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.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Supervising your First PhD


A version of this article also appeared in the Times Higher Education which you can find here.  

Many cultures have rites of passage whether it involves being sent into the wilderness for a fortnight armed only with a stick and some string or sitting opposite an internal and external examiner for your PhD viva.  Such events mark the transition to full membership of a particular group or community. Passing your PhD grants you permission to operate as an independent researcher without the need for further supervision.  PhD students can draw on many survival guides that offer advice on everything from where to begin to  how to manage your PhD supervisor.  Transitioning from the position of PhD student to that of PhD supervisor tends to garner less attention, but not everyone manages the transition gracefully.  Here are five things that can help you become an effective supervisor.

Begin at the beginning
As an experienced researcher, PhD supervision gives you a chance to share the accumulated wisdom of your own PhD journey and anything else that has followed.  However, you need to start at ground zero with each new student to help build a shared sense of what good practice looks like.  Take a small batch of seminal papers and agree to read them before swapping notes.  This simple step will allow you the chance to demonstrate how to scrutinise the key ideas, assumptions, limitations and contributions that each author or authoring team make in their paper.  Doing so in the style of a collaborative, worked example will help set a particular tone that will pay rich rewards in the months and years ahead.  Being clear about the level of depth and the practicalities of note taking is as important as showing how you approach the basic task of getting to grips with the literature.  This shouldn’t be entirely selfless.  Bear in mind that you might learn something yourself.  Your new PhD student might be a digital native who has some new-fangled means of using Faceweb on the Intertube that you haven’t yet seen.

Give the feedback you wish you’d received
Bemoaning the failings of your supervisor represents one of the most common ways of establishing rapport amongst a group of doctoral students.  They’re never there, they don’t give detailed comments, they’re always in a rush, they’ve forgotten about me, and so forth.  Whilst there is some evidence that dogs become more like their owners over time, each new supervisory relationship represents your opportunity to break the cycle.  Remember back to your own anxieties and needs as a PhD student and try to offer your new student the kind of supervision that you wish you had received.  Draw on your own supervision experiences, whether these were of being micromanaged or involved Zen-like levels of disinterest.  These formative experiences probably mean that you know what you should offer to your new student.  Be bold and strive to provide the right balance between nurturing and challenging.  Yet, whilst you’re trying to be the best supervisor you can be, you’ll also need to balance the other demands that arise in modern academic life. Maybe you’ll find yourself reflecting on the reasons they were always in a rush, never there, etc.


Don’t meddle with the space-time continuum
Even a passing familiarity with the Whovian universe, the plot of Back to the Future or anything Trekkie-related generates the firm conviction that the past should remain another country.  As a new supervisor, one of the worst mistakes you could make would be to overlook quite how inexperienced you were as a new PhD student.  Unfortunately we tend to airbrush out your early, bumbling incompetence and concentrate on the latter-day, polished professionalism that you now exhibit.  Don’t set supervisory expectations around the version of you that completed your own PhD some time ago. Rather, set them at the more modest level of the version of you that started your PhD journey even longer ago.  Visiting unrealistic expectations on your new student is a recipe for unhappiness.  You’ll be disappointed. They’ll be confused. Worse, you might meet your earlier self in a plot twist where parallel universes collide and which is unlikely to end well. 

Be patient, supportive yet demanding
Newly qualified supervisors can be amongst the most demanding because they remember the intensity of writing up and preparing for a viva.  Having recently watched their own work be subjected to unforgiving scrutiny in the context of a viva, new doctoral graduates can, in turn, impose demands when they come to supervise and/or examine.  However, a PhD is more expedition than sprint.  Try to remember this, particularly in the early months because your new student will no doubt experience plenty of false dawns and blind alleys as they grapple with the literature, realise that accessing data might be tricky and worry about their methodological preferences.  Simply being there and empathising isn’t enough either. You face the particular challenge of finding the right times and the right issues over which to demand higher quality work than your student feels that they can produce. Done well this will later be recounted as providing inspiration. Handled badly, you’ll be constructed as the uncaring task master that made the whole thing unnecessarily tense. 

Notice your own foibles

It is natural for us to develop particular quirks and irks in our reading, reviewing and supervising.  Mine are research questions and contribution statements. I can’t help myself poking and prodding at these in search of either weaknesses and inconsistencies, or in a more benign sense, eloquence and guile.  As you offer feedback on written work, draft presentations, posters and the like, see if you can spot common themes. What piques your interest? What drives you to distraction? Ask your students to share your feedback on their written work with each other.  It is likely that they will spot the common themes for you.  In part, this reflection might help you think about your own development.  Once you know the common themes, it is incumbent on you to offer some exemplars when students ask the not unreasonable question “so what would good look like”? Cultivate a little stock pile of excellent literature reviews, contribution statements, analyses of data, etc. Have these to hand and offer them as a complement to the red ink offered in your feedback.  These examples don’t have to be in exactly the same subject area, methodological tradition or empirical context. Indeed, it may be helpful if they aren’t. They don’t even have to be particularly contemporary. But you should be able to act in the Graham Norton role whilst fronting the imaginary Channel 5 show called “top 10 research papers ever”.