Telling research career stories – Part 1

Beaching (Photo courtesy of Owen Leong)

Beaching (Photo courtesy of Owen Leong)

This is the first of two posts about the issue of research career disruptions and interruptions. I started writing this as a simple “Top 5″ listing of how to write about these situations, and what not to do.

It became my blogging albatross. I ended up worrying at it for more than three weeks. *

Why was this? It was because, as I was typing up strategies for presenting your track-record in the best possible light, it read as cold and functional.

I felt I was doing that thing of making everything as seamless as possible, as if these things can – and should – be adequately contained in such a way. As if I had no issues with this kind of requirement.

In the end, I’ve decided to split it up.

  • Part 1 is a ‘meta’ take on the idea of telling your research career story, and the ways in which academia and higher education bodies attempt to account for it.
  • Part 2 (next week) is a much more utilitarian post about better – and worse – ways to talk about the texture of your career in grant applications.

* Many thanks to Lisa Batten (@BattLisa) for her comments + encouragement for these posts!


It’s a commonly held belief that academia doesn’t deal well with messy career trajectories.

These may include things such as time out of the university sector, time off for childbirth or parenting, caring responsibilities, phases of part-time appointments or unemployment, recovering from physical or emotional trauma, and moving to take up jobs internationally.

In other words: LIFE.

No doubt, things are comparably better these days. We’ve moved on from when major grant reviewers felt it was OK to assess an applicant’s track-record with statements such as “this person has a baby, and won’t be able to do this work” (circa 1985 ARC round; anecdote via @RoseGWhite). One might well ask, however, whether these opinions have become less likely to be openly expressed, but remain commonly held?

In recent times, major granting bodies have made distinct moves to try and recognise the varied research lives of academics, and usher in a more wholistic approach to assessing someone’s research track-record. The UK’s REF process now allows “-1″ output for each period of maternity leave taken (Levelling the playing field: LSEImpactBlog), and this can also include periods of paternity or adoption leave that exceed 4 months (Research Intelligence: THE). On this latter point, I’d venture that it’s rare that anyone has access to more than 4 months of paternity leave, and it is often taken as leave without pay.

For Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) applicants, consideration is given to circumstances that may have affected research productivity. If you took maternity leave for one year, for example, that year is not counted in your last 6 years of publications. In Australia, the ARC (Australian Research Council) and National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) have the ‘track-record relative to opportunities’ phrasing, to try and account for the fact that life happens. In this section, you’re meant to outline reasons why your research productivity may have been affected. Within this section, there are also different elements that are ‘allowed’ as career interruptions (while others are not).

All things being equal, when you tell your story of career interruption in these grant applications, reviewers should think:

Hmm, OK, so they took 1 year off to have Baby #2, were 0.6 FTE for another 6 months, then had that awful accident and had to be away from the job for 4 months, and they’re currently working a 48/52 year split to accommodate ongoing caring responsibilities. That means, in effect, they’ve only had 3 years post-PhD research time, and a fair portion of that time catching up and getting back into the groove.

I will judge their CV accordingly.

Of course, we don’t live in that ideal world.

We live in a world where it’s widely acknowledged that there are gender-biased readings of CVs, where – in Australia, at least – you are encouraged to use ‘research relative to opportunity’ sections to showcase your stellar track-record rather than tell the story of things that may have affected your productivity. Perhaps there is no space for an honest story about periods of below-par productivity when it comes to the seamless face one is advised to present in good grantsmanship? I have had a fairly large rant about these issues in a 2012 post on my own blog, the Banana Lounge: When is a career interruption not a career interruption?. While working on this series of posts, I also rediscovered my 2009 post on “Exempting exemptions, eh?” (written shortly after my application for eligibility exemption was rejected – oh yes, it’s rather raw), which gives you some of the reasons why I get so critical about this issue.

Word from those in the centre (the ones who actually do the ranking and awarding of major grants) is that most reviewers these days do make an effort to accommodate the erratic life journeys of applicants. I think there is increasing consideration of these aspects but, as I said in my 2012 post:

Given a choice between a high-quality, high-output performer with no career interruptions and a high-quality, high-output performer with career interruptions, I think I know which track-record would be judged as ‘better’.

When I am assessing grant applications for major funding bodies, I always consider the setbacks and justifications people include as reasons why their research track-record isn’t as fantastic or consistent as it could have been. Or, indeed, how the track-record remains excellent and valuable despite various disruptions.

I adopt an ‘Assess as you would want to be assessed’ ethic to my reviewing. I hope that I’m one of an increasing number of reviewers who values researcher diversity and life experience in all its expected unpredictability.

After all, an ‘uninterrupted’ life does not guarantee better scholarship.

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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.

One Response to Telling research career stories – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Being an Online Academic, the Job Search, and False Starts | Life After Thesis

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