University administrators should understand universities

Photo: Brunel University campus, © Brunel University, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Warning: I’m grumpy today.

In my current role as Department Chair, I deal with a lot of administrators.  Some are academics, serving as Chairs, Deans, Vice Presidents, and so on.  These folks are doing important jobs (and you should consider joining them), for which they often don’t get much respect.  Others – and these other ones are my subject today – aren’t academics, but rather professionals of other kinds.  They may be human-resource managers, legal advisors, office administrators, accountants, financial clerks, risk-management directors, and on and on.  The list is nearly endless, which is no surprise given that every university needs to operate itself, and universities are large and complex organizations.  But I have a beef with some (not all!) of this non-academic group: they don’t always understand what a university is. Continue reading


Academic nomads, academic settlers

Image: moving van © Artaxerxes via CC BY-SA 4.0

A few weeks ago my Twitter feed was, for a couple of days, full of complaints about how often early-career academics move, and the toll that takes on our personal lives.  In particular, there was a lot of discussion of the difficulty of putting down roots, becoming connected with the local community, when you’re both recently arrived and soon to be leaving.

I’m going to make myself unpopular by pushing back a bit.  Not, I hasten to say, against the idea that repeated moving is difficult.  It is!  I remember well my nomadic days.  While it was exciting to experience life in new places*, it was also hard on my pocketbook, on family connections, on relationships and friendships, and more.  So: moving is hard; stipulated.  But I don’t know that there’s anything all that special about the amount of moving involved in an academic career path.  (I’m talking here about the grad school to postdoc to professorship career path that I know the best; there are of course other academic, and non-academic scientific, paths for which details will vary.)

My father was a church minister.  As I grew up, we moved every 7 years like clockwork; he continued to move regularly for his entire working life.  A few of my friends serve in the military; they move more often, and farther, and often on much less notice.  Other friends are engineers, sales managers, accountants, and the like, and many of them have moved across country or between continents when they’re transferred within a company, when they leave one job for a new one, or when they’re laid off and thrown back on the job market.  Once upon a time, it was common for someone to graduate from high school, get a union job at the GM plant down the street, and keep that job for 45 years until they retired.  I don’t think it’s all that common any more (and it doesn’t sound very appealing to me).  If academics move a lot, maybe that makes them just like everybody else.

Except academics aren’t actually just like everybody else, because the moving stops (or, at least, it can).  I’ve now been in my current job and lived in Fredericton, New Brunswick for 16 years – longer than I’ve lived anywhere anytime in my whole life, and longer than my father (once he started to work) ever lived anywhere.  I never plan to leave**.  At least in my own department, I’m not unusual: most of my colleagues are in their first and only academic jobs.

So perhaps academic careers require more moves, early on, than some (not all) other careers.  But at least for those who settle into professorships, they require fewer moves later than most other careers.  It feels odd to me that I’ve lived in one place this long and that it’s my non-academic friends who are likely to pull up stakes – but I have the thick bundle of 16 years of water and sewer bills to prove it.

What about community connections?  It’s true that I had few local connections early in my career.  Now I have many.  And it’s true that those have accumulated after I stopped moving.  It may sound like I’m arguing that I could build those connections only once I’d settled down in a permanent academic job.  But such an argument would be wrong.  I serve on the “Group Committee” for my son’s Scouting group, alongside several military friends who could be posted elsewhere at any time.  I also serve on the Board of Directors for our local Botanic Garden, alongside a colleague who just finished her PhD, is searching for jobs and postdocs, and might only be here for six months.  In hindsight: I could have grown those local roots at any time; I just didn’t.  I regret this, in part because earlier in my career I had more time to offer my community than I do now.

I know this sounds a bit like “stop complaining, you don’t know how good you have it”. So I’ll acknowledge again: moving is hard. It’s hard for early-career academics; it’s hard for ministers and military personnel and bankers and engineers; it’s hard for their partners and kids and parents.  I do get that, really: I’ve moved a lot.

Many career paths involve mobility and insecurity; what’s unusual about academia may be that we nomads settle down.

© Stephen Heard  February 15, 2018

UPDATE: Manu Saunders has a nice counterpoint, arguing in part that what distinguishes academia is that many early-career moves are unreimbursed, and that we shouldn’t normalize the expectation of moving.  You should read her post too.

*^For me: undergraduate in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario; graduate work in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with summer research in Norris Point, Newfoundland; a postdoc in Vancouver, British Columbia; and my first job in Iowa City, Iowa.  I could have settled there, but instead left for my current job in Fredericton, New Brunswick.  That’s 30,000 km of moving – and I didn’t even hop continents, as many do.

**^I am completely aware that I’m able to “never plan to leave” because I’m tenured.  I’m fully aware that I’m lucky to be tenured, that many universities rely increasingly on the teaching effort of non-tenure-track academics, and that many early-career academics will end up careers other than tenure-track professorships (a defect in our university funding model, to be sure).  None of that materially affects the argument I’m making, although someone will rip me to shreds on Twitter on this basis anyway.

Accidental SciComm

Photos: Possibly my nerdiest T-shirt; and town of Norris Point, Newfoundland.  Both CC BY 4.0.

Recently, I had to drop off a cheque at my university’s Donor Relations office.  I was run off my feet that day, but that office is only one building away from mine, so I figured I could pop over and be back at my desk in 3 minutes flat.  I was wrong.  It was more like 20 minutes, and the extra 17 were because I was wearing my “Two bees or not two bees” T-shirt.

I wear a lot of nerdy biology T-shirts, and one of the useful (I believe) results of that is occasional bouts of what I call Accidental SciComm.  Continue reading

The arrogance and common sense of teaching from my own book

This year, for the first time, I’m teaching a course in scientific writing (with both graduate and undergraduate versions).  There were lots of decisions to be made in designing the course: what topics to cover; the blend of lecture, workshop, and assignment; how to accommodate graduate and undergraduate students in the same classroom; and more.  But one decision was easy: which book to use as a text.  There are quite a few books on the topic, but I assigned my own, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, without any hesitation*.

Well, not really without any hesitation.  Actually, I can’t help feeling mildly embarrassed by joining That Bunch Of Profs Who Assign Their Own Books.  How arrogant!  How closed-minded!  How ridden with conflict of interest! Continue reading

Writing the Methods as a plausibility check

Image: Rube Goldberg design by Stivi10 CC BY-SA 3.0 via

There are many reasons for “writing early” – for starting to write up a project before data collection and analysis are complete, or even before they’re started.  (I discuss this in some detail in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.)  This is particularly true for the Methods section, which is far easier to write when you’re doing, or even proposing, the work than it is when you’re looking back on the work months or years later.  But one use for early writing often surprises my students: early writing as a “plausibility check” for methods I’m trying to decide about using.

Here’s what happens.  I’ll be sitting with a student (or sometimes, just with myself) and we’ll be trying to decide on an experimental method, or perhaps on a point of statistical analysis.  We’ll wonder, “should we do X?”  And I’ll say: “OK, let’s imagine writing a Methods paragraph describing X.  How would it feel?” Continue reading

The efficiency of the lazy scientist

Photo: Lazy red panda CC 0 via

I’ve just published a paper that had some trouble getting through peer review.  Nothing terribly unusual about that, of course, and the paper is better for its birthing pains.  But one reviewer comment (made independently, actually, by several different reviewers) really bugged me.  It revealed some fuzzy thinking that’s all too common amongst ecologists, having to do with the value of quick-and-dirty methods.  Quick-and-dirty methods deserve more respect.  I’ll explain using my particular paper as an example, first, and then provide a general analysis. Continue reading

The Songs of Trees (review)

I’ve been reading (OK, I’m always reading, except when I’m writing).  This time: David George Haskell’s The Songs of Trees.  Here are some thoughts. Continue reading