Frustrations of Early Career Scientists

Current research funding trends discourage innovative thinking, according to a new essay in a special issue of Nature. The essay, written by four early-career scientists who have been named by the World Economic Forum as part of a group of scientists under the age of 40 who “play a transformational role in integrating scientific knowledge into society for the public good,” says that the “scientific enterprise is stuck in a catch-22,” with researchers charged with advancing promising new questions, but receiving “support and credit only for revisiting their past work.”

The authors say that their most striking common challenge is “barriers to achieving impact,” in that their research “often led us to questions that had greater potential than our original focus, typically because these new directions encompassed the complexities of society. We realized that changing tack could lead to more important work, but the policies of research funders and institutions consistently discourage such pivots.”

One of the paper’s co-authors, Gerardo Adesso, a professor of mathematical physics at the University of Nottingham, said in a statement that the key is allowing scientist to “pivot,” or to shift their focus during their career. Funders and institutions often hamper this, however, questioning researchers with no track record in the new area they want to explore, he said.

“We are not saying that scientists should dabble,” the essay argues. “Executing a pivot should still require conviction and risk, but the current strictures are too tight. Enabling early-career researchers to change trajectories is necessary to encourage the highest-impact research. Theories of brain plasticity and team productivity support this. Alongside specialization, diverse and varied experiences foster discoveries and promote the decision-making skills that are needed to lead research.”

In addition to promoting the pivot, the essay advises institutions to emphasize peer-review training, which it says could eventually change institutional cultures. “Equipping scientists with skills for more nuanced appraisal will help them to consider varied attributes, particularly how to address complex societal challenges and to evaluate broader interdisciplinary questions.”

“The greatest risk is that innovation will be stifled by failing to invest in the best emerging scientists, who are approaching the peak of their creativity,” the authors conclude.

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'Cognitive Scaffolding' for Graduate Students

Faculty members play a critical role in how ethnic and racial minorities and women interpret the rigors of graduate school, according to a new study to be presented at the upcoming meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education. Analyses of 29 student and alumni interviews and focus groups in four doctoral programs in the sciences and engineering suggest that faculty mentors’ reframing of student experiences of struggle or failure, honestly discussing the way social identity affects one’s experiences in academe, validating students’ competence and potential -- what the paper calls “cognitive scaffolding” -- all support persistence and well-being by warding off isolation and a sense of not belonging.

The paper’s author, Julie Posselt, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California, said via email that “Ph.D. students, maybe counterintuitively, see faculty as a last resort for academic support” and feel safer approaching peers and postdoctoral fellows. Graduate students often worry that professors “will judge them negatively if they show signs of weakness,” she said, but “when faced with doubts about their ability to make it (for example, impostor syndrome) they benefited greatly from a faculty support,” in the form of cognitive scaffolding.

Professors help students reframe their struggles and self-doubts, focusing on growth and the long term rather than the stress of immediate experiences and perceived failures, Posselt said. “Also very meaningful to students was honest talk about the ways that race and gender affect their experiences in the academy; they appreciated frank conversations about this from both same-race and same-gender faculty as well as mentoring across social identity.”

Departmental study at Columbia College suggests there are too many female adjuncts over 50

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Departmental self-study at Columbia College in Chicago raises issues about gender and age of adjuncts, leading to charges of bias.

33% Raise for President, 6% for Professors

Faculty members at the College of the Sequoias, a community college in California, are raising questions about a 33 percent raise that the board granted to President Stan Carrizosa, The Fresno Bee reported. The raise brings his salary to $300,000. Faculty leaders note that they recently received a 6 percent raise, after a decade without any pay increase. Board officials defended the president's raise, saying that he was on the low end of the salary range for his position.

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Struggles with writing are political as well as personal (essay)

In my experience directing a faculty writing program, I can report this: people struggle.

They think their writing problem is a personal problem. When they struggle, they often report it as an embarrassment, a confession, something to hide. They come into my office with a confession: “I have something to tell you. I’m a terrible writer.”

I’ve worked with a high-achieving scholar who carried around a bag of research for five years. Just couldn’t write it up. (We are all carrying around baggage like that.)

I’ve worked with a senior, tenured faculty member who’d written several well-received books. “I don’t know what’s wrong. I’ve never had a problem with writing before.”

I’ve worked with an instructor whose chair couldn’t understand why she’d want to attend a writing retreat since publications didn’t really “count” for her review and promotion process.

I’ve worked with a program administrator who felt she had no energy to write because all her time went toward managing people, defending a program in crisis, and trying to understand and to meet the needs of everyone else.

Clearly these writers have problems and are looking for answers. They’re not alone.

Inside Higher Ed and other publications have popular columns that include a focus on writing and productivity. Titles include the following: How to Salvage Your Summer Writing, Why Aren’t You Writing?, Thanksgiving: Binge or Break, Shut Up and Write, Lower Your Standards, and Writing 20 Minutes Every Single Day.

Writers are also looking to books for solutions to their scholarly writing struggles: How to Write a Lot (Paul Silva); Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks (Wendy Laura Belcher); On Writing (Stephen King); Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day (Joan Bolker).

But they don’t always seem to help as much as we hope.

When we make our writing struggles personal -- or we are told to “get your writing fixed” or “just manage your time better” or “shouldn’t you have figured out how to write by now?” or “just put writing before teaching” -- they become our own individual problems to solve under the banner of self-improvement.

But we know that the personal is political.

  • Our identities as writers are shaped by institutional contexts: where we were trained, where we are writing now, what type of positions we hold, what types of climates we are writing in.
  • Our identities as writers are shaped by the kinds of writing that are valued at our institutions. Our scholarship may include issues related to our own identities, but they may be marginalized as “less rigorous” because it’s not “mainstream.”
  • We know there are hidden cultural codes of the academy that privilege some forms of writing and making arguments. For example, we may do our best work and find the most joy when we write collaboratively. But tenure committees in some disciplines continue to place a higher value on single-authored texts.
  • Faculty climate surveys nationally reveal that writing can be even more challenging for women and faculty of color, who often report, for example, they have less access to senior mentors, yet they have more responsibility to mentor students.

The personal is political in lots of ways, of course.

What I want to suggest strongly is that it’s due in large part to the delegitimization of community. When writers come into my office, when they (and I) go on Amazon and buy all those books, we often have internalized that a writing problem is a problem with us.

It’s understandable. We are often asked to talk about our work in terms of our individual productivity (scribbling away in the attic) or our value (for jobs, for promotion) based on the number or placement of publications.

But we are more than a measure of our outputs.

We can work to create the spaces that we want to be a part of that legitimize community and value experience as much as products. We can:

  • Share stories publicly about how writing actually happens for us -- what gives us joy, what we do when we struggle, how we collaborate with others or balance administrative/teaching/research demands. (For inspiration, see especially writing conversations at Stanford University, The Daily Beast, The Paris Review, Duke and the How We Write collection.)
  • Encourage contingent faculty members to form and manage writing groups and help them advance as a community of scholars.
  • Make visible to our institutions the collective needs and concerns of all writers across the university community. In many cases, existing institutional research data -- such as graduate student exit surveys or faculty satisfaction surveys -- are easily accessible. We can use the data to identify needs, and then ask for resources.
  • Write together. Writing tends to be an isolated activity. What if we formed writing groups across disciplinary, hierarchical and departmental boundaries? What if faculty members and graduate students wrote side by side together? What if we formed writing feedback groups around core issues or experiences? What if we talked about all those books we’re buying?

Of course, just gathering people together in a group with some pretext related to writing is not enough. Any commitment to community includes attention to individual needs, an awareness of institutional and departmental contexts and politics, and structures that provide enough guidance to be supportive without micromanaging. But when done thoughtfully, this combination of the solitary activity of writing with the social exchange of ideas, struggles, practices and drafts can lead to a writing life that is not only more productive and less isolating but also saner and more enriching -- one that values the lived experience as much as the final product.

Jennifer Ahern-Dodson is an assistant professor of the practice in writing studies at Duke University. Her research centers on the role that community plays in shaping attitudes toward writing, fostering self-authorship and cultivating learning spaces that promote rigor, creativity, critical reflection and civic engagement.

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Advice for hiring faculty members with disabilities (essay)

For many disabled scholars, the choices they face when negotiating job market accommodations are deeply complex, fraught and risky, argue Jay Dolmage and Stephanie Kerschbaum.

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Johns Hopkins threatens to close humanities center, sparking outcry

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Johns Hopkins threatens to close its interdisciplinary Humanities Center, sparking outcry from students and faculty members.

New Effort to Track Careers of Humanities Ph.D.s

The Council of Graduate Schools is launching a research project to track the career paths of Ph.D.s in the humanities with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, it announced Thursday. The initiative is significant because it’s the first major, long-term effort in 20 years to track where humanities doctorates end up working, according to the council. It will work with 15 partner universities to collect data comparing the career aspirations of Ph.D. students and their eventual career paths as graduates, both within and especially outside academe. Goals of the project include helping universities better prepare Ph.D. students for a variety of careers. “By offering a more complete picture of Ph.D. holders’ career options, it will also enable current and prospective students to make more informed decisions when selecting degree programs and planning their careers,” Suzanne Ortega, council president, said in a statement. More information is available here.

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Career lessons higher education can learn from baseball (essay)

Laura Beard offers nine lessons those who work in higher education can learn from baseball.

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Michael Bérubé publishes follow-up to his 1996 book about his son with Down syndrome

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Michael Bérubé publishes follow-up to his 1996 book about his son with Down syndrome. Jamie’s now a working adult who’s offered his dad, who has become a leading figure in disability studies, a whole new education.


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