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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Open plan, not working

Nanobot protected cubicle (Photo by Kevin Trotman - https://www.flickr.com/photos/kt)

Nanobot protected cubicle (Photo by Kevin Trotman – https://www.flickr.com/photos/kt)

This post has taken me an eon to complete. Most of the time, when I’ve wrangled with it, my biggest difficulty was trying to find a rational voice to use.

Academics like to think of themselves as adding reasonable, informed voices to debates. Conflicts of interest and biases must be declared.

Instead of waiting for a rational voice, then, I’m just going to write this post and declare my huge bias against open plan offices.

If you follow me on Twitter and elsewhere, you’ll know that I’ve ranted consistently about them, and the weasel-worded reasoning that’s often presented as their justification. I’m writing from the perspective of a humanities/social sciences background academic, not someone who works in a lab-based or research-team environment (so, ymmv).

In May this year, Oliver Burkeman (Guardian) wrote a cracker of a piece against open plan offices and who they actually benefit (hint: not those in open plan). This arrangement of workers has become the norm for new offices in most sectors, and universities are no exception.

The reasons that are most often given to staff as the benefits of open plan include: free flow of ideas and heightened collaborative opportunities among staff, easier identification as a cohort with your colleagues (recognition of your ‘team’), and better communication overall because of frequency of seeing others. You’ll see that I’ve deliberately not used the word ‘synergies’.

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Raising the risk threshold

Sumo! (Photo by Tim Ellis: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tim_

Sumo! (Photo by Tim Ellis: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tim_ellis)

When you get rejected from a journal or conference, or your grant doesn’t get up, do you retreat to your cave?

Do you have a bit of a tantrum and declare ‘What’s the POINT?’ to innocent passers-by?

I’ve done my fair share of this, and it’s all perfectly normal and healthy for a time. But you have to eventually leave the cave and stop yelling at passersby.

I was talking to a colleague about academic resilience recently – the ability to ‘bounce back’ after papers are heavily criticised or rejected, grants not awarded, or promotions not given.

I’ve seen people respond so differently to these events, though they all start with the same fallen expression.

Some take the entire process as an indictment on their work and position within the field, swear off wasting their time with it all, and disengage.

Others revisit the critique and feedback, and start reworking their submission for the very next round.

Still others revisit the critique, acknowledge that the comments about track-record or scope of project (or whatever) have truth to them, and they take a step back to work up those aspects before investing more time in the application and submission (and waiting…) process.

These responses align with a particular researcher’s level of professional resilience and their ability to absorb setbacks. Someone who is a tenured professor, for example, has more opportunity to choose their response. Those in the research precariat or on fixed-term contracts, however, may not have the luxury of resubmission or reworking; there may be no support to do these things at all.

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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

How #altac research happens

kieranKieran Fenby-Hulse is the Researcher Development Officer at Bath Spa University (UK).

He is primarily responsible for delivering and developing research development workshops and online training materials to support both postgraduate researchers and research staff.

Kieran’s research interests include creative practice, cultural value, affective experiences, music, narrative, gender, and Hindi film.

He has a research blog, “Researching Music, Digital Media, and Film“, and tweets at @DrKFenbyHulse.

We were intrigued by Kieran’s profile apparent balance between his own research and role as a research developer, and asked if he’d like to tell us more about how he manages to find space for both.


When is a cat not a cat?  (Sourced from unsplash.com | Photographer: Ryan McGuire - http://www.laughandpee.com)

When is a cat not a cat?
(Sourced from unsplash.com | Photographer: Ryan McGuire – http://www.laughandpee.com)

The term ‘academic’ is often used as synonym for university lecturer.

A lecturing position is the expected career path for many postgraduates when they begin their PhD, and understood to represent the pinnacle of academic achievement; proof that it was all worth it in the end.

Times are changing. This is noticeable from the way in which funding bodies and national organisations such as Vitae, here in the UK, are offering advice and guidance to postgraduates on alternative career routes.

This is echoed by the appearance of the #altac and #postac hashtags on Twitter, which PhD students, postdocs, adjuncts, and other researchers are using to voice their interests and thoughts on pursuing alternative careers both within and outside of academia.

But do you leave academia behind when you leave the institution? Isn’t academia something that exists beyond bricks and mortar? And what of those that stay within higher education, but are not employed as lecturers or researchers? Are these people no longer academics? Have they become administrators overnight?

Should the title of academic be left at the gates of the department as you leave?

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