Training for Professors?

Recently I was asked to describe what professors do day-by-day in 200 words. I declined; I felt it was an impossible task. Some days are spent being ground down by committees of the sort that sap all one’s energy and produce nothing of value but ticking someone’s boxes. Those, fortunately are not that common. Some days one sits on committees which are useful but still leave one feeling totally wrung out and exhausted, but at least something worthwhile may have been accomplished.  Sometimes one does what the general public think professors do, namely teach or guide the novices through the intricacies of tackling research, although for me at least there are few enough days which contain only that. But many more days are spent in a wealth of diverse activity that are not easily pigeonholed. I love the diversity, it can be immensely rewarding, but some days are odder than others.

So this post is prompted partly by that first question, and partly by the post I read recently by Lizzie Crouch asking scientists to indicate if they had ever thought as a child they would indeed be scientists when they grew up. However,  I want to rephrase this question in a different way and ask: had I known I wanted to be a scientist  when a child (which I didn’t) could I possibly imagine some of the kinds of days that I actually turn out to have?  The truthful answer to that question is absolutely not. Even when I started as a new lecturer I couldn’t have imagined the strange collection of things that I find myself dealing with. There was a day earlier this week which had a particularly unusual mix to it and, atypical though it may be, I thought I’d discuss it to show what a broad range of skills professors may need to accumulate through their long years of experience. Being a bench scientist is just what gets one onto the bottom rung of this particular ladder of quite responsible roles for which, too often, you find your training has completely omitted to prepare you but which you find there is no way to wriggle out of. Actually, if one can quell the feelings of blind panic, it can be really rather fun.

1 Creating a podcast

As I have discussed before, I am leading a project for the IOP about teaching Biological Physics, heading up the team who are preparing material to enable departments which have no (research) expertise in the topic to access and hence incorporate some key ideas into their undergraduate syllabus. The project is progressing well, and some of the material is already on the web, and more will be added over the months ahead. Now the IOP team have decided to liven up the Powerpoint lectures and text with some podcasts, and Cambridge (with two ‘authors’ of material, myself and my colleague Pietro Cicuta) is being used as a guinea pig to trial the creation of small films, talking about our research and, in my case, also about the project overall. These will be very brief videos, of only a few minutes, but it still requires one to have mastered the skills of talking to camera without all those annoying personal tics we each have. So, yet again I am grateful for the media training I have had over the past year, preparing me for very different sorts of interviews but nevertheless conferring a degree of confidence that I am not going to dry up and say something too utterly daft.  The interviews seemed to go smoothly enough although, as always, an inordinate amount of time seemed to be required to set up the equipment and carefully select exactly the right flavour of backdrop (including making sure a few, but not too many, students walk insouciantly across the back of the field of view). I think the moral of this part of the story is – use an opportunity to get some media training so that you have some awareness of what is involved in speaking without hesitation, deviation or repetition in 60 seconds (or a bit longer).

2 Research

After that was wrapped up, it was time to talk to one of my new PhD students who has the unenviable task of trying to revive a project on cell mobility which has stalled for the last couple of years after a previous student left unexpectedly early. This was followed by attending an intriguing talk on mechanical properties of E coli colonies given by a student in the sector  (our students are expected to give an informal seminar each year to everyone in the sector, so typically upwards of 50 people turn up). I don’t think I have ever previously attended a student seminar that has received so many intrigued questions: it was such a simple talk with so many fascinating possibilities that everyone was buzzing. At least this part of my day I do feel is what my job might be expected to contain, and for which I am allegedly properly prepared.

3 Dross of significance

Interspersed through the day there is of course the endless drip-drip – sometimes turning into a deluge – of incoming emails to be dealt with, this time including composing a long and complex one myself about the REF (I chair our departmental committee, for my sins, my sins being having sat on the last RAE panel and the Physics Pilot REF). The REF is clearly going to absorb a lot of my energy over the next year and of course lines me up as a wonderful target for complaint if the Cavendish does not ultimately score well. What courses have I ever been on that have trained me for any of this stuff, including how to develop a Teflon-like skin? None of course, all one does is learn through experience: experience of watching other people, experience of sitting on panels, experience of sifting through evidence. But was this what I thought a scientist did when I was 12? I think not.

4 Exercise!

Yes I got outside for a damp cycle ride to the railway station in the gloom and managed to manoeuvre my bike into a legitimate place to lock it up, by standing over someone else as they left: it really is no better than car parking at the station, and annoys me intensely. Cycling should be something to be encouraged instead of the source of yet another headache. My undergraduate life trained me for this – as an undergraduate at Girton College, the furthest college from the centre of Cambridge, I developed ‘Girton thighs’ at an early age.

5 Head down

Train to London with my head down dealing both with emails and a load of external job applications I’ve been asked to comment on by another university.  Nearly completed them; journey much improved by my headphones managing to drown out the loud, nasal tones of a woman across the aisle talking about job issues on her phone.  This has been a skill I have come to rather late in life, but I find a computer and headphones make for a much more productive travelling life than when I thought I would be able to read (hard copies of) papers/theses etc and ended up staring out of the window eavesdropping on conversations I really didn’t want to hear.

6 An evening at the Royal Society

Sadly this was not a delightful relaxing soirée, but hard work from the moment I stepped out of the Spartan bedroom that I can enjoy as a fellow for overnight stays (with delightful views of the London Eye and Big Ben; the views from the top of Carlton House Terrace are stunning even on a dank November evening). First off to the Education section to deliver some paperwork relating to my January talk in Liverpool at the ASE Annual Conference. Then time to discuss diversity issues (things are developing fast and well on this front) but intercepted en route by someone wanting me to sign off a press release, but this had to be deferred. An hour or so on diversity and then downstairs for a dinner involving Baroness Gillian Shephard and Jim Al – Khalili amongst others, to discuss science education. No sooner introduced to them than whisked off to deal with that press release and persuaded to agree to do yet another podcast (around the ASE event). I have got more used to the preparation of quotes, but the press team at the Royal Society are great at producing a skeleton draft which I can then try to tweak to make it sound like something I might genuinely have said. No training for any of that, just practice. The dinner conversation was very stimulating with much to think about, but also a long and tiring evening.

So you can see how little my degrees and my early life as a bench scientist have really adequately trained me for the multitude of things that I find I am actually required to do. Bearing in mind all the previous posts by me and others about what skills postdocs may and should gain beyond pure research techniques, it is obvious that beyond the obvious one has to pick up a great deal on the fly. Perhaps most importantly what one has to get comfortable with is a) the ability to multitask and switch rapidly from one stream of thought to another and b) have the confidence to do and face up to whatever and whoever comes your way. Maturity does have its advantages. Things that would have left me shaking for a week at 21, and for a day or two even at 31 and 41 too, I no longer have time to worry about (much), so by and large I don’t. My advice is assume that whatever you do now, you may find at a later date comes in useful, however irrelevant it seems today; conversely, skills that may seem central to you as a person and in your career today, you may subsequently find have little actual bearing on the tasks you are expected to perform.




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14 Responses to Training for Professors?

  1. cromercrox says:

    I know what Professors do in one word – profess. Who needs 200?

  2. great post Athene
    I already feel like this and I am just an early career PI! its probably about 1000 x worse when you are a full prof. Most of my research at the moment NOW takes place between the hours of about 9pm and midnight (as I am in the process of hiring) then up the next day to order new lab kit, go to meetings, read job apps and CVs, etc., write for funding…

  3. ricardipus says:

    So, just another average tricky day then? And not a shred of grant-writing in sight… 😉

    My daughter (age 9) asked me yesterday, “What do you do at work, daddy?”. Hardest question I’ve ever had to answer, I think. I’m not a professor, but the diversity of things isn’t vastly different from what you describe.

    A new employee asked me something similar today and I gave him my two stock “adult” responses:
    1) sit in my office dispensing sage advice to all comers;
    2) do stuff that the boss (a) doesn’t have time to do, and/or (b) doesn’t want to do.

    That about sums it up I think.

  4. Stephen Moss says:

    I had a day yesterday that did involve a certain amount of professing, though I’m not sure how much if any of the various activities would be either prof-specific or need special training. Started early with a 5 mile walk to work (working on those Islington thighs), and straight into a lengthy telecon (lots of these at the moment) regarding the generation of a biological agent for a clinical trial we’re planning, followed immediately by a meeting with two of my lab, then an excellent seminar, another one hour telecon with groups from several different companies and organisations trying to resolve problems with the synthesis of the biologic, then a meeting with our guest speaker, and then two hours of interviewing candidates for a tech post in the lab. The day was then rounded off very agreeably when a group of us took our guest speaker out for dinner.

    The only activity from yesterday for which training is now compulsory (which is not the same as necessary) is interviewing. The main purpose of the training is to make you aware of all the different topics you should avoid during an interview, and the numerous grounds on which you may not discriminate. My fear is that it may only be a matter of time before we are barred from discriminating on grounds of intellect and ability, at which point I shall forget the interview and invite candidates to settle matters in a penalty shoot-out.

  5. Steve Caplan says:

    Well said and aptly described. Having been the first graduate student in a small lab, I think I had an outstanding opportunity to really see what life as a PI would be like from close-up. In recent years, I have seen many young assistant professors weeded out of the system for their lack of training and ability to adapt to the new realities of being a lab chief. It is a very distinctive skill set that is needed, as you indicate, to succeed. No self-promotion intended, of course, but both my novels (“Matter Over Mind” and soon-to-be-published “Welcome Home, Sir”) deal with this issue–for anyone interested.

    Having said that, while many a PI bemoan their inability to return to the bench to carry out their research by their own hands, I can truthfully say that I would much rather be doing what I’m doing now. Even with all the bureaucratic time-sinks and everything.

  6. deevybee says:

    Makes me feel tired just reading this! But I wonder whether rather than chairing the departmental REF your energies might be better spent campaigning for its abolition. See what Colin Blakemore said about the RAE in 1998 – section on Value for Money from Civil Science – it’s still true.
    The time it absorbs is out of all proportion to any benefits it provides – and indeed it some regards it damages science by making everyone focus on things like journal impact. Somehow, we’ve all got swept up in this beancounting exercise which serves very little purpose.

  7. Stephen Moss
    Having once sat in on an interview where a colleague asked the woman about what she would do about childcare, I think a certain amount of training may come in useful for interviewing! The thing I also learnt – on the job as it were – is how to ask ‘open questions’, those that don’t simply require a yes or no answer but actually lead to the candidate saying something at some length to illuminate their experience etc. That was not a skill that came easily to me (I did the training after I’d started being involved in interviews).

    I think after the last RAE there was an attempt by the powers that be to move to a purely metric-based system which caused academics collectively terrible indignation. So, we get something else that requires huge amount of time and energy on everyone’s part. But I was under the distinct impression that impact factor was forbidden as a metric for use. And, in all honesty, I don’t think my last RAE panel did. What has changed this year is that some panels are going to use number of citations explicitly.

  8. deevybee says:

    Stephen – you are right that impact factors are not being explicitly used now, but I know many many people who are still being told that they should not publish in journals that aren’t regarded as ‘high ranking’.
    I’m not suggesting moving to metrics: I am more radical – revolutionise the whole funding system and get rid of these assessments altogether.
    Just think of the science that Athene could do in the time that she’s currently spending on REF!

  9. Stephen says:

    Interesting stuff Athene. I suspect the same crew also came knocking on my door looking for 200 words (though with a slightly different question) and I had the gall to accept!

    On REF – clearly there is a lot of antipathy among the scientific community. I was speaking about the REF and impact at a Biochemical Society meeting this week. I can see there are many problems but my view has moderated — I think we have to make the best of this. I’m currently trying to assemble my thoughts for a THE piece so am grateful to deevybee for the link to Blakemore’s speech. Will digest.

  10. Stephen
    I am trying to be pragmatic about the REF too. It isn’t going to go anywhere in a hurry. The worrying thing to my mind is how much working out to get the best out of whatever criteria are laid down leads to success, rather than necessarily actually doing the best research and creating the best environment in which everyone can succeed. But at least everyone will know what the criteria are to exactly the same extent.

    Deevybee – I’m a bit bemused by your comments since you both want me to campaign against the REF and not spend time on it rather than my physics! However, I won’t be campaigning, merely trying to make the best of the situation in which we all find ourselves….

  11. deevybee says:

    Well, Athene, suppose I were to ask you how much time you think is reasonable for a highly skilled senior person as yourself to invest in an exercise that actually does not lead to much change in the status quo, what would your answer be?
    The problem with bureaucratic exercises like REF is that nobody actually does an efficiency evaluation whereby they consider whether the benefits are worth the cost – not just financial but in terms of taking people away from genuine academic activities.
    Even better would be if someone would also cost the amounts of time that staff members in institutions have to spend generating material for REF reports.
    Of course, it won’t happen, but it’s an enjoyable fantasy to imagine the REF panels rising up en masse and just refusing to engage in the exercise.

    • Deevybee
      Of course you’re right that no one ever does these calculations, because they come from different pots of money so it’s not in HEFCE’s or the Government’s interests to do them. I would say the time investment is much heavier in the departments doing the preparation than in the panel’s time actually doing the ‘judging’. And I say that, despite having essentially lost the whole of summer 2008 doing this work.

  12. Just after I posted this, the THE ran an uncomplimentary summary of the findings of a study by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education about how junior staff saw the professors they were surrounded by. It was accompanied by a main article on the role of professors in the light of this study, including 200 word summaries of how some professors viewed their role; OT’s Stephen Curry’s statement, alluded to above, can be found there along with others, but only in the print edition I believe. My own contribution to this turned out to have part of the above post quoted in Ann Mroz’s Leader.

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