Dealing with The Numbers Game

People who give you a university job after your PhD care a lot about numbers. To be precise: the number of papers you have published and the amount of money that you have obtained. According to many, this numbers game is unfair and is not the way that science should work. And I agree, it feels unfair – quality should matter most, not quantity. Many scientists feel this way, and for many years, many have been saying that it should change. But is has not. And by now, after completing my PhD, writing many grant applications and sitting in a job-application committee myself, I think I understand why it hasn’t changed. I want to share this understanding with you, and give you ideas on how to deal with the numbers game.

Why does the numbers game exist?

First of all, the numbers game is not a result of evil intentions. Your job-application committee or grant-judgement committee are not heartless number-lovers who do not care about quality. Quite the opposite, these committees consist of hard-working, very serious scientists, who want to use the most objective criteria to select the best candidates. However, these same scientists also have too little time to read your papers, or even your application letter, and thus to judge your true quality. Moreover, scientists often participate in such committees in their spare time, in their evenings, in their weekend and even in their holiday, as they are not allotted time for these endeavors within their regular duties. So, they try to be as efficient as possible. When it comes to judging job applications, it is very efficient to look at 1) how long the list of publications is, 2) whether the journal-names look like they have a high-impact score and 3) how much cash you have obtained. Numbers, numbers, numbers…

Secondly, larger systems keep the numbers game going. It is not only kept alive by the scientists who are directly involved in selecting young scientists. There are also visitation committees, people who come and visit the university and judge each department’s worth. What criteria do they use? You’ve probably guessed it – the number of published papers and the amount of cash obtained. And this judgement has real life consequences, jobs are at stake. When the time comes for cut-backs and re-organizations, the low-scoring departments are the first to take a hit, or to be kicked out entirely. Again, I believe that these are not heartless number-lovers at work, but a system in search for an honest, objective way, to divide scarce resources.

In addition, to me, it seems that scientist just have too many tasks, and need to get more time for research activities. This costs money, and getting more money for research is not easy. In fact, over the past years, Dutch universities have been completely cut-off from direct research-funding by the government, and only get paid for teaching. The money for research needs to come from external grants. People who give you these grants have their own ideas about how their money should be spent – this usually does not involve funding your regular research activities.

Bad consequences

So even though the numbers game is difficult to change because it is rooted in good intentions and larger systems that keep it going, we need to keep pushing for systemic solutions, because it has some bad consequences. High work pressure – something that scientists keep complaining about – is one consequence (also see here). Another one, even worse if you ask me, is that it challenges scientific quality and novelty. Quality and novelty take time. But spending much time on one thing is a big no-no in the numbers game – it gives you zero points for it. In fact, the game’s highest rewards go to writing many, fast-food type of papers, on hot items, generating easily-forgettable knowledge.

But is this what you became a scientist for? Why did you start? Did you want to make a change? Did you want to create novel, high quality knowledge? Then here’s a heads up – don’t become too fanatic in playing the numbers game. Such motives of high quality do not fit with well with generating large quantities. However, as I am sure everyone agrees, goals of quality and novelty are important to strive for. After all, we are not playing a game. We’re responsible for scientific progress, for the way that we understand reality. People will base their actions on the knowledge we generate. We must be thoughtful about what it is that we are doing, and we must actively focus on guarding quality and novelty. So, keep asking yourself: what am I actually doing, what do I really want to achieve, and are my actions in line with my core values and goals?

After all, we are not playing a game. We’re responsible for scientific progress, for the way that we understand reality.

In the meantime, the system as it is will not allow you to focus solely on quality and novelty. If you want to stay in academia, you do also need to have the numbers. Balancing the numbers while doing something truly meaningful can be challenging. I think there is no true and easy solution to navigate this tension, I haven’t found one at least, for me it’s an ongoing struggle. In my experience, one thing that helps in navigating this and dealing with the numbers game, is to learn to generate high quality in a short amount of time.

How to deal with the numbers game?

As a concrete advice to starting academics, this means that you must become very good at writing. Writing helps develop your reasoning. And of course, well-written pieces are the foundation of publications and grant applications – the stuff you will be judged for. So, start early on in your PhD with writing, and make sure you reserve plenty of time for it. Find good writers to collaborate with and learn from them. Prioritize writing and do it a lot. Other things always seem more important at any given moment: students who needed feedback yesterday, grading that has to be done by tonight, presentations you need to give tomorrow. And these things are important, but writing is more important. When you become really good at writing, you play the numbers game and create scientific quality and novelty. Thus, really good writing skills means you have a chance to have it all.

I will leave you with a few fast-food yet meaningful take-home messages.

  • The numbers game is not evil, but a consequence of hard-working people trying to do the right thing.
  • The numbers game is hard to change, it will probably not be stopped anytime soon.
  • You best learn how to play the number’s game, without losing your core values in the process.
  • My advice to deal with the numbers game, as an individual, is to prioritize writing, and become very good at it, so you can have both the numbers and the quality.

Or start a revolution, change the system, and somehow stop the numbers game. I don’t know how. But this seems more of a solution then just dealing with it.

I am interested in both fundamental and practically applicable questions on individual development. My interests are centered around understanding within-individual processes, particularly processes that occur in everyday life (i.e., a micro-level timescale), and the mechanisms that shape these processes (e.g., emotional experiences).

During my PhD-project my work was focused on fundamental identity processes, (career) decision making, and university drop-out. Currently, in my post-doc project, I am becoming increasingly interested in motivational processes and self-determination theory, and how we can use these to help understand and prevent early school leaving.

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One comment

  • Eric Rietzschel July 19, 2018  

    Interesting reflections!

    Personally, I have my doubts about ‘learning to play the numbers game, without losing your core values in the process’. Obviously there are some people who succeed in this, but for many more it seems an impossible challenge. Perhaps the best way to go about it is to simply do what you love doing the most, do as much of it as you can, and have faith that the numbers will take care of themselves in the end. I suppose this is what your advice comes down to, as well. But this can be difficult if the numbers themselves are made too salient.

    I’m also reminded of this fragment I came across in Chris Chamber’s ‘The Seven Deadly Sins of Psychology’: “There are reasons to be skeptical about reducing the quality of science to numbers. Goodhart’s law of economics warns us that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. This is because those of us who stand to win or lose immediately seek ways to game the system in order to achieve the target, sacrificing other important (and unmeasured) goals along the way, and thereby compromising the value of both the measure and our wider mission.”

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