Monday, 26 June 2017 11:37

Valuing and Rewarding Intangible Activities in Academic Careers

In the lab 1 Career LPCareer progression in academia depends on multiple factors. Traditionally, the metrics most widely used to assess how successful a researcher is and how likely they are to progress in their academic career have been quantifiable items, such as the number of grants, publications, presentations, posters, etc.

However, researchers also engage in many other, less tangible activities that are not regarded as being equally valuable to the traditional metrics. Those in academic careers are expected to mentor people, review papers and grants, serve on committees etc. Academics tend to focus less on these activities, and there is a lack of resources and training in these areas.

In many cases, expertise in performing intangible activities (e.g., writing grants and papers) is necessary for developing the quantifiable items. However, in a culture where the product is the main metric, the process of learning and teaching others how to become experts in these activities is not valued.

Although critical to academic success, these activities constitute only a small part of a researcher’s application for grant funding, job promotion, etc. As a consequence, participating in these activities is also not rewarded properly in academia. It can be difficult to assess their impact, especially if not resulting in a product right away. It may take an extended amount of time for them to have an effect on the training of academic scientists. In addition, opportunities to learn and teach these activities are not consistently present and/or encouraged at all universities, making it difficult to compare individuals to each other.

Why is training of intangible activities not regarded as critical for academic scientists as the traditional metrics? Some academics may be reluctant to changes in the system, especially if the traditional metrics have propelled them into scientific stardom. They are, therefore, less likely to advocate for change in what should be valued and rewarded in academia. And those who want to see a change in academia may lack the resources and knowledge necessary to effect it.

What general solutions might exist to how academia can better value and reward these activities? A set of standards for assessing performance of these activities across universities would make it easier to determine their value for career progression in academia and beyond. In addition, we could use these activities as teaching tools by having someone skilled in a particular area present a webinar or teach a university course on that topic. This would give some recognition to those who are already performing these tasks well and provide them with opportunities to train others.

Overall, the system of values and rewards for these activities needs to change at all levels in academia. Junior scientists should be rewarded for these activities early in their training and throughout their training. Doing so could motivate them to contribute further to the development and promotion of these activities within academia. However, senior scientists and faculty members also need to engage in these activities.

Below are my views on a few common intangible activities in academia (by no means a comprehensive list):

Activity Current challenges

Goals and outcomes

(predicted or desired)

Ideas for change

(suggested rewards)

Serving as a mentor

How do we effectively teach this skill to the next generation?

 

  • Improve mentee research independence
  • Learn to teach people in your own research area and lab practices
  • Develop time management and leadership skills
  • Balance mentoring with classes and/or own lab work
  • Manage and complete projects in finite amount of time
  • Develop checklist of things done well by mentors to use as a resource
  • Have both PI and mentee write recommendation letters for mentor
  • Provide award certificate for mentor
  • Hold public recognition or ceremony for mentor
  • Interview mentor in university magazine
  • Have mentor develop course on being an effective mentor in universities
Reviewing papers and grants

How do we assess constructive and useful reviewers?

How do we find suitable reviewers for a particular field?

  • Improve career advancement
  • Become an expert in your field
  • Learn about the latest research
  • Make connections in your field
  • Engage in and lead productive discussions
  • Obtain better critical thinking skills
  • Hone paper and grant-reviewing skills by practicing
  • Gain the ability to constructively critique papers and grants from other researchers

 

  • Give the option for open review of papers and grants
  • Improve ways for the scientific community to recognize useful reviewers
  • Have mentors and peers give open recommendations online
  • Create database of constructive and useful reviewers for a particular field
  • Have senior scientists train junior ones, and postdocs train graduate students in reviewing practices
  • Prepare lecture or course on paper and grant reviewing practices
Participating on committees

How do we determine who is a valuable committee member?

How do we motivate scientists to serve on committees?

 

  • Work in teams and lead tasks on committees
  • Engage in productive conversations with diplomacy and respect
  • Learn how to disagree
  • Develop leadership skills
  • Contribute new ideas

 

  • Have committee chairs highlight the work of productive members
  • Engage junior scientists to serve on committees
  • Spotlight trainee leaders on committees with awards and interviews
  • Give everyone a voice on committees, including underrepresented populations in academia
Teaching courses and giving talks

How do we engage students in teaching?

How do we deliver effective lectures?

 

  • Increase the audience’s ability to understand and use information in the real world
  • Improve public speaking skills
  • Learn to talk to various audiences

 

 

  • Develop teaching tools(e.g., lectures and webinars)
  • Create a system for recognition of effective teachers beyond awards
  • Have senior scientists and mentors teach junior scientists to give lectures
  • Have graduate students practice scientific talks on postdocs (within their own lab and with other labs)
Writing grants and papers

How do we assess the teaching of writing skills to researchers?

 

 

  • Improve career advancement
  • Hone writing skills by working on multiple types of documents
  • Learn to write in an efficient and timely manner
  • Work on multiple drafts with peers and mentors
  • Gain knowledge in your own field by keeping up with literature
  • Reward quality of work, not impact factor
  • Have journals highlight monthly papers on websites and interview authors of high quality scientific papers
  • Award and spotlight researchers with effective writing practices at meetings
  • Have experienced researchers design and teach writing courses for graduate students and postdocs

Managing labs (various aspects)

 

How do we train researchers in effective management of time, people, budgets, etc.?

 

  • Efficient and more productive labs, happier employees
  • Production of new leaders in academia and beyond
  • Give trainees an opportunity to learn new skills and contribute to the lab culture
  • Have senior PIs train junior ones on managing a lab
  • Build a resource with effective lab management tools
  • Enable public recognition for effective managers
  • Have academics take management courses or enroll in other programs
  • Have experienced managers teach courses in this area to academics
  • Facilitate discussion groups and mentoring of and by PIs on lab management skills
Engaging in professional development

How do we engage trainees to participate in these activities?

How do we highlight the need for these activities to faculty members?

  • More productive and happier trainees
  • Learn to balance lab time (maintain lab productivity) with outside activities
  • More well-rounded trainees with various real-world skills who are better prepared for careers
  • Acquire various skills (e.g., communication, leadership) useful for career success
  • Have universities provide different types of training opportunities for specific skills
  • Incorporate mandatory professional development activities in grants
  • Have trainees and faculty members agree on the amount of time away from the bench
  • Allocate funds specifically to these activities in grants
  • Reward participation by public recognition and opportunities to train others in these skills

In conclusion, thinking about the current and future values and rewards of intangible activities in academia is critical to the career success of researchers themselves and benefits the entire academic system in general. The hope is that academics will begin to discuss, improve, and embrace these ideas for change, leading to the development of more well-rounded scientists and a more sustainable scientific enterprise.

Do you have ideas of how we can improve the value of these activities in academia, and how to reward those who are already performing them well? Please comment below!

Training in the lab 2

Training Inside the Lab

Training in outside the lab 1

Training Outside the Lab


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ABankstonAdriana Bankston is a policy activist at Future of Research (FoR), a nonprofit organization representing junior scientists, through grassroots advocacy, to promote positive systemic change to the way we do science. Her goals are to promote science policy and advocacy for junior scientists, and to gather and present data on various issues in the current scientific system. She can be reached via LinkedIn or on Twitter.

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