When nonsense becomes common sense

Two interesting things I have known recently: first a sport news on the headline today;

Rory McIlroy Signs Nike Deal ‘Worth £156m’

With two major golfing wins the Northern Ireland star is hot property – but his new wealth won’t change him, according to friends.

http://news.sky.com/story/1037714/rory-mcilroy-signs-nike-deal-worth-156m (reported on 14 January 2013)

and some text from an excellent book “My Life as a Quant” (by Emanuel Derman)

… when I arrived there, and very quickly realized that you got no respect in Area 90 unless you were a manager. In my previous life in physics, talent and skills were everything – you felt sorry for people who ceased creating in order to become administrators. But at the Labs [note: Bell Labs], talent seemed to be a commodity, fodder for managers to buy and redistribute. Supervisors were actually forbidden from doing “technical work” on the grounds that competing with their employees in this ways was demoralizing. Instead, managers became experts at intracorporate maneuvering.

So for the first piece of news, Rory repeatedly highlighted that he was not for money. Ok come on. Do I consider he is worth that? I am not sure. As my previous article (Another look at the PhD and scientist/academic as a career) discussed, compared to a Nobel-winning scientist, this does seems excessive; however compared to other professions such as the RBS CEO then this should be just ok. Maybe it’s just the reality of the academia.

But there is one thing that I do like about sports industry: talent and skills are everything you need. You played golf or tennis very well? Ok then good, continue to play, do use your talent and enhance your skills, and one day you will be rewarded well.

The same story can not be said in other places. Note the second texts I quoted above. Academia, like sports, used to be one of few places that you can make full use of your talent and skills. However, the glory days has been long in the past. As I discussed before (Another look at the PhD and scientist/academic as a career), the higher the ladder you climb, the less the front-line research you would be doing. You will eventually become a managers and/or sales person. You would spend more time on writing proposals, teaching, and managing students/postdocs. Now here is the interesting thing: during PhD and postdocs, you were trained to do research (mostly by yourself); but once you have some outputs (e.g. publications) and/or stayed long enough, you would be asked to be a ‘manager’ whose required skill set are quite irrelevant to what you had been doing before. Luckily they are not stupid (nor extraordinarily smart) so they can handle the change. But it seems a waste of talent. They do teaching as well, of course; however, with no formal/serious teaching qualifications, has been doing all research (again, most of time alone) prior becoming a ‘lecturer’, one has to wonder whether they can transfer to good teachers. Recently there has been some debate about young researcher going to be a high school teacher in China (http://blog.sciencenet.cn/home.php?mod=space&uid=660333&do=blog&id=634268). One thing the supervisor of this young man against him going to high school is that teachers there should have trainings in teaching, psychology in dealing with pupils etc. I understand that in order to teach in primary/high schools in the UK, you have to get a teaching qualification. However this is not the case in universities. You can do years of research and suddenly become a ‘lecturer’, with little or no teaching experience at all, let alone teaching qualifications. A visitor professor from the US once told me he has witnessed loads of ‘bad teachers’, but you know what, it doesn’t matter, as long as you get good publication record (ok, it’s not an excuse for falling asleep in university classrooms during lectures :)). It doesn’t take a PhD to realise that a person good at research is not necessarily good at teaching (think Sheldon Cooper!). (of course there are many other problems in teaching in academia. For one thing, how would you expect someone with no industry experience would help students find a job in industry?)

In any respect, a system fails if one cannot survive with or fully make use of their talent. If you do something really well in a given area, you are just a ‘technician’, doing some sort of ‘technical works’. Then you would want to be promoted (or they would promote you), becoming a ‘manager’ (or other types of staff) and pretty much abandon the ‘technical skills’ you learned or used before (of course you have to show that you can manage as well). Someone would say, ‘intracorporate maneuvering’ skill, or in a prettier word ‘management skill’, is also a sort of skill. True. But this skill does not have to be superior than other ‘technical’ skills. In fact, it is supposed to serve, rather than triumph over other skills that are usually essential in an organisation. Sadly, the reality is that people are just getting used to this trend, and they seem to think this is perfectly normal and just the way we should go on. This is when the nonsense becomes common sense.

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