19th April 2012: PhD Proofreading Tips

Alastair Iain Johnston’s Cultural Realism (1998)


1. Have a couple of PhDs in your area as writing models. These may have been published by a university press; may be on an academic’s home-page; or can be obtained through databases like Proquest’s Dissertations & Theses.


For example, for my in-progress PhD, I am using Alastair Iain Johnston’s PhD ‘An Inquiry Into Strategic Culture’ (University of Michigan, 1993), later published as Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton University Press, 1998). For a model of paragraph structure and condensed writing that conveys a lot and uses historical sources, Bruce Kuklick’s Blind Oracles: Intellectuals and War from Kennan to Kissinger (Princeton University Press, 2007). You will find different examples in your own area. Also look at A* and A-level academic journals in your field or discipline.


2. Early on, talk with your PhD committee about the thesis format they want; the possible chapter structure and sequence; and the particular referencing system that you will use (e.g. Chicago, Harvard, MLA). Also use the PhD committee meetings to discuss exploratory ideas and tentative hypotheses that will contribute to the originality of your dissertation.


3. Before writing up a chapter, do an outline of the key points and possible sections. Keep a separate file for chapter notes – or have some other way to capture rough ideas as they spontaneously emerge. You will find that a sequence of ideas will emerge that will form paragraph and section structure. This will also identify potential problems before you write, so you won’t get stuck. It will minimise scope creep which can add time and complexity to your candidature. And it will mean you don’t over-write when drafting.


4. Approach each chapter or section in a series of write-ups or progressive drafts. The first write-up may be to get specific ideas down on paper: just speed-write and don’t self-censor. The second may be to look at argumentation – use a book like Barbara Minto’s The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing and Thinking (Essex: FT Prentice Hall, 2002) or Austhink’s Rationale (www.austhink.com) to map out your arguments, counter-arguments, deductive and inductive logic, and evidence. The third may address the specifics of your research design and methods. The fourth may deal with referencing. The fifth may deal with overall flow and ensuring that your conclusions follow from the earlier parts of the chapter. Do a final edit for clarity: try to condense and rewrite over-wordy sentences to convey your key points in a more succinct manner.


5. Pay close attention to editing paragraphs. Does the opening sentence establish the paragraph context? Do the subsequent sentences develop the argumentation and evidence in an analytical rather than in a descriptive way? Does the paragraph explore an idea in an elegant and clear way, or are there several, muddled ideas in it? Does the final sentence transition effectively to the next paragraph? Do the paragraphs provide a narrative arc or flow for the reader?


6. Define and explain all key terms. Define all abbreviations the first time you use them. Clarify any field or discipline-specific terms so that the reader can understand them. Read your chapter out aloud so that you can find sentence fragments and unfinished arguments. Check that your sentences have verb-tense agreement and that they do not have dangling modifiers.


7. Invest in a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (2011 edition) and perhaps Joseph Williams and Gregory Colomb’s Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace (New York: Longman, 2010). Check out the creative non-fiction and investigative writing on Longreads.com and Longform.org and see how writers for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair approach these issues. Do a forensic analysis of a journal article that has made a significant impact on your field or discipline, and look closely at how all of these issues are dealt with. Academic writing does not have to be dull and boring.


8. Get others outside your PhD committee to read your drafts including ‘naïve’ readers who are non-experts in your field or discipline. Circulate your draft chapters at conferences and student colloquia. Your colleagues will have fresh eyes and are more likely to pick up proofreading and copy errors. Approach experts in your field or discipline to read sections that deal with their work – this can lead to you chairing conference symposia and to potential collaborations with their students. It also increases your research visibility.


9. Consider keeping a public writing blog of your unfolding research journey, and using it to draft initial ideas and to review the relevant literature in your field or discipline. This can attract readers who will proofread your work. Also set up Academia.edu, Google Scholar and Twitter accounts to increase the probability that your academic work will get publicly cited. Schedule time to write and edit/proofread your work.


10. The best academic work goes through several redrafts. Jeremi Suri spent seven years researching and writing his PhD ‘Convergent Responses to Disorder’ (Yale University, 2001). His PhD supervisor, Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis, who won the 2012 Biography Pulitzer, made Suri proofread and redraft some of his sections up to 12 times. Gaddis would question sentences, ask for more clarity, and seek clarification on the theoretical constructs and arguments that Suri was developing.

15th April 2012: Should Unproductive Academics Be Made Redundant?



The Age surveyed four people on the ‘publish or perish’ debate unfolding at the University of Sydney and Australian National University (ANU). You can read my December 2011 reaction to Sydney’s announcement here. In part, the Sydney debate has been about the use of retrospective and volume-based publication metrics; university management’s handling of cases judged borderline; and perceptions of a lack of administrative fairness and transparency.


University of Sydney’s Nick Riemer argued:


Like other workplaces, universities have performance management processes. These, not redundancy, are the answer to underperformance. But how to respond to a failure of management? . . . Universities, apparently, just don’t need academics. [emphasis added]


University of Exeter’s Andrew McRae countered:


Although the root cause of the cuts may be a sorry story of financial mismanagement, the university’s response looks right. For the first time in  memory, its managers are  systematically  tackling underperformance. [emphasis added]


Grattan Institute‘s Andrew Norton observed:


Most job changes are, as university leaders like to say, “strategic”. They are aimed at achieving a better return on the money and effort invested in research. [emphasis added]


Sydney’s administrators appear to be following a strategy similar to GE’s WorkOut process. GE’s former chief executive officer Jack Welch was dubbed ‘Neutron Jack’ for his willingness to divest businesses that he deemed uncompetitive and to fire underperformers (the bottom 10% each year). Welch’s managerial approach contrasts with Riemer’s suggestion and is closer to McRae’s position and Norton’s investment-driven analysis. University performance systems can reward academic superstars in a ‘winner-takes-all’ dynamic that may also marginalise others. Already, some academics engage in self-policing and the strategic selection of journal articles and research programs, in order to meet this performance criteria and to convince promotions committees.


At the blog Core Economics, University of Queensland’s Rabee Tourky suggests the “culture of tenure” is under attack. The reaction to Sydney and ANU’s announcements usually calls for a return to a past Golden Age of protected academic scholarship. But Welch’s record at GE suggests why this strategy is unlikely to work: he would have definitely fired ‘unproductive’ academics. McRae and Norton note the higher education sector’s competitiveness and the role of international rankings and research performance. Welch believed that GE faced a similar commercial environment. The decision to grant tenure imposes a long-term, variable liability of wages and superannuation on the university: the cash flow that Welch and today’s consultants and financial engineers now target. It is one reason why many universities employ casual staff and set hiring barriers – such as PhD and teaching degree requirements – which act as screening mechanisms for entry-level academic positions. For managers, flexible asset use and cash flows are key.


Riemer blames university bureaucrats: “It is the managers who are unproductive. Systemic managerial failures are compromising quality.” However, many of these managers are professor-level academics who are promoted into university senior management. Riemer’s “systemic managerial failures” relate to university budget processes, and how different assets – buildings, matching competitive grants, people – are valued. “University technocrats are the equivalent of the regulators whose negligence caused the GFC,” Riemer argued. The problem is this analogy sounds convincing until you consider pre-GFC warnings and how the US Treasury and Federal Reserve had to improvise policy during the collapses of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. The “executives hostile to the principles that should govern academic communities” are in fact following in the MBA tradition of GE’s Welch, and today’s asset management and private equity firms.


Riemer singled out senior managers but university administrators may also evaluate the current debate on different terms. Many university administrators are degree qualified and have professional expertise. They are treated like a different caste to academics: HEW salaries are lower than the academic equivalents; they work regular business hours instead of the academics’ flexible schedules with months off (the mid-year and late November-mid January periods are used at some universities for summer schools, offshore teaching, and writing time for competitive grants and research publications – but I have seen some academics also effectively take this time off); administrators may have to do the ‘grunt work’ that academics should do on competitive grant applications but often don’t; they have performance criteria and semi-annual reviews; and administrators don’t usually get discretionary funding like conference travel and research publications (even if they produce them and include them in university research audits). Short-term three-year contracts are the norm rather than the entitlement of academic tenure. ANU and University of Sydney’s decisions suggest that tenured academics now face a GE Welch-like performance culture. University administrators have had this for a decade already. (The outplacement services contract may be lucrative.)


Universities still need academics. Preferably, highly performing teacher-researchers.


Photo: Theo Williams Photography/Flickr.

13th April 2012: PhD Books

PhD Candidates


Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: HarperCollins, 1990. A landmark study in the positive psychology of ‘flow’ or experiencing optimal, creative psychological states. Csikzentmihalyi’s subsequent books including Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (New York: HarperPerennial, 1996) are also highly recommended.


Kim Etherington. Becoming a Reflexive Researcher: Using Our Selves in Research. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2004. A guide to auto-ethnographic research and journaling.


David Evans, Paul Gruba, & Justin Zobel. How to Write a Better Thesis (3rd ed). Melbourne: Text, 2011. Has insights on the chapter structure and how to establish and to articulate your original scholarly contribution.


Valerie J. Janesick. “Stretching” Exercises for Qualitative Researchers (2nd ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishers, 2004. A collection of exercises on observation, analysis, interviews, and the personal development of researchers.


David R. Krathwohl & Nick L. Smith. How to Prepare a Dissertation Proposal: Suggestions for Students in Education & the Social and Behavioural Sciences. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005. An advanced guide to dissertation proposals, with an emphasis on mixed methods research.


Patrick Dunleavy. Authoring a PhD Thesis. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. One of the best guides available to the PhD process.


Gary King, Robert O. Keohane, and Sidney Verba. Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. KKV lays the groundwork for mixed methods research design and causal inference in social science research. It includes discussion of hypothesis testing, defining variables, selection bias, and measurement error. For the subsequent KKV debate see Henry Brady and David Collier’s Rethinking Social Inquiry: Diverse Tools, Shared Standards (2nd ed) (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).


Alexander L. George & Andrew Bennett. Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences. Boston MA: The MIT Press, 2005. George and Bennett present a structured approach to case study research. They discuss the philosophy of science, theory development, process tracing, and the differences of within case and comparative case analysis. This book has a useful appendix of case study exemplars in sociology and political science research, and why each is successful.


Writing & Editing


Wendy Laura Belcher. Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2009. Belcher is a Princeton University academic who also teaches writing and editing skills. This book demystifies and provides a step-by-step plan for the writing and publishing process. I use this book in academic writing syndicates.


Commonwealth of Australia. Style Manual: For Authors, Editors, and Printers (6th ed). Milton: John Wiley & Sons Australia, 2002. The Australian Government’s guide to editing and publishing.


Elizabeth Flann & Beryl Hill. The Australian Editing Handbook (2nd ed). Milton: John Wiley & Sons, 2004. A guide to Australian publishing and editing.


Dixie Elise Hickman & Sid Jacobsen. The Power Process: An NLP Approach to Writing. Carmarthen, Wales: Crown House Publishing, 1997. A neuro-linguistic programming model of writing, editing, different writing genres, and psychological state management.


Anne Sigismund Huff. Designing Research for Publication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2008. An advanced guide to methodological, research design, epistemology, and creative issues to consider when developing journal articles. Useful to meet the criteria for original scholarly contributions.


Sanford Kaye. Writing Under Pressure: The Quick Writing Process. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Kaye is a teacher and consultant at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. This book outlines Kaye’s Quick Writing Process to edit text during time constraints.


Scott Norton. Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Norton is director of editing, design and production at the University of California Press. Provides a glimpse of how developmental editors select and develop academic manuscripts for publication.


Joseph M. Williams. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. An excellent guide to prose and composition.


Barbara Minto. The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing and Thinking (3rd ed). Essex: Edinburgh Gate, 2002. Minto originally created this guidebook for McKinsey strategy executives. This book deals with patterns of deductive and inductive logic, argumentation, grouping, and problem-solving.


 Academic Careers


Steven M. Cahn. 2008. From Student to Scholar: A Candid Guide to Becoming a Professor. New York: Columbia University Press. A pragmatic guide to navigating academic politics, from finishing your dissertation to handling academic interviews and promotions committees.


John M. Darley, Mark P. Zanna, & Henry L. Roediger. The Compleat Academic: A Career Guide. Washington DC: American Psychological Association, 2003. Although oriented towards psychologists, this is one of the best guides available to successful academic careers, publishing, competitive grants, and teaching.


Career Development


David Allen. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. New York: Penguin, 2001. A guide to Allen’s popular GTD method for personal time and workflow management.


Peter Block. Flawless Consulting: A Guide To Getting Your Expertise Used (3rd edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011. Block was a student of the organizational theorist Chris Argyris who popularized ‘double loop’ learning. This is the classic, influential guide to consulting and the steps usually taken in organizational contexts. Block reaches parallel conclusions to Senge on the role of humanistic philosophy and systems thinking in consulting engagements.


Reid Hoffman & Ben Casnocha. The Start-Up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career. New York: Crown Business, 2012. Hoffman is cofounder and chairman of LinkedIn. A career guide to developing a competitive advantage; strengthening professional networks; and leveraging breakout opportunities.


Jim Hopkinson. Salary Tutor: Learn The Salary Negotiation Secrets No One Ever Taught You. New York: Business Plus, 2011. A Silicon Valley guide to salary negotiation and defeating the ‘evil HR lady’.


Gayle Laakmann McDowell. The Google Resume: How to Prepare for a Career and Land a Job at Apple, Microsoft, Google or Any Top Tech Company. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2011. Whilst aimed at programmers, this guide has excellent advice on resumes, cover letters, referees, and handling interviews. For senior roles, see Marshall A. Brown and Annabelle Reitman’s High Level Resumes: High-Powered Tactics For High-Earning Professionals (Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press, 2005).


Jack Welch & Suzy Welch. Winning. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. Winning can be read in several ways. It provides a snapshot of Welch’s coaching advice to potential corporate leaders. It is a guidebook to the psychological attitudes that some MBA executives adopt (and thus what you are likely to encounter in the corporate jungle in Lean Six Sigma and Workout projects, which are both worth mastering). It is a publishing exercise that diverted attention from Welch’s divorce to his first wife. For a more skeptical view of Jack Welch’s GE tenure see Thomas F. Boyle’s At Any Cost: Jack Welch, General Electric, and the Pursuit of Profit (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998) and the Welch/Tom Peters chapter in Jeff Madrick’s Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present (New York: Knopf, 2011).




James Macgregor Burns. Leadership. New York: Harper & Row, 1978. The classic study on charismatic, transformational and transactional styles of leadership which shaped research agendas over the next two decades. The meme of transformational leadership came from Burns’ study.


Robert Dallek. Nixon and Kissinger: Partners In Power. New York: Penguin Books, 2007. Based on extensive, declassified documents, Dallek captures the dysfunctional leadership in the White House and the effects of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal on Nixon and Kissinger. A case study in the abuse of executive power.


Sydney Finkelstein. Why Smart Executives Fail: And What You Can Learn From Their Mistakes. New York: Portfolio, 2003. If you aim to climb the corporate ladder then Finkelstein’s accessible study is mandatory reading on the common patterns of failure. Finkelstein conducted 197 interviews and examined 51 US and international companies on corporate failure. He provides diagnostic tools to recognize failure and suggests early warning signals in the common situations in which corporate failure occurs.


Richard D. Hames. The Five Literacies of Global Leadership: What Authentic Leaders Know and You Need to Find Out. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007. A contemporary approach to leadership that draws on strategic foresight and other domains for insight.


Robert D. Kaplan. Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands A Pagan Ethos. New York: Vintage Books, 2002. Kaplan contends that classicist sources can inform decision-makers about contemporary events. He revisits Churchill, Livy, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Tiberius and others for insights about the catalysts for war. In early 2012, Kaplan joined the Austin-based geopolitical publisher Stratfor as a writer.


Joe R. Katzenbach & Douglas K. Smith. The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1993. In the early 1990s companies such as 3M, Motorola and Apple focused on innovation through teamwork. This is the classic study that influenced the next decade’s research on knowledge management. It occurred just as American managers experimented with business process reengineering and quality circles.


Robert N. Lussier & Christopher F. Achua. Leadership: Theory, Application, Skill Development (5th ed.). New York: South-Western/Thomson, 2012. A best-selling university textbook on leadership frameworks and business applications. For current practices also see Jay A. Conger and Ronald E. Riggio’s anthology The Practice of Leadership: Developing the Next Generation of Leaders (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007).


David Maister, Charles H. Green & Robert M. Galford. The Trusted Advisor. New York: The Free Press, 2000. A professional service firm model of building trusted, personal relationships. Also see Maister’s True Professionalism: The Courage To Care About Your People, Your Clients, and Your Career (New York: Touchstone, 1997).


Paul C. Nutt. Why Decisions Fail: Avoiding the Blunders and Traps That Lead to Debacles. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc, 2002. A collection of case studies from the Ford Pinto to the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas in 1993. Nutt identifies 10 different categories of blunders, decision errors and traps across his case study cohort. His solutions include understanding the ‘arena of action’, developing an ethical sense, insisting on learning, and identifying a range of options.


Peter M. Senge. The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organisation (revised edition). London: Random House, 2006. Senge popularized MIT research into systems thinking and his framework for the ‘learning organisation’ helped to shape knowledge management and organizational psychology. The other disciplines include ‘personal mastery’, ‘mental models’, ‘shared vision’ and ‘team learning’.




Alistair Cockburn. Agile Software Development: The Cooperative Game (2nd ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2007. This is a guidebook to agile software development that elaborates further on themes explored by David Allen, Jeffrey K. Liker, and Peter M. Senge. Cockburn reinterprets many different theorists and frameworks, notably Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings. Filled with insights on strategy, collaborative teams, and methodology design and implementation.


Avinash K. Dixit & Barry J. Nalebuff. The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. A primer on game theory and how it can inform decision-making. Dixit and Nalebuff explore how to think ahead in competitive situations and outline decision trees and other methods. On game theorist John Nash, see Ron Howard’s film A Beautiful Mind (2001).


Gary Klein. Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009. Klein (Sources of Power) identifies ten common mistakes about decision-making. He examines the role of understanding and experience, using insights from behavioural psychology.


Bruce Kuklick. Blind Oracles: Intellectuals and War from Kennan to Kissinger. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. Kuklick is a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Blind Oracles shows how policymakers misuse and reshape the ideas of war intellectuals for their own Machiavellian agendas. Kuklick reassesses George Kennan’s grand strategy; the RAND think-tank; Henry Kissinger; Robert McNamara; Daniel Ellsberg; and the Harvard School of Government (Graham Allison’s Essence of Decision on the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and Richard Neustadt & Ernest May’s Thinking In Time on analogical reasoning).


Jeffrey K. Liker. The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles From The World’s Greatest Manufacturer. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004. The first in Liker’s management book series on the Toyota Production System and lean management frameworks. This book bridges corporate strategy, operations and project management on how to avoid ‘muda’ or waste. Liker also adopted Peter Senge’s ‘learning organisation’ framework. Subsequent books in Liker’s series have dealt with culture, teams, innovation, and similar topics.


Henry Mintzberg, Bruce Ahlstrand & Joseph Lampel. Strategy Safari: A Guided Tour Through the Wilds of Strategic Management. New York: The Free Press, 1998. Mintzberg is a provocative thinker who has influenced the craft of corporate strategy. Strategy Safari details ten different schools of thought and how they shape strategic thinking. If you plan to work in corporate strategy, all of Mintzberg’s books are highly recommended.


Peter Schwartz. The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World. New York: Currency Doubleday, 1991. The classic guide to the Global Business Network’s methodology for scenario planning. Provides insights on generating scenarios and having strategic conversations. Schwartz’s follow-up book Inevitable Surprises (London: The Free Press, 2003) distilled his insights on global trends. For a comparator, on strategic inflection points, see Andrew S. Grove’s Only The Paranoid Survive (revised edition) (New York: Currency, 1999).


Sun Tzu. The Art of Warfare. Trans. Roger Ames. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993. This translation of Sun Tzu’s classic (The Art of War) incorporates the Yin-ch’ueh-shan texts. Ames’ commentary situates the recently discovered texts in their archaeological and historical context.

11th April 2012: How Academia Kills Writing

I recently had some productive exchanges with Roy Christopher and Axel Bruns on academic writing strategies. Christopher wrote-up his insights:


I am sympathetic to all of these conditions, but I have found it important to cultivate the ability to write at any time, in any circumstance — even if it’s just collecting thoughts about something. I keep a pen and paper in my pocket at all times, pen and pad by my bed, notebook(s) in my backpack and all over the house. I do find that I need large chunks of uninterrupted time to surmount larger writing tasks, but the ubiquity of computers, portable or otherwise, makes writing anywhere a much more viable option. [emphasis added]


Christopher’s insight led to an email exchange on the barriers that academia poses for writers. I think about this a lot in my current university gig as a developmental editor. I also work with a talented copy-editor. Here are six ways that academia kills writing:


1. Perverse incentive structures. Christopher and I are both intrinsically motivated writers who approach it as a craft. We blog, write journal articles and in-progress PhD dissertations, and Christopher has several book projects. In contrast, some academics I know write only for performance-based incentives. They play games such as writing fake conference papers, sending book manuscripts to vanity publishers, and publishing in obscure international journals. This leads the university research administrators to change the incentives structures. It also introduces scoping problems into competitive grants: the journal article(s) only get written if the money is awarded. It’s very rare that I find an intrinsically motivated writer: maybe an Early Career Researcher who has just finished their PhD, or a senior academic intent on making a contribution to their field or discipline. I wish academics had a more hip-hop or punk sensibility and just did the work, regardless of the institutional incentives.


2. Misuse of university research metrics. The Australian Research Council‘s Excellence for Research in Australia shifted the research conversation to performance and quality-based outputs. This also lead to games such as poaching academics who had ERA publishing track records. However, it also sometimes led to a narrow focus on A* and A-level journals without changes to the workload models or training investment for academic skills and robust research designs. Not everyone is Group of 8, Harvard or Stanford material, or at least not at their career stage. Metrics use must be counter-balanced with an understanding of intellectual capital and development strategies. To-date the use of ERA and Field of Research metrics is relatively unsophisticated, and it can often actually de-value academic work and publishing track records.


3. A failure to understand and create the conditions for the creative process. The current academic debate about knowledge creation swings between two extremes. On the one hand, budget-driven cost-cutting similar to GE’s Work-Out under Jack Welch or private equity turnarounds. On the other, a desire to return to a mythical Golden Age where academics are left alone with little accountability. Both views are value destructive. The middle ground is to learn from Hollywood studios, music producers, and academic superstars about the creative process, and to create the conditions for it. This means allowing time for insights to emerge or for academics to become familiar with new areas. It means not relying on conferences and being pro-active in forming collaborative networks. It means treating academic publications as an event and leveraging them for maximum public impact and visibility. Counterintuitively, it can also mean setting limits, stage gates, and ‘no go’ or ‘abandon’ criteria (real options theory can be a useful tool). This is one reason why Christopher and I sometimes exchange stories of the strategies that artists use: to learn from them. This is a different mentality to some university administrators who expect research publications to emerge from out of nowhere (a view often related to the two barriers above).


4. Mystifing the blind peer review process. What differentiates academic research from other writing? Apart from the research design, many academics hold up the blind peer review process to be a central difference. Usually, a competitive grant or a journal article goes to between two and five reviewers, who are often subject matter experts. The identities of both the author(s) and the reviewers are kept secret from each-other. Supposedly, this enhances the quality of the review process and the candour of the feedback provided. Having studied the feedback of 80 journal articles and 50 competitive grants, I disagree. The feedback quality is highly reviewer dependent. Blind peer review provides a lack of transparency that allows reviewers to engage in uber-critical reviews (without constructive or developmental feedback), disciplinary in-fighting, or screeds on what the reviewer wished had been written. Many academic journals have no rejoinder process for authors to respond. These are problems of secrecy and can be avoided through more open systems (a lesson from post-mortems on intelligence ‘failures’).


5. Being set up to fail through the competitive grants process. A greater emphasis on research output metrics has prioritised success in competitive grants. Promotions committees now look for a track record in external grants for Associate Professor and Professor roles. Australian universities do not often have endowed chairs or institutional investment portfolios — so they are more reliant on grant income. Collectively, these trends translate into more pressure on academics to apply for competitive grants. However, success is often a matter of paying close attention to the funding rules, carefully scoping the specific research project and budget, developing a collaborative team that can execute on the project, and having the necessary track record in place. These criteria are very similar to those which venture capitalists use to evaluate start-ups. Opportunity evaluation, timing, and preparatory work is essential. Not meeting this criteria means the application will probably fail and the grant-writing time may be wasted: most competitive grants have a 10-20% success rate. Some universities have internal grant schemes that enable new academics to interact with these dynamics before applying to an external agency. In all cases, the competitive grant operates as a career screening mechanism. For institutions, these grants are ‘rain-making’ activities: they bring money in, rather than to the individual academic.


6. A narrow focus on A* and A-level journals at the expense of all other forms of academic writing. The ARC’s ERA and similar schemes prioritise peer reviewed journals over other forms of writing. (This de-valued large parts of my 18-year publishing history.) The 2009 and 2010 versions of ERA had a  journal ranking list which led many university administrators I know to focus on A* and A-level journals. I liked the journal ranking list but I also saw it had some perverse effects over its 18 months of use. It led to on-the-fly decisions made because of cumulative metrics in a publishing track record. It destroyed some of the ‘tacit’ knowledge that academics had about how and why to publish in particular journals. It de-valued B-ranked journals that are often sub-discipline leaders. It helped to create two groups of academics: those with the skills and training to publish in A* and A-level journals, and those who did not. It led to unrealistic expectations of what was needed to get into an A* journal like MIT’s International Security: a failure to understand creative and publishing processes. The narrow emphasis on journals ignored academic book publishers, CRC reports, academic internet blogs, media coverage, and other research outputs. Good writers, editors and publishers know differently: a high-impact publication can emerge from the unlikeliest of places. As of April 2012, my most internationally cited research output is a 2009 conference paper, rejected from the peer review stream due to controversy, that I co-wrote with Ben Eltham on Twitter and Iran’s 2009 election crisis. It would be excluded from the above criteria, although Eltham and I have since written several articles for the A-level journal Media International Australia.


Awareness of these six barriers is essential to academic success and to not becoming co-dependent on your institution.

11th April 2012: Academic Skills Externalities

A gem from Slate‘s Matthew Yglesias:


But it seems to me that to the extent that the training is transferrable the employee is gaining something of real value, and the employer now has the ability to reduce cash compensation accordingly. Employers need to choose between paying a premium for already-trained workers, or paying lower wages to less-trained workers but bearing training costs. [emphasis added]


Some Australian universities are shifting the training costs back onto academic staff. An entry-level lecturer role (Academic Level B) now requires a PhD, a teaching degree (unlike US universities), and a publication track record. Five or ten years ago these requirements were necessary for a senior lecturer role (Academic Level C). New academics usually gain training through the rigour (or not) of their PhD program and collaborations with senior academics in their discipline or school. Early Career Researcher grants, membership of a professional association, and research incentive scheme money for publications also provide some training opportunities. Academics whose skills underpin their research programs have more employment flexibility.


Yglesias explains an important aspect of academic salary negotiation and skills development. Some Australian universities pay relatively lower wages to academic staff, in part due to enterprise bargaining agreements. Universities may hire new academics at strategic points like just before PhD conferral so that the institutions can pay lower wages and underinvest in training. Usually, the rationale is value-driven and knowledge extractive: universities get the most highly qualified academics for their human resources budget. The training budget is a ‘nice to have’ or comes from central and faculty resources.


But, over time, this strategy leads to two divergent groups: academics who plateau mid-career and take on administrative and teaching loads, and superstar academics with training who either get rapidly promoted or who defect to other universities. The first group provides a pool of staff that has to deal with heavy administrative and workflow systems. This actually prevents the institution from doing the business process reenginering to remain competitive. The second group provides the institution with visibility. They have greater input into incentives design and managerial decision-making. A ‘success to the successful’ dynamic occurs.


In a winner-takes-all environment, perhaps the successful academics will have to become their own player-managers, be aware of and use institutional incentives, and be adept at contract and salary negotiation.

2nd April 2012: Bridging The Academic/Policy Divide

Foreign Policy‘s Dan Drezner on academics and policy wonks:

I think the academic/policy divide has been wildly overblown, but here’s my modest suggestion on how to bridge it even further.  First, wonks should flip through at recent issues of APSR and ISQand hey, peruse International Organization, International Security, and World Politics while you’re at it.  You’d find a lot of good, trenchant, policy-adjacent stuff.  Second, might I suggest that authors at these journals be allowed to write a second abstract — and abstract for policymakers, if you will?  Even the most jargonesed academic should be able to pull off one paragraph of clean prose.  Finally, wonks should not be frightened by statistics.  That is by far the dominant “technical” barrier separating these articles from general interest reader.


I get APSR and ISQ mailed every few months, and am still working my way through their research designs. I read International Security and World Politics for PhD research. A lot of the policy-relevant journals were B-ranked in the Australian Research Council‘s Excellence for Research in Australia 2010 exercise.

1st March 2012: Trading Insights For Academics

Chicago Board of Trade, 1971


In August 2011, I started trading a small market portfolio. I had read the trading literature and researched case studies on the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management (PDF) and the April 2000 dotcom crash (PDF). Gradually, I began looking at academia in a new way beyond my experience as an administrator and researcher. Below are three tentative insights that trading can give to academics:


1. Every trader seeks an ‘edge’ to arbitrage. Every successful academic I know has cultivated an ‘edge’ over their careers that they become known for. They may have taught in a specific area and then had their careers take off when they got project management accreditation. They may develop expertise and then chair the relevant international association. I know different professors who specialise in research, competitive grants, and gaining industry partners for institutional consortia: they create alpha (active returns above the market benchmarks). I know early career and mid-career academics who have their own qualities, such as a well-formed research plan or a stream of journal publications. They transcend the notion of ‘performance relative to opportunity’ through conceptualising and then creating preferred futures instead of letting circumstances dictate their lives. They have all found a competitive niche that amplifies their talents. They refuse to buy-in to the institutional narrative around budget and resource allocative mechanisms. Other academics have made career limiting moves: being on too many committees; not keeping up with developments in their field; not reading the current research; or getting caught in administrative systems. Being aware of your ‘edge’ — what makes you different or unique — is vital.


2. In a negotiation/trade/transaction there are (at least) two sides. This is vital to remember in dealing with the Human Resources department and in negotiating contracts, counter-offers and incentives. The successful academics above who create arbitrage can frame these opportunities to reflect an institution’s enlightened self-interest. This requires an understanding of Machiavellian power politics, the ‘two cultures’ of administration and academics, patronage systems between professors and other academics, the shadow side of universities, and the way that incentive systems actually work. Academics who keep this in mind — who can see the same situation from multiple viewpoints — are more likely to get the outcomes that they want; to extract or create value in a situation; and to avoid career limiting moves and decision traps. Frameworks and tools such as decision trees, game theory, real options theory, and some knowledge of corporate finance and strategy can help. One of the biggest psychological shocks for young academics is the moment they realise that the institution does not always have their best or optimal interest at heart (as the academic would define it) and must be carefully bargained with.


3. Most traders lose; the casino/high frequency traders/proprietary traders/hedge funds/Goldman Sachs win. Academia is increasingly a ‘winner-takes-all’ game in which a few do very well and a lot of others work very hard for not the same rewards. As a research administrator, I hear the horror stories from academics about the demands placed on them and the broken processes and systems that they have to work with. Many academics are unsuccessful with Australian Research Council and other Category 1 grants: the ARC has a 17-20% success rate. Many academics are unable to conceptualise a research design that will get them into a top journal in their field or discipline. Performance-based metrics — designed with input from external consultants and a range of administrative staff — are increasingly the norm (as they have been for a decade in other industries and workplaces). These changes create dilemmas for senior management and games that get played throughout the institution. Examples I have recently seen include publishing fake conference papers; publishing in obscure journals like the Transylvanian Review of Administrative Sciences; and even running vanity presses to self-publish colleagues’ research. However, in the long-term these games are unsuccessful and do not convince university promotions committees: international standards have strengthened in the past 5-10 years. Knowing when and how to lose is a skill. Study carefully the strategies that successful academics use.


Keeping these insights in mind will help academics to create ‘for better’ outcomes.


Photo: patarnow/Flickr.

25th February 2012: Mailroom Jobs & Superstar Economics

The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys and Sells the New Hollywood (2000)


For the past week I’ve been writing about academic entrepreneurs and superstar economics. Now, NPR’s Adam Davidson has a great New York Times article on why many careers are becoming lotteries in which a small group has a ‘winner-takes-all’ or ‘success to the successful‘ dynamic and others can miss out. Davidson’s key insight:


Hollywood is, in some ways, the model lottery industry. For most companies in the business, it doesn’t make economic sense to, as Google does, put promising young applicants through a series of tests and then hire only the small number who pass. Instead, it’s cheaper for talent agencies and studios to hire a lot of young workers and run them through a few years of low-paying drudgery. (Actors are another story altogether. Many never get steady jobs in the first place.) This occupational centrifuge allows workers to effectively sort themselves out based on skill and drive. Over time, some will lose their commitment; others will realize that they don’t have the right talent set; others will find that they’re better at something else. [emphasis added]


Davidson’s thesis is that this “economic lottery system” pushes talent to the top. He cites Hollywood actors and directors, and Big Four accountants who survive the ‘up or out’ system to make partner (William D. Cohan has interviewed the Wall Street losers). Davidson connects tournament theory — the study of individuals who have relative advantages in salary and wage negotiations — to disruptive innovation (PDF), globalisation, technology and other mega-trends that are creating a ‘race to the bottom’ dynamic. How can individuals cope with these changes? “In a lottery-based economy, you need some luck, too; now, perhaps, more than ever,” Davidson advises. “People should be prepared to enter a few different lotteries, because the new Plan B is just going to be another long shot in a different field.”


For Davidson the “economic lottery system” model is the New Hollywood. The reality is a little more complex. Classical Hollywood’s studio production system flourished from the 1930s until the ‘go go’ Sixties when the modern conglomerates collapsed. For a brief period from 1968-73, independent producers flourished before the studios fought back with the blockbuster film, new marketing, distribution, and control of ancillary revenue streams. A similar pattern occurred in the 1995-2000 dotcom period (PDF) in Los Angeles, New York, Austin, and London. Ben Eltham and I found in a 2010 academic paper that Australia’s film industry fluctuated depending on a mixture of Australian Government intervention, available labour, and international tax arbitrage. Eltham and I both read Nikki Finke’s influential blog Deadline Hollywood.


History also differs on the New Hollywood exemplars that Davidson selects. “Barry Diller and David Geffen each started his career in the William Morris mailroom,” Davidson observes. Tom King’s biography The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New Hollywood (New York: Random House, 2000) details what actually happened over this six month period in late 1964-early 1965 before Geffen became secretary to television agent Ben Griefer (pp. 46-52). Geffen lied to WM’s Howard Portnoy that he was Phil Spector’s cousin. Geffen lied about having a college education and persuaded his brother Mitchell to write a letter and cover this up. When they met, Diller “thought Geffen was a rather odd duck for using his vacation time to work in the company’s other office” (p. 50). Geffen networked with agent Herb Gart, “stalked” New York office head Nat Lefkowitz, and got his break from Scott Shukat. Geffen relied on chutzpah, hard work, networking, and having a career goal: “signing actors.” No wonder that Geffen hated King’s biography.


These qualities are essential to Davidson’s “occupational centrifuge.” When academics ask me about their Dean’s budget and resource allocative controls, and why universities are now like Davidson’s “economic lottery system”, I suggest they invest time in watching the film Moneyball (a film in part about tournament theory), and understanding the performance and value creation goals of private equity firms (the mental model of consultants who possibly advise the Dean).


I haven’t finished the academic journal articles on those ideas yet . . .

24th February 2012: Open Access Publishing: The NHMRC & ARC

Fortificated walled garden


In the past several months, academic publishing has become a lightning rod for public debate. The Research Works Act introduced to the US House of Representatives in December 2011 seeks to restrict open access publishing. The publisher Elsevier faces boycotts by academics and online criticism. University of Sydney academics are being sacked if they have not produced four publications in the past three years (my original response to the announcement). Several prominent Australian academics and policymakers have debated academic blogging, the role of academic entrepreneurs, and superstar economics.


Australia’s research agencies differ on open access publishing. From July 2012, the National Health & Medical Research Council (NHMRC) will mandate that grant-sponsored research is published in open access repositories. In contrast, the Australian Research Council simply “encourages” open access publishing “as appropriate”, chief executive officer Margaret Sheil has told The Australian.


“In many areas of our research there is no community interest in the outcomes until much further down the track,” Sheil stated. There is, however, significant community interest where academic publications are publicly and affordably accessible. For many people, the publishing and distribution model is Apple’s iTunes store and Amazon.com’s Kindle e-book software; Google Scholar (to search for academic publications); or a free site like Scribd.com. Many people are still not yet used to academic research being publicly accessible.


“In the humanities and many other areas it can be difficult to get published,” Sheil notes. Humanities is an area in which the ARC’s ‘original creative works’ category serves an important purpose. The economics of Australian publishing has led some universities to pursue e-presses. The academic blogging debate noted that other, non-journal avenues are increasingly being explored — areas which are not included in the ARC’s definition of academic publication.


“And what do you do about research for which the main form of publication is books?”, Sheil asks. This is an issue for publishing contracts. Mainstream and major academic publisher books are still more accessible to the community than many academic journals are. Book prices compare more favourably to the high prices charged for a single journal article. Many publishers now have lower-cost e-book versions.


I differ on Sheil’s final comment: “It’s not that hard for a scientist to get papers into some sort of repository that’s open access.” In fact, academic publishers place restrictions on repositories: only allowing the author’s final version sent to the publisher rather than the final journal version, for example. I’ve noted previously that the internet used to be a freer place for academic publishing; that open access publishing enhances peer review; and that academics currently sign-over control of their intellectual property to the major academic publishers in order to get published (and to get recognition from university promotions committees and their peers). This enables publishers to use a ‘walled garden‘ approach and to charge a high price for an individual article. The authors and their universities usually never receive a portion of these future revenue streams. In contrast, book publishers can give academics a royalty stream, and creative industries such as music have rights agencies and different approaches to the underlying intellectual property.


Sheil raises some important issues and problems that need further debate. However, the NHMRC has a more progressive approach.


“It’s a complex area,” Sheil told me.


Sheil later clarified her comments in April 2012 to The Conversation blog.


Harvard Library has asked its academics to publish using open access.


Photo: flibble/Flickr.

18th February 2012: Human Capital & Superstar Economics

We Are All Witnesses (Nike)


Crikey‘s Ben Eltham has caused a debate with his insightful analysis on Michael Brand, the new director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales:


The sheer amount of money washing around global art markets helps us to understand how a gallery director such as Brand can be worth nearly half a million dollars a year. There is in fact an international market for top curators, many of which can all expect to earn comfortably more than the rates Australian galleries pay.


Eltham and I did a similar analysis in 2010 of Australia’s film industry. Successful fund managers also have a similar dynamic due to the 2 and 20 norm: 2% of total asset value (management fee) and 20% of any profits.


I read Eltham’s analysis the same day as sections of the late Fischer Black‘s book Exploring General Equilibrium (Boston: MIT Press, 2010). Two relevant sections stood out immediately on human capital:


What is special about human capital is that people mostly own their own human capital, with all of its specific risks. They could diversify or hedge out some of these risks by trading in shares of physical capital, but as Baxter and Jermann (1993) note, they generally don’t. (p. 69).


The normal career path involves many job changes — some within a single firm, and some between firms . . . Careers advance faster in good times than in bad, as investments in human capital, particularly through learning by doing, pay off. (p. 102).


Black’s macroeconomic analysis provides some context for Eltham’s critique of Brand’s salary. In two paragraphs, Eltham summarises Brand’s “first-class academic credentials” and “stellar career path.” Brand’s career advanced quickly because he made a series of excellent choices about selecting and delivering on projects, changing galleries, and building a significant body of exhibition work. In doing so, Brand diversified his human capital in a similar fashion to the professors I know who have changed universities in order to get promoted.


For Eltham, global art markets provide the context for “a top international director like Brand” to command a premium. The reason, Black suggested, was that “Uncertainty in both tastes and technology makes investments risky, and gives us a frontier of choices among different combinations of expected payoff and risk” (p. 126). The Art Gallery of New South Wales is willing to pay Brand a premium to lock-in his expertise and make the optimal choices for future art exhibitions.


Brand’s situation contrasts with university academics who lack the benefits of superstar economics. Academic contracts are defined by a university’s minimum standards for academic levels (MSALs) and by promotion committees. Academics rarely have control of their intellectual property or a share in future revenues from their work: they are forced to assign these rights to global publishing conglomerates. The market for competitive grants is a government-controlled oligopoly that requires a substantive publication track record. Academics who don’t build this cannot hedge their own human capital risk (or exposure to disruptive innovations). Collectively, these conditions place a cap on academic contracts in contrast to Brand and fund managers. The exception is professors who gain in a ‘winner-takes-all’ environment whilst their colleagues are on short-term contracts.


Things may change if International Creative Management, Creative Artists Agency or WME work out how to extract greater value in human capital from academic superstars.