Beyond a life in the lab


Regan ForrestRegan Forrest
works with museums and other cultural organisations to help them understand their audiences better.

She is at the end of her doctoral studies through the University of Queensland’s Business School, with her thesis “Design Factors in the Museum Visitor Experience” due to be submitted for examination at the end of September.

Among the many hats she wears is being the Director of interactivate (interactivate.com.au), a research and creative consultancy committed to helping museums make the world a better place through quality visitor experiences. Years before she founded the business, she snapped up @interactivate as her twitter handle.

We invited Regan to write for us because of her approach to finding a career space. PhD researchers and ECRs often feel that a linear trajectory is what’s required and valued. Regan’s story shows that taking a risk can lead to unexpected, very satisfying job opportunities and career paths.


[Original photo by @kimtairi on flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/angels_have_the_phone_box)

[Original photo by @kimtairi on flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/angels_have_the_phone_box)

Once I turned down a PhD scholarship, only to accept another, 15 years later, in a completely different field.

After finishing Honours in Biochemistry at the University of Adelaide, I opted not to do a PhD straight away. That would have been the path of least resistance, but I thought some experience in other labs would make me a more rounded researcher in the long run. I decided to take a gap year (or two) to work as a Research Assistant instead.

About halfway through my first year as an RA, I started to feel frustrated and miscast. I wasn’t sure if the lab life was for me after all. But what else was I going to do with a science degree?

At this point I wasn’t 100% sure what Science Communication was, but I decided I had nothing to lose by applying for ANU’s Graduate Diploma program. This course dramatically broadened my horizons, and although I didn’t know it at the time, laid the foundations for a career path I could not have imagined previously.

One of the things the course covered, thanks to its links with Questacon, was the process of developing exhibitions and hands-on exhibits for science centres and museums. Prior to this point I had, like most people I suspect, never given a moment’s thought as to how a museum exhibition actually comes into existence.

I’d enjoyed that part of the course, but wasn’t convinced there was necessarily a career in it. In any case, I wanted to spend some time overseas and I managed to secure some short-term work in the UK as a researcher for a new science centre under construction. I used this short-term contract as a springboard to network like crazy, paying to send myself to a couple of conferences so I could get to know the UK Science Communication scene and how I could fit into it. This paid off – I managed to secure a slightly longer-term contract to help develop the exhibitions at the soon-to-be-built National Space Centre in Leicester, UK.

I was a long way from the Biochemistry lab but still inside the science tent, albeit in a completely different discipline. But even that was soon to change.

Once the Space Centre was opened and my contract was up, the exhibition design company who had worked on the project invited me to join them as a content researcher and exhibit planner. My first project? A medieval guildhall. About as far from science as you could get!

Over the next few years, I worked on a lot of science exhibition and hands-on exhibits for children, reflecting my Questacon roots. But I also ended up developing exhibitions on a wide range of topics: the American Revolution, the social history of Welsh coal mining, and the maritime history of the Gulf States to name just a few.

Without really trying, I had gone from being a scientist, to a science communicator, to being a more general interpreter of cultural heritage (and learned that Interpretation was actually a thing). That was where I was at when I returned to Adelaide in 2007.

Fast forward to 2010, and the research bug had come to bite again, but this time in a completely different way.

All through my career, although the subject matter may have changed, the common denominator of all my work was looking at ways to engage visitors with sites, stories and collections. I’d developed lots of different exhibitions, but practical constraints meant I’d never really had the chance to see the results of our design decisions from a visitor’s perspective. That bugged the hell out of me!

So, I decided to do something about it – and that’s what my PhD was all about.

My doctoral research was planned to address the question: How do museum visitors perceive and respond to different exhibition environments?, and was conducted in various permanent galleries at the South Australian Museum. I accompanied visitors around the exhibitions and asked them to give me a running commentary of their experience, observed visitors using the spaces, and developed a survey that helped me quantify perceptions of different environments and relate these to how visitors described their experiences.

This survey, which I call “Perceived Atmosphere”, is something I’m hoping to roll out at other museums so we can build up a picture of how a wide range of exhibition environments are perceived by visitors, and use that to inform future exhibition design.

Before starting the PhD, I had worked in exhibition planning for over a decade. My role was about communicating the expertise of others, making it interesting and engaging for a general audience. But now, I have my own body of expertise to communicate and I’m developing a multi-pronged strategy for communicating my research:

1. Practicing what I preach

As exhibition developer, I spent a lot of time telling experts (curators, historians, scientists, etc.) what they need to do to engage the general public: tell a coherent story, avoid jargon, don’t get sidetracked by unnecessary detail, answer the “so what?” question as to why their topic mattered. Now I need to take my own advice and make sure I can communicate appropriately with a number of different audiences.

2. Making it relevant to “industry”

I never considered my PhD as a stepping-stone onto an academic career. To me, it was an opportunity to add some intellectual horsepower to the knowledge I’d picked up through experience, and to give me more credibility as a consultant. I also wanted my research to produce something useful for exhibition designers. I think I have achieved that, but the challenge now is to present it in a way that demonstrates this at a glance: visuals, infographics, and so on. And I’m aiming to present at as many different conferences as I can.

3. Still showing my academic credentials where it counts

Although I don’t have any plans to follow an academic career path, I still need to show that my work has the requisite level of rigour, both in the thesis itself and through academic publications. I already have one paper published (part of my literature review), and I reckon there’s at least 2-3 additional papers in there as well. They’re on my “to-do” list!

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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Is growing your own researchers a luxury?

catapult (Artwork/image by Tony Dowler: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tonydowler)

catapult (Artwork/image by Tony Dowler: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tonydowler)

Is a university that provides internal funds to its researchers being indulgent?

After my post about the dangers of internal funding was published, Stephen Matchett picked up on part of it in this issue of Campus Morning Mail.

Matchett wondered whether internal funding would be a luxury that our brave new world of deregulated universities could not offer:

the days when universities can afford such relatively low impact schemes may end once deregulation kicks in – it will be harder to fund lab time or a travel grant from undergraduate fees if they are set in a competitive market.

This got me thinking about the consequences of deleting the capacity-building potential of internal funding for researchers or research projects.

What would happen if this development did not happen at this level? Is helping to build your own institution’s research capacity and experience a ‘luxury’ that universities today can’t afford? Is growing your own fabulous researchers an impossible aim?

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Dangers of internal funding

Photo by Vadim Sherbakov (http://madebyvadim.com), sourced from unsplash (http://unsplash.com).

Photo by Vadim Sherbakov (http://madebyvadim.com), sourced from unsplash (http://unsplash.com).

I’ve benefited from different types of internal university funding for my research over the years.

The schemes I’ve accessed range from conference money to pilot project grants and new staff grants. They’ve offered the stepping-stones I needed to get projects going and build momentum.

This post talks about the dangers and opportunities presented by internal research funding, and flags the Top 3 types of internal funds that I’ve found most useful.

It’s important to plans ways to do research, even without a fat grant.

One of the internal grants I secured was specifically for developing and writing up a major grant proposal. It paid off a couple of years later when our team got that ARC Discovery project. Being able to get together for concentrated periods of time to nut out the grant application saved us heaps of time and focused our energies. It really worked well.

Most institutions have some form of internal funding for their researchers. Some have more than others. Some barely cover their researchers’ conference travel, others offer plush suites of articulated funding for just about every segment of the research cycle.

Internal funding is a good thing. It can boost project competitiveness and track-record before a go at a bigger external grant. It can certainly boost the confidence of researchers trying to get their work off the blocks, or build their CV in the early days of their research career. It can bridge external grant gaps and allow researchers to stay on the radar.

Internal funding can be a bad thing, however, when you have too much of it and no consequent profile in securing external funds.

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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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