How I Fail S01E26: Casper Albers (PhD’03, Statistics)

How I Fail - Casper Albers | veronikach.com

Casper Albers is chair of Applied Statistics and Data Visualisation at the University of Groningen. With a background and degree in mathematical statistics, he now works at the department of Psychology. You can find out more about him on his website, or by reading his tweets.

1. Hi Casper, thanks for joining How I Fail! Next to your official bio, could you say something more to introduce yourself?

Hi Veronika, thanks for having me on your series! My main line of research involves the analysis of so-called momentary assessment data and other types of longitudinal data in psychology. With the rise of new technologies, such data have become more abundant in psychological research, yet still too little is know about the best ways to build relevant statistical models. Furthermore, I’m interested in statistical communication: how can we make sure that the main message of an advanced statistical model is conveyed correctly to non-technical end-users of the model. Furthermore, I’m a member of the University Council and thus involved in university politics.

I’ve done my undergraduate and PhD in mathematical statistics in Groningen, then did my first postdoc in bioinformatics. After spending four years as postdoc at the Open University in England, I returned to Groningen in 2009 and haven’t left since.

2. You recently wrote a column about being rejected for a prestigious grant (thanks for the shout-out!). Can you share a bit more thoughts about this?

This was an application for the so-called NWO Open Competition scheme. The goal was to obtain money for a PhD-student and postdoc on a project combining my two lines of research: momentary assessment data and communication. It was a ‘pre-proposal’, with a 500 word limit for the main text, and about half the candidates would’ve been invited to write a full proposal. I was part of the other half.

Initially, I felt frustration, of course. One reviewer mentioned a paper (published a week before the deadline) I didn’t cite, and asked why I requested a specific international visit. I did read this paper (but could not cite it due to the limit to the number of allowed citations), and the visit would be to the authors of this paper. This reviewer clearly did not read the proposal clearly. Having put in hours of work myself, that feels very frustrating.

Furthermore, all five reviewers indicated that I needed to elaborate in more detail, which to me seems impossible given the limited word count. Initially, you feel frustrated and wrongly treated. Once the frustration wears off, you realise that the reviewers reviewed multiple proposals. If all five of them claim my proposal lacked detail, then I guess others did succeed in providing more detail and did rightfully ‘win’ at the expense of me. It’s still frustrating of course, but I’ve come to terms with it. I’m now looking for alternative funding possibilities for (part of) the proposal.

3. Are there any other failures you’d like to share that were particularly memorable?

I was a postdoc at the Open University between 2005 and 2009. Near the end of my contract, we applied for a grant with me as named postdoc at a British funder, under the category ‘mathematics for business’. After the deadline, we received a letter stating that out of all proposals in this category, we were ranked first. Shortly thereafter, a second letter followed: due to a large amount of proposals in the medical categories, none of the proposals in our category would be funded. Thus, we had the best proposal, yet still received nothing.

Having participated in a funding scheme that turned out to have no money is a nice story for birthday parties, so I did get something out of it…

4. Next to grant and job rejections, are there any other things that fall under the word failure for you?

I would be hesitant to even call grant and job rejections failures. The word failure indicates that I did something wrong. Grant schemes often have a success rate of about 15%. There’s nothing wrong with belonging to the 85% – especially if you also occasionally belong to the 15%. If the system is such that the system expects you to be part of the lucky 15% every time, then the system is broken. That was also my point in my column, and I think is also yours in this series: failing is normal.

A couple of years ago, after working for this university for nearly 15 years, I got a permanent contract. Last August, I was promoted to professor. So, I’m currently in the more senior part of my career where grants are very helpful, but not essential anymore. That helps tremendously in being able to distance myself from this. When I still had job insecurity, this was much harder, of course.

Instead of failures, I’d like to call grant and job rejections major disappointments. Many other things in academia are as well: paper rejections (especially when the review’s poor or when it involves the first paper of your PhD-student), not meeting deadlines, etcetera. These disappointments are on a continuous scale. I guess how disappointing something bad happening is mainly depends on how unexpected it is and how much of an impact it has on me.

5. Are there are any caveats with sharing failures online?

With just sharing news like “I got rejected for this grant”, I don’t see any caveats. On the contrary, I think it is very good if ECRs get informed that established names also had to struggle through many failures. Having your grant proposal rejected or not being offered a job does not make you unsuitable for academia. Although there’s clear survivor bias in stories like mine. It would be interesting to also hear from people who decided to leave academia because of (too many) grant/job rejections.

But, of course, you can share too much information online. I can totally understand if someone doesn’t want to share the details of her/his rejected proposal online, out of fear of someone scooping your ideas.

6. Now that the grant rejection gave you some time to read all the How I Fail interviews :), what are your favorite take-aways from the series?

I like what Daniel Lakens wrote about mastery and performance goals a lot. I also very much liked various persons, e.g. Melanie Stefan, talking about privilege. For a straight white, male senior-researcher it is easy for me not to realise how privileged I am. It is good to read about the additional struggles that people from other backgrounds have, also in academia. This has certainly shaped the way I look at many academic processes.

7. Who should I ask as the next person I am interviewing for How I Fail?

It would be really interesting to read interviews with people who decided to leave academia because of failures, so to read about the other side of the survivor bias coin. As these people left academia, they also kind of left my ‘bubble’, so I don’t have any names for you.

8. What should I ask the next person I am interviewing for How I Fail?

Whether they have any experiences from the past that they at the time considered a success but now, in hindsight, consider a failure. As an example: massaging your data such that p < .05, making the paper publishable in some ‘good’ journal used to be regarded as a success; and we now know that p-hacking is naughty.

9. Is there anything that you feel like you are currently failing at yourself?

Time management. I always plan to do more in a week than what I can do. This is not a one-off failure as a grant/job rejection, but a source of constant frustration.

10. What do you think your past-self of N-10, N-20, N-30 etc years would think of you now?

My N-30 me would observe that I earn my money by solving puzzles on a computer all day, and playing with LEGO in the evening. I think that would make my N-30 me quite happy. My N-15 me would also be quite happy: I wanted a job in academia, and I got a job in academia.

11. What is the best piece of advice you could give to these past selves?

I’d give my past self a copy of Grays Sports Almanac 1950-2000 and could then fund myself. This works, I’ve seen it in the movies.

More seriously: I’d advise myself to spend less energy jumping through the hoops the system had set up for me, and spend more energy on just doing what I like to do and what I’m good at (fortunately, these two correlate quite well for me). This is fine.

12. What do you think about the current way success/failure are influencing academic research in the Netherlands?

It’s not healthy. Apart from my four years in the UK, I’ve been working at this university since 1996, so that’s about eighteen years. And I’m still in a system where I have to prove myself: if I don’t obtain a grant within seven years (at that time I’ll be fifty and will have literally worked half my life for this university), the university could strip me of my professor title. This puts stress on employees where it is not necessary. If the university can’t decide whether I’m worthy of the title “prof. dr. Albers” after eighteen years, then that says more about the university than about me.

My university is not special in this regard, all Dutch universities are roughly the same in this. Especially when we know that so many things go wrong with grant funding, such as the Matthew effect which has recently been proven to be very prominent at NWO, this is not a very evidence-based/scientific way to run academia. (Note that the university obviously not only selects and promotes based on grant success, and also includes a lot of sensible measures).

13. Do you have any suggestions on how we could change this? What is a concrete step that somebody reading this post could take in this direction tomorrow?

Focus on quality rather than quantity. Success in the Netherlands is mainly measured based on how many papers you have, how many citations you have, your H-index, etc. You can have one excellent paper, or a paper with a lot of societal impact yet few citations. You can also salami slice a semi-decent study into a series of boring papers. If I had to pick which of these versions of you would get a promotion, I would definitely go for the first version.

Furthermore, we should step away from all kinds of quantitative ways of measuring quality and including these ways in assessments. Goodhart’s law – When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure – is over forty years old, but still spot on.

Criticising things is, of course, easy. I don’t have an easy solution either. Stepping away from emphasising the importance of all these quantitative, semi-objective measures and just using common sense should be a big step forward.

14. Is this something you discuss with the researchers that you mentor? Is there anything they can do too, to change things?

Yes, we discuss these things. With one of my PhD-students, for instance, we decided to combine two studies we did in one single, hopefully high impact, paper; rather than trying to get both studies published separately, which was the original idea.

But I think that early career researchers cannot do too much: they are at the bottom of the academic food chain, and for them it’s much harder to be heard, especially individually. When they join forces, such as in the Young Academy in the Netherlands, they do reach an audience.

But the main change should come from senior researchers, like me, who are in the position to demand change. With great power comes great responsibility.

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