How to win friends and influence people: Your marketing department

(No. 41 of an occasional series).

I’ve lost count of the number of irritations which prompted me to vent my spleen on the subject of university marketing in this week’s Times Higher Education. There was, of course, the tagline poem and the Russell Group rap to which I refer in the piece. There’s also the excruciating “Dean of Eureka Moments” nonsense, similarly highlighted in the article.

But, somewhat more seriously, there’s this:

And this:

[Update June 02 2018 — My apologies for the links to a long-defunct Twitter account.]

That’s right. Software used for undergraduate “recruitment” describes students as “business objects”.

In a particularly galling coincidence, on the day the THE article was published I received an e-mail referring to applicants to degree courses as being dealt with by the “undergraduate sales team”.

As I say in the tweet above, this language is insidious. How often do we find ourselves talking about the “student market”, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to couch higher education in terms of the marketplace and marketing?

The THE piece was, of course, very deliberately provocative. Too often, marketing departments and central management, with no knowledge or understanding of the culture or “unique selling point” (to use the somewhat venal vernacular) of a particular discipline, rule the roost in universities. I received a number of e-mails following the publication of the THE piece from colleagues in a variety of universities who share my deep frustration with this nonsensical state of affairs. As you might expect, those who contacted me weren’t based in marketing departments.

I was very pleased, however, to see that Alan Charlesworth, a Senior Lecturer in Marketing replied to my provocation at the THE website with an impassioned defence of marketing as a discipline and industry. Alan’s carefully-considered and eloquently expressed points deserve a detailed response. Here it is.

 I’ll start by being very clear here: it was an act of God when I got a Maths O level back in the early 70s. I can’t add two fractions together, let alone do anything remotely associated with quantum mechanics or its like. I do not even know what ‘nanoscale science’ is. And I doff my cap to those who have mastered that – or any – science. 

You might be surprised to hear this, Alan, but I am not for one second suggesting that mathematical ability (and/or an aptitude for physics) is somehow better than natural ability/aptitude in other disciplines. I’ve written about this at length previously. Many physicists/mathematicians can do complicated maths until the (spherical) cows come home, but ask some of those accomplished scientists and mathematicians to write 500 words which are even semi-engaging/interesting (let alone gripping) and it’s a different story altogether.

I show the final year physics undergraduates at Nottingham the following slide at the start of a module I teach (which kicks off this year at 9 am tomorrow morning). It pithily makes the point about the importance of engaging writing.


Note that the second quote is from Leon Lederman in The God Particle.

[Your profile] is widely available on the Internet via Google – I hope you can appreciate the irony of your ability in self-promotion.

My profile is indeed widely available on the internet. I’m a publicly-funded academic and therefore am obligated, as I see it, to make that information available to the public which funds my work! Moreover, and as you allude to elsewhere in your comments, I have little time for internet anonymity.

But the rather interesting aspect of the “self-promotion” to which you refer — the stock-in-trade of virtually all academics in this impact-driven world (!) — is that I have no formal training in marketing. (I failed that marketing module due to a distinct lack of interest and engagement — see this post). Far from being ironic, your comment about effective self-promotion would seem to bolster my point about the “Emperor’s New Clothes” aspects of much of marketing. No?

The rather superior tone of your ‘lecture’ seems to be that Applied Physics is in some way superior to the discipline of the bleedin’ obvious that is Marketing. And – by definition – those who practice or teach Applied Physics are superior beings to those who practice or teach Marketing.

The superior tone was quite deliberate — I was aiming to make the article as provocative as possible. (A rather superior tone is also not infrequently present in missives from marketing managers).  Do I think that physics (of any particular breed) is superior to marketing, however? Well, I don’t see physics as “superior” to any other discipline. (I’ll again refer you to this post). But when it comes to marketing, it is clear that there is a great deal of unnecessary obfuscation and hyperbole.

So … if marketing is easy. No, scratch that. If EFFECTIVE marketing is so easy, how come so many people cannot master it?

I fully agree that there we are swamped by awful marketing, particularly that generated by universities (as the THE article spells out). But that’s not because marketing is conceptually challenging. Good marketing requires creativity and imagination. It’s somewhat like song-writing. Good songs aren’t created by signing up to Song-Writing 101 and slavishly following a methodology. Good songs arise exactly when the four very simple principles I outlined in the THE article are followed:

“Be different. Be distinctive. Be daring. Oh, and be honest. Above all, be honest”

I too have little time for ‘creatives’ and cringe more than you ever could at examples of bad practice in marketing – including all of those W1A-esque phrases. 

I’m very pleased we agree on this!

 But … the next time you buy anything – and I mean anything – give some thought to your buying process [sorry, that phrase is a bit trite – but then aren’t all of ‘our’ phrases? I should have said ‘buyer behaviour’ because at least that’s from a science of sorts].

Why did you buy that particular product, from that particular seller, at that particular location, for that particular price? Think it is your superior mental ability that helps you make that decision? ‘Fraid not, it is good old marketing practiced by good marketers which dictates what product you will buy, where you will buy it, when you will buy it – oh, and how much you will pay for it.

Marketing is just one aspect. Reviews, word of mouth, previous good/bad experience with products from the same supplier, cost,and functionality are all others. My decision to buy a particular product doesn’t depend exclusively on the marketing. There are a wide variety of factors.

On the question of “buyer behaviour” as a science, let’s just say that I’m unconvinced. Psychology plays a major role in any type of social behaviour and the reproducibility of studies in that field, as shown recently, is hardly at the “gold standard” level.

Don’t believe me? You think it is you that makes those buying decisions? Think again. How do you find out the attributes of products to make your buying decision? Where do you go to buy it – or order it for home delivery? Presumably you will seek best value for money so you may look for the lowest price. All of that information will be delivered to you by marketers – not rocket scientists – in a space, time and manner that is attractive to you. 

No. Some of that information will be delivered to me by marketeers (see above). Moreover, you’re assuming that I uncritically accept what the marketeers have to say. This is precisely the point I was making in the THE article. Universities universally claim that they teach their students “critical thinking” skills. And then they use cliched marketing taglines, assuming that students can’t see through the guff. It’s hubristic in the extreme to think that it’s only marketing that’s responsible for the success of a product. (And university degrees are not products in the sense understood by marketing — this is at the core of the problem).

Still think it is so easy. OK – when you have decided to buy a certain product from a certain seller it means that seller’s marketing is better than that of their competitors. If it was so easy, all marketing would be equally good – or bad – wouldn’t it?

So the marketing is always more important than the quality of the product? Hmmm. There are certainly examples of where a poorer quality product has achieved market dominance via canny marketing. But that’s exactly the point – it’s been through canny and inventive marketing, not the cliched #CorporateUniBollox peddled by universities.

 At the same time as you look down on my discipline, you also quote two marketing academics who are critical of some practitioners of ‘their’ discipline. You see, we too recognise bad marketing. Maybe ‘good’ marketing is like football referees: you do not even notice the good ones, bad ones spoil the game.

I agree entirely. Some marketing out there is inventive and compelling. But an awful lot of it — I would claim the overriding majority, and particularly that related to universities — is sub-W1A  boilerplate.

 If your students go to work in the private sector their salary will depend – primarily – on how many customers buy the product on which they work. Hmmm, I wonder whether they would rather work for a business with good, bad or indifferent marketers? 

My point is not that there aren’t examples of good marketing. Of course there are. Many of us still have deeply irritating jingles from adverts back in the 70s burned into our neural pathways to this day. (“Do the shake’n’ vac and put the freshness back..“). My point, however, is that universities are not household cleaning products and there is a subtle and delicate balance between advertising/marketing a course and damaging the perception/prestige of the university.

 Marketers tend not to do ‘anonymous’, so: my name is Alan Charlesworth. Although in a previous life I did actually work for a living, I am now a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at a UK university – which I will not name as these views are mine and not necessarily those of my employers.

Kudos to you for commenting openly, unlike others in that thread (and in so many other threads). I have lots of issues with online anonymity and it’s always refreshing to exchange comments with someone who doesn’t hide behind a pseudonym.

If any VC was so daft as to give me the responsibility for the marketing of his/her university, you would actually like to work there.

You know what, Alan? I believe you. As I said above, there are good examples of marketing, and good examples of marketers, amidst the ocean of trite, tedious, cliched guff. The very fact that you wrote a lengthy response on university marketing without mentioning “excellence” once is a clear demonstration that you’re a cut above the rest!

Thanks again for commenting and all the very best,


We are anonymous. We are legion. We are (mostly) harmful.

This revelation appeared in my Twitter timeline earlier this week:

On the same day, Nature News published a fascinating interview with Brandon Stell, the founder of PubPeer who has revealed his identity to the world:

I’ve waxed lyrical about PubPeer a number of times before, going so far as to say that its post-publication peer review (PPPR) ethos has to be the future of scientific publishing. (I now also try to include mention of PubPeer in every conference presentation/seminar I give). I’ll be gutted if PPPR of the type pioneered by PubPeer does not become de rigueur for the next generation of scientists; our conventional peer review system is, from so many perspectives, archaic and outdated. I agree entirely with Stell’s comments in that interview for Nature News:

Post-publication peer review has the potential to completely change the way that science is conducted. I think PubPeer could help us to move towards an ideal scenario where we can immediately disseminate our findings and set up a different way of evaluating significant research than the current system.

But one major bone of contention that I’ve always had with PubPeer’s approach, and that has been the subject of a couple of amicable ‘tweet-spats’ with the @PubPeer Twitter feed, is the issue of anonymity. I was disappointed that not only was it just Stell who revealed his identity — his two PubPeer co-founders remain anonymous — but that there are plans (or at least aspirations) to “shore up”, as Stell puts it, the anonymity of PubPeer commenters.

I am not a fan of internet anonymity. At all. I understand entirely the arguments regularly made by PubPeer (and many others) in favour of anonymous commenting. In particular, I am intensely aware of the major power imbalance that exists between, for example, a 1st year PhD student commenting on a paper at PubPeer and the world-leading, award-winning, scientifically decorated and oh-so-prestigious scientist whose group carried out the work that is being critiqued/attacked. Similarly, and in common with Peter Coles, I personally know bloggers who write important, challenging, and influential posts while remaining anonymous.

I also fully realise that there are are extreme cases when it might not only be career-theatening, but life-threatening for a blogger to reveal their identity. However, those are exactly that: extreme cases. It’s statistically rather improbable that all of those pseudonymously venting their spleen under articles at, say, The Guardian, Telegraph, or, forgive me, Daily Mail website are writing in fear of their life. (Although, and as this wonderful Twitter account highlights so well, many Daily Mail readers certainly feel as if their entire culture, identity, and belief system are under constant attack from the ranked hordes of migrants/PC lefties/benefit claimants/gypsies/BBC executives [delete as appropriate] swamping the country).

I am firmly of the opinion that the advantages of anonymity are far outweighed by the difficulties associated with fostering an online culture where comments and critique — and, at worst, vicious abuse — are posted under cover of a pseudonym. For one thing, there’s the strong possibility of sockpuppets being exploited to distort debate. Julian Stirling, an alumnus of the Nanoscience Group here at Nottingham and now a research fellow at NIST, has described the irritations and frustrations of the sockpuppetry we’ve experienced as part of our critique of a series of papers spanning a decade’s worth of research. In the later stages of this tussle, the line separating sockpuppetry from outright identity theft was crossed. You might suggest, like PubPeer, that this type of behaviour is not the norm. Perhaps. But our experience shows just how bad it can get.

Even in the absence of sockpuppetry, I’ve got to come clean and admit that I’m really not entirely comfortable with communicating with someone online who is not willing to reveal their identity. I’ve been trying to get to grips with just what it is about anonymous/ pseudonymous comments that rankles with me so much, having been involved in quite a number of online ‘debates’ where the vast majority of those commenting have used pseudonyms. When challenged on the use of a pseudonym, and asked for some information about their background, the response is generally aggressively defensive. Their standard rebuttal is to ask why I should care about who they are because isn’t it the strength of the argument, not the identity of the person making the comments, that really matters?

In principle, yes. But the online world is often not very principled.

Ultimately, I think that my deep irritation with pseudonyms stems from two key factors. The first of these is the fundamental lack of fairness due to the ‘asymmetry’ in communication. Dorothy Bishop wrote a characteristically considered, thoughtful, and thought-provoking piece on this issue of communication asymmetry a number of years back (in the context of the debate regarding the burqa ban). The asymmetry that’s established via anonymous commenting means that those who are critiquing an author’s (or a group’s) work are free to comment with impunity; they can say whatever they like in the clear knowledge that there’s a negligible chance of their comments ever being traced back to them.

Stell and his PubPeer co-founders claim that this is actually a key advantage of anonymity — those who comment are not constrained by concerns that they’ll be identified. But if their arguments are sound, and expressed in a polite, if critical, manner, then why the heck should they be concerned?  After all, it’s long been the case that “old school” journals — the APS’ Physical Review family of titles being a notable example — publish critiques of papers that have previously appeared in their pages. Those formal critiques are published with the names of the authors listed for all the world, or at least the readership of the journal, to see.

We should aim to change the culture so that critiquing other scientists’ work is seen as part-and-parcel of the scientific process, i.e. something for which researchers, at any career level, should be proud to take credit. Instead, the ease of commenting online from behind cover of a pseudonym or avatar is encouraging a secretive, and, let’s be honest, a rather grubby, approach to scientific criticism. I was therefore particularly encouraged by this announcement from The Winnower yesterday. It’s a fantastic idea to publish reviews of papers from journal club discussions and it’ll help to move the critique of published science to a rather more open, and thus much healthier, place.

The second, although closely related, aspect of anonymity that winds me up is that it essentially (further) depersonalises online communication. This helps to normalise a culture in which those commenting don’t ever take responsibility for what they say, or, in the worst cases — if we consider online communication in a broader context than just the scientific community — fail to appreciate just how hurtful their abuse might be. I’ve often seen comments along the lines of “It’s all just pixels on a screen. They should toughen up”. These comments are invariably made by those hiding behind a pseudonym.

As ever, xkcd has the perfect riposte…

This splendid poem also makes the point rather well. “Cuts and bruises now have healed, it’s words that I remember.

Anonymity contributes to a basic lack of online respect and too often can represent a lack of intellectual courage. When we criticise, critique, lambaste, or vilify others online let’s have the courage of our convictions and put our name to our comments.

(Guest post) Doing a PhD: To move or not to move?

There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good old spat with my Head of School, Mike Merrifield. Our debates run the gamut of the academic’s traditional soap-box topics, but a theme to which we return regularly is the question of the importance – or not – of moving institution for early career researchers. I put forward my views on this in a blog post for physicsfocus last year. In this guest post (a first for “Symptoms…”), Mike explains why he and I disagree on the question of whether PhD students and postdocs should be assessed on the basis of their mobility.

Once again I find myself somewhat in disagreement with my friend and colleague Professor Moriarty.  This is never an entirely comfortable place to be, because he argues tenaciously, and, irritatingly, is right more often than not, but on this occasion I thought it was worth trying to spell out my reasoning with a little more nuance than is allowed by the 140 character sound bites of Twitter.

The catalyst for this disagreement was Philip’s response to an article in the THE entitled 10 steps to PhD failure.  His objection was to one of the pieces of advice given that

“Going somewhere else for your PhD shows that you have expanded your intellectual horizons. In contrast, others will view the fact that you did all your degrees at the same place as an indication that you lack scholarly breadth and independence, and that you were not wise or committed enough to follow this standard advice about studying elsewhere.”

which led to a lengthy Twitter discussion of whether mobility is an appropriate factor to consider as an indicator of drive and independence, where Philip’s position is “no,” and mine is “sometimes.”

First let me make it clear that I agree with Philip that the article is wrong if it implies that any such consideration is absolute.  Anyone contemplating where to do a PhD should weigh up a whole range of elements, which should include lifestyle as well as professional factors to establish where on the spectrum of work–life balance they want or need to position themselves.  While some people may relish the opportunities afforded by moving to a new locale and maybe even experiencing the culture of another country, others could be happily settled where they did their undergraduate degree, or have responsibilities that limit their ability to relocate, which may well then over-ride any other considerations.

But, pretty much by definition, work–life balance implies a compromise that does not optimise either side of the equation individually, and anyone considering where to do a PhD should at least think about the potential downsides to staying in the same institution:

  • You have already interacted with the academic staff at that institution quite closely, and heard at least some of what they have to teach you. Educationally, there are benefits to encountering other points of view and learning about topics where your current institution may have very little expertise.  You can certainly pick some of that up by going to summer schools, conferences, etc, but there is no substitute for being embedded in a different, challenging working environment to really get a new perspective on things.
  • What are the chances that you happen to have done your first degree at the best place in the World for whatever discipline has caught your interest? Surely, very few students apply to university on the basis of a specific sub-discipline; indeed, they may not have even reached the level to study and appreciate many of the more exciting possibilities until they are quite a long way into their undergraduate programmes.  It would therefore be an amazing coincidence if they happen to be at the institution where the most exciting and innovative work in that field is currently being undertaken.  If you are in the happy position of being willing and able to relocate, why wouldn’t you have the ambition to try to go to the best place in the World to pursue your interest?
  • If you decide to go beyond your PhD in an academic setting, you will have to convince someone to employ you in an appropriate postdoctoral post. Typically, you may be up against fifty-or-so other applicants, and the people responsible for selection will be considering a variety of factors to decide to whom to offer the job.  One of the things they are likely to be looking for is evidence of drive and independence.  It is unfortunately true that some students do drift into doing a PhD just by following the “path of least resistance” when they finished as undergraduates, as carrying on in the same place doing more-or-less the same thing is easier than making a more radical departure.  From a potential employer’s perspective, it can be difficult to separate such drifters from more dynamic motivated individuals who have consciously opted to stay at their original institution, whereas someone who has moved to a different strong institution is clearly not suffering from inertia and has more apparently made a pro-active career decision.  Thus, while absence of mobility does not constitute evidence of a lack of drive, it is an absence of evidence for such drive.
  • The same issue also arises a little later in an academic career, when a postdoctoral researcher will likely be applying for individual fellowships or faculty positions against even longer odds. At this point, the assessor is looking for evidence of the applicant’s originality.  I know from experience serving on fellowship and appointment panels that it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle the applicant’s intellectual contribution to the work from that of their collaborators.  One indicator is the level of variety in authorship of papers published – if an individual has never published a paper that doesn’t have their old PhD supervisor as an author, it can be very difficult for the assessor to determine whether all the ideas presented originated with that supervisor, too.  A wider variety of collaborations, on the other hand, suggests a much more outgoing approach to developing research ideas, not to mention the sought-after intellectual curiosity that draws one to new and different problems.  Such a breadth of authorship and interests is more readily established if one has worked in more than one research group.

Bear in mind that for all these considerations there will always be exceptions.  All that I really want to put across is that it is more straightforward to demonstrate the intellectual curiosity that drives the best researchers if you are able and willing to be mobile, and that if you are not then it is important to take extra steps to establish these traits in other visible ways.

Finally, I should reiterate that this piece was really only intended to lay out the implications of mobility (or immobility) for one side of work–life balance, and that the appropriate location for the fulcrum of that balance is a matter for all individuals to decide for themselves.