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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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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Are we there yet?

Francis WoodhouseFrancis Woodhouse is a postdoc at The University of Western Australia.

Born and bred in England, he did a bunch of degrees at the University of Cambridge—first a bachelor’s and a master’s in Mathematics and then a doctorate in Mathematical Biology—before moving out to Perth.

The content of Francis’s research is gradually including more biology every year. At the University of Western Australia he works in bioengineering and biofluids, developing models of knee cartilage damage and repair to understand and prevent the onset of osteoarthritis.

He maintains side interests in pattern formation, self-organisation, and microswimmer propulsion.

He tweets as @fwoodhouse and blogs at www.microbiohydro.com.


Tropic of Capricorn sign (Photo by Dan Dyer: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dwdyer)

Tropic of Capricorn sign (Photo by Dan Dyer: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dwdyer)

I’m every Aussie’s least favourite invader: a grubby, plummy pom.

But unlike the other half million of us here in Perth, I’m not here for the sun, sand or surf.

I’m here for the science.

Nearly a year ago, I left the crumbling mortar of England to take up my first postdoc, far away at the University of Western Australia. I’d never switched university before, let alone moved country, so I was a little apprehensive.

Will they understand me? Do I need special gloves to deal with all the redbacks? Can I apply sunscreen fast enough to keep up with the sunburn?

I needn’t have worried. Confusion, spiders, and sunburn have all been minimal, and I’ve settled in just fine. I don’t yet ask “how ya going?”, and “Australia” still has four syllables, but I’ve happily accepted the flat white and long black as the two coffees to rule them all.

The first thing I learned is that Australia is really rather far away from England. I always knew this on paper, but the soul-sucking malaise of twenty hours in the air made it feel very real indeed. The journey isn’t getting any easier with practice, either (and being forced to pause in Baku doesn’t help).

Thankfully, the malaise didn’t last, and the distance receded once I’d wrapped my head around the novel avian and arboreal life forms. With somewhere to live and the city sussed out, it didn’t feel so alien anymore. Before I knew it, a couple of weeks had gone by and it was time to start work.

Moving to Australia didn’t mean existing research connections had to languish, so I soon resumed interacting with colleagues in Europe and North America over the all-connecting Internet.

That’s when the perception of distance came back, and this time with tyranny.

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Designing your research dissemination

Megan McPhersonMegan McPherson is currently working on the Dissemination of Learning and Teaching Resources Project for the College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University. She is supporting multiple research teams and internal and external processes for engaged dissemination.

She has project managed, led, and evaluated higher education research in the areas of peer learning and assessment in the creative industries, elearning approaches in the university studio, and professional development for teaching in new generation learning spaces.

Megan is a practicing artist and has taught and researched in the university studio for 18 years. She is a PhD scholar in the Faculty of Education, Monash University.

Megan tweets and instagrams at @MeganJMcPherson.


Tote. Sack. (Artwork/photo by Megan McPherson)

Tote. Sack. (Artwork/photo by Megan McPherson)

It used to be that dissemination was all about the academic publishing and conference presentations you would do at the end of the project to make public your findings and recommendations.

In the grant-lands of internal and external funding bodies, the idea of dissemination is changing.

Engaging in dissemination with your stakeholders is expected from the beginning of the project. An example of the support for this move is the Australian Government’s Office of Learning and Teaching (OLT) ‘engaged dissemination’ project resulting in The D-Cubed project and resources.

Most learning and teaching funds emphasise engaged dissemination, and there are things that we can learn from this space. Dissemination can be more than an academic conference paper or article in a pay-walled journal.

Dissemination has moved into the more specific arena of ‘engaged dissemination’ where there is a planned process of ‘understanding potential adopters and engaging with them throughout the life of the project, to facilitate commitment to sustained change” (p.12). This means that you identify and interact with the audience for your research from the beginning of your project.

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Finding your inner extrovert

Dr Julie Preston (@julzpreston)Julie Preston coordinates NECTAR, an Early Career Academic/Researcher initiative at the Australian National University.

She is responsible for the delivery and evaluation of programs in which ECR share ideas, build confidence in leadership, develop cross-college networks, and acquire skills and knowledge required to establish a successful teaching and research career.

Julie promotes career development through ownership and self-empowerment. 

Julie’s academic background is in Immunology and Microbiology. Her PhD thesis and postdoctoral research investigated mechanisms of Streptococcus pneumoniae infections.

Julie tweets at @julzpreston.


Photo by Martin Wessely (http://wesse.ly), sourced from unsplash.com

Photo by Martin Wessely (http://wesse.ly), sourced from unsplash.com

The recent post by @tseenster “It’s not you, it’s me” compared the conference approaches of an introvert and an extrovert.

My experience of conference attendance has been influenced not only by my own personality, but also that critical first impression of conference attendance.

My contrasting perspectives come from when I was a budding young scientist, then when I was an older – but equally impressionable –  trainee career practitioner.

Personality tests, whether you believe them or not, have always labeled me an introvert. “Fantastic!” I thought. “That’ll get me through those long periods alone in the lab!”

The other end of the spectrum – extroversion – can be great for those short bursts of intense social interaction we call conferences. I attended a very small primary school where I was encouraged to find my voice and get involved, which, combined with other childhood pursuits, should leave me sufficiently confident in social situations like conferences.

So, what went wrong? Why were academic conferences such a challenge? And why did I feel more confident in my post-academic life?

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Working for the rat race, are you wasting your time?

evan-smithEvan Smith is a Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of International Studies at Flinders University.

He is interested in contemporary history, politics and criminal justice research. He blogs about his research and aspects of 1980s popular culture at: hatfulofhistory.wordpress.com

Evan tweets from @hatfulofhistory.

As we’re interested in #altac trajectories, the Research Whisperers approached Evan for a guest-post when we realised that he had been a researcher in the public sector who had returned to academia. How did these job changes happen? What were the drivers and challenges?

He has kindly shared his story with us here, and provided five strategies for keeping your research career options open.


I am a historian and a criminologist. Historian by training and criminologist, first by default, then by profession.

My postdoctoral career has been varied, and I’ve spent the last seven years in and out of academia (simultaneously – like Derrida, I am not a fan of binary oppositions).

In 2007, I finished my PhD in History at Flinders University, I then spent the next two years in casual academia while my post-PhD colleagues and I competed for jobs around Australia in history and politics.

In 2011, I started work at the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) in Canberra, conducting research into money laundering and organised crime. I didn’t have an undergraduate or masters degree in criminology but, in a stroke of luck, I had met a colleague at Flinders in the Criminology discipline. While I was a casual teacher, we had been building a research project that combined history and criminology.

By the time I was employed at the AIC, I had had two co-authored publications in the interdisciplinary field of historical criminology and another one had been accepted. Slowly immersing myself across disciplines, I had also taught law and criminology topics at Flinders, and it is this evidence of my transferable skills that (probably) made me employable by the AIC.

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Against exhaustion

Deborah BrianDeborah Brian is Senior Research Administration Officer in the School of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering at The University of Queensland. She coordinates grant applications and research activities for a diverse group of engineering and computer science academics, with a focus on supporting early career researchers. In her alternate (academic) existence, she is an anthropologist and archaeologist with research interests in Indigenous cultural heritage and the construction of social memories, histories, and identities. Deb has been one of RW’s featured RO Peeps She tweets – entirely too much – at @deborahbrian.


Image courtesy of Deborah Brian.

Image courtesy of Deborah Brian.

Now, it might be because I was in the final throes of #grantfest, but when Jonathan Laskovsky’s piece on exhaustion popped up on Twitter this morning, it made me want to hurl my iPad across the room. And I love my iPad.

I won’t tell you what I said then, or what I was still muttering under my breath when I finished reading the post, but I will say this: PLEASE DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME!

Instead, I want to offer three pieces of advice for those struggling through the genuinely exhausting process of writing grant and fellowship applications, which for reasons unknown, always seem to be due all at once.

Follow these three simple rules to give yourself the best shot of: a) writing a decent grant or fellowship application, b) not pissing off your colleagues and support staff, and c) coming out alive. READ MORE

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