It’s not you, it’s me

Prebake diversity (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Prebake diversity (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Does like attract like?

I’ve had a majority of introverted friends in my life. My most enduring friendships are with those who are poster-children for Susan Cain’s book, Quiet.

As we now know, because internet checklists and Cain keep telling us, no-one is ever 100% introvert or extrovert – we have tendencies towards each type, and there are some of us who can move between them such that the category of ‘ambiverts’ has now entered the conversation.

William Pannapacker wrote an excellent piece about academic introversion in 2012, which discussed the rewarded behaviours of academia, as well as how students’ academic participation is valued (i.e. through visible, heard contributions). His sketch of ‘wallflower’ students and how they can shut down and disengage reflected aspects my university student experience all too well (my personal blog post “Once a wallflower” gives you the goods on this front).

I recently attended a conference with my new job hat on. It was a conference I’d never been to before: the biennial Quality in Postgraduate Research (QPR) conference in Adelaide.

This post gives you an insight into the contrasts between how an extrovert and an introvert approach the conferencing game. Many thanks to Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer) for playing along!

Now, to the conference! [Bonus: there's a quiz!]


How to chair

Lion tamer (Sourced from Wikimedia Commons:

Lion tamer (Sourced from Wikimedia Commons:

What’s worse than having to give a conference paper in front of my esteemed colleagues?

I’d say it’s chairing these esteemed colleagues!

Through my years of presenting at and convening conferences, I have always had one greater fear than being the paper-giver and that was being the chair. It feels pathetic to admit this, but the responsibility of chairing brought all my apprehensions about public speaking to the fore.

When giving a paper, I’m usually anxious about “question and answer” (Q&A) time – the Wild West of conference moments (right next to the conference dinner…). It was a time over which you had little control over what might be thrown at you. You couldn’t plan for it. My imagination (which is excellent, by the way), conceived of all manner of intellectual take-downs and derisive snorts about my conclusions.

These preoccupied me such that I wrote about my strategies for handling Q&A.

Chairing taps into all my existing anxieties: it was a whole session where you weren’t necessarily in control of what people might say or do, but this is specifically what you are tasked with as the chair.

I’ve written before about how to build your conference karma (aka ‘how to make convenors love you’) and, spurred on by a recent query from my colleague Warren Staples (@warrenstaples), here’s a list of strategies I’d suggest to get you through a chairing gig.


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.


What I tweet

Captive audience (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

I’ve been asked several times recently about what I tweet and how I decide on things to push out there.

“How do you find so much stuff to say?” people ask, partly aghast, partly envious.

The questions were usually part of a broader conversation about social media and my enthusiastic embrace of Twitter. As well as my personal and Research Whisperer accounts, I maintain one for the research network I co-founded, the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN – @aasrn).

In any given week, I manage two Facebook pages, three Twitter accounts, and a website. This does not include the blogging and management of the Research Whisperer, or my personal blog.

What does this all mean (besides that Tseen is very good at over-committing herself)?

It means that I’ve become fairly good at dividing the streams of information for  different channels. It is, however, a constant learning process, and I’m still working out how to ‘clean up’ the demarcation between some accounts.

This post, focusing on Twitter, provides insight into how I’ve created the categories of information I do (and don’t) send out.


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…!).


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’.


Landing a big fish

A different kettle (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Conferences and symposiums live and die by the quality and wow-factor of their keynote speakers.

I’ve seen keynote line-ups that have me frantically searching for how to register, without caring how much it might cost. I felt I just had to be there to see that specific constellation of academic brains.

Securing keynote speakers is a process that isn’t particularly well covered in any career development material because it can be a niche concern.

For anyone who’s convened an event, though, it is the element that keeps you staring at ceilings until 4am in the morning, or has you tearing your hair out at your desk at 9pm at night.

Sometimes, securing keynotes can be ridiculously easy. One of the convening committee may know the perfect people – and I mean ‘know’ in the academic sense of having worked directly with them (e.g. as mentor/thesis examiner, co-editor, co-investigator).

This connected person just drops their high-flying buddies an email and – voila! – you have one or two stellar drawcards for your conference.

More often, however, you may have to take the more traditional and insecure route of a cold (occasionally tepid) approach, and invite Big Names with no ‘insider’ connections.

Here are my top five strategies for getting that Big Name to keynote at your event:


Making the right impression: Academic phone interviews

Holding pattern (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

This post comes about because of @emilyandthelime’s query about academic job-hunting and phone interviews. While Skype and video-conferencing are gaining ground, phone interviews still pop up regularly.

It’s stressful enough being on the job circuit, but scoring an interview where you won’t be flown in can ratchet up the angst.

We depend on visual cues (smiles, gestures) so much in making an impression that being bereft of these when doing a phone interview can be daunting. You might also feel that the candidates who are fronting up in person for their interview had a ‘home-ground’ advantage because they’re able to smooth their presence into and out of the interview. On the phone, you appear and disappear with a click.

Conversely, not having to be in the same room as an interview panel can feel less intimidating and allow you to perform better. This was something that I found and appreciated. And in the instance I’m thinking about, they gave me the job (which always helps me remember the interview fondly).

Here are my top strategies for making a great impression when interviewing by phone:


Rational responses to referees

Preliminary evidence appears to show that this approach to responding to referees is – on balance – probably sub-optimal. (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

This post is co-authored by Adam Golberg of Cash for Questions (UK), and Jonathan O’Donnell and Tseen Khoo of The Research Whisperer (Australia).

It arises out of a comment that Jonathan made about understanding and responding to referees on one of Adam’s posts about what to do if your grant application is unsuccessful. This seemed like a good topic for an article of its own, so here it is, cross-posted to our respective blogs.

A quick opening note on terminology: We use ‘referee’ or ‘assessor’ to refer to academics who read and review research grant applications, then feed their comments into the final decision-making process. Terminology varies a bit between funders, and between the UK and Australia. We’re not talking about journal referees, although some of the advice that follows may also apply there.


There are funding schemes that offer applicants the opportunity to respond to referees’ comments. These responses are then considered alongside the assessors’ scores/comments by the funding panel. Some funders (including the Economic and Social Research Council [ESRC] in the UK) have a filtering process before this point, so if you are being asked to respond to referees’ comments, you should consider it a positive sign as not all applications get this far. Others, such as the Australian Research Council (ARC), offer you the chance to write a rejoinder regardless of the level of referees’ reports.

If the funding body offers you the option of a response, you should consider your response as one of the most important parts of the application process.  A good response can draw the sting from criticisms, emphasise the positive comments, and enhance your chances of getting funding.  A bad one can doom your application.

And if you submit no response at all? That can signal negative things about your project and research team that might live on beyond this grant round.

The first thing you might need to do when you get the referees’ comments about your grant application is kick the (imaginary) cat.* This is an important process. Embrace it.


Spreading the editorial love

This is a post that complements my earlier ones about building your journal karma and being professionally judgemental.

Those were from the perspectives of someone who was submitting a paper to a journal or edited book collection, and an article reviewer, respectively.

This one is from the editor’s perspective. It won’t be as long as the other ones because, generally, there are fewer things an editor can get wrong.

In fact, some parts of this post are going to sound like an apologia for editors, and so be it. Being an editor can be prestigious, but it most often entails a LOT OF WORK, and a passion for seeing intellectual work (that is not your own!) travel and prosper.

With the pressure to publish and emphasis on getting your paper count up (as well as on the quality, of course…), it is becoming more difficult to find people willing to undertake the task of being an editor. An editorial role is not recognised in any significant way in Australia’s research quality measures (which is a major hypocrisy), or in many academic workloads. The quality of journals is heavily dependent on editorial oversight and engagement, yet these time-consuming and essential positions are given little recognition.

If you are one of these dedicated few who take up the mantle – whether it’s for an ongoing role with a serial publication, an edited book, or a journal special issue – here are some great ways to ensure there’s plenty of editorial love:



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