Should I apply?

Recently, I needed to write an FAQ (frequently asked questions) page about finding research funding. I thought of some questions that people often ask me, but they didn’t seem very interesting. So I asked Twitter.

The response was immediate and wonderful. Not everything came in the form of a question, but everything related to question that people ask. Here is the first of my responses to my Twitter-asked questions. I’d like to thank Ana Isabel Canhoto (@canhoto) for triggering this post.


The Great Wall of China, stretching off into the business

That must have been a lot of work, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Should I apply?

Let’s skip over the existential aspects of this question and assume that you are an academic required to undertake research as part of your job. Let’s also assume that you’ve finished your PhD. If you haven’t, go do it now. Don’t worry, I’ll still be here when you come back.

Sometimes, your research doesn’t require any funding. You might be working on an aspect of pure mathematics or ethics, and all you need is a computer, a good library, some peace and quiet, and the occasional chance to talk to smart people working on the same stuff. Or you might be working on a very small part of an overall research program that doesn’t need any extra staff, any equipment, or any travel. In that case, don’t apply for funding. You don’t need it and it won’t substantially improve your research. However, those situations are pretty rare.

In all other cases, you should apply for funding. However, there are some important things that you need to consider.

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Changing disciplinary horses

Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been mired in active discussions around who I am as a scholar.

Luckily for the world at large, these discussions exist mostly in my head, and only occasionally weigh upon the ears of close colleagues and my lucky, lucky partner.

The reason for these internal discussions is that I’ve started an academic job in a field that’s unrelated to my previous disciplines.

As a PhD student and then a research fellow, I have meandered through literary studies, cultural studies, heritage and museum research, touched on sociological work, and wished repeatedly that I’d built my expertise in science fiction and horror screen cultures.

The hinge that my scholarly work depends on is critical race studies, and the sub-field of diasporic Asian studies.

I have a shelf in my study that carries books and special issue journals that I’ve written and edited. It is my (occasionally successful) talisman against imposter syndrome. However, none of the publications I’ve had or journals I’ve published in overlap with the field Education Studies, part and parcel of the new role I’ve taken up.

Many times recently, I’ve moseyed through the literature around diversity and leadership in the academy (new field), and found a mini-Ygritte on my shoulder intoning, “You know nothing, Tseen Khoo.” And mini-Ygritte is right.

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Life as an academic at a regional university

Dr Mel Thomson

[Photo by Phil Roberts, York University]

Dr Mel Thomson completed her undergraduate Honours degree in 1998 in microbiology and immunology at the University of Melbourne.

She then migrated to the UK where she worked on various projects as diverse as allergy and cancer before undertaking further studies. She completed a Masters of Research in functional genomics in 2004 before reading for a PhD in microbial genetic regulation in Neisseria species (both at the University of York, UK).

After the award of her PhD in 2009, Mel became interested in the extra-gastric consequences of the host-pathogen interactions between gastric Helicobacter species and their human host.

She returned to Australia in 2011 to start her own group at Deakin Medical School, where she plans to continue her explorations of host-pathogen interactions leading to pathology affecting nutrient absorption in the gut.

Mel has recently become a national ‘torch bearer’ for the concept of crowdfunding academic research, with a track record of two successful Pozible campaigns: Mighty Maggots and Hips 4 Hipsters. She is involved in advocacy for Women in Science both nationally and internationally.

Mel tweets at @dr_mel_thomson and blogs at Dr Mel Thomson.


Photo by Mel Thomson

Photo by Mel Thomson

I recently caught up with several early- and mid-career research colleagues from regional Queensland and NSW at a national conference.

The last time I had seen them at this meeting was two years ago, when two of them were working on the end of their fellowships at metropolitan universities.

Meeting them again, I discovered that the two of them had moved to a ‘new’ university in a regional area outside of the conurbation they had previously inhabited.

One had followed their Patron to this new position. The other had decided to take an academic lecturing position to offer some job security in response to the increasingly unstable funding environment for early and mid-career researchers in Australia.

They knew I was from a regional campus of a Victorian university, and we got chatting about the differences they had experienced since moving out of town to a ‘second tier’ (or perhaps ‘third tier’?) university. I asked what kind of support and commitments they had, compared to before.

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Who will win?

Four colourful dragon boats on a lake in Nanjing.

Dragon boats, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

In the last week, academics around Australia have been receiving referee reports from the Australian Research Council.

Yesterday, I read just over 50 of these reports.

Today I spoke to my boss about them. I said that, in general, I was happy with them. We talked about some specific applications and some specific comments in the assessments.

Then, right at the end of the call, he asked me the question that I’d been dreading.

So, who do you think will win? What do you think our chances are?

Don’t ask me that. Please, don’t ask me that.

In the same way that I can’t tell an academic if they’ll get the grant or not, I can’t tell my boss, out of all our applications, who will win.

I can tell who got positive comments and who didn’t, which might allow you to make your own educated guess. I can tell you who, in my opinion, deserves to win.

But I don’t pick winners. Here’s five good reasons why. Read more of this post

We need to talk about titles

Jonathan LaskovskyJonathan Laskovsky is the Senior Coordinator, Research Partnerships in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University. He is primarily responsible for managing research partnerships support and administration within the College.

Alongside this role, Jonathan has research interests in modern and postmodern literature with a particular focus on fictional space and critical theory.

He tweets infrequently as @JLaskovsky and can be found on Linkedin.


A colon

The dreaded colon

We need to talk about titles. We’ve been neglecting them and it’s starting to show.

Neglect signifies that we once cared for titles but, for some reason, the care has ceased or become sporadic at best (insert your favourite garden-tending metaphor here).

This neglect might partly be explained by the ever-increasing pressure on academic life: large teaching loads, increasing demands for research output, conferences, meetings and other administrative distractions, as well as our paltry attempts to maintain some kind of work-life balance (one more reason to attend Shut Up and Write).

Being time-poor means we are often in such a rush to write that we don’t spend the time needed to gather our thoughts and really nail what it is we are writing about.

But we should. In particular, we really need to work on our titles. Those little summaries are the first thing that people read.

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Open plan, not working

Nanobot protected cubicle (Photo by Kevin Trotman - https://www.flickr.com/photos/kt)

Nanobot protected cubicle (Photo by Kevin Trotman – https://www.flickr.com/photos/kt)

This post has taken me an eon to complete. Most of the time, when I’ve wrangled with it, my biggest difficulty was trying to find a rational voice to use.

Academics like to think of themselves as adding reasonable, informed voices to debates. Conflicts of interest and biases must be declared.

Instead of waiting for a rational voice, then, I’m just going to write this post and declare my huge bias against open plan offices.

If you follow me on Twitter and elsewhere, you’ll know that I’ve ranted consistently about them, and the weasel-worded reasoning that’s often presented as their justification. I’m writing from the perspective of a humanities/social sciences background academic, not someone who works in a lab-based or research-team environment (so, ymmv).

In May this year, Oliver Burkeman (Guardian) wrote a cracker of a piece against open plan offices and who they actually benefit (hint: not those in open plan). This arrangement of workers has become the norm for new offices in most sectors, and universities are no exception.

The reasons that are most often given to staff as the benefits of open plan include: free flow of ideas and heightened collaborative opportunities among staff, easier identification as a cohort with your colleagues (recognition of your ‘team’), and better communication overall because of frequency of seeing others. You’ll see that I’ve deliberately not used the word ‘synergies’.

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Worth more than money

Power Ranger for sale (Photo by Peter Dutton: https://www.flickr.com/photos/joeshlabotnik)

Power Ranger for sale (Photo by Peter Dutton: https://www.flickr.com/photos/joeshlabotnik)

At the moment, there isn’t a lot of glory for an academic in crowdfunding.

If you want to get promoted at a university, you need to secure funding from one of the key funding bodies in your country (the National Science Foundation in the USA, for example, or one of the Research Councils if you are in the UK, Canada, or Australia).

There is this dodgy hierarchy of funding with one or two national funding schemes at the top, followed by other national funding, then by other government funding, then industry/philanthropic funding (depending on your discipline). In that hierarchy, crowdfunding sits somewhere down the bottom, as a type of philanthropic funding.

Crowdfunding is a lot of work, and it isn’t work that most researchers are familiar with. It takes most people into areas where they may not be comfortable. At its heart, crowdfunding is a funding campaign and the two key tools are Facebook and Twitter. Not everybody wants to take their professional identity into Facebook. They might prefer to keep it as a personal realm (despite the fact that work leaks in). While they might be happy to build a professional identity on Twitter, for most academics this is new territory. Unsettling new territory.

The point of a funding campaign is to ask for money. That’s what the ‘funding’ bit means.

While academics are generally good at promoting their research, they aren’t good at asking their friends and family to give them money to fund their research. Often, they don’t understand why anyone would want to fund their work. They like it, and they see the benefit in it, but they’ve spent the better part of their lives explaining to Uncle Ted ‘exactly what is it that you do, again?’.

Given that most crowdfunding campaigns start by mobilising personal networks, that means not just explaining to Uncle Ted what the work is, but asking Uncle Ted to put his hand in his pocket and donate to it, and have him then tell all his friends to do the same. A lot of people feel uncomfortable about that.

I don’t shy away from these topics when encouraging people to try crowdfunding, which may explain why I haven’t had any takers at my university yet. Perhaps I should try to emphasize the positive side of a crowdfunding campaign. There are lots of positives to emphasise.

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