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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You are more than your FoR code

Photo by Coley Christine Catalano - http://coleyslocket.com/ (Sourced from unsplash.com)

Photo by Coley Christine Catalano – http://coleyslocket.com/
(Sourced from unsplash.com)

Do you publish in books and journals that you think are best for your work?

While this may come across as a dense question, it’s a live and thorny issue for many scholars who are caught in national ‘research quality’ metrics that rank publications, particularly journals.

@thesiswhisperer commented recently that “[c]lassifying my publications by FOR code makes me look like a person who can’t make up their mind what they want to do”.

The title for this post paraphrases @jod999, who responded wisely with: “Your success says a lot more than your #FoR codes. Just keep doing what you do.”

If you haven’t yet encountered a national research quality exercise, I have two things to say to you:

  1. Congratulations – you still walk in the light; and
  2. If you’re hoping to hang in academia for a bit, read on to work out how you might negotiate these research quality systems when they cross your radar.

Research quality exercises are created as standardised, supposedly objective modes of measuring the quality of research being produced by research organisations (and, down the ladder, by individual researchers).

The systems are also constantly embroiled in passionate debate about their viability, accuracy, and scope. Is research output the best way to measure research quality? Dare we talk about research impact? What do citations really measure about a piece of work? How much ‘gaming’ of the system, for its own sake, takes place?

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Embracing the shiny

Water glitter (Sourced from G. Crouch on flickr [http://www.flickr.com/photos/crouchy69] Used under CC-A-NC licence - http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/deed.en

Water glitter (Sourced from G. Crouch on flickr [http://www.flickr.com/photos/crouchy69]
Used under CC BY-NC 2.0 licence – http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/deed.en

There are times when I sit before the screen and feel that I have nothing to say that would be useful to anyone. This was one of those times.

The Pomodoro ticked on, and I had my fingers hovering over the keyboard but nothing spreading across the screen.

There wasn’t a lot happening in my hamster-wheel of a brain, nothing worth putting down for others to read.

Then, mid-Pomodoro, a bunch of performative, loud, and inane people sat right next to me and I started shooting them dagger-glances. They were saying obnoxious and half-sentence things to each other, as close friends tend to do.

As my resentment for their ruining of my (unproductive) zen started to level out, I thought about the limitations of such insular dynamics. The hamster wheel started turning. I thought about other situations where insular dynamics can hold us back.  This spurred me to write about why healthy academic networks need a mix of the old and the new.

Academic networks are most useful when they contain a delicate blend: a consistent core who know how to get things done, those with new ideas, those with discipline history, and new members to flag potential new directions and perspectives. Read more of this post

Best things we learned in 2013

From the tree #allthedecorations (Photo courtesy of Kim Tairi: http://www.flickr.com/photos/angels_have_the_phone_box)

From the tree #allthedecorations (Photo courtesy of Kim Tairi: http://www.flickr.com/photos/angels_have_the_phone_box)

As the Research Whisperers, people often assume we know everything.

This can be a very useful fiction to maintain, no doubt about it.

One of Tseen’s immediate colleagues has commented that she has perfected a ‘knowing nod’ that conveys all manner of things: ‘yes, I know’, ‘I’m onto it’, ‘totally understand’, ‘yes, you do need to read those guidelines…’.

What we don’t often get the chance to detail, though, is what WE have learned through running this blog.

It’s a constant source of information, points-of-view, great links, and projects. We feel very much a part of an international community that’s obsessed about #highered and #academia, and – even though we may #loveHE – it’s healthy to have a warts’n all view of the sector and its possibilities. That’s why #altac and #postac feature in our social media streams and on the blog.

Many of our readers and collaborators have become part of our #circleofniceness (cf. one of Thesis Whisperer’s big posts this year, on academics behaving badly).

It can also be a great source of envy. For example, Tseen seeing #ecrchat and various research networks focused on her research topic take off and wishing there was something like that when she was going through her blurry, tentative ECR days.

So, what is the best thing we’ve each learned this year?

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Why bother with research engagement?

Mark Hamann (James Cook University)After working for both NGOs and government, Mark Hamann is now a researcher and lecturer at James Cook University in Townsville.

His research interests cross several disciplines but generally relate to marine wildlife ecology, marine and freshwater turtle biology, marine wildlife management, conservation biology, and the impacts of plastic pollution on marine ecosystems.

Most of Mark’s current research projects are conducted with partners from government, industry, NGOs and Indigenous communities. He spends a considerable amount of his time talking about science and science delivery with his collaborators.

Last year, Mark participated in “I’m a Scientist get me out of here” and he was introduced to the world of online science communication. 

Mark tweets from @turtlesatJCU.


We already engage all the time. It’s a part of family life, work, and our everyday relationships.

Weave mandala (Photo courtesy of Mr Greenjeans on flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gaylon)

Weave mandala (Photo courtesy of Mr Greenjeans on flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gaylon)

Engagement describes a journey; it is about building a conversation, a friendship, trust and – ultimately – a working relationship.

But why do we need to do it? And how do we, as scientists, engage? Do the ways in which a researcher might engage differ from how we engage with friends and family?

In a professional sense, scientists need to engage across many sectors of society. They need to do this to keep their work relevant, market themselves and their research potential, and create networks that help build a career, another’s career, foster collaborations, or to assist in government decision-making processes.

General engagement models consist of a series of stages that shift the relationship from Information sharing through to Empowerment (Information – Consult – Involve – Collaborate – Empower). With empowerment comes a traditional relationship with shared deliberations, shared goals, and ultimately the shifting of power for making decisions from one party to another. The goal of an engagement exercise might not necessarily be Empowerment, but it is a highly sought-after endpoint in many community-based projects. It is certainly true, for example, in community-based management of natural spaces.

Many people have an intrinsic ability to engage, especially in a public arena, yet struggle in a professional setting. Getting it more right than wrong requires practice, patience, and risk.

In 2001, I had just started a working on a project to set up a sea turtle monitoring project in a remote part of Northern Australia. It was a short, one-year project to collect biological data from turtles so we could fill an important knowledge gap for their management. The challenge for me was that I had never been to an Indigenous community and had little knowledge of how to even begin.

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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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Writing for scientific publication: 3 common mistakes

Marc BaldwinMarc D. Baldwin is the founder & CEO of Edit911 Editing Service. He is also Professor of English at Hillsborough Community College and a published author.

You can find more of his writing and editing advice on the Edit911 blog.


One of the most important things you will do as a scientist or researcher is publish your work. It isn’t just a matter of sharing information—an integral part of the scientific process—it’s also about furthering your career.

Publishing your work in a scientific journal is a requirement toward earning a graduate degree at some institutions. Beyond graduation, getting published is necessary for a career in academia and, increasingly, in industry as well.

I have proofread and reviewed hundreds of original manuscripts in my career as a research scientist and lecturer. I’ve noticed over the years that most mistakes can be placed into a few simple categories. In this article, I will discuss the Top 3 writing errors I encounter when reviewing manuscripts submitted for publication to scientific journals.
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