Back from the research fringe

Beware the Unstable Cliff Edge (Photo taken by Oanh Tran)

“Beware the Unstable Cliff Edge” (Photo taken by Oanh Tran)

Do your peers go around talking about how that colleague is ‘useless’ or a ‘lost cause’ when it comes to research?

How prevalent is the sentiment that – if you’re not a proven, grant-landing researcher – you’re not worthwhile having in the contemporary university system?

This has been something I’ve been wanting to blog about for a while. A recent anecdote from a colleague spurred me to consolidate my thinking about these exclusionary ideas surrounding research productivity and notions of staff worth.

The Anecdote:

A colleague told me about a mid-career academic in their department. This academic had never landed a significant competitive grant, wasn’t publishing very well (standard of journal papers was questionable) or consistently (lots of ‘revise and resubmits’ in the top drawer that never made it to the next stage). He was bitter and defensive about his research track-record, often hostile to feedback, and he appeared to withdraw from broader faculty research life.

He was considered a lost cause. Someone who would never be much chop in the research game.

This sentiment filtered up, so much so that his senior researchers/managers stopped considering him in any research context. Targeted opportunities for collaboration, research mentoring, or publication weren’t denied, as such, they just never appeared.

Until there was a concerted shift on a few institutional levels.

Almost simultaneously, the academic found himself with a new head of department, research director, and faculty research executive. New research schemes – open to all – were fed through the faculty and department. Strategic money was made available to build track-records, collaborations, and develop larger grant proposals. Designated research development staff were put on to facilitate all things research grant-wise; having one person as the ‘go-to’ for grant questions made everything seem more do-able.

The academic started signing up for a few workshops about publications and writing. He turned up to the seminars are ‘how to write a good grant application’. He threw his hat in the major grant rounds again, and took critique as all part of the game (rather than personal attack and denigration). A senior researcher has been mentoring him about how to deal with publication feedback.

From all of this, the academic gained information and cultivated a certain sense of savvy-ness about the research landscape. He pulled himself out of the research funk he was in. The indirect advantage of all this new activity was meeting his peers and colleagues from other sections of the university/faculty, and feeling as if he is a part of a research community (one that has its own inconsistencies and varying levels of achievement).

After a while, this academic started participating in grant review programs in his faculty; he started feeling as if he had enough experience that he could give back and share with others.

He still hasn’t landed a big competitive grant, but his publications have steadied and are improving in quality, and he’s become an active – even generous – participant in peer research activities around the faculty.

All this took place over less than three years.

When I was writing the post on myths about research cultures, I mentioned that it’s ill-advised to sideline academics as research inactive before giving these staff the resources (including time) to change the situation.

I wanted to unpack this a bit more because it’s a difficult thing, moving from not doing much research (or not having research on your radar) to being required to roll out quality publications and be competitive for grant applications in the next year (or sometimes even three).

Because it doesn’t happen just like that. It’s not like flicking a switch. With the anecdote above, major changes happened around that academic to shift his own and others’ attitudes, and it also depended, of course, on the academic’s own initiative. He had to make the decision to re-engage with faculty research structures, and build on his own networks and expertise.

It is particularly hard to get someone to a productive research zone if they are feeling pressured to perform, have had little or no mentoring (or bad forms of mentoring), and have been previously burnt by research activity (e.g. grant rounds and scathing assessments).

But, as this story shows, it’s not impossible.

If a staff member is going to be part of your organisation for at least the next couple of decades, how can it not be worthwhile investing in their research development?

Within about three years, the researcher went from being a “lost cause” and difficult staff member to being back on the institutional/faculty radar in a positive, collegial way.

Thinking that ‘spills’ or VSPs (voluntary severance packages) are the only answers is narrow thinking. The price paid in staff morale is always high, and damage often long-term.

It pays for academic research executives to audit the research culture of their organisation. Then address the weaknesses and gaps in that system before deciding that staff members are necessarily the ones at fault for below-par research performance. Yes, some may be performing well despite your system’s inadequacies, but why not create a context where they’re not forced to triumph against the odds, but thriving and excelling in strong, supportive institutional environments?

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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.

12 Responses to Back from the research fringe

  1. Christina says:

    I couldn’t agree more! Nobody in uni management would advocate using these “control-and-command”, “I’m-only-paying-attention-to-high-achievers” approaches to inform teaching practices in tutorials and lectures. But somehow, these methods are OK once aplied to staff. After all, they get to do something they love, so can be expected to suffer for it. (This logic escapes me personally, but this type of “shaming” is instrumental to how academia works.)

    I must say one thing though. The idea that grant-money is an indicator for academic quality is just pure and utter nonsense. It’s an indicator of lots of things — including the simple fact that you NEED money for your work, that you’ve found a funding body who’s interested etc. etc. Now, I know an academic who’s doing major editions of classic works of British literature, for a highly esteemed publishing house. Something only very few academics get asked to do. And yes, this is not necessarily a line of work that suits everyone, either. But in any case, the ARC — as our prtime cat1 funding body — would run a mile from such a project. (You could do it, but you’d have to wrap something larger and different around it to get a Discovery grant for it.) Still this person is creating the very books on which future scholarship and teaching is based, clearly significant work, but that’s not something that will register on the VC’s dashboard.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Thanks for your comment, Christina. Shame in academia is a rich topic for further work, I feel. It is a large part of how performance is driven and pushed. And I would agree that the dependence on amount of grant money as indicator of ‘quality’ (or ‘excellence’ in many cases) is flawed. It’ll be interesting to see when/if the culture turns around and away from using sheer amount of funding as such an indicator – it is such a deeply embedded element now.

  2. Linda Brennan says:

    G’day, as always a thought provoking blog!

    There are three main things that work both for and against developing a research culture: motivation, opportunity and ability. Any one of these factors can hinder or help but without all three, you cannot move ahead.

    Someone has to be motivated to conduct research. Motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic but no amount of extrinsic reward is sustainable unless the person becomes intrinsically motivated to succeed, as your case example illustrates.

    Opportunity must be provided for the researcher, an institution cannot expect researchers at any level to create a research culture by themselves. Thus, the types of activities (opportunities) that your researcher joined in with have to be part of core business of any research ‘space’ and they have to be continually provided. People are never all in the same space at the same time and so there is never a point at which you can relax and not offer opportunities to learn about some of the basics of research such as grant writing. While learning to write a grant application is as simple as having a go and writing one, it is a genre that can be taught and dealing with reviewers comments is emotionally fraught – hence the pile of unfinished papers in the desk draw. Pressing send in academic circles can be a stressful business. Sustaining intrinsic motivation in the face of potential failure requires extrinsic support (opportunity).

    Ability is both and input and an outcome of motivation and opportunity. We can assume that at some stage your academic was capable or they would not have been hired. If their institution has provided sufficient opportunities and apposite and targeted extrinsic rewards, that the person has not responded to, then they can rightly claim that this person is a waste of space. However, too often what I see happening is that the person is refused access to opportunities because they have no ‘track record’ of ability. Track record is not able to be gained without opportunity and therefore this becomes a self-fulfilling cycle of failure. It should not be a surprise that people cannot remain intrinsically motivated in the face of denial of opportunity.

    I also caution against the ‘spill and fill’ mentality that some institutions use to ‘fix’ their researcher profiles (see the UK’s issues with their RAE cycles for evidence that this does not work). Unless the opportunities are provided, the new researcher, who has choices about where they work in the era of a global academic workforce, will simply leave as soon as they can find suitable opportunities elsewhere.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Thanks, Linda. Always enjoy reading your responses. No argument from me on any of your points. The denial of opportunities is an insidious process and does indeed perpetuate the “cycle of failure”. I find that there’s sometimes a conflation between research development as _development_, and as ‘reward’.

      The insular nature of many academic departments also works against transparency when it comes to how peers are travelling in their research lives. So much angst would be saved if only all researchers knew how common (and necessary?) it is to have peaks/troughs in publications and applications. All output, all the time, isn’t a healthy way to proceed, intellectually or psychologically.

  3. Dale Reardon says:


    What a great article and if only every University provided those supports and resources.

    The new system you talk about actually sounds enjoyable rather than drudgery.


    • Tseen Khoo says:

      There are quite a few institutions that are bringing in elements of what I describe. The issue is the consistency and access to these resources/services for all researchers at any given institution. At the moment, the instances I hear about are focused within particular schools or faculties, but are rarely whole-of-university efforts.

  4. Pingback: Back from the research fringe | Full Time PhD Full Time Mom

  5. Reblogged this on Kenneth Manusama and commented:
    The only avenue for the not-grant-landing researcher, is to excel in teaching and be indispensable that way. And in the meantime, you keep plugging away at your own, solitary research projects.

  6. Peter Bentley says:

    Just found your blog, very interesting reading. I can’t say I have much experience with grant writing, but it doesn’t sound like an appropriate measure of performance, at least in isolation. However, I think research performance (i.e. publishing a minimum amount in reputable journals) is a valid measure.

    Now I’m going to play devil’s advocate, so apologies for any offence. You describe the above transition towards “steady” publishing of “improving” quality as a positive outcome which “took place over less than three years”. The current academic labour market is competitive, particularly at the entry level. I suspect there are lots of people with high quality publications who are unable to find a 1 year contract, let alone have the security of three years to progressively become research and departmentally active. I don’t know the details of the case you describe, maybe they weren’t offered opportunities to conduct quality research and their performance was entirely justified. However, I do suspect there are some in the protected segments of the academic labour market who would never be competitive if force to reapply for their old job in the current labour maket.

    Academics are paid by the taxpayer to research (and teach, and do other things). Shouldn’t we expect mid-career academics to be publishing quality research? Wouldn’t it be more equitable and efficient if universities got rid of people who have been given ample time and opportunities to prove themselves? Aren’t they locking up university resources and opportunities for new entrants?

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Hi Peter – thanks for your comments, and you’re spot on. Many of the researchers who may come ‘back from the fringe’ are most likely not competitive on the open market, or if they had to apply for their current jobs in today’s climate. That said, there are institutions where the ostensible balance of a lectureship (between research and teaching) has not been observed (historically and sometimes still today [in practice]), and teaching/convening/admin duties have dominated. For staff caught in the mix in such a situation (where expectations of them have changed significantly, along with institutional priorities), it can be v. difficult to ‘re-skill’ and build a profile when little was required previously.

      From the institutional perspective: if you have staff who are continuing and with you potentially for decades, activating them for research is a better way to proceed than not. I think whether some staff have been given ‘ample time and opportunity’ to prove themselves is open to question in many of these situations. No doubt, there are some who need to move on as they are professionally inert. But there are many others who are trying to improve and do more, but encountering hurdles because of their lack of experience (and possibly role-models/mentors).

      • Linda Brennan says:

        Hi – I would like to add that not all academic staff are funded by the Australian government either. Some are funded by offshore students in many locations throughout the world. There are many places where ‘academic’ staff are hired to teach and time for research has to be found on weekends and evenings, if it can be found at all. I have worked at a number of institutions in my career and sometimes research time is a luxury bought at the expense of others teaching 18-20 hours a week (+ preparing, marking and administering), 3 to 5 ‘semesters’ a year with cohorts of students in the 000’s, where teaching days can extend from 7am to 10pm. I am not convinced there is a queue of underachievers taking up space in the corridors where I have worked. I have seen highly motivated people provided with an increasingly limited set of opportunities. I have also seen the queues to work at ‘ranked’ universities because the opportunities to conduct research and attract funding are greater there. Simon Marginson predicted this would happen in the 1990s so it is not new news.

    • Roger says:

      Oh yes! If we want great research we need a competitive marketplace. Why deny up and coming researchers from an academic position when there are less capable individuals clogging up the system. Why feel sorry for anyone. Research papers , grants, and patents are the measures now that define excellence in research. Thats a world wide phenomenon.

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