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Strategizing to Strengthen Research Culture: Towards Developing World Class Higher Education. Andreas Bender, PhD [email protected] Department of Chemistry and Fellow of King’s College University of Cambridge. Propelling Academic Excellence through World Class Practices.

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strategizing to strengthen research culture towards developing world class higher education

Strategizing to Strengthen Research Culture: Towards Developing World Class Higher Education

Andreas Bender, PhD

[email protected]

Department of Chemistry and Fellow of King’s College

University of Cambridge

Propelling Academic Excellence through World Class Practices

facts beliefs and values i would like to share
Facts, beliefs and values I would like to share...
  • Disclaimer regarding this presentation
  • How Cambridge works
  • My personal opinion what is relevant as an academic and a graduate student
  • Performance assessments and trust
disclaimer regarding this presentation
Disclaimer regarding this presentation


The following will all be

  • It will often be required to adapt through the ‘cultural lens’ what I have to say, feel free to do that. Same for ‘science’ – adapt to your field.

- What I say is just a selection of topics I would like to share, a collection of ideas. Pick what you like!

Personal Opinion

regarding the contents
Regarding the contents
  • I will leave out all the usual discussions:
    • Where does the ‘Global Research University’ model fit?
    • Defining features of ‘excellent’ universities (talent, ample resources, good leadership/policies, etc.)
    • This presentation will give my personal impression instead, based on experience as a group leader
  • “The Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities, Jamil Salmi.
  • “Leadership for World-Class Universities: Challenges for Developing Countries”, Philip Altbach (Ed).
  • “Building World-Class Universities - Different Approaches to a Shared Goal” Qi Wang, Ying Cheng and Nian Cai Liu (Eds.).
my own career
My own career
  • 1997-2002 MSc in Chemistry (Berlin, Dublin, Frankfurt)
  • 2003-2005 PhD in Drug Design (Cambridge/UK)
  • 2006-2007 Postdoc with Novartis (Cambridge/MA)
  • 2008-2010 Assistant Professor in Leiden (Netherlands)
  • 2010 – today Group leader at the Chemistry Department of Cambridge University
  • 2007 – today Affiliated with Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology (IBAB), Bangalore
transcending culture lets you pick the best aspects for yourself
Transcending culture lets you pick the best aspects for yourself
  • Germany – Integration of research and teaching; teaches you systematic learning
  • UK – Excellent clusters (Oxford/Cambridge/ London); teaches you interdisciplinary thinking
  • US – Innovations; teaches you to come up with novelty
  • Netherlands – egalitarian; teaches you to think in balanced ways
  • India – High personal motivation; teaches you to focus on individual abilities
how cambridge works
How Cambridge Works
  • The University, the Departments, and the Colleges
  • Admissions
  • Research
  • Teaching and Teaching Load
  • Administration
  • Embedding
admissions selective it is work and worth it
Admissions: Selective – It is Work (and Worth It)!
  • Majority of students (ca. 80% are longlisted) gets interviewed (2x2)
  • Interviews based on potential
  • Extending known concepts
    • “If cleaning up your room means you decrease its entropy, then how is this possible to do?”
  • 10-40% admissions rate at King’s College Cambridge (mean ca. 20%), depending on subject)
  • Admissions based on overall student profile
  • No quota of any type
research individual freedom
Research: Individual Freedom
  • The individual scientist is the driving force – the department etc. mainly coordinate efforts
  • Aim is to attract excellent individual scientists
  • Hardly any monitoring afterwards; self-motivation is key!
  • No ‘Performance Audits’ of any kind (!)

-> Need to attract the right people in the first place! Motivation needs to be intrinsic, otherwise you will fail

teaching choice guidance
Teaching: Choice & Guidance
  • Broad ‘Tripos’, students can pick different courses (e.g. ‘Natural Sciences Tripos’)
  • Supervisions – close (weekly) contact, multiple layers of support (Senior Tutor etc.) to prevent students from failing
  • Course based on ‘too much information’, teaches students to prioritize. (Still few fail due to close contact.)
  • Not particularly modern courses and teaching styles – student selection and close support network are key
  • >>90% completion rate
teaching load 10 20 of working time
Teaching Load:~10-20%% of working time
  • 16 (+4) weeks of term time (teaching only in term)
  • In term
    • 6 hours of practicals / week
    • 4 hours of supervisions/week
  • Overall: 25% of work time, ca. 35% of the year, for teaching (~10% of FTE)
  • Administration differs, but generally <20% (except HoDs etc.)
  • Overall ca. 50% of time for research
administration guidance and assistance
Administration: Guidance and Assistance
  • Bottom-up university – Individuals drive the agenda. Gives you a lot of personal freedom!
  • Problems e.g. with larger grant applications (same conclusion as Rojas and Bernasconi, Leadership for World-Class Universities: Challenges for Developing Countries. Philip G. Altbach (Ed.). 2011. New York & London: Routledge)
  • The individual is able to excel (and fail)
cultural embedding
Cultural Embedding

“What an Oxford tutor does is to get a little group of students together and ‘puff smoke’ at them. Men who have been systematically smoked at for four years turn into ripe scholars. (The smoke kindles the torch in the heart of students.)”

“What Makes a Good University? Thoughts

and Suggestions”, Yang Fujia

  • In Cambridge you have a concentration of driven people with talent,resources, a suitable embedding (start-ups, venture capital, cluster formation, ...), the ‘spirit’, and generally a strong support network for students
  • You don’t have (or less so) the latest technologies in teaching; control/push from above (it is a ‘bottom up’ environment)
group leadership
Group Leadership
  • Live what you expect from your students (cannot be an expert in all, but be believable)
  • If you want your students to work hard, work hard yourself
  • It’s about belief into you as a leader!
  • Frequent, small meetings beneficial
  • (I have them once per week, for all 12-15 PhD students)
  • ‘Open door’ policy (with few ‘closed periods’)
  • Organize social events (e.g. ‘Intercultural Lunches’), good for ‘resonance’/rapport
recruitment and leadership styles
Recruitment and leadership styles
  • People, people, people!
  • No one can ‘supervise’ everyone and everything around you – but if you have good students they can (to some extent) ‘supervise themselves’!
  • Empowerment, trust, allowing mistakes...
  • The student has the right to lead his/her project
  • The student has the duty to lead his/her project
synergism in your group
Synergism in your group
  • From ca. 5 –> ca. 10 PhD students I could strongly feel synergies emerging
  • Makes entry for new students easier, the group more productive
  • Strongly recommended, also with other groups

Common Core

dividing the day mornings are golden
Dividing the day: Mornings are golden
  • Most people are more productive in the morning
  • Good idea to set the morning aside for work – e.g. check email once in the morning, then work from 9-12pm or 9-1pm
  • Schedule meetings in the afternoon, fits rhythm of most people better
be present
‘Be present’!
  • Life is incremental, and about ‘market share’!
  • The more present you are, the easier you find a job, get invited to conferences, are asked as an expert, ...
  • What you do tomorrow is based on what you do today

-> Believe into your goal! (Or otherwise change it.)

  • Hence: Think long term, it will pay off!

(Don’t reply to emails if you can better get work done in the same time... It’s the important things that matter in the end!)

A few words of what worked for me...

Supervising Research Students

  • In the following I am summarizing some of the key slides I present to newly starting PhD students in the group (currently 15 students)
  • Objective: they should grow scientifically, but also personally
what is a phd actually
What is a PhD actually?
  • Piece of your own work
  • German definition: “A PhD represents independent scientific work that leads to novel insights”
  • You are meant to grow scientifically and personally (!)
  • Give and take of student and supervisor – both parties contribute, both parties learn and advance!
  • Every student is different, supervisor should adapt to that – please help him/her by vocalizing your needs!
what is required for successful completion of a phd
What is required for successful completion of a PhD?
  • From the side of the student, probably intellectual ability, dedication, interest in the subject, ability to communicate and to learn
  • From the side of the supervisor, the ability to ‘read’ the student and his needs, making time available to supervise, to give intellectual input and moral/psychological support
  • ‘A supervisor is (also) responsible for the success of a PhD student – he/she is more experienced, with respect to intellect and life experience’
typical time course of a phd
Typical time course of a PhD
  • 1st year – Getting familiar with your subject, preliminary studies (review, in particular cases first publication); CPGS after ca. 10 months; not too many results can be expected
  • 2nd year – Productive phase, all tools in place, should result in proper results (write up results early and publish!)
  • 3rd year – Transfer of methods to other areas, ‘Quick wins’ (and papers), budget 3-6 months (part-time) for writing
contribution curve into your project take responsibility for yourself and your project
Contribution curve into your project – take responsibility for yourself and your project!

PhD Student input

You are the expert in your area (even worldwide)!


Supervisor’s input

A PhD prepares you to lead other people, personally and scientifically!


relationship to your supervisor and collaborators
Relationship to your supervisor and collaborators
  • ‘Your supervisor is your assistant’ (!)
  • Don't take what he/she says literally, check and revise (life is learning from one another!); criticise and question him/her as well (!)
  • Actively search for collaborators, data, publications, software, ... that support your project and discuss with your supervisor
  • Check relevance/applicability with supervisor – he/she can often put things into context
the hype cycle and disappointments
The Hype Cycle and Disappointments
  • Put yourself on the point in the hype cycle
  • Helps judge the current situation better
the knowledge curve in a phd
The knowledge curve in a PhD

Objective Knowledge


Subjective Knowledge

Discrepancy is mostly due to realizing the limitations of the methods used – which is a sign of intellectual maturity!


failures and long term planning
Failures and long-term planning
  • If you are emotionally attached to your project disappointments can and will be tough
  • Distance (in time and emotionally) allows you to see things clearer
  • You will realize that you learned something
  • Recommendation: Take half a day or an evening off now and then (e.g. every other month), and write a high-level summary of your project on paper (bullet points, timeline, very short). This helps you focus on essentials.
7 breaths of the samurai
7 Breaths of the Samurai
  • ‘In the words of the ancients, one should make his decisions within the space of seven breaths. If discrimination is long, it will spoil. When matters are done leisurely, seven out of ten will turn out badly. A warrior is a person who does things quickly.’ (Hagakure)
  • Meaning:
    • A) When you have your hypothesis it’s time to test it
    • B) Do important things first – and before that decide what’s important and what is not!
key principles
Key principles
  • Growing Up – taking responsibility
    • You are leading your life, you are leading your PhD project!
  • Don’t blame others – identify what can be done differently, learn from mistakes
  • Mistakes are part of life – everyone makes them, everyone needs them (feel free to even love them, just learn from mistakes)
dealing with problems
Dealing with problems
  • There are only three ways to deal with any problem in life
    • Escape (‘is it really necessary I do this?’)
    • Modify (‘ok, generally sound idea, but let’s do it a bit differently’)
    • Accept (‘embrace what you cannot change’)
  • The worst choice is to complain, but not change anything – simply don’t do it

Wise man said:

“Those who want look for ways;

Those who don’t want look for reasons”

focus on relevant output results papers not the thesis
Focus on relevant output: Results/papers, not (!) the thesis
  • There are ‘formal’ results (the ones you need to deliver, but they do not have impact in the long term) – e.g. your PhD thesis
  • There are ‘visible’ results – publications, presentations, etc.; those are the ones that give you the next (e.g. Postdoc) job
  • Achieve the formal goals, but don’t spend too much time on them
  • Work for the really relevant goals
grow yourself
Grow yourself!
  • Identify the areas you are strong in, and how you would like to develop
  • I was always afraid of presenting – my decision was to submit abstracts for as many oral presentations at conferences as I could
  • Was (very!) painful, for ca. 5 years, but over the years solved the problem
  • However: Everyone learns differently, take this into account!
performance assessment
Performance assessment
  • If done, best so in a balanced way
  • Should take different contributions (research, teaching, funding, administration, plus e.g. outreach, ...) into account
  • Promotions in Cambridge need to tick all the boxes to advance to the next level
  • But to be honest... Many contributions are not measurable, in practice most promotions are made on the (subjective) ‘overall impression’
if a university wants to follow the global research university model
If a university wants to follow the ‘Global Research University Model’...
  • Resources for this shift are crucial
  • The question is here how to create ‘space’ (mainly time) for research
  • UiTM historically closer to ‘New Universities’ / Teaching Universities in the UK
  • Compare to Cambridge workload - >50% time for research (mainly spent on organizing research in fact)
convergence of the messages
Convergence of the messages
  • When writing this talk, I realized that a coherent message emerges
  • Formalisms (benchmarking etc.) will never achieve true excellence – people do. Excellent people do excellent work.
  • It is important to get good people in place, to give them a good environment, and to trust them
the university as a self critical living being
The university as a ‘self-critical living being’
  • “Liz Reisberg discusses quality standards [...] in which she explains that these are often overemphasized and meaningless, functioning as a distraction from a true consideration of excellence. The competition for prestige can also have negative effects, as it favors superficial indicators of quality. For Reisberg, the best approach to quality enhancement is the existence of an institutional culture of self-criticism.”
  • Reisberg in Leadership for World-Class Universities: Challenges for Developing Countries. Philip G. Altbach (Ed.). 2011. New York & London: Routledge
all you need is trust
All you need is... Trust


“Management guru Peter Drucker said that incoming leaders should never say, “What can I do?” The question always has to be “what needs to be done.” If you follow that mantra “what needs to be done” instead of just unilaterally imposing your will, that means you are asking faculty, students, deans, department heads “‘ok, what are the issues here?” [...]

In addition, trust people. You know, Ralph Waldo Emerson always said that if you trust people they will trust you back 20 times over. Emerson well sums up my beliefs. Once trust is gone, the relationship is over.”

– Wefald, Journal of Management Inquiry 2012 21:

further reading
Further Reading
  • The Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities, Jamil Salmi, The World Bank, 2009.
  • Leadership for World-Class Universities: Challenges for Developing Countries, Philip Altbach (Ed), Chestnut Hill: Boston College, 2010.
  • Building World-Class Universities - Different Approaches to a Shared Goal, Qi Wang, Ying Cheng and Nian Cai Liu (Eds.), Sense Publishers 2012.