Against exhaustion

Deborah BrianDeborah Brian is Senior Research Administration Officer in the School of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering at The University of Queensland. She coordinates grant applications and research activities for a diverse group of engineering and computer science academics, with a focus on supporting early career researchers. In her alternate (academic) existence, she is an anthropologist and archaeologist with research interests in Indigenous cultural heritage and the construction of social memories, histories, and identities. Deb has been one of RW’s featured RO Peeps She tweets – entirely too much – at @deborahbrian.


Image courtesy of Deborah Brian.

Image courtesy of Deborah Brian.

Now, it might be because I was in the final throes of #grantfest, but when Jonathan Laskovsky’s piece on exhaustion popped up on Twitter this morning, it made me want to hurl my iPad across the room. And I love my iPad.

I won’t tell you what I said then, or what I was still muttering under my breath when I finished reading the post, but I will say this: PLEASE DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME!

Instead, I want to offer three pieces of advice for those struggling through the genuinely exhausting process of writing grant and fellowship applications, which for reasons unknown, always seem to be due all at once.

Follow these three simple rules to give yourself the best shot of: a) writing a decent grant or fellowship application, b) not pissing off your colleagues and support staff, and c) coming out alive. READ MORE

What’s your plan beyond 2015?

Mathematical formula written on a folding paper fan

Numbers on a fan, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

I’m keen on planning for the future. Whether it is a plan for the near future, like a to-do list, or a plan for the far future, like a bucket list, I’m in favour of it. In part, that is because research funding is all about planning for the future.

A long time ago, when I was just a young whisperer, I used to feel guilty when I had to prod researchers to write funding applications. They were all enormously busy. A common refrain was “I don’t have time for research.”

Then a wonderful physicist, Bill van Megen, changed my attitude. Exactly what he said to me is now lost in time, but it was something like this:

I enjoy writing grant applications. It’s the only time I ever get to plan for the future. The rest of the time I’m either working on experiments or writing up experiments. Grant applications let me think about what comes next.

He was right. More importantly, as an activity, research enquiry inhabits the tension between the past and the future. Most of the time we are looking at the past: What happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen? But at the same time we have our eye on the future. That is, will it happen again?

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Planning ways to make your research happen

Carousel (Photo courtesy of Dominic Alves on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dominicspics)

Carousel (Photo courtesy of Dominic Alves on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dominicspics)

If I had a dollar for every time a researcher declared: “But why didn’t I know about this funding scheme? It’s perfect for my research!”…

In the depths of ARC Linkage and Future Fellowships (and other ‘major’ schemes), I often think of the myriad other schemes out there that require less of their applications, that prioritise different aspects of the research project or the research team.

There are some researchers who should be applying for these other schemes, because  ‘major’ grants are not a possibility. We should say this more often, but we don’t, probably because we have put the major research council grants on a pedestal.

These researchers may be academics from teaching-intensive backgrounds or teaching-intensive institutions. They might have had sustained career interruptions, or come to the research institution from industry/community. There are many reasons, and this may warrant a whole post by itself.

What I wanted to write about in this post is thinking broadly about funding your research, and creating a research plan for it.

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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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Conquer the budget, conquer the project

It pleases me no end to begin with this tweet:

“Budget is a proxy for project planning” says Aidan Byrne: inaccurate budgets indicate project not well thought through
— Dr Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer)

Aidan Byrne is the Australian Research Council’s CEO, and @thesiswhisperer livetweeted his presentation from the ANU Acton campus. The talk brimmed with tasty morsels for the Research Whisperers to chew on and, having half-written this entry already, it seemed an opportune time to get it out there!

What spurred me to write this post?

Not the bottom line (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Not the bottom line (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

The fact that just about everyone leaves the grant budget till last.

No matter how many times I bring it up with researchers and their teams, and encourage early tackling of the budget, the poor thing ends up being rushed through, thrown together, or created from the ether.

This isn’t good for it. It can get resentful and make your entire application ineligible if you don’t pay enough attention.

This year’s ARC DECRA (ECR award), for example, has a ceiling of $131,740 per year in funding – over $90K of which goes towards the awardee’s salary. This leaves up to $40K as project costs. That’s it. You can’t argue for more; that’s just what the scheme is. If your project doesn’t fit into this budget, then this scheme may not be for you, or you would need to scaffold the project funding with commitment from other sources.

Many view the budget as a poor cousin to the regal elements of ‘track-record’ and ‘project description’, but they do it a disservice. The humble budget, properly conceived and executed, can be the foundation and catalyst for project efficiency and team bonding.

Finding that hard to believe?

Read on, because here are five ways that conquering your budget can help you conquer the project (or your grant application, at least):

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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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Picking up the pieces

Gingerbreak man (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Gingerbreak man (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

So, you’ve lost out on the major grant rounds for last year. It only took about eight months to find out, right?

Often, you’ve waited with all of your career possibilities riding on the outcome.

And you got nothing.

As the congratulatory emails, posts, and drinkies ramped up, it was easy to get a little bitter and twisted about the whole thing. Of course, you’re happy for your diligent and savvy colleagues who were given recognition but…what about you?

I can say that I truly understand how you feel. I threw my hat in the major grants and fellowship rings many times; very few times was I successful.

I’m writing this post for you to read after you’ve had a few weeks to get over the angst and disappointment of not scoring a grant, hopefully had a break, and been able to take a step back.

If you’re going to persist in the academic caper, it’s very useful to find a constructively destructive way to channel that post-grant-announcement frustration and anger, that feeling that you’ve been cheated. I would suggest gardening or metal-smithing; anything that allows you to wield tools or make loud noises.

There are no guarantees about winning the grants race, but you can do your best to ensure you make it through the heats.

Top 5 things to pick up the pieces, post-grant-unsuccess:

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Getting the jump on 2013

Ce-le-brate. You. Must. Ce-le-brate.  (Photo courtesy of Catriona Mills)

Ce-le-brate. You. Must. Ce-le-brate.
(Photo courtesy of Catriona Mills)

With the atmosphere in most workplaces already in holiday mode, it can be hard to keep track of our research, or even pick up that next article to read.

While taking a break and recharging over the holidays is essential for good research practice and life balance, there are some things you can do right now – pre-holidays – to get a head-start on your research in the new year.

If you’re able to push aside the tinsel and dodge the flashing lights for this final burst of productivity, here are each of the Research Whisperers’ Top 3 End-of-Year research tips.

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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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ERA: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Associate Professor Peter Macauley (RMIT University)

Associate Professor Peter Macauley teaches in the information management programs at RMIT University. Before starting at RMIT, he worked for 30 years in public, special and university libraries.

Over the past decade Peter’s research has focused on doctoral pedagogy, knowledge production, information literacy, scholarly communication and distance education.

With colleagues, he has been awarded ARC funding for two Discovery projects: ‘Australian doctoral graduates’ publication, professional and community outcomes’, and ‘Research capacity-building: the development of Australian PhD programs in national and emerging global contexts’. He publishes regularly in journals best suited to the readership for his research; some happen to be ERA-ranked A and A* on the 2010 list.

The Research Whisperer knows Peter as one of the good guys: a researcher with integrity and perspective, who tells it like it is. 


Problematica (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

ERA, which stands for ‘Excellence in Research for Australia’, is similar in many ways to research frameworks used in other countries to evaluate the quality (and sometimes quantity) of the research output of universities and—indirectly—individuals.

In the United Kingdom, they have REF (the Research Excellence Framework); in New Zealand, it is the PBRF (Performance Based Research Fund), and many other countries have similar schemes.

In this post, I focus on the journal ranking component of ERA.

Officially, the ERA journal rankings were abandoned after the first round of evaluation in 2010. Unofficially, the ERA journal rankings are alive and well and used for all the reasons they were withdrawn: job applications, promotions, grant applications and other forms of peer review (the bedrock of academe).

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