Hashing it over

Pink button with # symbol and blank line, held in an open palm

Hashtag button (Photo by Eclecticlibrarian)

Anyone who has converted to Twitter, and uses it with regularity will know about the prevalent use of hashtags to ‘stream’ tweet content.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, have a quick read of this official Twitter page, or check out the wittier, unofficial Guardian version.

In short:

A hashtag, for the non-Twitterati, is a word or smashed-together phrase preceded by the hash symbol (#), originally devised as a way to keep track of the flow of subject matter in the Twittersphere. (Ben Zimmer, Visual Thesaurus)

I recently saw someone on Facebook cramming hashtags into their status update. I must admit to rolling my eyes and muttering acidly, “It’s not Twitter, doofus” (oh, yes, fear my acidity).

Yes, I know Facebook is trying to get in on the hashtag action, but – in the very average ways I use Fb – it is largely absent and still an anomaly. Those who frequent Yammer have often used hashtags, and I know of tragics who have brought the hashtagging habit to their emails.

For the most part, though, hashtags live on Twitter.

When I first started on Twitter, I thought hashtags were silly. Yeah, that’s me: broadminded and noble embracer of change.

What I failed to realise was that getting value out of hashtags, and getting to a stage where I’m using and following them deliberately, requires a commitment to the medium that I didn’t have as a newbie. At that stage, all I saw was a soup of symbols and run-together text.

Since that time, I have come to love hashtags. Love them with an unnatural, nerdy love.

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Myths about research cultures

Water Dragon (Photo by Jonathan O'Donnell)

Water Dragon (Photo by Jonathan O’Donnell)

As I was digesting information about the funding cuts a few weeks ago, I read Kate Bowles’ considered piece on the folly of applying an “efficiency dividend” to higher education.

At the time, I wanted to blog more specifically on the idea of applying such a mechanistic and corrosive idea as an “efficiency dividend” to research institutions and the effect it would have on research cultures.

When I sat down to type it up, I realised that it would be a long, tedious rant that no-one would want to read.

What I thought might be more useful is a post focused on myths about research cultures, and letting these cultures’ specific, complex forms speak for themselves.

Universities and institutes scrambling for pieces of the (often shrinking) grant pie is a narrative as old as time. OK, maybe not quite that old, but certainly old enough to scar the past few generations of academics and researchers. There’s the constant hope for a slice of the grant pie; sometimes, we make do with crumbs and, at other times, we go hungry.

As the pressures of chasing the funding dragon bite deeper into research organisations, many in senior roles talk ever more loudly about building research capacity and structuring researcher development. These strategies are meant to result in better and more research wins (and outputs), and institutional hopes of establishing a research workforce that’s upwardly mobile for excellence metrics (e.g. Excellence in Research for Australia) or other metrics that might come out of the oven.

Before I spend too much time mixing metaphors about dragons, pies, and baking, here are five myths about research cultures I want to debunk:

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Academic fandom

Constellation of starfish (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

There’s a story I tell about one of my first ever international conferences, which I attended as a PhD student, where I heard about a colleague hanging out with one of my academic heroes. Let’s call him Prof GM (short for Global Modernity). In this colleague’s story, Prof GM was in board-shorts. At a Hawai’ian beach.

I was so envious.

Not because I would’ve had anything intelligent or engaging to say to Prof GM, but just because I would’ve gotten to see the ‘realness’ of that person. Luckily for Prof GM, I’m less the Kathy ‘Misery’ Bates kind of fan, and more the Wayne’s World type (‘We’re not worthy!‘ [YouTube vid]).

As much as we may want to eschew the idea, there are academic celebrities. I don’t mean the ‘media stars’ and leviathans of productivity that we hear and gossip about. I mean the intellectual and theory heroes that we all have: people whose work becomes the foundation of much of our subsequent academic thinking, and even oblique career enablers. They are the ones who think the thoughts and frameworks that we hang our theoretical hats on (or wish we’d come up with…!).

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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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Leaders – what are they good for?

Cat herding (Photo sourced from http://www.flickr.com/photos/ceardach/)

Everyone seems to think that there’s a dearth of academic research leadership.

From the Group of Eight (Go8) in Australia to the most modest research universities, this seems to be a common and constant refrain.

Can this desirable species of academic be that scarce? Are they endangered? Do we need breeding populations in academic zoos?*

Once upon a time, while I was cloistered with a pride of executive research leader-types, I thought a lot about this. Partly out of necessity because we were pinned by the exhortive gaze of the facilitator, and partly because it was a good opportunity for revisiting my own experiences of ‘being led’.

What is good research leadership? How do you define, produce, and replicate it?

What did I find most effective in academic leaders when I was an early career researcher (ECR) and trying to find my feet in the shifting sands of academia?

I’ll tell you about that soon, but what I realised when I started on this post was this: there are two sets of ‘leaders’ I appreciated, and they drew from a pool of similar, but not identical, traits. They also operated at different levels and had contrasting goals.

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The labyrinth of research

Rod Pitcher (@RodPitcher100) is a PhD student in Education at The Centre for Higher Education, Learning and Teaching at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. The focus of his study is the metaphors that researchers use when describing their research.


The ornate textured surface of a bronze urn

Surface of an Urn by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

The labyrinth or maze is a very good metaphor for research. Solving the labyrinth and reaching the middle is similar to solving the problems of research and producing a result.

Finding a starting point to the labyrinth is not usually a problem, since one is probably standing at the entrance.

Similarly, finding a topic for research is not usually very difficult. Topics crop up in one’s work continually. The only difficulty is deciding which one to do first.

The labyrinth winds and meanders all over the place, often in circles, while one is looking for a way that leads somewhere. Some paths that open up have to be investigated to see if they lead anywhere useful.

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What is research?

A Scrabble board covered in words

End of the game, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

We all know what research is – it’s the thing we do when we want to find something out. It is what we are trained to do in a PhD program. It’s what comes before development.

The wonderful people at Wordnet define research as

Noun: systematic investigation to establish facts; a search for knowledge.

Verb: attempt to find out in a systematically and scientific manner; inquire into.

An etymologist might tell us that it comes from the Old French word cerchier, to search, with re- expressing intensive force. I guess it is saying that before 1400 in France, research meant to search really hard.

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