Collaboration of academic hierarchies

By Max Kretschmer, Julius Rathgens and Henrik von Wehrden

Academia is a deeply hierarchical system, which often includes intransparent power structures and an incredibly long hatch period from -say- bachelor student to professor. This is a world in need of change. While discussing the collaboration gap between bachelor students and higher academics (e.g. Post-Docs and Professors) we pondered about how these changes can be brought about. Within this article, we propose two simple metrics that should help everyone in academia in spite of their academic level to explore their capabilities. These two measurements – when combined- have the possibility to enable a more balanced and transparent world of academia, with clearer expectations for everyone. These two measures are (1) depth of work and (2) experience. Let us start with experience.
We propose that experience is a better measure of the capabilities of a person to contribute as compared to level of hierarchy (e.g. bachelor, master, PhD). In academia, hierarchy and experience are often correlated, yet many problems arise out of the fact that this is not always the case. Me -Henrik- frequently witnessed professors that equal their status with pronounced experience. I am impressed by the colleagues where this is the case, and I may say that at Leuphana university the match between hierarchy and experience is quite high. However, I can say for myself that I often initially fail to acknowledge that “lower level-persons” have more experience in particular areas than me. Learning this difference took me years, and helped me to empower people despite their formal level to teach higher ranks. Hence when discussing experience we need to decouple formal level from individual experience in specific fields or about certain problems. Especially when it comes to hard skills such as programming a bachelor may outcompete a professor, and that is because of the second point we want to raise: Depth of work.
While it is fair to say that through increased experience people tend to learn better how to focus on their work, a persistent work ethic can be a kickstart for an early career. The odds are however often against youth. Learning to concentrate on one task without major distractions can be a key trait in academia, and with more experience, many academics train this skill just as training a muscle. However, many young academics can be quite persistent, and within our team, the student assistants often stand out through their work ethic and investment into tackling a task.
However, in order to find the perfect ratio out of deep work and experience, a reflexive exchange and established communication protocols are essential. Expectation management is crucial when tackling large tasks, but when young academics exceed the expectations in their contribution, they may get onto the radar of someone higher in the hierarchy. In other words, diligence can be the key for gaining support from a teacher. To this end, a peer to peer environment may provide a jump board where through sufficient time to iterate and reflect, students may master their tasks that they present to those higher up in the hierarchy. Longer exchange will more often than not be on a peer level, which makes sense if such an exchange is rooted in diverse expertise. Today, a stronger emphasis is also on the self-development, where learning ways to increase the level of deep work is becoming a conscious part of the academic trajectory.
Taken together, the peer-to-peer collaboration throughout formal levels is essential to find the time to develop one’s own way in academia. The mentorship of a teacher can however be gained through deep work and expertise, hence the combination of the two may bridge academic hierarchies. This can enable that a mentor is ultimately learning something new, which any good teacher will greatly appreciate. While academia will for a long future still confuse hierarchy with competence, a trade-off between deep work and experience may be desirable for academia in general.
Our experiences of collaborative projects:
Henrik (professor): During my PhD I made my first review and looked at 8000 papers, which took me a while. When I became a professor some years later, I knew that this would from now on not be possible, and explored ways to pursue larger review projects as collaborative projects with students. This has taught me over the time not only how to tackle numerous reviews, but also to design dynamic learning settings. When at some point we included the student assistants into the weekly team meetings, a thriving atmosphere emerged. Not only got PhDs support, but I realized that students emerged as problem solvers for the whole team. I also experienced an integrational antidote that helped me to understand the perceptions of the students, and I am grateful for the patience and carefulness the team drives points across to me, and to each other. Getting hierarchy out of the way and relying on experience and commitment instead proved as the most vital step, as it not only increased productivity, but more importantly increased our learning curve.
Max (bachelors student): From a bachelor students’ perspective, peer to peer is very much about encouraging feedback on your work, as well as learning how more experienced colleges do certain things in a different and sometimes more suitable manner. It comes with challenging questions and an incentive to improve on the way you structure your days and weeks. You see how others focus and try to adopt. I am very grateful to be able to work in a team in which so little value is placed on hierarchies. What counts is your opinion and your willingness to work above average. If you are willing to learn and show commitment, you will not be a burden to your team. You learn to use your strengths for the team but you also recognize the limits of your competences and work on them. Being a student assistant since the first semester has not only brought me closer to scientific work, it has also put me in touch with people who have a similar perspective on how to solve certain problems. For me, that is pure motivation.
Julius (phd-student): My first experience of collaboration with actors from different hierarchical levels of academia was a collaborative research project between Leuphana and the University of Lund. I was at that point a masters student and had no prior publication experience but was working together with phd-students, post-docs and professors. After an initial phase, where I felt intimidated to say something, the working environment helped me to realize that I was a valuable asset for the research group and my contributions were heard and appreciated. It enabled me to have a better understanding of research practices and to realize that professors and post-docs might have more experience but are also just human and approachable. In hindsight I am very grateful for this opportunity and would wish to have more settings where a productive and solution-oriented exchange would happen in academia. I think the collaboration between different levels of hierarchy in academia is not an act of altruism from higher positions towards students (e.g. letting students glimpse into the “real” world) but also a direct benefit for professors and post-docs, to gain new insights outside their “box” and help them to reflect about their perceptions and world-views. Having a truly collaborative working environment is thus of mutual interest.