Saturday, 6 September 2014

What Grinds my Gears

A long time ago my son introduced me to the TV cartoon series 'Family Guy'. He's introduced me to some great programmes in the past, and no doubt will do so again, but this particular recommendation has never taken root. Having said that, there's one line from it which has at least provided the title of this post.* Don't concern yourself: I'm not about to launch into a tirade of moaning and groaning about 'the state of the world', just a couple of things that act as the sort of mildly amusing irritant within my professional life as a (now semi-retired) academic. Indeed, if once I allowed a full and unexpurgated account of all the things that irritate me in one way or another, mild and not-so-mild, to begin to flow then I dare say I'd be here a very long time and nobody would persist to the end. In fact, any such tirade is more likely to turn the blog post, in the minds of its readers, into an annoyance in its own right. So, best not to start eh? Whilst the label 'angry young men' held some caché once upon a time, I suspect few people warm to a ‘grumpy old man’ …

The examples of 'gear-grinding' that spring to mind which have served to inspire this short post relate to an infrequent, but usually interesting - even pleasant, part of my job: acting as the external examiner for a PhD research thesis. Allow me to explain what I'm talking about before we get to the heart of the post. The systems set up to promote and maintain standards with regard to allowing someone to put 'Dr' in front of their name on the basis of a significant body of original research vary around the world. (We're not concerned with medical doctors here, who gain their professional titles from an extended undergraduate degree course and practice.) They have in common the need to establish whether someone's work, as enshrined within their written thesis and/or other published material, clears an accepted threshold of quality. One other fairly common element is the person and role of the 'external examiner'; this is someone relatively senior/experienced from another university/institute who possesses relevant expertise and is therefore able to offer a reasonably authoritative evaluation of the PhD student's submission. (A somewhat comparable system exists in the UK with regard to undergraduate degrees: I've done this job in the past as well.) A typical scenario, once the external examiner has been invited, accepted, appointed and taken the time to read the submission carefully, is that a date is agreed on which the PhD candidate will be 'grilled' for two or three hours by the external and another examiner from the student's own university. 

Outside the UK one finds a few differences of detail. When I undertook this task in Sweden for instance, much of the 'quality control' work had already been accomplished prior to my arrival (- in part, as is more usual there, because much of the candidate's work had already been 'tested' within the peer review process required for publishing stand-alone pieces of research in appropriate international journals). The real novelty for me, as the external examiner, was that it was I who had to explain the research topic, and I had to do that to an audience of over 30 people - including friends and family of the candidate herself! Never mind, there was a great celebratory party afterwards ... and I was paid a small fee for my input. In fact, loosely speaking, it's these nominal fees that underpin the post. The problem, such as it is, comes from the fact that all sorts of bureaucracy pops up once money is involved - even modest tokens of thanks like the fees paid to an external examiner which, if calculated as a payment for the actual work/time involved, would be a rather long way below 'minimum wage' rates. In the Swedish case I needed to have a social security number. I'm not Swedish, so I don't have one. The solution? I had one invented for me by my hosts, based on my date of birth as I recall. That, one might say, was actually a moderately sane response to a bureaucratic formality. Other cases are arguably less so.

Take, for instance, my examination of a PhD thesis from a well-respected Australian university.
Sadly, they only wanted me to provide a detailed written appraisal of the work and send it to them. So, no trip to Australia for me to do this face-to-face I'm afraid - but there was again the offer of a small 'thank-you' in recognition of the out-of-hours time I needed to invest in the task. The sticking point here wasn't the transfer of money as such - it all happened very efficiently - but the fact that this evidently made me, de facto, a member of their staff payroll. Everyone on the payroll was automatically enrolled in the pension scheme, called ‘UniSuper’ in this case. For several years afterwards I got annual statements - on several sheets of paper, sent from Australia - telling me how my pension contributions were shaping up: from memory, I think I might have been entitled to enough, at best, to buy a small cup of coffee once every few years. Eventually, in a document explaining to me the self-evident fact that my Australian 'pension' was decreasing by the year and essentially worthless, I was told that my account was being closed. (Note the address by the way: I'm absolutely certain I had not informed them that Canterbury was in the West Country, nice though I'm sure that would be.)

Is the UK immune? Sadly, no. Despite the fact that, in all cases, I've been asked to act as external examiner by fellow scientists who know me well - in some cases, we've known each other for decades - the now universal bureaucratic interpretation of the law requires that I prove who I am before the examination takes place. The upshot of this is that one now has to show up with a passport which the invariably embarrassed hosts must photocopy for their university's administrative files. Although I've now been through this many times in universities the length and breadth of the country I've still not come to terms with it: however irrational this may be, I nevertheless feel as though I am being declared 'guilty' until and unless I can demonstrate my 'innocence'. Oh well, c'est la vie I suppose. Just to finish off my tongue-in-cheek gear-grinding I'll share with you a letter from a university for which I acted as external examiner recently; this also amused me (but not much). It compounded the sadness of whole box-ticking theme by illustrating the blasé attitude towards the individual in the days of drop-down options menus. Thus, it seems that I not only had to prove that I wasn't an impostor and answer out all sorts of payroll-related questions, but even then run the risk of being regarded as merely one of perhaps several versions of me ...

Ho hum.

* I haven't watched the episode, as you might guess from my second sentence, but the phrase was quoted to me in conversation recently and I've found the clip on YouTube if you want to watch it; beware.