Cheap and satisfying: Building a research network on a shoestring

People grouped around a table, working hard

Heads down, by Jonathan O'Donnell on Flickr

Do you feel theoretically lonely? Desperate for focused intellectual companionship? Do you keep having to explain what your study area is, and what it isn’t?

That was me in the late 1990s while I was a doctoral student. I was at a good institution that supported postgraduates well, my supervisor was fabulous and lovely, and I had a savvy cohort of peers.

Why the whingeing, then?

There was no-one in my department, or faculty, who worked even broadly in the area that I was in. That’s part of the joy of being a doctoral student: you’re pioneering new fields, making connections that no-one else has done before, and creating new knowledge (to use an academic weasel-phrase). What this often means, though, is that you don’t have the specific kind of intellectual support and critique that you may crave.

I know I craved it. Along with a steady wage. And job options; just one job option would’ve been welcome, really…

ANYWAY, moving on:

This post is about how to build and maintain a successful research network when you don’t really have any money attached to it. Why would you bother running a research network when you’re already overburdened with Other Important Things?

  • If you run a good network that embraces community/creatives as well as academics (at all levels), the spin-offs in terms of community engagement and connections is big. Not to mention much more fun.
  • Running a network well demonstrates skills in project management and planning, liaising/negotiation and initiative.
  • Setting something up that puts your research area on the map is academic leadership; the most important part of this is sustaining it until the area has a chance to establish.

Those are the benefits that I’ve accrued, in 20/20 hindsight.

This is how it actually happened:

I attended a watershed conference for my field in 1999. It is now often referred to as the Woodstock for my field. I bonded with like-minded scholars – from professorial types to doctoral peers and Honours students – who knew all the theorists I’d been reading, asked incisive questions about what I was doing, and understood where I was coming from in my thesis.

Every paper presented at the conference resonated with me and made me think about the area and what it meant. I had a fantastic time.

In its afterglow, I realised I didn’t want these connections and the momentum to fade (as conference links do, for the most part).

So, I set up an academic research network.

This sounds rather grand, doesn’t it?

This is what the network was, back in 1999:

  • A Yahoo group mailing list,
  • A dodgy website I put together with minimal skill and maximum good intention, and
  • A group of scholars and creative artists who had never really been in the same critical space before.

From there, the network grew through shoestring, strategic events and a fairly consistent (but necessarily constrained) focus on building its profile and membership. We scored a grant in 2006 that allowed us to formalise the network, but – up to that point and in many ways afterward – the whole deal has been run on the work of volunteers, occasional boosts from members’ research funding for events, and almost no institutional support.

This network doesn’t wine and dine, regularly fly in flash speakers, or hold events in convention centres. We only occasionally have ‘staff’ to do administration. We have no assets (except our website…for the moment). So, what did we do to gain profile and build momentum?

  1. We piggy-backed. Within more established field conferences, we’d organise a ‘badged’ panel with snazzy, sexy papers that we could preface with a bit about our research network and what it did. We did this with a few major annual events and it provided maximum exposure with little or no cost to the network (all speakers got there on their own institutional steam, or with a small amount of funding).
  2. We established a reliable virtual presence that belied our real-life instability. As a doctoral student and early career researcher (ECR), I invested a lot of time and effort into the research network and ensuring that it offered what ‘value’ it could (without any assets or funding); that ‘value’, of course, lay in information. Long before content curation became all the rage, the research network was offering its members narrow-cast information selected from the major academic e-lists that fed the field (in our case: Australian Studies, Cultural Studies, Asian Studies, literary and visual arts studies, Asian American Studies…).
  3. We were lucky enough to have academic champions who found sustained value in our network. One of the greatest strengths of our network’s research topics is also its biggest weakness: the novelty. Initially, while making in-roads at established conferences, our members were often singled out as giving extremely interesting or exciting work that no-one had ever heard of before (helped by the fact that we’d often be about the only racialised faces at the conference), which is all very well as long as people were paying attention to content and critique, not just intellectual ‘colour’. Some senior academic members fell by the wayside as they considered the area too limiting because of the ‘cataloguing’ of their identity and work by association; others, however, have proven to be staunch champions of the network’s intellectual momentum. These academics – as they’ve risen through the university ranks – have invested themselves in the field and supported (with real funding) events and projects that affiliate with the network. It’s a win-win situation: they get to draw on the membership and existing momentum of the network, and network members are offered opportunities to build their CVs, intellectual breadth, and personal academic connections. You can’t really plan on this, but hopefully the vagaries of life will throw a few suitable types in your way.

I’ve had almost fifteen years in the field now, most of those as a ‘convener’ of this extremely low-overheads research network. Why would we do it this way, and live with the constancy of its insecurity? Why not seek institutional shelter and funding?

  • Ability to be an active research petri-dish. The up-side of having no money to throw around is that no-one holds the purse-strings! You want to try something new? Go ahead and do it. You think a connection with that group will go somewhere? Make it happen. You want to try an interdisciplinary project that might have traction through standard funding bodies? Try it out and find collaborators in the network first. The network could afford to embrace a broad and eclectic range of members, and not consider profile and leverage first and foremost.
  • Freedom from university-itis… kind of. It’s well known that when you align yourself with a university, it starts wanting to put its fingers in your pie. They recognise your value and momentum, and that’s why they’d take you on, but they also want to always be reassured that there’s plenty in it for them. And, if they start thinking there isn’t enough for them, their support will wane or they’ll want to make you give them more of the outcomes they want. You lose the ability to function independently as a network; you become a network affiliated with X University.
  • Logistical considerations. The network, being in a nascent field continues to be populated mostly by ECRs and postgraduates. The key personnel in the network can change institutional affiliations rapidly, and trying to extricate a research network from a university once it has invested in it… chances are, that’s not going to be neat or easy. Having a ‘floating’ network that exists online (for the most part) caters to executive members’ mobility. For example, since I helped start the network, I’ve been at three universities, across two states.

Again, with 20/20 hindsight, these are the most important things for a sustained, independent network:

  • Enough people who believe in what the network wants to do AND are willing to do (unpaid, out-of-hours) work for it. No doubt, they gain skills and connections for their CV and academic future, but they need to be in it for more than that.
  • Members who can bump up the network’s profile by recruiting key scholars in associated fields, who will then, hopefully, go forth and be champions for your cause.
  • About half a dozen stalwarts at the heart of the endeavour who communicate regularly and are willing to take the lead and make things happen for the network (e.g. hold conferences or seminars every once in a while, organise meet-ups, keep its value by feeding it information).

Sometimes, I wonder whether I’d do all this, given my time again. The benefits have been enormous, on career and personal satisfaction levels. The invested time and angst about keeping it going have been similarly enormous.

Given the current academic climate where you are, would you consider starting up a research network?

———————-

ETA after Dale Reardon’s comment:
The research network that I helped create and manage is the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN), and it currently has about 170 members in Australia and internationally. I have co-authored (with Dr Indigo Willing [University of Queensland]) a post at The Social Interface about the research network’s engagement with social media: Visionary or ‘slackademic’?

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

8 Responses to Cheap and satisfying: Building a research network on a shoestring

  1. Hi,

    Is it possible to have the website for your network to look at? This sounds a great idea.
    Dale.

    http://www.dalereardon.com.au

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Hi Dale – Good idea + I’m a dolt not to have thought of it!

      The research network website (this is the brave new version after a bit of funding was put into a professional interface/design):

      http://asianaustralianstudies.org

      The dodgy, home-cooked version is no more (and the Internet breathed a sigh of relief…).

      • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

        Sorry, thought of doing this when I did the last edit, but then work got in the way.

  2. Eljee Javier says:

    I really enjoyed this post, it’s encouraging to see someone who’s “been there, done that” and would consider doing it again. I wonder how did you go about recruiting people to join the network as well as convince them that they need to contribute as well as ‘take’. I’m currently in an environment where students are willing to participate as long as it doesn’t require a lot of effort, leaving others (like me) to carry the momentum. I’m finding it tiring so I’d appreciate your insight into this.

  3. Tseen Khoo says:

    Hi Eljee – This is the hardest part of keeping a network going. After the novelty of establishing a new network, you need people who are dedicated to the area (i.e. they are invested in the area intellectually + professionally). And, as much as I’d encourage enterprise and initiative in postgrads and ECRs, a successful network requires the contribution and membership of a wide range of academic levels (e.g. students, ECRs, mid-level academics, as well as a sprinkling of supportive profs).

    With AASRN, because it was a very new field that was trying to gain momentum and profile, the network served a purpose for all members who were doing Asian Australian Studies. It created opportunities for them, mixed ECRs in with very established researchers, and generally had the vibe that whatever was good for the network, was good for you (the member). All that said, it doesn’t always work out that there’s enough drive and commitment to make it work, longer term – and you don’t want to sacrifice your career on the altar of possibility.

    One way to get people on board more easily is to have roles within the network that aren’t a huge responsibility or time-sink (e.g. process expressions of interest for membership every fortnight, take care of the Twitter + Fb account, update the website). The key to having everyone working in the same direction is regular contact with the working committee of the network.

    The convenor of the network bears the brunt of the work, always. There’s no two ways about that. It’s the everyday, lynch-pin role that keeps things moving + puts the right people in touch with each other, solicits information/news, etc. It can be the best of times, it can be the worst of times…! ;)

    Good luck!

  4. Vannessa Hearman says:

    Do you have a suggestion for a good software to use to run a blog type thing to ‘showcase’ the work of the research network?

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I do all my blogging/website work on WordPress at the moment. For the way I want to do things, it’s more than adequate. And free. :)

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Just remember to plug into Twitter and/or Facebook, so that you can tell people when your showcase is updated.

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