Monday, July 27, 2020

‘Microcredentials’ are changing the pandemic job hunt

EDITOR'S NOTE: I believe some Australian universities are considering this pathway. Let's see what happens. 
Image: Reasons to be Cheerful

The menu at the diner where Amy Nelson likes to take a break from work is notable for its side dishes, including caramelized bananas, cinnamon apples and mushrooms and onions.
Each can feed an appetite in its own right. And together with an entrée, they add up to breakfast.
That’s much like the radically new way Nelson and a small number of other pioneering students have been experiencing college.
First they get a credential in a skill they need, then another and another. Each of these can quickly pay off on its own by helping to get a job, raise or promotion. And they can add up over time to a bachelor’s degree.
“Even if I chose not to finish, I would still have these pieces and I’d say, ‘Look what I’ve done,’ as opposed to, ‘I have two years of college’” but nothing to show for it, said Nelson, who works as an information technology consultant and hopes to move into an administrative role.
The concept, known variously as “stackable credentials” and “microcredentials,” she said, “almost seemed too good to be true.”
That’s one of the reasons it’s been painfully slow to take off: Consumers have trouble understanding it. Even after she began the program, Nelson didn’t entirely get it. Then she started earning high-demand industry certifications, in rapid fire, in subjects such as technical support, cloud technology and data analysis on her way to her bachelor’s degree in data management. 
“I don’t think it really dropped on me until I sat down to update my resume,” she said. That’s when Nelson realized that each of those certifications had already increased her value on the job market.
Now the toll being taken on the economy by the coronavirus pandemic is giving microcredentials a huge burst of momentum. A lot of people will need more education to get back into the workforce, and they’ll need to get it quickly, at the lowest possible cost and in subjects directly relevant to available jobs.
The number of people in the same stackable information technology bachelor’s program as Nelson, offered by Western Governors University, has more than doubled since the start of the pandemic, from 4,410 in March to 10,711 in May, the online nonprofit says. The number taking microcredential programs from edX, the online course provider created by MIT and Harvard and the other major provider of this educational model, rose to 65,000 by the end of April, increasing 14-fold since early March alone. 
“People are looking for shorter forms of learning during this time. They don’t know whether they have two months, three months. They’ve lost their jobs,” said Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, which had the fortuitous timing of launching a new stackable bachelor’s degree in computer science in January and three more in May — in writing, marketing and data science — and trademarked the term “MicroBachelors” to describe them.
“For them the ability to earn a microcredential within a few months and improve their potential to get hired as we come out of Covid becomes much more important,” Agarwal said.
Surveys bear this out. A third of people who have lost their jobs in the pandemic, or worry that they will, say they will need more education to get new ones, the nonprofit Strada Education Network found.
They don’t have time to waste. Among lower-income adults, who have already been disproportionately affected, one in four say they have only enough savings to cover their expenses for three months if they’re laid off or get sick, the Pew Research Center reports.
“They don’t have two to three years of runway to put a pause on their life,” said Scott Pulsipher, president of nonprofit, online Western Governors University, or WGU, which has rolled out microcredential programs in states including Nevada that supply certificates and certifications on the way to degrees in information technology and health care.
“The affordability question is factoring in, too,” said Pulsipher; the cost per credit of WGU’s IT microcredential program comes to about $150 per credit and edX charges $166 per credit for its MicroBachelors degrees, compared to the average $594 it costs to earn a credit at a conventional in-person university.
“No one planned for or designed for a pandemic but it starts to heighten the differentiated value that comes from things like microcredentials,” Pulsipher said.
With microcredentials, students first get a credential in a skill they need, then another and another. Each of these can quickly pay off on its own by helping to get a job, raise or promotion. And they can add up over time to a bachelor’s degree. Credit: Nance Coleman / Flickr
Agarwal reports edX signed up as many learners in April as it did in all of last year — it now has 30 million  — and a survey of new students found that 11 percent were already unemployed or furloughed and trying to learn skills that would help them get new jobs; edX has announced that it will offer a 30 percent discount on MicroBachelors programs to students who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic.
Even before the coronavirus hit, several providers were making a push for microcredentials. WGU and edX teamed up to create the program in which Nelson is enrolled. BYU Pathway Worldwide, an online spinoff of Brigham Young University-Idaho, has created stackable bachelor’s degrees in all of the subjects it offers. It calls them “Certificate First.”
That’s because students in these programs, and the others like it, first get certificates or certifications — short-term or industry-recognized qualifications — on their way to earning associate or bachelor’s degrees toward which the credits also count.
It’s an approach whose advocates say can help not only people who need credentials quickly to reenter the workforce, but solve a lot of problems that have been dragging down the success rates of college students seeking bachelor’s degrees.
“If you were designing [college] from scratch,” said BYU-Pathway Worldwide President Clark Gilbert, “this is how you’d do it.”
More than a quarter of students in conventional college programs quit after their first year, when a degree still seems intimidatingly far off. For many, it is; more than 40 percent of bachelor’s degree candidates still won’t be finished after even six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which tracks this.
“And you wonder why we’re losing those populations in droves,” said Gilbert.
Earning credentials on the way provides a series of rewards that may make students more likely to persist. Even if they don’t, they’ll have something to fall back on that can help them get, or advance in, a job. Under the existing system, the Clearinghouse reports, 36 million have dropped out with no degrees or certificates to show for their time in college — but often student loan debt to repay.
Agarwal likens getting a bachelor’s degree in this new way to climbing Mount Everest by first hiking to the base camp at about 17,000 feet and getting acclimated to the altitude before attempting to achieve the summit.
Earning that first certificate, Agarwal said, is like reaching the base camp; stacking them into a bachelor’s degree, like getting to the top.
Early returns suggest receiving those rewards along the way is helping the so far limited number of people who have already tried microcredential programs — at edX, for example, they comprise about a tenth of all enrollment — climb more quickly.
Nearly 70 percent of students racking up industry certifications on their way through the edX/Western Governors stackable IT programs finish their bachelor’s degrees not in four or six years, but in two, the university says. That’s in part because they also get 27 credits, on average, for earlier education or life experience, another new way of speeding students through their higher educations that is available from a growing number of colleges and universities.
At BYU-Pathway Worldwide, officials there report, the proportion of students who drop out between their first and second year has fallen more than 20 percentage points, from 35 percent to 14 percent, since the start of the Certificate First program.
“That early milestone — the early win — is so motivating,” Gilbert said. “Now they understand how education works. And if we lose someone, instead of being a dropout, they’ll have a certificate. Is it as good as having a bachelor’s degree? No, it’s not. But is it better than being a dropout? Yes, it is.”
That’s what student Brian Salazar experienced. “It’s very encouraging every time you pass one of the certification tests,” said Salazar, who has already earned certifications in Amazon AWS system operations administration, IT service management, Linux and several other industry cloud and network subjects.
An IT tech in Carson City, Nevada, Salazar had already gone to community college, but “I didn’t really have many job offers after getting my associate degree.” Once he started earning all of those certifications, “I started getting lots of offers,” even without the bachelor’s degree he expects to finish this year.
Certifications and certificates can also show prospective employers precisely which practical skills students have learned, which is increasingly important at a time when only 11 percent of business leaders in a Gallup poll strongly agreed that college graduates had the skills their businesses require. Two-thirds of Americans in a Pew Research Center survey said that students aren’t getting the skills they need for the workplace. Students don’t feel ready either: Only 41 percent say they consider themselves very or extremely prepared for their careers, a McGraw-Hill survey found.
It’s no coincidence that the institutions furthest along with stackable credentials are nonconventional ones. Some traditional universities say they want to add them, too, but longstanding practices are hard to alter.
“Education hasn’t changed in hundreds of years, and whenever someone comes and says, ‘Hey, look, this is something cool,’ they don’t understand it, or they look with suspicion on it,” said Agarwal.
Some other universities are trying to embrace this change. Many have programs that already help students earn industry certifications in fields including accounting and manufacturing. The University System of Georgia in January launched what it calls a “nexus degree” — certifications that add up to associate degrees that can then add up to bachelor’s degrees. The financial and enrollment challenges they now face also are pushing colleges and universities to seek new sources of revenue.
Conventional institutions that are working to come up with stackable credentials, however, have been slowed down by accreditation requirements, occasional faculty resistance, the need for certification bodies and academic departments to collaborate and the difficulty of explaining to consumers how the process works.
There’s growing pressure on all colleges and universities to speed up the process of embedding certifications and certificates into bachelor’s degrees. That’s because, even before the coronavirus created new problems for them, traditional higher education institutions already appeared to be losing business to those quicker, cheaper credentials.
Nearly one in 10 undergraduates today is working solely toward a certificate, and more are pursuing certificates or associate degrees than are studying toward bachelor’s degrees, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce reports. This is cutting into a market for bachelor’s degrees that’s already suffering from a decline in the number of 18- to 24-year-olds.
Shifting so much attention to vocational skills concerns some higher education experts.
Short-term certificates “can be a positive force in people’s lives,” said Chris Gallagher, vice chancellor for global learning opportunities at Northeastern University and author of College Made Whole: Integrated Learning for a Divided World. But suggesting it’s okay for learners to stop before they reach a bachelor’s degree, Gallagher said — just because they’ve already received some shorter-term credential — leaves them at a comparative disadvantage.
That’s because, while their income potential may be higher than if they quit with nothing, certificate holders who stop short of a bachelor’s degree may miss out on substantially greater earnings; a typical graduate with a bachelor’s degree will earn $1.19 million over his or her lifetime, compared to $855,000 for someone with an associate degree and $580,000 for a high school graduate, the economic think tank The Hamilton Project calculates.
By comparison, workers who finish a certificate make up to a comparatively modest $2,960 a year more, on average, than those with a high school diploma, according to the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University (the Hechinger Report, which produced this story, is an independent unit of Teachers College).
Lifetime earnings estimates for certificate holders comparable to those for bachelor’s degree recipients are not available. Some research, including from the public policy think tank Third Way, has found much less financial benefit from them. The value of some certificates also fades over time as job demands change. Back at her breakfast in Henderson, Amy Nelson said friends have begun to ask her about the stackable credentials model. Their interest was piqued when she posted on Facebook how many certifications she’d already earned on the way to her degree.
“I had only been doing this for one year and I had all this stuff. It just blew my mind, so I wanted to share that,” she said. “To be the girl who was maybe not going to finish high school and now to have all these degrees, it’s sort of amazing.”

Saturday, July 25, 2020

The PhD - Sharing research data: not just a funder requirement

Sharing research data is more than just a funder requirement. There are various other benefits – both to us as consumers of research and to us as producers of research – that come with making more data open access. This post goes over the five biggest reasons for making research data open access.
“The coolest thing to do with your data [might] be thought of by someone else.”
 – Rufus Pollock, Cambridge University and Open Knowledge Foundation
Research data is something that most of us will produce or use over the course of our PhD. After all, when research data is defined as “recorded factual material […] necessary to validate research findings”, or even more broadly as  “materials generated or collected during the course of conducting research”, it’s hard to avoid it! However, as the research project winds to a close it can be easy to forget about the nitty gritty pieces of information that got us there in favour of focusing on the bigger picture – the thesis, the presentations, the publications.
For some of us, the research data will come back into play because of open access requirements. Many funders, such as the UK Research and Innovation Councils (the UKRI includes the EPSRC, BBSRC and AHRC, to name a few) now stipulate that research data from a funded project has to be made open access as a requirement of the funding. But talking about reasons for looking after and sharing research data solely in terms of funder requirements makes it seem like just another item on the never-ending PGR checklist. There are many other reasons for making data open access!
1 – Impact
Data citation has come a long way in the last ten years, and it provides another channel for people to use and reference your work. This includes those who might not have much to add to the published article the dataset links to. The breakthrough with your data might not even come from within your discipline!
2 – Collaboration
In some ways this leads on from the point about impact. Making data open access means more opportunities for people to come across your work and raises the possibility of new collaborations. Another researcher might be able to combine and compare your data with their own in a way that leads to new information, or results in a new research project.
3 – Integrity
If others can see your research data, they have a much better idea of how you got to your results. More importantly, they can attempt replicate your methods without having to go through the potentially lengthy process of re-collecting data. In that way, they can easily validate, challenge, or build directly on your results to make new discoveries.
4 – Innovation
Research is never stagnant. In the future your data might be reinterpreted or reinvented, used to support or contradict new theories and discoveries. The beauty of your research data is that – if it is properly kept and catalogued – it might get a new lease on life years after you publish your article, make your presentation, or finish your thesis. Technologies for combining, analysing and visualising data to create new information are developing all the time, and most of them depend on that data being open access.
Of course, from the researcher perspective there are few things more exciting than discovering data that might support your argument, regardless of when that data was first published!
5 – Public Service
The sharp-eyed among you might notice that this ties back to the funding requirements I mentioned earlier. After all, the sentiment underpinning the requirement to make your funded research data open access is precisely the fact that because the public have paid for it in some way (e.g. through taxpayer contributions allocated to the UKRI) they should be entitled to be able to access it if they want to.
However, this point goes deeper than that. If you’ve had a stint outside of an academic institution, you’ll be familiar with how frustrating it can be trying to get access to academic research. Even from within there can often be barriers between us getting access to the research that would help our project. By making data – properly kept and catalogued – open access you are helping to break down those barriers. In this way we can all help our fellow researchers, academics and enthusiasts – both inside the Academy and out – get access to what they need.
A final point might be that even if you’re not creating data the above is still applicable! Even if you’re using someone else’s dataset it is useful to track, record, and publish any changes or annotations you make to help future researchers. There are a broad range of open access data repositories for almost every discipline and dataset, including:
After all, if the last few years have taught us anything it is that open data access is very much the future!
What is your experience of sharing research data? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.
Emily Bassett is a second year in a 2+2 research programme in the Philosophy Department who also has experience working for the Library Research Data services. Her research is focused on testimonial knowledge and artificial intelligence, and how we should approach information generated by different machines. When away from a computer screen (admittedly, not often), she can be found sleeping.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Universities are cutting hundreds of jobs – they, and the government, can do better

Monash University will reportedly cut 277 jobs by the end of the year, due to projecting a more than A$300 million financial shortfall caused by COVID-19. It comes after the vice chancellor of another Group of Eight university, UNSW, Ian Jacobs, announced on Wednesday the university would cut 493 jobs.
These announcements are the latest in a long line of cuts to university workers’ pay, conditions and job losses across the country in recent months. In May, Universities Australia projected 21,000 job losses in the next six months, with more to go after that. The group’s modelling shows Australia’s universities could lose $16 billion in revenue between now and 2023, largely due to the loss of international student enrolments.
University staff have borne the brunt of this funding crisis. The government has not increased funding for the higher education sector, and excluded public universities from the JobKeeper scheme.
University after university has sacked casual staff – which  make up up to 70% of teaching staff at some universities - and declined to extend the contracts of fixed-term staff. While the cuts at UNSW include full time staff, in April, around one-third of casuals at the university had reported having lost work.
La Trobe and RMIT university had let go of hundreds of casual “non-essential” staff in the same month.
Casual jobs lost run into the thousands nationwide, but the full extent of losses is unknown. Casual staff are flexible labour, so reliable statistics are not kept. An idea of the scale can be garnered by La Trobe vice chancellor John Dewar’s statement A$7 million had been saved at his institution by cutting casual jobs.

What about the union deal?

The context for industrial relations in universities is the National Tertiary Education Union’s (NTEU) National Jobs Protection Framework - an agreement negotiated between the NTEU national leadership and a representative group of four university vice chancellors in March this year.
The premise of the deal was ask some staff to take wage cuts and pay freezes in return for saving some jobs.
Category A universities could implement cuts of up to 10%. Category B universities - those most affected by revenue reduction - could cut some staff’s pay by up to 15%. Category C comprises the small number of universities hardly affected financially by COVID-19, who would not make changes. Clauses requiring consultation before major restructures in existing enterprise agreements would be severely weakened. Union officials estimated 90% of universities would fall into Category A or B.
This controversial plan sparked a civil war in the union, and was withdrawn on May 26, having been released less than two weeks earlier.
Staff meetings, including branch committees and members’ meetings, in around 15 universities voted against the concessions in the framework. In the end only four (Charles Sturt, Monash, UWA and La Trobe universities) - out of Australia’s 39 vice chancellors signed up to it.
Critics of this strategy argued offering reductions to hard-won pay and conditions showed weakness from the union and would only lead to further attacks on conditions by the universities. They said the wage cuts were unnecessary, and pointed to the vague nature of the job protections. Instead they advocated a political and industrial campaign by the union to defend members’ pay and conditions and demand the government fully fund the industry.
Since then, agreements based on, or similar to the union’s framework, have gone through on a number of campuses, supported by the NTEU leadership.
La Trobe University’s amended enterprise agreement allows for pay reductions of up 15%. This is $174 per fortnight for those on the median full-time wage of $65,000. Shortly after the all-staff vote and despite 239 voluntary redundancies, La Trobe announced it was looking at 215-415 forced redundancies later in the year.
This indicates there is no guarantee that voting to support cuts to wages and conditions will prevent job losses.

Staff don’t have to pay for crisis

At the University of Western Australia, a combination of compulsory taking of unpaid leave and pay cuts means staff will have almost 10% less in their pockets. Monash University, the Western Sydney University and the University of Tasmania have also seen union-management schemes which reduce staff pay. And, as we have seen, Monash will be slashing jobs anyway. Although vice chancellor Margaret Gardner says they have managed to save 190 of them.
Hundreds of job losses have also been announced at Central Queensland UniversitySouthern Cross University and  Deakin University. The picture is bleak. But it is by rejecting the notion only staff pay and conditions are the flexible factors in the equation - and being prepared to campaign against university administrations and governments on this basis - that the sector can be improved for staff, students and the public.
Universities have financial resources - property, bequests and philanthropic funds and access to lines of credit - they can access rather than forcing staff to sacrifice pay and conditions, or lose their jobs. The notion of public education as a public good must be re-asserted, especially in the face of the government’s unfavourable stance towards universities.
By staff rejecting concessions on pay and conditions, fighting for every job, and organising towards industrial action in next year’s bargaining round, they can start to put pressure on universities to treat them better, and the government to increase funding.
Kaye Broadbent was a casual academic at Central Queensland University until she lost her job in a recent round of cuts. She co-authored this article.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

The PhD: Postgraduate research in lockdown … my experience

I started my PhD three weeks before lockdown. I was fortunate to make the most of my time socialising and getting to know staff in my department. As I intended to work on site Monday to Friday, I have a desk allocated to me in the farmhouse (a building in Gibbet Hill Campus) and I made sure I had settled in seen as I would be spending A LOT of time here over the duration of my PhD. I introduced myself to everyone at the farmhouse and I was warmly welcomed. Being added to a group chat has been invaluable as there is always someone available for advice or ‘pick-me-ups’.
I am extremely fortunate to have incredible supervisors and when one was required to work full time on the front line, I had others swoop in to support me. It has been lovely to share ideas of the project and contribute new suggestions. Initially I had weekly meetings, but once I became engrossed in the work, the frequency varied depending on tasks I needed to complete. My supervisors are always available if I require any guidance, help or support. They have also taken a genuine interest in my wellbeing and want me to be open and honest if I am struggling as they know I am living alone. If they have not heard from me during a period when I have been completing tasks, they check in to see how things are going. It has been fun becoming accustomed to online meetings and great chance to try out all available options, especially as I may require these for conducting interviews.
I am also lucky to have Fran and Sean, our course administrators from WMS, keeping us informed of the current situation and also what is going on in WMS. They are always available to talk to, even if it is to see what they have been up to. As I am living on my own, I only really have my project to talk about, so I enjoy hearing what everyone else has been getting up to.
There have been a variety of events going on that you are able to participate in such as with the CTU meditation sessions, board games and quiz nights, a selection of fitness classes from Warwick Sport as well as online training courses and seminars.
You take ownership for your PhD by managing your own working hours, the order you complete tasks, when siesta time is etc. Obviously, this can vary as motivation and productivity can occasionally be low during lockdown. However, the freedom and independence to work when it is best for you, allows me to complete complex work earlier in the day, and saving admin for the afternoon when my energy starts to dip. You make a schedule to suit your life and your PhD. Apart from meetings, my time is my own and it is my responsibility to manage effectively.
Ultimately, the project is mine and I am the driving force behind it. There is some flexibility with the project plans, but if you can justify your decisions with sound reasoning and logic, then your supervisors will support you every step of the way. Although, be prepared for plans to change and not just because of a pandemic and having to adapt to a “new normal”!
There are numerous training courses available both internally and externally which my supervisors have encouraged me to undertake. There are also conferences to attend and present at, however, unfortunately covid-19 had other ideas, and these are on hold for now.
You become a valued member of the department and with peers. It is also invaluable to be able to share your despair over any problems, as no doubt you are not the first to experience them!
The best advice I have been given is write everything down! You might think at the time you’ll remember however, if you keep records throughout each stage of your project, this will make your life so much easier when you come to write them down rather than searching through sticky notes you have randomly left about the place.
This post was originally published on the Warwick Doctoral College website:
Charly Southern is a first year doctoral researcher with Division of Health Sciences at Warwick Medical School and Warwick Clinical Trials Unit. Her research focuses on cardiac arrest survivors and exploring health outcomes that really matter to survivors.

Monday, July 6, 2020

What academics misunderstand about ‘public writing’: popular writing should be as rigorous as scholarship — but much easier to read

by Irina Dumitrescu, The Chronicle of Hiogher Education:


Public writing can be a touchy subject. From one perspective, we are living in a golden age of public intellectualism. Today’s scholars have numerous ways to reach a broad audience — from online magazines hungry for fresh takes on the topics of the day to print magazines looking for authoritative essays. Writing coaches and programs such as the OpEd Project  offer training in how to pitch to general-interest publications, while grant agencies in Europe and North America increasingly require recipients to communicate with the public. To some scholars, public writing has even started to seem like yet another skill they are expected to master to stay competitive.
At the same time, academics often approach newspapers, magazines, and websites with assumptions drawn from the outlets we’re used to writing for: scholarly journals and, since the early 2000s, the blogs that flourish as a faster, more casual medium of scholarly exchange. Trying to write for the public can mean a series of unpleasant surprises about what happens to our work at every stage of editing and publication.

Even as readers, however, scholars tend to misunderstand how public writing — or as the public would call it, “writing” — works, what it’s for, and what makes it good. The result is both unnecessary frustration for academics making that first foray into newspapers and online outlets, and misplaced indignation among certain scholars who think their colleagues’ public essays should read just like scholarship.
In more than a decade of writing essays and reviews for the public, both in my academic wheelhouse and outside of it, I have gathered a number of lessons that I offer here to spare other freelance writers some pain and annoyance. My comments are specifically about the process of writing — sometimes with a contract, and preferably for pay — for editors at established print and online publications aimed at a general audience.
Control. As a scholar, you are used to having an enormous amount of say over your writing and how it is presented. It may not always feel that way, particularly when you are responding to Reader B and revising that article for the fifth time. Yet the final work represents your vision.
The moment you write for general-interest outlets, however, you are subject to their editorial vision. What that means in practical terms: Headlines, illustrations, and publication dates are decided for you. Sometimes the headline will misrepresent the article it accompanies, or exaggerate your message to attract clicks. Readers angered by the headline tend to direct their rage at you, the writer. In some cases, you will see the draft headline during the editing process, but it can still change after that point.

All of the above holds for art, too, which can range from subtly inaccurate to deeply offensive. The worst headlines usually appear online, but the good news is that you can sometimes persuade the editors at online outlets to change a particularly egregious headline.
Much the same goes for the publication date. Unless a piece is pegged to a quickly developing news event, it’s likely to go into a publication queue and appear anywhere from weeks to months later. That can be challenging for writers impatient to see their work appear. Even when an outlet gives you a publication date, it can be delayed without notice, either due to more pressing pieces or because the editors saved it for use with other articles on the same theme. In one case, I had a book review appear online as announced, but in print a month later.
Meanwhile, readers used to the fast publishing potential of  Medium or personal blogs might wrongly assume that a newly published essay reflects your current thinking, when, in fact, it may only reflect how you viewed the matter six months ago. Just as work in scholarly journals suffers from a time lag, so does much popular writing.
Even once your essay has been published, you may be surprised to find it syndicated to other outlets or translated into foreign languages — all without your knowledge or permission. In some cases you will receive a permission request and a fee for the reprint, but in others you will not even be informed.
Before you allow your work to be published by a particular venue, ask your editor to spell out the copyright arrangement (since it’s not always clear in the outlet’s “terms and conditions”). If the terms don’t include nonexclusive reprint rights, you can sometimes negotiate for that. Check the publication to make sure it fits your ethics, but know that the moment you agree to sell the rights, you have limited say over how your work will be presented.
Editing. Editors for general-interest publications usually like to play an active role in shaping articles, to an extent that can be bracing for scholars used to solitary writing. With a few exceptions, such as op-eds and literary essays, you will usually land assignments with a pitch outlining the story you plan to tell and how you will go about it. Most editors prefer a pitch to a draft, as it allows them input at an early stage of the work.
Once a draft is done, the fun really begins. Some editors make only general comments or tiny changes, while others revise the text intensively. We academics tend to be precious about our prose. It can be hard to receive a draft in which the editor has mercilessly slashed our darling paragraphs, rewritten our brilliant sentences, and inserted her own writing.
Viewing writing as a collaborative endeavor has been one of the most difficult lessons I have had to learn as a crossover writer. Once I learned not to be so prickly about what happened to my prose, however, I began to see the bright side. If you have a hands-on editor, you can ask for advice early in the process, and worry less about providing a perfect draft — the editor will work with you to improve it.
I knew I had reached a new point in my freelancing education when I received page proofs from a new publication and marveled that the editors had not changed a word. Later, when I compared the proofs to my original draft, I realized that every single sentence had been rewritten.
Style. Much has been written about bad academic prose, and I do not need to repeat it here. Even good academic prose, however, is ill suited to a general audience.

The habits we learn in writing scholarship serve us poorly in popular writing. Graduate school teaches us to craft our prose defensively — to ward off possible attacks from colleagues. We shy away from strong claims, watering down every sentence with “perhaps” or “one could say.” In the worst cases, we make our prose completely impenetrable, figuring that if our critics can’t understand what we’re saying, they won’t be able to tear it down. But the qualities that make scholarly writing unassailable turn off general readers.
One of our key defenses is citation, which is what makes it so unsettling to write something without footnotes — particularly if the essay is related to our research. A public-facing piece will not cite all of its sources. It may not cite any.
I have seen that prompt consternation among colleagues, who grumble that the foundational work of Professor X wasn’t mentioned in that (enviable) New Yorker feature written by Professor Z. But the public does not want to read about Professor X’s contributions. Readers of your general-interest essay don’t expect in-text citations of everything you read that went into writing it.
Purpose. Public writing has a different ethos from scholarly prose. We write scholarship to establish our credentials in a field, to lay stake to original claims, and to build a name for ourselves in the profession. For general-interest writing, however, you should follow Horace’s advice for poetry: Aim to instruct or delight — ideally, do both. Tell your readers a story, and give them the basic information they need to take it in. Avoid jargon for the most part, but teach your readers a key term when it will help them understand your topic better.
One genre that can be confusing in this respect is book reviews. They are an easy entry point into public writing, as they draw on skills that scholars already have. But the point of writing a book review for the public is not to show how clever you are or what typos you have caught in the text. Rather, it is to help readers decide if they want to buy the book, and to offer them insights and information to enjoy even if they choose not to.
To be fair, the most useful book reviews in academic journals do that, too, in their own register, but general publications usually are more interested in the experience of the reader than in the egos of the reviewer or the author whose work is being reviewed. This also means that if your book is the one being reviewed in a mainstream publication, you may be dismayed to find the “review” is an independent essay using your book as a hook. Try to appreciate the publicity.
Quality. Academics sometimes make the mistake of thinking that their standards do not need to be particularly high when writing for the public. Even though you will not be writing with the precision of scholarly prose or citing every source, you should still strive to be as accurate and careful as you would be in your scholarly publications, especially if you are drawing on your specialization.
A few mainstream publications still have fact-checking departments, but, in general, assume you bear full responsibility for ensuring the truth of what you write. You owe the public an even higher standard of rigor than you do your colleagues, since the public is more likely to trust your credentials and has less access to your sources. If you get proofs before publication, check them carefully to make sure that no inaccuracies have slipped in.
The uncomfortable reality is that — while crossover work counts for little in the way of raises or promotions in academe — it can still hurt your reputation if you do a sloppy job.
Given all of those warnings, why write for the public at all?
There are strategic reasons, such as raising your visibility or showing the relevance of your research. It is also satisfying to reach readers who are curious about your field, but do not have the training necessary to appreciate your scholarship. As a public scholar, you have the freedom to write about topics beyond your area of specialization, which in turn can enrich your research and teaching. Finally, many of the qualities that make for good public essays — clarity, conviction, style — can improve your scholarly writing too.
Irina Dumitrescu is professor of English medieval studies at the University of Bonn.