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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 09-May-08


Friday 09-May-08

How to succeed as an academic

I'm currently reading Herbert Simon's 1976 classic 'Persuasion' in which he cynically describes how academics can succeed as much through trickery than deep research.

  1. Dignify your assemblage of ideas by labelling it a 'theory.' No one knows what a theory is exactly, but everyone agrees it's a good thing.

  2. Frame your 'theory' in ambiguous enough language that you can always explain away potentially disconfirming research findings.

  3. Create the impression that your research hypothesis follows directly from from your theory. Make abundant use of such words as 'thus', 'hence' and 'therefore'.

  4. Selectively review research literature in support of your theory and research hypotheses. If you can find only one source that agrees with you, say 'at least one expert agrees'.

  5. Stretch out the reporting of your research findings. With some skilful writing, one piece of research can be made into two or three research articles.

As in the nature of such lists, it sails close to the bone and there are almost certainly a significant number of academics out there who make good use of these principles. But why? Why do academics work in ways that could bring them into disrepute?

A large portion of the blame must be laid at the doors of the institutions they inhabit. Success for academics is often enshrined in the 'publish or perish' mandate, where the extrinsic motivation of employment and advancement displaces the intrinsic motivation of contributing the the sum of human knowledge. Those who succeed are those who get papers into the refereed journals. More so perhaps even than those who produce sound research that advances human knowledge but takes longer to produce. More also than great lecturers who inspire generations of students.

The same can be said, of course, for people in commercial enterprise, where how they behave is driven more by the way they are rewarded and punished than by any noble or greater purpose.

But then again, for everyone who plays downwards there are people who seek higher things. The question for each of us, perhaps, is which will we choose?

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