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Alan McKinnon – Professor of Logistics


Current issues in logistics and transport

40 years an academic: some personal reflections

It was forty years ago this week that I took up my first academic post, as a lecturer in the geography department at the University of Leicester.  It was a rather inauspicious time to embark on an academic career.   A general election on the day of my interview for the Leicester job had brought Mrs Thatcher to power and within a year or so her government slashed public funding for universities. This made my early years in higher education rather demotivating as much of the talk was about job losses, departmental closures, salary erosion and the difficulty of obtaining research funds.  

The life of a researcher at that time wasn’t just constrained by money.   Conditions were distinctly low-tech by current standards. For example, we had one external telephone line for the whole department, two computer terminals linked to the university’s mainframe and a quaint system of getting the head’s approval for any photocopying. All this for around 25 academic staff, PhD students and post-docs.

In that pre-digital age before word-processing, micro-computing, the internet, smart phones and social media, research progressed at a more leisurely pace.   Communication was primarily by snail-mail and instead of instantaneous downloads you had to wait a week or two for inter-library loans of literature not held on campus.  Literature reviews involved laborious trawls through banks of index cards and the reference lists of journals and books.  No instant access to online databases, no keyword searches, no cutting and pasting…  Millennials must wonder how any serious research could have been done at all under such primitive conditions. 

On the other hand, keeping up with the literature was much easier back then.  Logistics was only just developing as an academic discipline.  I reckon that it would have been possible to read its entire literature in two or three weeks. There was an abundance of interesting research questions and much pioneering work to be done devising new conceptual frameworks and experimenting with new analytical techniques. With very few academics specialising in the subject, it was far easier than today to get established and gain recognition, even with the limited dissemination channels available at the time. 

New entrants to the academic world of logistics today may have access to electronic research tools unimaginable back in 1979, but their professional lives are so much more demanding and stressful in other respects.  After forty years of research and an explosion in the number of logistics specialists, the field has become fairly crowded and unexplored topics are hard to find.  The challenge now is to find a niche within which to build a research reputation.

When I started, reputation-building was an informal process of gaining the respect of a small peer group.  Today, thanks to Google, Web of Science and Scopus and the ardent compilers of journal rankings, your reputation is quantified by a range of bibliometrics that Deans regularly use to decide if you are worth recruiting, retaining rewarding and promoting.   One can argue, of course, that this more scientific approach to assessing personal research performance is fairer and more consistent than the procedures used forty years ago, but it is not as objective as claimed and it has changed the ethos of departments and institutions not always for the better.

One thing that certainly has changed for the better during my academic career is the gender balance, though it has still some way to go.  When I arrived in the all-male geography department to take up my post in October 1979, several staff mentioned that they would have preferred to have a woman, but this had been over-ruled by the head of department at the time who said such a thing would happen only ‘over his dead body’.  Looking back, it is sad to think that I partly owed my first lecturing job to academic sexism

Posted in Discussion | 7 Comments

7 Responses to 40 years an academic: some personal reflections

  1. Kees Ruijgrok says:

    Congratulations with your 40 years jubilee. Thank you for Many good meetings and interactions during these years.

  2. Heather Allen says:

    Have always appreciated your insights and knowledge – glad also to think that maybe the head of department you refer to is now not in a position to make any comment on getting a better gender balance into research, transport and logistics!! Congratulations on your milestone but also on your contribution to transport research and projects around the world.

    • Alan McKinnon says:

      Thanks, Heather. I’m told that when the head of department (who actually retired on the day I started) declared that there would be a female lecturer appointed ‘over his dead body’ someone was heard to murmur ‘that can be arranged’.

  3. Kai Hoberg says:

    Thanks a lot Alan! I guess we all need to be reminded how academic life evolved over the past 40 years!

  4. Lea Stegemann says:

    Congratulations on 40 years of evolvement! Also looking at the very interesting insight in how the (academic) world developed, I am glad I got to listen to your lectures and read particularly your newest book on decarbonising logistics. Keep the good work up!

  5. Arthur Mwanje says:

    Great nostalgic read

  6. Dr Shan Rajegopal says:

    What a reflection! I can appreciate some of the challenges you faced in your start-up career. Take care and Stay Blessed

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© Professor Alan McKinnon 2024

Kuehne Logistics University


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© Professor Alan McKinnon 2024


Kuehne Logistics University




Contact me

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Web design by Wordspree