How #altac research happens

kieranKieran Fenby-Hulse is the Researcher Development Officer at Bath Spa University (UK).

He is primarily responsible for delivering and developing research development workshops and online training materials to support both postgraduate researchers and research staff.

Kieran’s research interests include creative practice, cultural value, affective experiences, music, narrative, gender, and Hindi film.

He has a research blog, “Researching Music, Digital Media, and Film“, and tweets at @DrKFenbyHulse.

We were intrigued by Kieran’s profile apparent balance between his own research and role as a research developer, and asked if he’d like to tell us more about how he manages to find space for both.


When is a cat not a cat?  (Sourced from unsplash.com | Photographer: Ryan McGuire - http://www.laughandpee.com)

When is a cat not a cat?
(Sourced from unsplash.com | Photographer: Ryan McGuire – http://www.laughandpee.com)

The term ‘academic’ is often used as synonym for university lecturer.

A lecturing position is the expected career path for many postgraduates when they begin their PhD, and understood to represent the pinnacle of academic achievement; proof that it was all worth it in the end.

Times are changing. This is noticeable from the way in which funding bodies and national organisations such as Vitae, here in the UK, are offering advice and guidance to postgraduates on alternative career routes.

This is echoed by the appearance of the #altac and #postac hashtags on Twitter, which PhD students, postdocs, adjuncts, and other researchers are using to voice their interests and thoughts on pursuing alternative careers both within and outside of academia.

But do you leave academia behind when you leave the institution? Isn’t academia something that exists beyond bricks and mortar? And what of those that stay within higher education, but are not employed as lecturers or researchers? Are these people no longer academics? Have they become administrators overnight?

Should the title of academic be left at the gates of the department as you leave?

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Telling research career stories – Part 2 – Common mistakes

Beaching (Photo courtesy of Owen Leong)

Beaching (Photo courtesy of Owen Leong)

Hopefully, after reading Part 1 of this ‘Telling research career stories’ series, you’ll know that I’m sympathetic to the difficulties of accounting for life’s curve-balls, and ambivalent about the process altogether. I know that it doesn’t feel fair or humane in many instances to reduce major upheavals to a few formalised lines.

Even through this sympathetic lens, however, and with my grant assessor and developer hat on, I can see that there are better, smoother ways to present your ‘track-record relative to opportunities’ narrative than others.

Grant applications are, at heart, very utilitarian documents to which you have to give a measure of life.

That said, giving reviewers the background to why your capacity to produce research was compromised doesn’t mean getting affirmation about your particular situation or life choices.

It’s a grant application, not a support group.

Here are the common mistakes researchers make when talking about career interruptions:

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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!


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Golden-brown grant applications

Mmm, pie (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Mmm, pie (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

A colleague once boasted to me that she had pulled together an ARC Discovery over a weekend.

I asked if she thought the application had a chance of being awarded. She shrugged and said she didn’t care; she was under pressure to submit an ARC application and that was what she was doing.

Even then, before my life as a research grant developer, I immediately thought, “Well, that’s a waste of everyone’s time.”

Yes, major grant systems are overloaded and under-resourced.

Yes, many excellent and worthy projects go unfunded.

And much that is not so excellent or worthy goes unfunded, too. I would venture to say that these should never have been submitted in the first place.

You can’t write a great major grant application from scratch in a weekend.

You just can’t.

As I’ve become more experienced on this other side of the fence in the area of research development, this fact has crystallised.

Even if you devote the whole weekend’s 48 hours to pulling it together, it won’t be great. It might be eligible and compliant, but chances are it’ll be flabby, inconsistent, and unpolished.

In other words, half-baked.

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Aim for the centre

So they’re talking about amending the leg-before-wicket rule again. I don’t know why they bother for they’ll never get it right…”
– Opening lines of Flashman’s Lady by George MacDonald Fraser.

A Korean palace guard in traditional costume, with bow and sword

Bow, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

My university has rewritten its policy on research centres, to…

…optimise and support RMIT’s key research objectives through the identification and establishment of structured Research ‘Groups’, ‘Centres’, and ‘Institutes’…

We’ve talked in the past about the importance of having a research plan and building a network. As an aspirational aim, it doesn’t get much bigger than developing your own research centre. In this article, I’d like to talk about a couple of issues that you should think about when setting up your centre.

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Boost your postdoc chances

Kerstin Fritsches (Founder of Postdoc Training)Kerstin Fritsches is a former research fellow who spent the majority of her 12-year research career on soft money at the University of Queensland, Australia.

She learned more than she would like about the challenges facing early career researchers (ECRs). While her research focused on what fish and other marine animals can see (taking her to some wonderful locations), she has been passionate about improving the situation for ECRs, and involved in postdoc policy and career development training for many years.

An apparently universal need for accessible and effective career development training motivated Kerstin to leave academia and found PostdocTraining to offer career development training tailored specifically to postdocs and their institutions.


Winning a fellowship is a bit of a holy grail for early career researchers.

When these positions mean an independent salary, often accompanied by funding for research support, it’s no surprise that they are hotly contested and bring well deserved prestige.

Cardboard tubes painted to look like owls, lined up on a window sill.

Parliament (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Fellowships show you can win funding based on your track record and excel against stiff competition.  They can also end up being the key to long-term careers in academia, increasing your chances of continuing on a full-time research path.

Given their potential benefits, it’s worth looking more closely at how to go about securing a fellowship.

Each funding scheme has its own rules and traditions, so the 10 steps outlined here are general observations based on what I –  and my peers – wish we’d known when we started applying. Hopefully, they’re practical ideas for your own game plan.

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Gantts vs Zombies

Zombie fare (Photo by Tseen Khoo; Cake+decoration by Shayne Smail)

Zombie fare (Photo by Tseen Khoo; Cake+decoration by Shayne Smail)

As my experiences of university functions move beyond ‘plonk and cheese’ to gigs that involve sushi rolls, mini-quiches, and chocolate eclairs, I felt like it was time to write something about the slippage between the intimate and the professional in academia.

I’m particularly interested in the way that staff negotiate the grey area of social participation and personal revelation* as part of a university’s everyday rhythms. This is a topic that fascinates me, and the ‘and another thing!’ nature of this post probably reflects this.

I’ve often joked with my peers that my most enduring trauma in academia was watching colleagues boogeying on the dance-floor at the tail end of conference dinners. It is my scholarly primal scene. It is also another very good reason not to attend conference dinners, but I’ll save that invective for another post.

I mention the dance trauma because it’s an example of a time when I felt that I got to know too much about colleagues (you can tell a lot about people from the way they dance).

If there’s one thing I learned early in my academic life, it’s that many academics are extremely good at not-participating in institutionally sanctioned events. Being the introvert that I am, I appreciated this culture because I’m a picky participator. If there’s the faintest whiff of ‘team-building games’, I’m hard at work getting out of it. If anyone mentions a themed university event, I’m suddenly booked up…all the time, anytime.

At most of the functions I attended, academic staff were poorly represented, and the ones who were there tended to bemoan the heinous crime of being forced to attend when they were already the most wronged in the university ecosystem (i.e. they were humanities academics, or quant social scientists adrift in a sea of qual boffins, or a constructionist pitted against a school full of positivist educators, or …). Read more of this post

How to make casual employment work for you

Anuja CabraalDr Anuja Cabraal (@AnujaCabraal) has been a researcher for almost ten years. Over this time, she has worked on a lot of different topics, including learning and teaching, banking and architecture. Her favourite research areas are migration & identity studies and social & financial exclusion.

She is also a trainer and consultant with Nvivo, a qualitative research software program designed to help make the process of qualitative data analysis easier.

She completed her PhD in January 2011 in the area of microfinance and social & financial exclusion.

Anuja blogs about research methods and information sharing as Anuja Cabraal, A Research Enthusiast.


Life as a casual can be very empowering, and it all comes down to attitude.

There is so much negative talk about being a casual in a university environment, especially from people undertaking, completing, or having just graduated with their PhD.

Robot in the sky (Photo by Jonathan O'Donnell; taken at the Ghibli Museum)

Robot in the sky (Photo by Jonathan O’Donnell; taken at the Ghibli Museum)

While I can understand it, and do recognise the challenges (I moaned about it myself, initially), I also made the most of it and have found a lot of freedom and excitement in the work I have been doing.

There is always the important issue of financial security, but I believe that if you put that aside and focus on the positives of being a casual (and, yes, they do exist), you can be in a position where finance issues resolve themselves.

The main thing to remember as a casual is that you have choice and opportunity, and these can be very valuable.

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Who works harder?

Dr Angela Dobele is a creative, results-oriented academic with progressive career accomplishments in research, teaching and community engagement. Her research focuses on three main areas: word-of-mouth referrals (including technological communications), gender diversity, and teaching and learning. Angela’s teaching disciplines include electronic marketing, services marketing, new product development, marketing management and integrated marketing communications. 

As well as immersing herself in research and teaching, Angela is a Foster Dog Carer, enjoys Science Fiction and plans on taking music lessons (any day now…).


Fight-Talk (Photo courtesy of FooDavid)

If you’re a female academic who thinks you’re working harder than your male colleagues, you may well be right!

Not only that, you might be working harder, but you’re less likely to be in the professorial ranks.

I was part of a team of researchers (from RMIT and Griffith universities) who found that, while women are shouldering the majority of the workload at each academic rank, they are under-represented further up the pecking order.

Our results show gender equity in terms of workload on five key workload measures, but there was inequality in terms of pay and status. It confirms what many already presume: it is still the case that fewer women are employed in senior ranks. These results suggest, despite policy reforms, inequity continues to be a problem in the Australian higher education sector.

Our study focused on business faculty employees, and showed that female senior lecturers – the ‘middle’ tier – are teaching an average 848 students compared with their male counterparts’ 229. The number of courses co-ordinated by senior lecturers was an average of 4 for women and 3.2 for men.

Despite shouldering much of the work, women are underrepresented in the higher ranks: senior lecturers, associate professors and professors. For example, in one of the universities studied, one fifth of the male staff were professors, compared with no women.

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PostdocTraining: the why, what and how

Kerstin Fritsches is a former research fellow who spent the majority of her 12-year research career on soft money at the University of Queensland, Australia.

She learned more than she would like about the challenges facing early career researchers (ECRs). While her research focused on what fish and other marine animals can see (taking her to some wonderful locations), she has been passionate about improving the situation for ECRs, and involved in postdoc policy and career development training for many years.

An apparently universal need for accessible and effective career development training motivated Kerstin to leave academia and found PostdocTraining to offer career development training tailored specifically to postdocs and their institutions.

The Research Whisperers met Kerstin at the 2012 ARMS conference, and were impressed by her passion for her work and savvy approach to alt-ac careers (‘alt-ac’ = ‘alternative to academia’). We invited her to tell us the story of moving from fixed-term researcher to company founder. 


Saddest sign in the world (By Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr)

A life in research looks like an incredibly rewarding prospect. It’s a ‘sky’s-the-limit’ kind of career, a chance to change the way the world thinks and works, and to make a fair living while doing so.

But how many researchers do you know across the academic spectrum who aren’t ‘living the dream’?

We decided we knew too many, and established PostdocTraining to offer support. The program is aimed at new postdocs who are isolated, dependent and worried about surviving the next grant round. They include ECRs unsure of how to start carving their niche and making headway down their own research path. We also wanted to help lab heads and directors who wanted to make their research teams more effective, efficient and productive, and researchers keen to transition to positions in and outside academia, but not knowing how to make a start.

PostdocTraining is rooted in the need to tackle these issues head-on in research. We started it to offer the kind of program I wish I’d had when I started my career as a researcher on ‘soft money’.

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