Seven issues in community-based research practice – Part 2

Daniel Reeders writes social marketing and public health strategy for a living.  He writes a blog, Bad Blood, about stigma and public health, and tweets as @onekind, for fun.

He has a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws (Melbourne) and is currently enrolled in a Masters in Public Health at a university he prefers not to name in case he decides to write about it.


Safety first (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Safety first (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

As mentioned in Part 1, these posts are a personal account based on things that went awry in my experience of community-based research. I have listed a couple of dot points on practical steps readers might consider to manage the risks I encountered, in case you are contemplating or currently working in a community-based research role.

I’m also keen to hear other experiences and perspectives of this form of research practice, either in the comments or by e-mail. A quick note: I never write or blog about my current place of work, and I’d encourage commenters to de-identify your own places of work.

Points 1-3 cover supervision, ethics and discipline, and they appear in Part 1.

4. Ownership

This is an extremely vexed issue in community-based research practice. In a community organisation the board will have a policy on who can speak on the organisation’s behalf. This is typically restricted to senior management.

Senior managers in some organisations misuse these policies, and require their staff to publish articles and submit conference abstracts in the senior managers’ names.

In this situation, working in that role will damage your career by creating a publication gap, and it will doubtless corrode your motivation as well.

  • Prevent: negotiate before starting – Who owns the work and end products? Who can put their name to it? What happens when you leave? Can you publish from it?

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Seven issues in community-based research practice – Part 1

Daniel Reeders writes social marketing and public health strategy for a living.  He writes a blog, Bad Blood, about stigma and public health, and tweets as @onekind, for fun.

He has a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws (Melbourne) and is currently enrolled in a Masters in Public Health at a university he prefers not to name in case he decides to write about it.


Safety first (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Safety first (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

I got started in community-based research more or less by accident. I had always used interviews and focus groups as a social marketer in HIV prevention, but I could see neglected issues in my field of practice that seemed to warrant in-depth investigation.

They involved personally catastrophic but fairly uncommon events in small groups, such as HIV infection among gay and bisexual men from migrant and refugee backgrounds.

Survey and statistical methods can’t get much purchase on rare events in small groups of vulnerable people, but funders and service providers were nonetheless waiting for what they considered ‘real’ research to quantify the issue before taking action.

I wanted to break this impasse, even if it meant producing research that doesn’t count as ‘evidence’. Something is better than nothing, right?*

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Get me a project manager, stat!

Underside of a Roman arch, showing the keystone in the centre

Keystone (Photo by Jonathan O’Donnell)

A while back, one of our Twitter followers asked whether The Research Whisperer had any posts about project management.

At the time, I could only think of @jod999’s megastar post about what a Gantt chart is, and mine on whether you can fix a broken Gantt chart.

While Jonathan’s post was about planning and putting in place a feasible and ideal timeline, mine talked about the common mistakes and remedies for timelines that don’t behave.

Research projects are very much about project management, and that tweet nudged me in the direction of this post.

Project management skills are elements that many sectors require, and this means that there is a weighty bunch of pixels already dedicated to the topic. For a great recent post on research project management, read @evalantsoght’s “Smart way to manage a large research project” at the Next Scientist blog.

Rather than rehearse what many others have already said (better than I could), I want to focus on someone  you should consider requesting as part of a major research grant:

Get yourself a project officer or a project manager. 

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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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What can an academic sponsor do for me?

Be excellent (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

I heard about academic sponsoring through a Canadian colleague, Jo VanEvery, who participates in the #femlead chat. The conversation I caught was a few months ago, and the discussion about sponsorship was almost right at the end – curses on timezones! – but I was intrigued by the idea of it.

We’ve mostly heard of mentoring, and often coaching, for academic careers, but sponsoring is something that isn’t really on the Australian academic radar.

In fact, I hadn’t heard of it at all, and understood ”sponsoring’ mostly as material support for events and (sports) teams.

So, first up, what is academic sponsoring? As far as I can tell, academic sponsoring and mentoring share some territory, but sponsoring is a much more directed and concrete dynamic. It’s when someone vouches for you by putting you forward for an opportunity.

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Cheap and satisfying: Building a research network on a shoestring

People grouped around a table, working hard

Heads down, by Jonathan O'Donnell on Flickr

Do you feel theoretically lonely? Desperate for focused intellectual companionship? Do you keep having to explain what your study area is, and what it isn’t?

That was me in the late 1990s while I was a doctoral student. I was at a good institution that supported postgraduates well, my supervisor was fabulous and lovely, and I had a savvy cohort of peers.

Why the whingeing, then?

There was no-one in my department, or faculty, who worked even broadly in the area that I was in. That’s part of the joy of being a doctoral student: you’re pioneering new fields, making connections that no-one else has done before, and creating new knowledge (to use an academic weasel-phrase). What this often means, though, is that you don’t have the specific kind of intellectual support and critique that you may crave.

I know I craved it. Along with a steady wage. And job options; just one job option would’ve been welcome, really…

ANYWAY, moving on:

This post is about how to build and maintain a successful research network when you don’t really have any money attached to it. Why would you bother running a research network when you’re already overburdened with Other Important Things?

  • If you run a good network that embraces community/creatives as well as academics (at all levels), the spin-offs in terms of community engagement and connections is big. Not to mention much more fun.
  • Running a network well demonstrates skills in project management and planning, liaising/negotiation and initiative.
  • Setting something up that puts your research area on the map is academic leadership; the most important part of this is sustaining it until the area has a chance to establish.

Those are the benefits that I’ve accrued, in 20/20 hindsight.

This is how it actually happened:

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To Prof, or not to Prof

There are some days when you just know you’re inviting the pitching of rotten cabbages.

I hope this is not one of them.

I’ve attended a large number of early career researcher (ECR) events in recent times as RMIT University has a new and active ECR Network (login required), which is finding its feet, prioritising what it might do, and all those other exciting things that take place when initiatives take flight. The great thing that I’ve seen happen is ECRs feeling more empowered by knowledge and excited about their career plans and research activities. Most importantly, in my view, they also start seeing what it means to show research leadership and foster a positive research environment.

I’m speaking in this post mostly from my own experiences in academia as a research fellow, and as someone who started a research network where membership is overwhelmingly from PhD students and other ECRs. Over the years, as I’ve listened to extremely accomplished professorial researchers, ECRs, professional staff, and academic consultants, there has been a refrain that has become louder. It has always bothered me, and now it’s bothered me enough that you get a post about it.

That refrain is:

For ECRs to get anywhere, they must resign themselves to years of intellectual and organisational exploitation by senior academics.

For example, the refrain says that ECRs should expect to:

  • Do most of the work in any collaboration.
  • Assume that they must put senior colleagues’ names first on grants and publications.
  • Cultivate ‘up’ so that established researchers will want to work with you.
  • Have to do research ‘freebies’ for senior academics to lay the foundations for future collaborative possibilities.

I’m not saying that any of these things are necessarily heinous acts, but ECRs may benefit from taking a step back to consider their broader research plans and strategies before bowing to what they are told is the inevitable.

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Run a workshop, build a network

Post-it notes detailing impacts of global warming on Vietnam.

Impacts by Jonathan O'Donnell, on Flickr

There are lots of reasons to run a workshop: A new research direction or government policy, a need for some strategic thinking, or a conundrum to tussle over. Whatever the reason, a small workshop can be a stimulating and refreshing way to bring people together. You can take your eyes off the daily grind and take stock of what is going on around you.

However, if you decide to organise a workshop, you don’t necessarily want to take on the organisational grind on top of your daily grind. Keep it simple.

Here are my top five tips for keeping workshop organisation to a minimum:

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