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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Stepping out from the screen

#shutupandwrite (Photo by @thesiswhisperer)

Many of us are very proud of our virtual lives; some smugly so. I love social media, and am a great advocate of building a convincing and professional digital identity.

The transformation and enhancement of academic networks – whether you develop them over the years or hours – is there for the taking. Anyone with a bit of  initiative to explore and develop their presence consistently and astutely can ‘make it’.

Social media has fast-tracked my profile-building and sector expertise in a whole new profession in unprecedented ways; it has been immensely fun, and satisfying to feel as if I have a handle on the field after a year and a half in it. A small handle, it must be said, but a handle, nonetheless!

In Inger ‘The Thesis Whisperer‘ Mewburn’s case, her online profile and expertise has garnered professional rewards beyond her time in academe. As she has said:

I have had access to opportunities usually reserved for more experienced players. It would take me at least 10 years to achieve this kind of status and recognition through the normal academic ‘fame’ channels of citations and conference attendances. (On the right side of the digital divide)

When done with the right level of engagement, these kinds of interactions can easily become the majority of our networking and collaborative activities. Indeed, among colleagues in a single unit, it can be their prime form of communication day-to-day, with nary a glimpse caught of each other as they rush from class to meeting to working group to seminar.

There are times, however, when I wonder whether the case still needs to be made for regular face-to-face time (what’s that graphic and memorable term, gifted to us by cyberpunk fiction – meatspace?). Could it mean the difference between resolving and exploding certain situations?

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How my research changed my life

Rod Pitcher is a PhD student in Education at The Centre for Educational Development and Academic Methods at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. The focus of his study is the metaphors that doctoral students use when describing their research and other matters related to their studies. He uses metaphor analysis to arrive at an understanding the students’ conceptions.


A tightly closed rosebud, full of promise

Rosebud by aussiegall on Flickr

Research changes the researcher. It’s not only a matter of gaining more knowledge – doing research changes the researcher as a person. That might be obvious, but why and how does it change the person?

Doing research is an emotional as well as an intellectual occupation. It involves feelings, as well as thinking. We make every effort to keep our feelings from influencing the results but we can’t keep ourselves from being affected personally by the work and results of the research.

Because of the nature of my PhD, I am writing my thesis in the form of a story about my research, including how it has changed me. My research uses metaphor analysis to understand students’ conceptions as expressed in an on-line survey in which they answered questions about their research. I extract the metaphors and then consider what they tell me about the people who answered the survey and their conceptions. Metaphors are very useful in this way as they express some of the personality of the person and provide insights into their thinking.

Searching for metaphors in my survey responses has heightened my sensitivity to them. I am now more aware of them in my own speech and writing and those of other people. This has changed my own ways of talking and writing because I feel the need to control my own use of metaphors.

When talking to other people or reading their work I take more notice of the metaphors they use. I will often think ahead in the sentence to see what metaphors are likely to appear. This can sometimes interfere with my understanding as I am concentrating on the metaphors more than the sense of the sentence. I find this particularly galling when reading fiction – I find myself critiquing the author’s use of metaphors and suggesting, in my mind, alternatives that could have been used and which might have given a more picturesque or colourful view and better understanding of the topic. I am certainly more sensitive to the colour added to the sentence by the metaphors, but I am also, with part of my mind, analysing the person’s use of metaphors and trying to attribute meaning to it.

In my own writing and speaking I tend to look ahead and notice if any metaphors are on the horizon. I then often make an effort to avoid using them for fear that I am revealing something about myself that I don’t want to give away. I find that this happens both in my academic and non-academic communications. I know that the metaphors reveal the user’s inner thoughts and emotions, as they have done in the survey responses. It is not so much that I want to hide my inner thoughts as a desire not to let out too much of myself for public view, since I am very much an introvert and private person. It sometimes makes my writing or speaking a little stilted as I try to quickly rephrase the sentence to avoid the metaphor. Sometimes I have to allow myself to consciously insert a metaphor so that the sentence makes sense or so that meaning and colour is added to it. And sometimes I use metaphors because I feel the need to aid my audience’s understanding of what I’m trying to say.

This change in me also reflects a change in my attitude to the participants in my research. I have come to realise how valuable they are to me. Without them I would have no data to analyse, but I now see them as people rather than just sources of data. The act of observing my participants and analysing the data they provide has changed my attitude towards them.

If you think about your own research and its implications you will find that you have been changed by it. If it is obvious that observation changes the observed then it should also be obvious that it changes the observer. How have you been changed by your research? Hopefully, for the better.

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