Give researchers more options!

When PhD students compare their situation to prostitution, something is wrong, says Stephan Schleim. He wants more diversity in their career options.

‘It is very risky for a young scholar without wealth to be subject to the conditions of an academic career’, Max Weber warned in his essay Science as a Vocation, published in 1919; and he called it ‘mere hazard’ whether someone eventually becomes a full professor or even institute director. Of course he was referring to the academic system of his time, particularly in Germany. But recent experiences indicate that the time is ripe to think about the current incentive system; and to change it, where necessary.

Stephan Schleim

Stephan Schleim

People complain about the work pressure. Putting the boundaries of our knowledge further is indeed challenging. But PhD students and PostDocs comparing their situation to prostitution is disconcerting. Recently a colleague told me the latest trick for yet another competitive advantage: working through your parental leave, often covert and unpaid, to increase your number of publications per counted year of research.

Oddly enough, the rules meant to support families now make competition fiercer. And I remember a colleague from an elite college in England telling me that her friends try to align their pregnancy to their institutes’ evaluation cycles. Beware if ovulation does not follow suit.

The power of numbers

It is striking to see how much power superficial figures have over people. Through perpetual evaluation regimes production quotas are passed down via faculties, institutes, group leaders, eventually to individual researchers; and these figures are often arbitrary. Just take the influential ISI Journal Impact Factor: A profit-oriented American company developed this as a tool for librarians in the 1960s. To define impact as the mean number of citations per article of a journal within two years was just a pragmatic decision. Calculate the median that is less susceptible to outliers and a five-year period instead and suddenly journals like Psychological Review score much higher than Nature.

Why are such measures used, then? The facticity of given numbers and the apparent pressure to adapt seem to overrule all caveats. Become aware of their deficits and they will lose part of that power. However, mere reflection carries the risk of replacing one deficient system with just another one, while the aim must be to give autonomy back to those who are running the system: the researchers, group leaders, and deans.

Rigid standards are the problem

Many have complained about the tenure track system recently. But the real problem is the one-size-fits-all mentality that forces us to produce a standardized knowledge commodity, the publication in an English high impact peer-reviewed journal; and beyond that the research grants that are subject to factors beyond our control, such as scarcity of funds, science and technology hypes, and changed perceptions of social relevance. Yet, we know that there is much more that defines our work as academics: organizing meetings, alternative publication forms, peer-reviewing others’ work, and inspiring our students.

Nobody knows what the future will be like. By allowing diversity in career paths we can increase our viability once the present professors retire. Currently the objectives of our work are decided by a distant administration like in a planned economy. The advantage of this system is its transparency and ease of assessment; the disadvantage is the loss of essential differences in people’s talents and career wishes.

All stakeholders must have a say

Success in adapting to an externally given objective can hardly define the academic and public intellectual of the future. It would be a huge leap forward to make individual agreements with staff members instead of enforcing the one-size-fits-all standard on everyone. The annual Result- and Development-Assessments are already an instrument where both parties, inferior and superior, have a say.

This model can be used to integrate the perspectives of all stakeholders without losing transparency but at the advantage of putting more meaning into the evaluations; meaning for which it is worthwhile to stand the pressure.