25. Big Bird had it right

There’s no such thing as a stupid question.[1]” Big Bird[2]

The problem

An earlier post discussed reluctance to seek help, advice, and feedback, especially when to do so we appear ignorant. In Think Like a Freak, Levitt and Dubner[3] state “I don’t know” are the “three hardest words in the English language. People in general have issues with admitting ignorance. As children we have a voracious appetite for knowledge and no reluctance to ask for it. Why do many[4] of us lose this, and why is its loss so pronounced in academics?

  • Some elders, parents, and educators teach us never to admit ignorance[5]
  • Fear
  • Perceived or genuine intimidation by ones higher in the institutional or professional hierarchy; high Power Distance Index
  • Embarrassment; reluctance to “look stupid”; insecurity; shame
  • Reluctance to “bother” those with knowledge and expertise to share
  • Various emotional ‘triggers’[6]
  • Threat to self-image and stature

Let’s explore the last a little bit. As academics we strive to become the authority or the leader in something. This is the foundation of our professional reputation and identity, professional advancement, and ability to attract the best colleagues, trainees, and funding and other resources essential to our academic productivity. Admissions of ignorance seemingly pose a grave risk to this foundation.

Unfortunately, there is an even graver risk to this foundation: failure to advance. As fields move forward, authorities and leaders must advance with them or get left behind.

Typically our colleagues (be they already in our circle of professional acquaintances, outside it, our trainees, or higher-ups in our institutional or professional hierachies) are the solution for failure to advance. Moreover, most of us are eager to share our knowledge and expertise with colleagues needing it, and derive great satisfaction from helping others in this way. Even if we can’t, we typically know of colleagues who can and will. But the transmission of knowledge and expertise is utterly defeated if the ones needing to learn can’t bring themselves to say: “I don’t know. Will you teach me or show me how?”


The first step of twelve-step programs is to concede there’s a problem.[7] [But see WWKD’s comment at the end of http://wp.me/p5LUkN-26.}

After that, for those who cannot admit ignorance to more knowledgeable colleagues, knowledge and expertise is available in other ways. These days short courses and training seminars are available on practically every topic, academic and otherwise, as are professional coaches and tutors. In biomedical research in particular, many vendors of equipment or reagents offer infomercials on their products and even personalized training. Most states require a certain number of continuing medical education credits for renewal of medical licensure.[8]

But what about those for whom these work-arounds are insufficient, who must implicitly or explicitly admit ignorance to colleagues in order to advance?

Some prior posts

3. Why it’s easy to commit to faculty development activities, and difficult to follow through on these commitments [Happy New Year!]

3.5 Devices that help us keep commitments [A Bestiary of Commitment Devices]

4. Why we are averse to feedback and what to do about it [Difficult Conversations]

7. Fear of interaction with others impedes faculty development. It can be countered. [The Only Thing We Have To Fear]

14. Judicious application of forcing functions can yield faculty development [Almost The End of Civilization As We Know It]

23. Do we need ‘career resource management?  [Fly the intimidating skies: ‘The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes’ applied to faculty career development in academic health centers]

may contain helpful advice, as will future ones.

Email may have its problems, but often is less intimidating to the sender than requests via telephone or in person.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, which can be self-administered, can be effective in overcoming avoidance. It involves graded exposure to anxiety-provoking situations. Indeed, we have used this effectively in junior faculty, assigning them progressively more anxiety-provoking “asks” in a supportive peer group setting.

When anxiety is overcome, ignorance is admitted, and help is obtained the first time, subsequent admissions of ignorance and requests for help may become progressively easier.

Be a sympathetic colleague. When you see a colleague who is struggling to admit ignorance, share your personal stories and offer to facilitate:

ROBIN: I realize what my research needs is the new quantum technique that Lakisha Jones is using in her lab, but I don’t know the first thing about quantum techniques and would just look stupid. Besides, Professor Jones is world-famous, doesn’t know me, and I hate to bother her.

YOU: Yes, I remember feeling like that once. I know Lakisha well [whether you do or don’t]. How about I sound her out about helping you?


YOU: Professor Jones, I have a junior colleague, Robin Smith, who is very interested in learning the new quantum technique you’re using. Would you be willing to help?

LAKISHA: Who? Oh, never mind. Sure! Ask Robin to get in touch.

Finally, know that we all face this issue. Here are some of UChicago’s finest confronting it:

[1] http://sesamestreet.freeservers.com/bbird_and_snuffy.html

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Bird

[3] Levitt, S.D., Dubner, S.J. 2016. Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain. HarperCollins. http://a.co/cwZS0LL

[4] This tendency varies by gender [Babcock, L., Laschever, S. 2007. Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation–and Positive Strategies for Change, Bantam. http://a.co/8cJvmGc ] and national culture [see ‘The ethnic theory of plane crashes’ , Chapter 7 in Gladwell, M. 2008, Outliers: the story of success. Little, Brown and Company. http://a.co/3yZDwhA ], moreover.

[5] Cohen, Leah Hager 2013. I don’t know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn’t). Riverhead Books. http://a.co/fw9V1kS

[6] Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. Penguin Books. http://www.amazon.com/Difficult-Conversations-Douglas-Stone/dp/0143118447

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve-step_program

[8] https://www.fsmb.org/Media/Default/PDF/FSMB/Advocacy/GRPOL_CME_Overview_by_State.pdf

24. No sweat

“Be happy in your work.”[1]

Janet Bickel likens academic career development to a long-distance hike[2], requiring sustained effort. In the tenure track, advancement from assistant professor to associate professor takes 5-9 years of strenuous effort at many institutions, and advancement from associate professor to full professor often requires 5-10 more. Problem is: as a species we’re not good at such sustained effort. Consider physical exercise and weight-loss diets. A minimum of 50% of us who begin these give up, with some sources reporting up to 90% attrition[3]. Why? We don’t find these efforts to be enjoyable, and they cause stress.

One approach to sustaining academic effort is using commitment devices (also here), forcing functions, and social pressure — all external. Although these can be effective, they are not always pleasant and can add to stress.

With respect to exercise, in her book No Sweat[4] Michelle Segar has an effective and ingeniously simple alternative solution to the problem of giving up: find a form of exercise that you enjoy performing.

According to Segar:

  • Unsustainable exercise regimes typically result from negative motivations (too unfit, too obese, too unattractive, too unhealthy, too embarrassed) for unpleasant exercise (an unwanted chore, a necessary evil, punishment, self-torture or, at the very least, taking time away from more important activities) with no immediate gratification (i.e., fitness takes time to develop). Sustained will power can overcome this combination, but is seldom sufficient.
  • A first step is to reframe the activity as a gift to one’s self, something one wants to do autonomously, a reward.
  • A next step is to find pleasurable forms of physical activity that are consistent with this reframing. Enjoyability trumps effort because activities that are not enjoyable are probably not sustainable. This is very much an individual preference. Some individuals enjoy intense work-outs, long runs, and sweating; some do not or lack the time for them. For the latter individuals, if the ‘medical model of exercise’[5] is set aside, opportunities for physical activity become obvious and activity more feasible.

[These two steps require resisting common societal and advertising messages that only those forms of exercise that are unpleasant or the ‘medical model’ are effective. To be sure, some forms of activity improve fitness and weight more than others, but if they are unsustainable because they are unpleasant, their overall impact will be small and temporary.]

Applying Segar’s approach to career development:

  • If one’s academic activity is unpleasant, it is probably not sustainable. Find forms that are pleasant or rewarding, and hence sustainable.
  • Within one’s job description is almost always an opportunity for choice or flexibility — of research project, of classroom approach to a topic, of how to contribute to one’s academic community, etc. Choose the options that are pleasurable or rewarding. They then become not ‘just your job’, but opportunities for enjoyment or reward. Gratification is both delayed (the eventual promotion) and, more importantly, immediate (you are doing something you enjoy).

[Presumably we entered academia because we enjoy the processes and challenges of creating knowledge, convincing peers, and educating or training others. Remember the enjoyment. Or, if it is no longer pleasant or rewarding, consider transition to a career that is.]

Admittedly, this prescription may be more feasible in some systems than others. At my institution we have a standard tenure track in which assistant professors who find their primary joy in teaching (and detest research) would be well advised to find another institution. For faculty who care for patients, however, we (and a growing number of academic health centers) have a second track that credits diverse contributions. In this track faculty can advance through any contribution that sufficiently enhances the distinction of the academic health center. We liken this to the Olympic or Paralympic Games, wherein individuals of diverse abilities and talents can excel. What matters for promotion is less the sport, and more that the competitor medals. In such a system, Michelle Segar’s prescription becomes: Figure out where your passion and institutional needs overlap, and then pursue your passion.

Such freedom of choice, however, can pose its own problems of decision paralysis. But one can’t have everything.

No sweat!

[Here is Bassam Shakashiri, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin and former Assistant Director of the National Science Foundation for Science and Engineering Education from 1984 to 1990, reminding us that what we do is and should be fun:



[1] http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0219243/quotes

[2] Bickel, J. 2008. Career development as a long-distance hike. J Gen Intern Med 24(1):118–21. DOI: 10.1007/s11606-008-0834-3. http://www.janetbickel.com/docs/09hike.pdf

[3] See, for example, https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/2013-100k-transformation-contest-press-release.html , https://www.creditdonkey.com/gym-membership-statistics.html , https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-90-you-quit-gym-early-2015-paul-elsass-msm , https://link.springer.com/article/10.2165/00007256-199417010-00004 .

[4] Segar, M. 2015. No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. Amacom. http://a.co/5yEvp94

[5] e.g., http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/PhysicalActivity/FitnessBasics/American-Heart-Association-Recommendations-for-Physical-Activity-in-Adults_UCM_307976_Article.jsp – .WZMxYq3GxPk; https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/dcpc/prevention/policies_practices/physical_activity/guidelines.htm

[6] http://scifun.chem.wisc.edu/xmaslect/liquid-oxygen.jpg

23. Fly the intimidating skies: ‘The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes’ applied to faculty career development in academic health centers

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Attributed to Peter Drucker[1]

Academic health centers (AHCs) are strange places. Unlike some academic institutions, which are more collegial and less hierarchical, AHCs have a chain-of-command culture as in the military. Deans have command authority and real power over chairs, chairs over chiefs, chiefs over sub-chiefs, and sub-chiefs over rank-and-file faculty. This makes sense; after all, human life is at stake and AHCs are especially complex and difficult to manage[2]. But a military-like culture has unintended consequences for faculty career development: Those higher in the hierarchy have the wisdom and knowledge that facilitate career development and are typically eager to share it with those lower in the hierarchy. Those lower in the hierarchy, however, can be reluctant to benefit[3] or even engage[4].

We have other examples of hierarchy impeding productive interaction:

Picture1This is what became of Korean Air Flight #801[5]

Picture2This is what became of Avianca Flight 052[6]

Picture3This is what became of United Airlines Flight 173[7]

As Malcolm Gladwell explains in “The Ethnic Theory of Airplane Crashes”[8], such crashes occurred because in teams of aviation personnel, those lower in a hierarchy were reluctant to engage those higher up, and those higher up did not effectively encourage such engagement. Similar disasters can ensue in diverse situations (e.g., hospital emergency rooms, intensive care units, and operating rooms; nuclear reactors).

An explanation for such disasters, as Gladwell contends, lies in the “Power Distance Index” (PDI)[9], developed by Geert Hofstede and defined as “the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.” In this dimension, inequality and power is perceived from the followers, or the lower level. PDI can be calculated from subordinates’ scoring (on a scale of 1 to 5) of pairs of statements such as:

Trainees and subordinate faculty accept that that their opinion is as important as their leaders’. 1 2 3 4 5 Trainees and subordinate faculty accept that they should never question their leaders’ authority.
Trainees and subordinate faculty accept that they should not take things for granted in their institution. 1 2 3 4 5 Trainees and subordinate faculty accept the authority of senior or important people.
In my institution, people are able to create their own place/function. 1 2 3 4 5 In my organization people accept roles defined for them by their leaders.
People do not take the leaders’ decisions for granted and are free/encouraged to question the actions of leaders. 1 2 3 4 5 The leaders make all decisions. Everybody accepts and respects the authority of leader.
The most effective way to accomplish change in my institution is through public debates and open democracy. 1 2 3 4 5 The most effective way to accomplish change in my institution is is to replace leaders.

In high PDI cultures, subordinates and superiors can be less likely to interact appropriately in situations in which teamwork is critical. Airplane cockpits can be high PDI cultures. Gladwell describes such an instance:

“they died because… when the copilot asked questions, his implied suggestions were very weak. The captain’s reply was to ignore him totally. Perhaps the copilot did not want to appear rebellious, questioning the judgment of the captain, or he did not want to play the fool because he knew that the pilot had a great deal of experience flying in that area. The copilot should have advocated for his own opinions in a stronger way…”

The air crews of Korean Flight 801 and Avianca Flight 052 were from cultures in which the PDI is especially high. Gladwell writes:

“As one former Korean Air pilot puts it, the sensibility in many of the airline’s cockpits was that ‘the captain is in charge and does what he wants, when he likes, how he likes, and everyone else sits quietly and does nothing.’

So, when the first officer says, ‘Don’t you think it rains more? In this area, here?’ we know what he means by that: Captain. You have committed us to visual approach, with no backup plan, and the weather outside is terrible. You think that we will break out of the clouds in time to see the runway. But what if we don’t? It’s pitch-black outside and pouring rain and the glide scope is down.

But he can’t say that. He hints, and in his mind he’s said as much as he can to a superior. The first officer will not mention the weather again. “

The United 173 crash (in which flight team members failed to inform one another that fuel was about to exhaust) was among those that motivated the development of crew resource management (CRM), which includes training in overcoming the hierarchical differences among aviation team members when necessary[10]. Korean Air then used CRM training to improve its safety record remarkably. CRM has since been applied to health care, firefighting, and other situations in which emergencies occur.

If academic health centers have high PDI cultures in which “subordinate” faculty with career development needs are reluctant to engage or approach “superior” colleagues who want to provide wisdom and knowledge, do they need “career resource management” training? If so, (a) how can an institution implement this practice, and (b) what should the content be?

With respect to implementation, the US Federal Aviation Administration advises: “It is essential to get buy-in from the entire organization, from the top down and from the bottom up. Every member of the organization from management to crew must be vested in the program. Any broken link or disinterested party in the organizational chain will affect the success of the CRM program.”[11] Despite their own advice, ironically the FAA actually implemented CRM by mandating it.[12]

With respect to content, three suggestions as a start:

  • Those higher in the hierarchy can learn to be less intimidating. Kevin Grigsby[13] makes some useful suggestions
  • Those lower in the hierarchy can learn to be less intimidated. Janet Bickel[14] makes some useful suggestions.
  • All positions in the hierarchy can learn to interact more productively in the context of career development.[15]

More to come in future posts.

[1] https://www.quora.com/Did-Peter-Drucker-actually-say-culture-eats-strategy-for-breakfast-and-if-so-where-when

[2] http://www.cfar.com/sites/default/files/resources/Leading_Planning_AMC.pdf ; R. Kevin Grigsby (2015) Enhancing the Behavioral Science Knowledge and Skills of 21st-Century Leaders in Academic Medicine and Science, Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 35:1-2, 123-134. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01608061.2015.1031428

[3] 7. The Only Thing We Have To Fear. https://decannomics.com/2015/05/18/7-the-only-thing-we-have-to-fear/

[4] A senior and respected faculty member and friend recently avoided multiple requests to suggest improvements in faculty development. Eventually I insisted on a meeting, in which I asked: “Why are you so so reluctant to meet, even though we are friends and you know your suggestions could benefit faculty and would be warmly received?” The response: “In high school nobody wants to go to the Principal’s Office. It feels like I’m going to the Principal’s Office.”

[5] http://www.airlinepilotchatter.com/2013/08/land-short-accidents-part-iii-korean-801.html

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avianca_Flight_52 – /media/File:Avianca-Flight-52-Wreckage-1.jpg

[7] http://www.planecrashinfo.com/w19781228.htm

[8] Chapter 7 in Gladwell, M. 2008, Outliers: the story of success. Little, Brown and Company. http://a.co/3yZDwhA

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hofstede%27s_cultural_dimensions_theory

[10] Vanderbilt University Medical Center has an excellent and concise summary of CRM in the context of medicine at https://ww2.mc.vanderbilt.edu/crew_training/

[11] https://www.faa.gov/tv/?mediaId=447

[12] https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-1995-12-20/html/95-30449.htm

[13] R. Kevin Grigsby (2015) Enhancing the Behavioral Science Knowledge and Skills of 21st-Century Leaders in Academic Medicine and Science, Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 35:1-2, 123-134. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01608061.2015.1031428

[14] http://www.janetbickel.com/docs/APSBoss.pdf and http://www.janetbickel.com/docs/APSbossImp.pdf

[15] Bickel, Janet MA; Rosenthal, Susan L.  2011. Difficult Issues in Mentoring: Recommendations on Making the “Undiscussable” Discussable.  Academic Medicine 86:  1229-1234.  doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e31822c0df7

I thank Janet Bickel and Kevin Grigsby for comments.
Continue reading

22. Blog posts for Noah

When my children were young and we took them on long road trips, I would pass the time by inventing stories to explain common expressions.  We were once in Colorado, outside Vail, when I told them the story of Charles Vail, the highway engineer who routed U.S. Highway 6 through the Vail Valley in 1940, which eventually became Interstate 70.  Charles had three sons, Ebenezer,  Japheth, and Noah, the youngest.  Such being the times, they volunteered to serve in the Army, the Air Force, and the Navy, respectively.  Ebenezer served with distinction in Army Intelligence.  He was a key player in the capture of the Enigma device.  [Hereupon ensues the fantastic and prolonged tale of his derring-do.]  And, of course, Japheth’s role in providing air support for the Normandy invasion will never be forgotten.  [This too was recounted at length.]  Both were decorated for their exploits, and returned home to heros’ welcomes when World War II ended.  But I digress.   Noah, his youngest son, was assigned to a submarine, the USS Toothfish, in the Pacific.   He served with distinction beginning in the Battle of Midway. [More exploits…  this was a long car ride.]   Unfortunately, the Toothfish was reported missing after the Battle of Roratunga.

Throughout all this, Charles Vail was a very devoted father.  Every day when his sons were in away in the service and until they returned home, he would write a letter to each of them.  Indeed, for the rest of his life he would write a daily letter to his youngest son.  They were never answered, of course.

And that is the origin of the expression:  “…writing letters to no avail.”

Sometimes it feels like these blog posts are written for Noah Vail too.  Their intent was to elicit discussion among faculty and those who develop them on novel ways of achieving faculty development.  But discussion was sparse, leading me to take two years off from writing.

Maybe, as one critic suggested, I am too far ahead of the curve.  Diffusion of innovation theory posits that novelty, no matter how justifiable, takes hold only when it is embraced by early adopters, the early majority, the late majority, and so on.  And universities and academic health centers are notoriously resistant to change.


[from https://innovateordie.com.au/2010/05/10/the-secret-to-accelerating-diffusion-of-innovation-the-16-rule-explained/ ]

For now, it seems like just me and Noah.  If you have more than a passing interest in these writings, I’d love to hear from you.  Please feel free to reach out to me according to my standard contact information, or if you’d prefer via an alternative address:  noahvail4@gmail.com.  Or, at least, sign up as an official ‘follower’.

I am indebted to several colleagues in the Group on Faculty Affairs, especially Kim Skarupski, who encouraged me to take up the keyboard again.

21. Mind the Gaps

In faculty development, the gap between knowing (or knowing how) and doing/acting is often difficult to bridge, even with the best of advice.
On a mission

Karen Kelsky is on a mission to save the academic world from incompetent and/or irresponsible graduate advisors. She wrote:

Dear faculty members: I sell Ph.D. advising services on the open market. And your Ph.D. students are buying. Why? Because you’re not doing your job.[1]

Kelsky is both a former professor and chair and a PhD in cultural anthropology, which together make her eminently qualified to observe, interpret, and help the strange tribe we call academic faculty, faculty developers, and faculty wannabes. For years she’s written a blog, The Professor Is In. Just recently she’s published a book[2] of the same name, subtitled “The Essential Guide to Turning Your PhD Into a Job”.

Justifiably laudatory reviews of this book are available online, and I won’t repeat them here. As the title implies, it targets PhDs (and, to my mind, emphasizes the natural and social sciences); we could benefit from comparable works for physician-scientists and clinician-educators. Importantly, it fills a significant gap in the academic self-help literature, between ‘how to get a PhD’ and the ‘how to get promoted – how to help others get promoted’ continuum.   Some personal favorites pertinent to my world are:

  • At the Helm: Leading Your Laboratory, Second Edition, by Kathy Barker[3]
  • Academic Scientists at Work, Second Edition, by Jeremy Boss and Susan Eckert[4]
Why good advice is necessary but not sufficient

The most interesting part of The Professor Is In is what it almost doesn’t say or doesn’t say. One thing it almost doesn’t say is: “If you insist on a likely unsuccessful quest for an assistant professorship, this advice will keep you from becoming unsuccessful immediately.”  [You need to read carefully between the lines to see it, but it is there.  But let me make it more obvious.]

Neither The Professor Is In nor this blog is about whether to pursue a career as an academic faculty member or how to choose a training program that will best achieve this goal.  Imagine if they did.  Further imagine if, like medical centers and business schools, graduate programs were to disclose the fraction of matriculants with this goal who actually achieve it, and by when.  Right now, the disclosure for all biology PhD programs lumped together would look like[5]:

workforce infographic ASCB COMPASS

[Notice the framing in the upper right; an alternative statement would be >92% of entering PhD students will not become tenure-track faculty.]   Of course, past results are no guide to future performance; your mileage may vary; do not attempt at home.  This is an average for one area of graduate study; actual statistics differ among and within broad areas of study and among graduate programs.  Yet for many if not most areas and programs, the number of matriculants seeking assistant professorships vastly exceeds the number of assistant professorships.  Given these odds, why would any rational being count on becoming an assistant professor and not also prepare for an alternative career [except in those rare areas and programs in which the odds are good]?

Any rational being would say not, but we are people and thus not rational. Academic faculty and their trainees[6] collude in the collective delusion training only to become an assistant professor is often feasible if properly executed. Why? Our cognitive bias is: what you see is all there is[7]. All around us are people like ourselves who have ‘made it’. We tell ourselves stories in which the route to success is straightforward and we are the heroes.

My vain hope for the second edition: A sure-fire prescription for combatting this delusion, and its counterpart in faculty anticipating promotion despite evidence to the contrary.  Or, is it more important to maintain confidence and morale?

Job interview illusions

One of these stories we tell ourselves is that assistant professorships go to the best applicant. Indeed, much of The Professor Is In is about the obvious missteps to be avoided so that one is likely eliminated in due course instead of immediately. For example, Part V: Techniques of the Academic Interview, covers what to expect, what to wear, what to eat and drink, how to fend off inappropriate questions, etc. While its focus is on job interviews, it is broadly applicable to the many explicit and implicit interviews that academic life comprises.

Clearly, with >100 doctorates competing for a position, the selected applicant will often be very good by chance alone. But ‘the best’? The techniques we use to rank applicants are deeply flawed. According to Laszlo Bock, Google’s Senior Vice President of People Operations[8]

  • Typical interviews explain only 14% of subsequent performance
  • References explain only 7% of subsequent performance
  • Number of years of experience explain only 3% of subsequent performance

The numbers speak for themselves.

Why are interviews, in which academic faculty place such stock, so problematic? For better or worse, the interviewers are human and will be subject to the biases of the human mind. They will, for example, prefer or disfavor the interviewee because of:

  • The interviewee’s accent
  • The interviewee’s names, both given and surnames
  • Whether the interviewee is physically attractive
  • The height, age, race, and apparent gender of the interviewee
  • The time of day of the interview
  • The weather on the day of the interview
  • Whether the interview is the first, last, or in the middle of a series

in addition to the ‘usual suspects’ (prestige of training institutions, prestige of journal or press of publications). They will very quickly (within the first 10 seconds, according to work that Bock cites) form an impression, and spend the rest of the interview seeking information that confirms the first impression.

All of these preferences are unrelated to the ability to perform an academic job relative to other candidates, and most are beyond the control of the interviewee.

Moreover, a key component of many academic interviews is ‘the Macon Test’, as described by a faculty member in Atlanta, Georgia:

The Macon Test …is the mental calculation a faculty member employs to determine if he or she would like to have a faculty candidate as a companion on a three-hour road trip to some town like Macon, Georgia (scientists in the Northeast might use Poughkeepsie as the destination). This quick test is based on the first impressions of the people we meet. In this case, we, the faculty, ask ourselves if the prospective candidate would be good company over the long haul of an academic lifetime, or if he would be an annoying or boring passenger on the trip. In the latter case, the candidate flunks the Macon Test, and might not get a job offer.[9]

The Macon Test has some justification. Faculty members clearly have an interest in not appointing those who will be highly disruptive and poor academic citizens, or who will be unhappy in their ranks. But it is also a prescription for social conformity, groupthink, prejudice, and lack of diversity. Regardless, it typically will be administered in academic interviews – and a high score on the Macon Test can trump many a defect in an interviewee.

[Can these biases be defeated? Yes, but not by the interviewees. Google, which has more financial and human capital to invest than many search committees and even many universities, does this, as Bock describes in his book’s fifth chapter, entitled “Don’t Trust Your Gut: Why our instincts keep us from being good interviewers, and what you can do to hire better.” Google eschews unscripted interviews, and uses combinations of tests that they validate against actual job performance (including the performance of applicants they reject). Interestingly, their studies have led them to exclude managers (in academic-world, the faculty of the hiring department) from the hiring decision.]

Karen Kelsky’s next book

A larger question is: why do we persist in such delusional behavior when we should know better? [And if you are wondering ‘why a post on graduate advising’, the question is applicable to the entire faculty life cycle.]

As Woody Allen’s character puts it in the conclusion to Annie Hall[10]:

It reminds me of that old joke- you know, a guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. Then the doc says, why don’t you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs. I guess that’s how I feel about relationships. They’re totally crazy, irrational, and absurd, but we keep going through it because we need the eggs.

Books such as The Professor Is In advance our understanding and should be part of the armamentarium of every competent faculty member and faculty developer. But they get us only so far. We are academic trainees, academic faculty, and faculty developers because we need the eggs. We also need books on how to cultivate imaginary chickens.

Which brings me to Karen Kelsky’s next book. She writes (https://www.facebook.com/TheProfessorIsIn/posts/960887117291169):

It’s about the “Ph.D. Brain”: powerful, analytical, critical, skeptical, productive, logical, goal-oriented, but also obsessive, dismissive, self-critical, narrow, competitive, cynical and judgmental. The Ph.D. Brain is both wonderful and terrible, our best asset and worst enemy. With it, you end up with overdeveloped analytical skills, and underdeveloped intuition and self-care. Those of us who have it are seeing our native habitat collapse (the university, RIP) and we – both those on the tenure stream in the corporatized university, and those who never make it in – must learn how to thrive in a hostile environment. I’ll talk about academic productivity (and yes, getting tenure). But the larger gist is: in a post-apocalyptic world, how can you harness your Ph.D. aptitudes, and when necessary overcome them, to make your way forward in a healthy, balanced, financially secure way?

Very sketchy ToC:

I. Intro: The Endangered Ph.D. in a Post-Acapocalyptic World
II. The Ph.D. Brain: Greatest Asset or Worst Enemy?
III. Systems Under Stress: Productivity and Self-Care in a Contracting Academy
IV. How to Get Tenure Without Losing Your Mind
V. The Crux of the Matter: Healthy Productivity
VI. Learning to Value Yourself (and Get Paid)
VII. Activating Your Whole Mind

(… how our thinking and values have to change to survive and thrive as hyper-specialized species when our habitat is being razed.)

Welcome, cultural anthropologist, to the worlds of ecology, psychology, and decannomics. We look forward to your next book.

And she is right:  Her book/blog/service (and others like them on behalf of faculty) wouldn’t be necessary if we all did our jobs as developers of current and future faculty.

To-do list:

 If you advise or develop others (including yourself), ask yourself: Have I fully disclosed to my client the extent of my expertise, what I am prepared to do (and not do) in the course of a relationship, and any conflicts of interest or commitment? Have I fully explored my client’s tolerance for pain and truth, and am I prepared to deliver these accordingly? If I cannot meet my client’s needs, have I disclosed this so that my client can make other arrangements? Have I clearly communicated the odds of success and failure? That is, have I obtained informed consent for what is about to ensue? If not, do so.

If you are advised or developed by others (or yourself), have these questions been answered for you? If not, ask them, find another advisor, or accept the consequences.

  If you are involved in appointing faculty, consider Laszlo Bock’s observations, ask ‘is the way we’ve always done it the best we can do?’, and – if not – be a change agent.

 Should we formally obtain informed consent from anyone who enters a PhD program?

[1] http://chronicle.com/article/To-Professors-Re-Your/129121/

[2] Kelsky, K. 2015. The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job. Three Rivers Press, New York. http://theprofessorisin.com/buy-the-book/

[3] Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2010. http://amzn.com/0879698667

[4] Springer, 2006. http://amzn.com/0387321764

[5] http://www.ascb.org/where-will-a-biology-phd-take-you/

[6] Karen Kelsey indicts graduate advisors as solely responsible for this delusion. I disagree; advisor and advisee are jointly responsible. Indeed, as she says, “unfortunately, PhD students are largely resistant to professionalization.” The subordinate status of the advisee is no excuse; Moreover, although advisor and advisee are clearly hierarchical, ‘managing upward’ is feasible and often required.

[7] Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. http://amzn.com/0374275637

[8] Bock, Laszlo. 2015. Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead, Twelve. http://amzn.com/1455554790

[9] Academic Scientists at Work, Second Edition, by Jeremy Boss and Susan Eckert. Springer, 2006. http://amzn.com/0387321764

[10] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075686/

©Martin E. Feder 2015

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20. “Give ’em the old razzle dazzle”

To faculty seeking to advance: Create an academic product that will impress — but also anticipate the predictable irrationality of those who will assess it.


Dear faculty member seeking promotion or funding:

First, a disclaimer.   This is not advice to deceive academic assessment. Do not “put lipstick on a pig”. Be certain to do your best to create a body of accomplishment so unambiguously strong and a narrative so compelling that promotion or funding will be a foregone conclusion. Seek advice from knowledgeable colleagues or the literature on how best to do this; this advice will not be re-summarized here.

Second, know your enemy! Even if you create such a body of accomplishment and narrative, the forces of predictable irrationality[2] will conspire to defeat you. Hopefully the peers who assess you will keep these forces at bay, and your peers are usually successful at this. But – leave as little to chance as possible.   Help your allies. Plan to disable predictable irrationality. The good news is that it is predictable. Because you can predict it, you can devise countermeasures to these forces. In short, razzle dazzle ’em.


An invisible hand is at work. When academics exhibit talent, judgment, wisdom, accomplishment, and stature, they are asked to do more (including to assess other academics).   The more they do, the more they are asked to do, and the busier they become. In particular, the more effective they are as peer reviewers, the more they are sought as peer reviewers. Bottom line: those who review you are likely to be very busy people. The busier they become, the more they need to work efficiently and delegate some of their work to others. How? They will take usually-reliable shortcuts (heuristics). Bottom line: create shortcuts, and put them in the path of those motivated to take them.[3]


We all suffer from egocentric bias, which in present circumstances means that we believe what makes sense to us makes sense to everyone else. We all suffer from fear of looking stupid. These two biases can combine to undermine the best of promotion cases: You think you’ve explained your work adequately, but you haven’t; ‘they’ either think ‘they’ understand your work, but they don’t – or ‘they’ say ‘the work is outside my area’, which is code for ‘I’m afraid to express a judgment for fear of looking stupid’.

Most likely your training did not include communications as a formal topic, so here’s the elevator version: Presuming you have done work worth supporting, it is your job to sell it to those who will assess it – strike that, true but too cynical – it is your job to make your work and its significance comprehensible to those who will assess it. In the real world, when the stakes are high (e.g., in political campaigns, advertising, cinema releases) there are exhaustive test-marketing, focus groups, and surveys in which alternative forms of messages are compared[5]. Shouldn’t you do the same?

My point is simply to be certain that your sales pitch is compelling. Because of egocentric bias, your judgment of what is compelling is likely to be flawed; never trust it. How, then, can one be certain?

  • Study the masters (and the failures[6]). Every research presentation, lecture, elevator speech, textbook, teaching moment, etc. (and, for that matter, all political and sales campaigns) is an object lesson in what works and what doesn’t in a sales pitch.
  • Find reliable and appropriate critics.   Reliable: Many potential critics will sugar-coat their criticisms, or will feign understanding to avoid looking stupid. Instead of them, rely on those who can be brutally honest. Appropriate: In job applications and promotions you will need to please two audiences. The first, content experts in your field, you probably already know how to please (and whether you’ve succeeded). The second is both less recognized and more important: those who are not content experts in your field. Except in unusual cases, the second audience will be involved in assessing your product. Therefore you also need critics who are non-experts (and probably the more non-expert, the better). Use them to perform the Vonnegut test: “…any scientist who couldn’t explain to an eight-year-old what he was doing was a charlatan.”[7] Unless she is a professor in your field, your mother is probably an ideal critic. Professional communications coaches can be very helpful.[8] Critics: That’s plural. Few messaging tactics are effective with all audience members (and those tactics are probably too offensive to use).  Test-market your sales pitch with sufficiently diverse critics until you are certain that it will be successful with the known or unknown ‘peer’ reviewers who will judge you.
  • Allow sufficient time and effort to optimize your message. Many academics mistakenly believe that content sells products, and focus insufficiently on crafting a message that convinces consumers to consider their product. Given our meager training, successful messaging is likely to require many successive approximations and consultations, each taking time. Hint: Make each iteration comparative. That is, try communicating in two ways and ask your critics which is better? This defuses fear of looking stupid, and does not put your critics on the spot to deliver advice.

Branding works because once a product’s brand comes to signify an attribute (e.g., high quality, high standards, reliability, good taste, etc. – or the opposite), consumers will favor or disfavor the product on the basis of its brand. Some academic assessors are consumers who will favor or disfavor the ‘products’ they assess in part on the basis of brands such as current or past institutional affiliations, the impact factor of the scholarly journal in which the work appears, an honorific award, or a particular type of funding. That is: If one’s short on time, just look at the brand and jump to the obvious conclusion.

If you have a choice of a brand for your personal academic product, choose the brand with the highest consumer approval. If you don’t know which scholarly institution, journal, honorific, or funding has the highest consumer approval, that’s what the Internet is for.

Having said this, do not ‘go overboard’. For example, some scientists will insist on repeatedly revising and resubmitting work to a particular journal in the belief that acceptance will guarantee tenure, and in so doing undermine their own productivity and squander the opportunity to place their work in equally appropriate journals. Perfect can be the enemy of good enough.[9]


People (and they include even faculty) are hardwired to follow other people, often for good reason. Running with (and not against) people fleeing danger normally enhances survival. In academic assessment, which is typically not done in private, the counterpart is agreement with majority opinion, dominant paradigms, and those perceived as leading scholars. A minority of you will create heterodox scholarship so compelling that it will overcome these prejudices. But if you are not in this minority, you should anticipate groupthink and manage it. Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point[10] is an entertaining popular account of how this is done in the real world. In your world, it is prudent to count on several factors:

  • Deference to “experts”. In biomedicine, these are members of the National Academy of Sciences, investigators of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, named chairs at prestigious institutions, and so on. A few minutes’ thought should yield the names of those in your area. Chances are: confidential assessments will be solicited from them when your promotion is under consideration, and your institution will be hard-pressed to ignore overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic endorsements from them. It is much easier for your ‘experts’ to provide such endorsements if they know and respect you personally. How?   (a) Although the rule is to avoid committee service while a probationary faculty member, the one committee you want to be on is the one that organizes departmental colloquia or seminars. Ask to join it, and use it as an opportunity to invite your ‘experts’ to speak. [Be patient: Some of the big acts book up years in advance.] When they arrive, host them, introduce them, wine them, and dine them[11]. Show them a good time – but do talk some research, including yours. This will also associate them with you in the minds of your colleagues, and legitimize your area of research. (b) Go to professional meetings and conference they attend, and make their acquaintance. Offer them coffee, see if you can join them for a meal, and/or sit next to them on the bus[11.5].
  • Deference to brands. If your curriculum vitae includes many invitations from brands your assessors respect, they will be impressed. You can suggest to a prestigious journal that it invite you to produce a review, editorial, or thought piece. You can suggest to a program officer that you be invited to serve as a peer reviewer for a prestigious funding organization. You can suggest to a significant professional society that you be invited to serve in some visible capacity or stand for election as an officer. The worst they can say is ‘no’ and, if they do, no one will know. There is also what the politicians call logrolling; it works like this: You befriend someone at a prestigious institution. You say: If I invite you to give a talk at my institution, will you invite me to give a talk at yours? You put the talk on your CV.   Or, at a professional meeting you run into someone from a prestigious institution and mention: “I’ve always wanted to visit your institution…”
  • Deference to leaders at your own institution. Typically the people who assess you will be senior to you and have greater institutional stature. Treat them as you’d like to be treated; the rest is commentary.   Your institution may instruct them to set behavior aside and assess only your work; they may well be unable to do this, for they are only human. And when they speak, they’ll be heard.
  • Deference to paradigms. As implied above, our minds are biased to prefer what confirms our pre-existing knowledge and disfavor what challenges it. The more your work challenges existing paradigms, the more your patrons and assessors will be averse to endorsing it. If your academic work can become the existing paradigm in time to be recognized as such, you’re in excellent shape! But: “You come at the king, you best not miss.”[12] It may be prudent to postpone a paradigm shift work in progress to after tenure – except if this leads you to be scooped. [In that case, publish away and it may then be necessary for you to claim your named chair at another institution.]

In summary, expect groupthink, and at least do not create conditions that will lead groupthink to oppose you.


You may complain that the activities I suggest shouldn’t be necessary. OK, you’re right. Feel better now?

You may complain that the activities I suggest aren’t appropriate. I disagree. Know the 3 Ps of academics[13]? Academics produce knowledge that is

  • Public
  • Peer-reviewed
  • Platform on which others can build

If a tree falls in the middle of the forest and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? If an academic produces work that is unknown to or unrecognized by peers, is it an academic product? Product yes – academic no. These days we all compete for attention; academic products far outnumber our ability to notice them all. Nonetheless, many of us assume that because we are academics, we can rationally assess and compare all relevant products such that the cream will rise to the top automatically. Believe this at your peril!   If perchance the manipulations I suggest are un-necessary, you will at least have had a good time in their execution.

Finally, the largest obstacle to successfully following my advice is likely you yourself; i.e., your own cognitive biases and tendencies. Stage fright is difficult to overcome. Brutally honest advice from critics can hurt. Aiming for the best brands, the biggest names as patrons, and the most prestigious of invitations risks rejection. These all can be unpleasant – but far less than rejection of your manuscript, grant application, or promotion case. Nonetheless, our minds lead us to avoid present pain and risk even when this sets the stage for much greater future pain and risk. Fortunately, as detailed in prior posts, there are ways to overcome the aversions that can impede our advancement.

Good luck! Give ’em the old razzle dazzle. And once you are promoted, work to make all this un-necessary.

[1]  Razzle Dazzle.   From Chicago (1975).   Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_(musical)  Lyrics: http://www.stlyrics.com/lyrics/chicago/razzledazzle.htm  http://amzn.com/B006RXQ1L6

[2] Ariely, Dan. 2008. Predictably Irrational. HarperCollins.

[3] This is a version of BJ Fogg’s first law of captology: Put hot triggers in front of motivated people.

[4] A film in which the principal plot device is the ability to look at the world through another’s (John Malkovich’s) eyes: Being John Malkovich. 1999. Polygram USA Video. http://amzn.com/6305807086

[5] http://www.winningcampaigns.org/Winning-Campaigns-Archive-Articles/Polls-Focus-Groups-in-Political-Campaigns.html https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Focus_group https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Test_market

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhiCFdWeQfA

[7] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Cat%27s_Cradle

[8] For example: https://www.linkedin.com/pub/julie-peterson/3/976/96a

[9] After Voltaire. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfect_is_the_enemy_of_good

[10] Gladwell, M. 2000. The Tipping Point. Gladwell. http://amzn.com/0316346624

[11] I tried for years without success to get a distinguished professor to speak at my institution. What finally worked was when he mentioned that he always wanted to dine at Charlie Trotter’s, then the leading restaurant in my city. I told him: “I can do that.” Once the arrangements were made, it turned out that they also included a visit to my institution.

[11.5] Karen Kelsey offers additional instructions in Chapter 20, “How to Work the Conference”, of The Professor Is In, Three Rivers Press, 2015.  http://amzn.com/0553419420  See also: http://theprofessorisin.com/?s=how+to+work+the+conference&x=0&y=0

[12] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Wire

[13] Attributed by   Simpson D, Fincher RM, Hafler JP, Irby DM, Richards BF, Rosenfeld GC, Viggiano TR. Advancing Educators and Education: Defining the Components and Evidence of Educational Scholarship. Proceedings from the Association of American Medical Colleges Group on Educational Affairs Consensus Conference on Educational Scholarship, 9-10 February 2006, Charlotte, NC. Washington DC: AAMC 2007, to Hutchings P, Shulman LS. 1999. The scholarship of teaching: New elaborations, new developments. Change 31:10–15.

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©Martin E. Feder 2015

19. Know Your Enemy!

Countless books and websites advise on ‘how to advance in academia’. Often their advice is good, necessary, important, and well worth following. On the other side is an enormous written and unwritten body of work on how to perform academic assessment[1], and each institution’s process is elaborated often in excruciating detail. By and large, however, this work ignores a critical factor in academic decision-making:

People assess the academic work and make the decisions, and the assessments and decisions are not private. Not private means that the assessments and decisions can or will be shared with other people.

Ideally the academic work is so good or so poor that the summary judgment is a foregone conclusion and immune to the issues I’ll describe. Sound advice is: strive to be that good if you are a candidate, or assess only cases that good or bad if you are a judge or juror. The vast majority of instances are in between, however. For them, if you are insistent on excellence in academic performance, either as a performer or a judge, sound advice is: Know your enemy![2]

Who’s your enemy? As developed elsewhere, he is us[3]. Academic promotion involves people judging people. While human minds are capable of dispassionate, consistent, and fair assessment and decision-making in academic promotion, they are also irrational – and that irrationality can bedevil academic promotion. Importantly, however, the irrationality is predictable[4]. As such, it can be avoided if need be, or intentionally triggered if need be.   “If you know the enemy…you need not fear the result.”[5]

If you were a wealthy defendant or litigant in a legal proceeding or a legal judge seeking due process, you might well hire consultants to cope with the cognitive psychology of the participants. As an academic assessor or assessee, you are probably on your own. Nonetheless, as Yogi Berra said, “You can see a lot by just looking.”[6] The next few posts in this series (see below) will get you started. Legal psychology is an open book online, as is behavioral economics, cognitive psychology, social psychology, and cognitive bias. Just look. If you’re smart enough to be an academic, you’re smart enough to understand this.

But will you? Answering this question is itself prone to cognitive bias, so you may not.   But cognitive tendencies can be restrained. It’s up to you.

In this series:

  • No matter how much ‘they’ seem like ‘us’, ‘they’ aren’t; design academic assessment and faculty development programs and communications in anticipation of this reality [The Dancing Fool Meets John Malkovich].
  • An enlightened attitude towards scholarship does no good unless the gatekeepers of publication, funding, and academic appointment and promotion buy in to it [Curve Ball].
  • Our normal behavior can interfere with high-quality peer review. Devise countermeasures. [Fishy behavior]
  • Cognitive biases can influence academic peer review, more so when review is done in groups. Even if this is rare, prudence dictates we anticipate it and combat it. [The Jury Is Still Out]
  • To faculty seeking promotion: Use the power of cognitive bias for good, not for evil [Give ’em the old razzle dazzle]

[1] For example, see http://www.aaup.org/sites/default/files/files/Good%20Practice%20in%20Tenure%20Evaluation.pdf

[2] Sun Tzu, The Art of War http://www.artofwarquotes.com

[3] http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Walt_Kelly

[4] Ariely, Dan. 2008. Predictably Irrational. HarperCollins.

[5] Sun Tzu, The Art of War http://www.artofwarquotes.com

[6] http://www.quoteworld.org/quotes/12139

©Martin E. Feder 2015

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