matters: Management is Good for You

Darth“Dark Matters” will be a category of blog posts in which I will seek to give a positive view of academic management. English universities face a range of really tricky problems right now and, even if you want to blame government for the problems, it is university managements that will have to find solutions.

I will start with two points that I think are fundamental.

  • Management is important: the quality of universities depends critically on the quality of academic management, so if we want good universities we need to get clever people interested in managing them.
  • Management is fun: it is a satisfying occupation for people who are good at research, although it definitely requires some differences in approach.

Management is Important

Would the garden be this pretty without the work of a gardener?

Would the garden be this pretty without the work of a gardener?

To make my point about the importance of management, it is helpful to draw an analogy between an academic department and a flower garden. Individual plants grow by themselves, just as academics do their research and teaching with a very high degree of autonomy. However a great deal of work is needed to create an attractive garden and to maintain it. Plants must be carefully selected; they must be watered, fed and protected from changes in the weather; their growth must be monitored and managed; slow growers may need protection and encouragement; aggressive species must be cut back; dead plants must be removed and replaced. This analogy has its limits but the point is that nobody would expect a garden to look good without a good gardener.

A university is much more complicated than a garden and it needs much more management. In order for academics to be happily and productively engaged in teaching and research, a host of issues need to be taken care of. There must be enough staff of the right calibre, work should be shared equitably, they should feel encouraged, supported, motivated, competent and adequately resourced to carry out their work, they should have the right range of opportunities to develop, there must be enough undergraduate and postgraduate students, appropriate buildings and so on. These are all issues that used to be taken for granted, but they are increasingly difficult to control. In the last few years rapid and unpredictable changes in the constraints on different kinds of funding, in employment law and in the ease with which different subjects can recruit have made it more difficult still.

Management is Fun

It’s ten years this month since I first became a manager and I have enjoyed it immensely. Like research, management is a huge exercise in problem solving with immense scope for creativity. Managing a faculty was a long-running exercise in constrained optimisation. The constant question was “How can we do X in a way that makes the university better?”

One of the hard lessons – which I learned once but had to teach many times – is that whenever you want to start a new activity there are never any new resources. You gain a new resource by sacrificing an existing one. For example you might create 2 lectureships by sacrificing a professorship. You may think that this sounds stupid. Why would you rob Peter to pay Paul? But it is actually a great way of optimising. If you want do do something new but it’s no better than all the things that you are already doing, why do you want to do it?

One of the big barriers to good management is a failure to acknowledge that management is real work and it takes time, in exactly the same way as does productive work, teaching and research. Heads of department frequently carry heavy, often heavier than normal, teaching and research loads. This is a crazy misuse of resources. Management is a difficult and important job. Its purpose is to create the conditions under which academics can work effectively. Managers who carry heavy academic workloads are unlikely to do their management jobs properly. They are only human.

 

Getting it Together

A couple of years ago I decided to start blogging. Foolishly I started two blogs at once. Each of them had quite a specific task.

First, I wanted to use the blog Russell Dean to promote a positive image of university management. I think that the concept of a university as a place where researchers teach and teachers research is truly wonderful. I would argue that a good university can deliver better education and better research than other kinds of institution. I would also argue that to do so requires really good management. Unfortunately, even the best-intentioned management actions in universities tend to elicit an unhealthy, counterproductive cynicism in academics. Russell Dean would, I thought, dispel that cynicism and promote a climate of trust in Universities throughout the land.

After I started writing the blog I realised that my position as a member of the senior management of a particular university generated constraints and expectations that made it difficult to treat topics in the way that I wanted. For this reason I have decided to stop blogging as Russell Dean and I will use this blog instead to promote mutual trust between university managers  and those whom they manage. However I am also prepared for the possibility that the optimal climate of mutual trust may not come to pass until  my views on universities and how they should be managed gain universal acceptance. In the meantime I will take down the Russell Dean pages and recycle anything I think might be useful into the archives of this site.

My second blog had a simpler purpose. Jacqueline Aldridge and I wanted to support and supplement  our book, The Research Funding Toolkit. The intention was that the blog would be a source of good advice about how to write research grant applications and become a kind of online grant-writing workshop. That blog has been much easier to write but it is now getting a bit messy. I have decided to switch all of my blogging to this site and to repost relevant posts on  researchfundingtoolkit.org.

I will also use this blog to write about anything I think might be interesting or useful. WordPress is an example. This is a WordPress website, which I have produced myself. WordPress is a great system for anyone setting up a blog or a set of web pages and it is free. However, a great deal of what is written to help people like me do things with WordPress is either intimidating or confusing or both. If I can use this blog to post something more helpful I will.

In sum, I am bringing together the two blogs I started and I hope to create something a bit more sustainable, more readable and more useful.