Why A Research Program Is Important For Post-Docs

Stephen McGrail writes in his candid reflection on completing his PhD:

 

The scary truth is I’m not too sure where I find myself. Having taken time off post-PhD and more recently (this year) started to seriously look for work, I’ve struggled to focus my job search and identify jobs that I’m an ideal applicant for (i.e. able to meet all the key selection criteria). I’ve only seen one or two academic jobs I could apply for, which may suggest postdocs are my best option in academia. Moreover, I occasionally find myself feeling somewhat envious of others who have missionary zeal for a specific cause/idea or a very specific research agenda. They have focus. For example I recently read Fabio Rojas’s book Theory for the Working Sociologist (which is a good read) in which he summarises his research area as “the interaction of protest and organizations” (p.160). Six words!

 

In Good To Great (New York: Century, 2001) the management scholar Jim Collins writes of the Hedgehog Idea: a central focus that enables a manager or organisation to allocate resources effectively. Karen Kelsky (The Professor Is In) and Robert J. Trew (Get Funded) also emphasise the importance of a self-directed research program.

 

However, developing a self-directed research program is not always taught in a PhD program. Rather, it is often learned in the Post-Doc: a two-year or more period in which the new Early Career Researcher gains further specialised research training under the direction of an experienced mentor or team. This is often done in a university-based research Centre or Institute, and is increasingly aligned with their strategic research priorities.

 

My own Hedgehog Idea is the role of Metis (cunning intelligence, craft, skill, wisdom) in contemporary life. This can be obscure to understand. So, I talk about a research agenda of bridging the sub-fields of strategic culture and terrorism studies via causal inference methods such as counterfactuals and process tracing. A relevant research question for this might be: “Why do some terrorist organisations use shared, long-term ideas on the use of violence to achieve strategic objectives?” A more general form applicable to non-terrorist examples might be: “How do social change agents develop and use mobilisational counter-power to achieve their goals?”

 

It took me more than a year of reflection to condense this research agenda down into such research questions. I see other, related areas such as economic statecraft and nuclear deterrence where it might be applied. These are out-of-scope for my PhD dissertation and they may inform future research. It also took me awhile to identify relevant experts, specific journals, and relevant book publishers. I’m still an emerging scholar so I’m slowly building my networks and reputation.

 

This identity formation is important for Post-Doc roles. A Post-Doc is a period of intense and hopefully mouth-to-ear training. It does not necessarily lead to a sustained research career. Its two year time-frame is often really a year to 18 months once ‘revise and resubmit’ scheduling is factored in for publications. Centre and Institute Directors expect their Post-Docs to publish and to also apply for competitive grants. Furthermore, broader social engagement and impact is also now expected via The Conversation, media outlets, community consultation, and targeted social media (the source of ‘alt-metrics’).

 

This can be a disillusioning shock to new Early Career Researchers. They may expect an Ivory Tower and instead encounter the contemporary neoliberal university. Having a self-directed research program is necessary to navigate this competitive environment. It tells you what to focus on, who to collaborate with, where to publish, who your national and international funders might be, and just as importantly, what to say no to. Research managers can create data analytics for it. Consider your research program to be the equivalent of an entrepreneurial or investor slide-deck: you can even use the popular business model canvas to brainstorm it.

 

Even Fabio Rojas has a Google Scholar profile. His research program? Sociology.

Bridging Hollywood and Harvard

Recently, I had a Facebook thread exchange with Maree Conway and Stephen McGrail on the future of universities. The default, neoliberal future seems to be a small professoriate and senior management with defined benefit superannuation plans, and a large contract-based pool of academic and administrative contingent labour. It’s less an Ivory Tower and more like the ‘labour hire’ model of private equity firms.

 

My preferred future is one based in part on knowledge and skills-based talent. There’s still room in this vision for teaching excellence and for intangible asset-based revenue streams from intellectual property rights. The model is Hollywood: Entourage and Michael Clayton perhaps with a dose of Better Call Saul. I explored this world for about 8 years whilst at Australia’s Victoria University working first on academic research program development and then on managing research contracts.

 

Violaine Roussel’s new study Representing Talent: Hollywood Agents and the Making of Movies (Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 2017) offers a detailed model of how talent management functions. Her book includes a study of the initiatory pathway that new agents undergo in Hollywood and when they join a creative agency. It also discusses skills cultivation and negotiation strategies. As a situated ethnography it will be helpful for research managers who want to bridge Hollywood and Harvard, and who desire to make some good deals.

6th July 2012: Australia’s Potential Internet Futures

Strategic foresight practitioner Stephen McGrail and I have a new article out in the Journal of Futures Studies on Australia’s potential internet futures:

 

Australia’s Federal Government announced the National Broadband Network (NBN) in 2009. NBN’s current roll-out is scheduled for completion in 2021, with market forecasts estimating optical fibre overtaking DSL broadband connections in about 2015. This paper provides a timely contribution to more critical and expansive analysis of potential Australian internet futures. First, ‘schools of thought’ and current technological frames (Web 2.0, ‘the cloud’) for the internet and its possible futures are outlined, which provide perspectives on the emergence of the NBN. We then outline five generic images of the future which, as predetermined images, enable quick ‘incasting’ of alternative futures for a technology topic or related object of research: promised future, social/speculative bubble(s), unfolding disruption/chaos, unintended consequences, and co-existence/‘cooption’. High-level application of the ‘schools’ and generic images to the NBN and Australia’s potential internet futures, suggests policymakers and strategists currently consider too few perspectives.

 

The paper also responds to but is different from the Smart Internet 2010 (2005) report I worked on at the former Smart Internet Technology CRC. It took McGrail and I several months to get the paper published so it also has some pre-Facebook IPO comments. It is part of a JFS special issue on Australia’s contributions to the Millennium Project (McGrail has another article in the special issue on Australia’s science foresight and governance). McGrail and I have used our article’s incasting methodology in teaching technology foresight and also as a framework for potential use in investment decisions about exchange-traded funds and sector rotation. I thank Anita Kelleher, Jose Ramos, and JFS editor Tracy for their help in first commissioning and then ‘shepherding’ the article to publication.

28th June 2012: Stephen McGrail on Australian Science & Technology Innovation

Foresight friend and coauthor Stephen McGrail has a Conversation article today on science and technology innovation:

 

This is the wider context for the challenge of “how can scientific and technological breakthroughs be accelerated to improve the human condition?“. In some ways, progress in Australia is being made in the required transformation of innovation; but in other ways the challenge is not being met. This article provides an outline of Australian trends and related recent developments.

 

McGrail covers many topics including European Union developments; the National Enabling Technologies Strategy; biotechnology and synthetic biology; and insights from science and technology studies. Some of this work draws on insights from McGrail’s excellent Masters thesis at University of Melbourne on Australia’s nanotechnology industry.

29th February 2012: StratCap

Stratfor Logo

 

Strategic foresight practitioner Stephen McGrail pointed me to a Yes Men press release on Stratfor/Wikileaks, where I found this gem:

 

Among the millions of other leaked Stratfor emails are some that reveal dubious financial practices, including an apparent insider trading scheme with Goldman Sachs Managing Director Shea Morenz, who joined Stratfor’s board of directors and invested “substantially” more than $4 million in the scheme, called StratCap. “What StratCap will do is use our Stratfor’s intelligence and analysis to trade in a range of geopolitical instruments,” wrote Stratfor CEO George Friedman in September 2011. StratCap was designed through a complex offshore share structure to appear legally independent, but Friedman assured Stratfor staff otherwise: “Do not think of StratCap as an outside organisation. It will be integral… It will be useful to you… We are already working on mock portfolios and trades.” (StratCap has been due to launch in 2012, though that could now change.) [emphasis added]

 

I wrote about Stratfor/Wikileaks here. The StratCap documents are here. They reveal plans by Stratfor chief executive officer George Friedman and colleagues to establish an event arbitrage and global macro fund that would trade on the basis of Stratfor’s geopolitical and strategic intelligence. Friedman and colleagues envisioned a $US25 million fund with a 10% equity investment from Stratfor: small for global macro but possible for a boutique event arbitrage or special event fund. The emails deal with the fund’s offshore structure; the service agreement; the role and compensation of Shea Morenz; and Stratfor’s role to provide StratCap with actionable intelligence.

 

“From where I sit, this deal is dead,” Friedman wrote on 23rd July 2011. The deal show-stoppers included Friedman’s discontent with attorney Bruce Herzog‘s handling of the service agreement and anger over a $US200,000 fee (“for Bruce’s clumsy attempts to undermine the process”); an immediate tax liability that impacted on the initial investment capital; potentially adverse effects on Stratfor’s publishing business and working capital; and the potential for Shea and StratCap to bankrupt Stratfor through demanding potentially unlimited strategic intelligence. These show-stoppers made the deal non-viable: it exposed Stratfor to credit and transaction risks.

 

Friedman explained in his 23rd July 2011 email to Stratfor colleagues:

 

I can imagine easily a scenario in which StratCap’s demands outstrips Stratfor’s means to the point that StratCap would hold Stratfor in default and even push it into bankruptcy with StratCap the major creditor. Nothing in the course of the negotiations gives me the slightest hope that Bruce would not do this in a heart beat and that Shea wouldn’t let him. I regard the proposed service agreement as a threat to the survival of Stratfor as a company under Don and my control. [emphasis added]

 

Friedman notes: “I have no intention of being the Chairman of a failed investment fund . . . I will not be the public image of StratCap, ridiculed for the failure of an enterprise that was built to fail.” (A reference to Jim Collins and Jerry Porras’s influential management book Built to Last.)

 

StratCap may have run into other problems if the fund had launched. In 2002, Goldman Sachs paid a $US110 million fine to separate its sell-side research from Goldman’s trading activities. So did dotcom era analyst Henry Blodget. Morgan Stanley paid  $US125 million in fines though analyst Mary Meeker escaped prosecution. It’s possible that Friedman and Stratfor may have faced similar fines or regulatory threats if they had proceeded with the StratCap deal.

 

Want to start your own event arbitrage fund? You might start with Robert Webb’s Trading Catalysts (London: FT Books, 2006) and Andy Busch‘s World Event Trading (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2007) on event arbitrage and special event strategies. On hedge funds, read Sebastian Mallaby‘s excellent history More Money Than God (London: Penguin, 2011), and for the best academic research, Andrew Lo‘s Hedge Funds: An Analytic Perspective (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).