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Monday "prayer" sessions

May 23, 2011

A few months ago I took up an offer for an Accounting Doctoral Scholarship with the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) over the next three years.  I have always had an interest in being a university lecturer but you can only get a contract for three years at a time if you have professional qualifications.  A PhD is your "union ticket" to a lifetime of teaching/lecturing.  Sounded like pretty good job security to me.

After 21 years in professional practice, as a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants and Taxation Institute, coupled with a number of national awards, it was fair to say that I thought I knew it all in accounting ... but did I really?  As the days got closer to starting my new career, the demons inside my head started to question my ability and whether I would be able to match it with all of these esteemed accounting professors. 

Those demons may always be there but one of the senior management of the school basically said that my hire was to "change the DNA" of the School.  Reading between the lines I took that to mean that I was not to try and transform myself into being a cardigan-wearing old professor but to add my many years of professional skills and experience to the academic environment.  It was ok to be different.  When I told a few peers about my decision to do a PhD, one of them told me an old saying "Those that can, do.  Whilst those that can't, teach."  Maybe my DNA can set about changing that saying.

Three months down the track and I have noticed many differences between the academic and professional worlds.  Some are quite intriguing and I will try and share these in coming months.  One such difference is evident in the weekly seminar held every Monday morning for the accounting staff.  For 90 minutes, we have our "prayer" session, as one professor suggests, where we listen to a presentation of a research paper that is being developed by one of the staff, but occasionally by a visiting professor on an overseas junket. 

Prayer session?  Anything but. And if you think that this is like your typical weekly meeting in the commercial world then think again.  Where you would expect to be normally bored to death by PowerPoint for 88 minutes before the obligatory Dorothy-dixer at the end, this is a no-holds barred, edge of your seats experience where professors challenge the credibility of each other right from the first minute, but do so with a smile of their faces.  Smiling assassins if you like.

The first few weekly seminars I was blown away with all of the statistics in the papers.  In fact I was intimidated by them.  After all it was 20 years since I was last introduced to mean, median, standard deviations, covariances and the like.  If only they told me back then that they would become useful one day.  Slowly but surely, I am starting to not only understand these statistics but being able to pick some of the holes in them.  And those holes are usually identified when I draw on my practical experiences.

The papers are usually very particular.  Imagine you are on a beach and you decide to focus all of your energies on one grain of sand.  Sometimes you forget about all of the other grains of sand on that beach and external factors such as the waves and weather conditions.

The presentations are also rarely the final, published product.  Although you don't see "draft" put all over them, these papers are usually just work-in-progress, or working papers as they call them.  As an "early career researcher" I would love to see a presentation on the final published piece, but it seems that most researchers have spent so much time on getting a paper published that they never want to see it again once it actually is.

Now would you show your intellectual property or trade secrets to your competitors?  Never in the real world, do you see your competitors present their unfinished (or in this case unpublished) work yet alone ask for feedback for improving it.  But this is exactly what happens.  However, present at your peril.  Whilst you may get some "feedback", also expect to get some backhanded compliments along the way.  Your reputation is fair game if you dare stand up the front.  I have already seen some Doctors and Professors have their work ripped to shreds, with some in the room having a smirk on their faces when it happens.  Some comments from the gallery would go along these lines:

"Did it not occur to you ..."
"Wouldn't you think ..."
"I would have thought that ..."
"You didn't step up to the plate here ..."

Rest assured that this is no place for the faint-hearted.  Whilst the proponents would argue that they provide "constructive criticism", in some cases it is "destructive criticism".  You can see these academics who have worked (and been molly-coddled) for years to get their doctorate, only to be brought down inside an hour and a half.  I would best describe this session akin to a half-time footy spray although there are two significant differences: (1) the footy coach generally picks his target to attack because some players go to jelly and (2) the half-time spray is usually expletive laden.  The professors tend to use big words that you don't understand in order to make you feel inadequate.

It is funny how petty how some of the digs are made, but they usually revolve around financial accounting researchers ganging up or bullying on the management accounting researchers.  And depending on what side of the fence that you sit, will almost certainly depend on the treatment that you can expect.  It reminded me of a visit to Belfast a few years ago with the Australian Masters AFL side.  People were classed as either Catholics or Protestants.  Even if you said that you were an Atheist, you were either a Catholic Atheist or a Protestant Atheist.  It is an important political move to play your cards close to your chest with this one, particularly when you are unaware of the persuasion of the one asking the question. 

It is also quite funny that whilst we have this belief that accountants must be good with numbers, it is actually the ones who are good writers that get most of the plaudits (and less of the criticism).  A poorly written/constructed paper is likely to be hammered despite having some amazing results in the numbers.  Again, I wish they told me twenty odd years ago that my writing, along with statistics, would be so important.

Professors build up their "capital" based on the number of "A-star" journals that they have published in.  Most of these journals are based in North America with a financial accounting bias.  Now some of them got lucky with average papers getting through by a poor reviewer but that doesn't matter at the end of the day.  It seems many a good paper has been banished to the "too hard basket".

Despite only having about 15 PowerPoint slides, rarely do we get to see all of them inside the 90 minutes.  Usually the bombardment of opinions start within the first five minutes before the presenter has even got warmed up.  Unfortunately these opinions are generally nothing more than chest-beating by some individuals who want to be heard by everyone else in the room and simply waste five minutes of everyone's lives that they will never get back.  To be honest, I wish they would just shut up and let us listen to the presentation and results and then save the bashing til the end.   Sometimes it would be better to tell the victim in private rather than berate him or her in front of the others. Three months ago I was fearful of asking a stupid question in these seminars, but I now realise that half of the questions by others are stupid ones too. 

If you were only given the transcript of the questions being asked, you could always tell a question from one of the professors as they generally seem to solve the world around the half-way mark of their question.  Why ask the question if you already know the answer?   It reminds me of my relatives in Galway (in Ireland) who always seem to answer a question with a question (eg "Where are you going today Paddy?" "Why?")

One Professor instilled into me the belief that there is no such thing as the perfect research paper.  My initial thought is "why not?"  It was a similar thought to when I was introduced to the concept of materiality in auditing 20 years ago and I was aghast that it was ok to be nearly right, if not 100% right.   But of course there will never be the perfect research paper because everyone will try and drop you down a peg or two. 

It seems part of their DNA.

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