Brains, Bureaucracy, and Bullshit!
As I go along this PhD process, not only am I learning about research, but I am also learning about the hidden minutiae of academia. I am seeing the shit that goes on, and using this information as a guide when I am finished with my PhD, is a helpful tool.
I have been paying attention to the shit they don’t tell you, until you sign that contract and show up. You are blind-sided when the mask that is shown to you during that courting period is ripped off. These notes are for my future self and to anyone who it might help. I have been thinking of what questions to ask, what do I do during the interview process to glean some insight on the brains, bureaucracy, and bullshit at an institution.
- STAFF TURN-OVER
Question 1a: What has the turn-over been over the past 2 years for administrative staff?
Question 1b: What has the turn-over been over the past 3-4 years for professors?
I know a department at an institution that lost 3 admin staff within the period of 2 months! In addition, they lost 2 of their PhDs, and 4 professors, all within one year! What is going on at that institution that people are leaving in droves?
Any institution that has a high turn-over of employees is a sign that something is not right and that you should probably leave or not accept their offer. So remember to ask those questions. You can also ask, “How many of your Faculty and staff have been here for 10 years or more?” This too gives an indication of the quality of the environment, longevity, etc. The length of time someone stays at a place of employment is always a good sign of loyalty and trust.
Until you are at an institution, or know someone there who can give you the truth about a place, much of it may not come up during the interview period. The many levels, and layers of bureaucracy can make, and/ or break you and your research. The many lines of signatures, passing the buck off, and forms you have to go through to get the slightest of anything done is also something to find out about.
2. CHAIN OF COMMAND
Let’s say you need the services of an external party, and that external party requires a signature on a form in order to proceed. How many levels in the chain of command do you need to go through in order to get a signature? Does everyone pass the buck, taking responsibility for nothing? Are people afraid to sign almost anything?
How would you find this bullshit out? Well, asking the following questions during your interview process might shed some light.
Question 2a: What’s the procedure for authorizing the ordering of materials, services, equipment, etc.? Please give me an example.
Question 2b: What’s the procedure for releasing funds for research? Please give me an example.
Question 2c: Who/ what are the steps and people needed to give the greenlight before a project begins or to request services for a research project?
If the person you ask does not know, that’s a warning sign. They should know the exact procedure. Frankly, if they don’t it might be a sign that they pass the buck off to each other, and/ or there is extremely poor communication in the department or school. They operate as silos.
You should be able to ask anyone in the department these questions, not just one or two people assigned as the “Heads.” If most people do not know the answers to these questions, it’s a sign that each person minds his/ her own business and there is a poor culture of communication and family in the department.
3. IRB PROCESS
IRB and Academia go hand in hand. Some do it better than others. In some institutions, IRB offices are staffed with people who are educated on a variety of research practices and procedures from different fields. In others, it’s staffed by those who know little to nothing about research and are there to make sure you “follow the rules.” Terrible IRB offices can hurt you and your work. If you are spending days filling out IRB forms, and having meeting after meeting with staff because they don’t understand what you are doing, and it’s exhausting you more than it should, that’s not a good thing. If when you ask for answers to questions or clarifications, the answers are just as vague or complicated as it was before, that’s not a good sign either.
I would say it’s a good thing during the interview process to find out about the particular procedures and times it takes for IRB approval for work coming out of the department. If people don’t know, it’s a sign that they are not really doing research. Again, everyone should know the answer to this question. It will also help to ask graduate students about this. Ask them how the IRB process was for them, how long it took for approval, whether they had support from faculty and the staff, etc. Students usually are more honest than staff.
Questions might go like this:
Question 3a: What about the IRB process is different at this school from others? How long does it usually take to complete the application and get it approved?
Question 3b: How often are there IRB workshops and training sessions for students and faculty in your department?
Question 3c: Who do you like to work with best in the IRB office? How have they given insight to what research is to you? What was one issue one of your students had during the process?
The answers to these questions inform you about if there is proper communication between faculty, students, admin, and more. Do they know what the fuck happens at their IRB offices, departments and to their students? If they don’t know, it’s a sign. And if it’s a convoluted process (unnecessarily convoluted) where people pass the buck, think about that seriously.
I hope these notes help someone and prevents them from making terrible life-changing mistakes, and I will be looking back on these reminders from time to time.