Hardest things we learned in 2014

The Research Whisperers have had a big year, both on the blog and Twitter, and in their everyday whispering jobs.

This year saw an increasing number of Research Whisperer gigs where lovely people invited us to speak about research + social media, crowdfunding, precarious academic workers, and strategies for grant funding.

We had a lot of fun at these events, and it has been a privilege and pleasure to be involved.

We like the idea of pausing and reflecting and the last post for the year is a good time for it. Last year, we talked about what was best for us in 2013.

This year, we thought we’d talk about what was hardest.

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Escaping the ivory tower- if only for a little while

dani-barringtonDr Dani Barrington is a Research Fellow jointly appointed by Monash University and the International WaterCentre.

Her work focuses on water and sanitation in developing communities, meaning she is often referred to as ‘The Toilet Lady’ by strangers and ‘Sani Dani’ by at least one of her friends.

She tweets at @Dani_Barrington.


Detail of Borugak Jagyeongnu, an enormous Korean water clock

The water clock, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Put your hand up if you feel guilty leaving the office at 5pm.

Keep it up if you feel it makes you a ‘bad’ academic.

I realised a few weeks ago that I consider myself a ‘bad’ academic for having a healthy work-life balance. And this really p*ssed me off.

I made a deal with my supervisor when I decided to apply for a PhD: I was over the undergraduate student lifestyle, and I would only do a PhD if I could treat it as a ‘real’ job, where I worked normal hours and took normal holidays.

Otherwise, I was going to accept a graduate position in an engineering firm (the fact that professional engineers may not have a healthy work-life balance was not apparent to me on graduating in 2007, pre-Global Financial Crisis, especially when taking an engineering position in Perth seemed the ‘safe’ option).

I LOVED studying for my PhD – I was making a fortune (well, compared to my previous casual income of $100 a week plus Youth Allowance), I got to work on stuff I was interested in, and I travelled overseas to conferences.

Yet, throughout my PhD, I kept attending seminars where I was reminded that if I wanted to continue in academia I was going to have to dedicate my entire life to the cause, including working weekends and potentially neglecting family obligations.

As a result, I wasn’t that interested in staying in academia when I finished my PhD.

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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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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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Lost and found

Balloon man (Photo by Jonathan O'Donnell)

Balloon man (Photo by Jonathan O’Donnell)

A few things happened last week that made this post both easier and harder to write.

What made it easier was that I had done a quick canvas of my colleagues about topics they’d like to see addressed on Research Whisperer. Susan Leong (@susanmeeleong), a member of my research network, wrote:

“Not sure if this has been addressed but I often have to remind myself why research matters beyond the Excellence for Research in Australia (ERA) rankings.

That it is worthwhile choosing the not-so-sexy trending areas to study.

Because once we enter into the borg of academia, it seems that is all it counts for, that and tarting ideas up for funding.”

Right, I thought. That’s not hard. Writing about why we have a passion for research will be easy.

So, I planned a post on why the research caper can be so rewarding, despite the constant institutional pressures and uncertainties. How you can lose track of time in the excitement of delving into a subject, and finding and collaborating with smart colleagues. The thrill of road-testing ideas and new topics at conferences, and weaving the feedback into future papers. The luxury of being paid for your intellectual work and its whims.

There was even a post recently by E. J. Milner-Gulland (@EJMilnerGulland) on why she loves her job in academia at the Imperial College Conservation Science group’s blog. She described why she appreciated the academic environment this way:

“It’s exciting to collaborate with people who I admire, developing new ways of thinking, particularly interdisciplinary projects when I can be stretched by understanding their perspectives and analytical tools. I also think I’m well paid, well supported and that universities try hard to recognise the constraints of childcare and other barriers to success.”

I also had an anecdote lined up about how ‘un-sexy’ topics can become government priorities and suddenly have a lot of grant money thrown at them.

Then I had a long phone call with one of my closest academic colleagues that derailed my neatly planned post.

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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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Five ways to make a difference

Sticky notes listing impacts of climate change.

Impacts, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

We aren’t here just to generate papers, people.

We’re here to make a difference, to improve things.

Heaven knows, there are enough issues out there that need our help!

If your research sits within the academy, being cited by other researchers, then you might get a promotion. But you probably won’t make a difference.

Here are five ways you can get out there and help put your research into action. Read more of this post

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