Leaving academia to teach others how to write? What caused such a change, and was it challenging? That is the story of Anton Froeyman, our guide through the academic writing training we took in Leuven. That we covered, among others, in the following interview.
Why did you decide to change your career?
Well, it’s pretty simple, really. I always had a list of pros and cons of an academic career in my head, and at a particular moment, the cons just outweighed the pros. For example: after my PhD, it became clear that I would have to face a lot of uncertainty and international mobility. This might be a pro if you’re just starting out, but it’s a con if you consider settling down and starting a family.
Also, I would have to strategically choose research topics rather than do what I thought was most interesting or relevant. I would have to keep working really long hours. I would depend on the judgment of committees and reviewers, who are not always well-placed to judge the quality of my work…
See yourself the wrap-up of the writing training with Anton!
So, the list of cons kept growing, and the list of pros kept shrinking, and after a while, it wasn’t worth it anymore.
What was the most challenging in such a shift?
The first was figuring out what you’re good at and want in a job. If you start your academic career straight after your master’s, you start thinking that that’s the only thing you’re suitable for, but that’s not necessarily true.
The second challenge is to find that job or create it yourself.
But, the most surprising challenge (the one I didn’t expect) was to accept a change in personal identity. Apparently, academia is more than just a job. If you stay there long enough, it becomes part of who you are and takes a while to wear off. Even after I decided to quit, I kept introducing myself to people as “I used to be an academic’, or “I am a former academic researcher”. It took about half a year to change that.
The intense pressure on publishing in academia also has its downside, e.g., the rise of predatory publishers and practices. There are voices that the current business-as-usual is no longer suitable. Do you see some substantial changes in the publish or perish structure?
Yes, there are some changes, e.g., more open access, for example, which is a good thing, but they are not substantial. The basic system, i.e. private companies who use free labour to get copyrighted material from academics, determine its quality, and then sell it back to them, is still there.
For me, the idea of academic publishing being done by non-academic private companies is an anachronism. There were perhaps good reasons for this situation a couple of decades ago when journals needed to be physically printed and disseminated. But those reasons have disappeared.
It would be much better and cheaper if academics could just drop their papers and have them reviewed on a community-based online platform. But sadly, the academic world is very conservative, and personally, I don’t see this changing anytime soon. But I hope I’m wrong!
Where should young scientists start looking for help in preparing articles?
Ideally, this would be your PhD-supervisor. Some supervisors are indeed quite good at this, but others are not. If you’re unlucky and have a bad supervisor, it’s best to try and find someone a bit more experienced (a post-doc or a junior professor, for example) to give you feedback.
Once you learn to be critical of yourself, you can be your best and most trusted reviewer.
Once you have a couple of years of experience, you can become more independent, and then you can turn to your peers in your field, for example, people working on the same topic, either in your own or in other universities.
But, first and foremost, the person you should rely on the most is yourself. Try to be critical and confident, and you’ll make significant progress. I had a lot of helpful feedback, but I think about 85% of that were things I secretly or implicitly already knew but was afraid to admit. Once you learn to be critical of yourself, you can be your best and most trusted reviewer.
The most crucial and last piece of advice to anyone just writing an article?
You’re not writing an article for yourself or your supervisor. You’re writing it for an audience. So, the key is to know who your audience is, what they know and don’t know, and what they expect to hear and/or would be interested in.
Then, adjust your paper accordingly. And keep it simple, honest, and straightforward. If you do that consistently, you’re on the right path to becoming an excellent academic writer.