Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Human assets

I have a lot a of friends who are academics, but I think that, on balance, most of my friends are not. I like this. It allows me to escape from the navel gazing that permeates many academic discussions. It allows me to put the problems of junior scientists in perspective, to learn that they are, in the words of Elrond to Gimli, "only part of the troubles of the world". This does not mean that I don't think that junior academics have problems, far from it. It merely reminds me that our problems are similar to those in other careers, and (more often than not) have similar root causes.
My brother recently got a new job. He works in strategic marketing, that is, the data driven part of marketing, not the shiny ads bit. He aggregates and crunches data concerning the products his company sells, and makes recommendation on where the company should be targeting its existing products, and where it should be focusing new product development.
For the past several years, he's worked for a major multinational whose entire product line exists in a mature market, that is a market where almost all possible consumers already buy either the company's product or a rival's similar one. In a mature market, growth is marginal, innovation is incremental, and strategy primarily trench warfare. My brother hated it. It played to none of his strengths, and the company had no interest in branching out into new markets. Thankfully, he recently switched to a company that is positioned in a non market leader position in a dynamic, changing market. A company that hired him precisely because he is excellent at 6,000 ft, broad picture of things strategy recommendations backed by a thorough understanding of the data.
A comment from my brother's exit interview with company number one struck me when talking about this. His soon to be ex-boss said to him "you've been under used and poorly used". To me, that seemed an explicit recognition that his talents were ill suited to the company yes, but also that the company had failed to find a way to make use of what it recognised as potential assets. What a waste. While we can probably justify this from an actuarial perspective, one cannot help but feel that, well, it is a sub-optimal way to deal with resources, and a pretty shitty way to deal with people.
This problem, "under used and poorly used" is surely one that affects academia. And there is no such thing as a mature market in academia. We should always be able to make use of the assets people bring to our labs. We can always develop our products into new markets. Heck, in the current funding environment, spinning out new products is all we do. What is more, academia, I think, has the potential to forge a different way of managing human assets because, historically, mentorship is built into the very structure of the profession. I know that it often, in this day and age, doesn't seem that way, and I know that many people fail to live up to that ideal.  But the American research university is based on the XIXth century German research university model. And mentorship, the nurturing and guiding of talented young scientists, was and remains a key ingredient in that vision.
That norm of mentoring is an important one, and one that can inject humanity and compassion in what can often be difficult times (especially for ECRs). But, I think that today, we need to reconsider what constitutes good mentoring. It is, I think, no longer merely about developing the student or postdoc as a scientist. It is about being honest with them about the job market and expectations. It is about guiding them, or pointing them towards others who may guide them, if they decide to transition out of academia. It is about using your status to advocate on their behalf. It is about supporting them when they advocate for themselves. If mentorship as a value in science as a social endeavor is to remain meaningful, then it requires that mentors engage at least somewhat with the reality of what their trainees face. A discussion about what mentorship means in this context is long overdue.
There has been much talk on the internet lately of the ubiquity and unavoidability of cost benefit analysis in life, particularly as they relate to the difficult choices of young scientists, and the older scientists who sometimes support them. My brother's situation at his old company may have been the result of such a cost benefit analysis: developing him as asset would have been too expensive to be worth it. In the midst of such discussions, it is worth remembering that cost benefit analysis is not the only decision making framework which exists. In fact, it has often been explicitly rejected in determining how we should interact with other people. Kant's categorical imperative (always treat another human as an end in itself, not as the means to an end), for example, argues that utilitarian analysis of human interactions is unethical. The 'golden rule' (treat others as you would they would treat you) similarly cannot be reduced to cost benefit analysis. In the tension between cost benefit analysis of human assets, and the necessary human interactions of work, lies the difficult path of academic mentorship.

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