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 do research developers do?

Astroboy cake (Photo by Tseen Khoo; cake by Shayne Smail)

Astroboy cake (Photo by Tseen Khoo; cake by Shayne Smail)

Isn’t it brilliant when you learn something within a week of the new year?

When one of my academic buddies asked me in late 2013 what research developers are meant to do, I happily said, “Let me write a blogpost on that!”, and rubbed my hands with glee at the gift of an easy post to knock off in the new year.

I sat down to write this post, and was immediately bogged down in pondering the specificities and individualisation of the role. I realised that it wasn’t as straightforward as I’d thought.

Let me explain:

When I started this job three years ago (thank you, LinkedIn, for the congratulations), I was one of three research developers who were stepping into new positions. My Research Whisperer buddy @jod999 is another from this cohort. We each had responsibility for one of our institution’s colleges (similar to faculties). There was no-one there before us, and no standing expectations to fulfil.

There were expectations, of course, and these are otherwise known as our job descriptions.

As it turns out, though, each of us has cultivated different processes and priorities when carrying out our basic job of helping researchers find money to do their research.

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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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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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Seven issues in community-based research practice – Part 2

Daniel Reeders writes social marketing and public health strategy for a living.  He writes a blog, Bad Blood, about stigma and public health, and tweets as @onekind, for fun.

He has a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws (Melbourne) and is currently enrolled in a Masters in Public Health at a university he prefers not to name in case he decides to write about it.


Safety first (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Safety first (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

As mentioned in Part 1, these posts are a personal account based on things that went awry in my experience of community-based research. I have listed a couple of dot points on practical steps readers might consider to manage the risks I encountered, in case you are contemplating or currently working in a community-based research role.

I’m also keen to hear other experiences and perspectives of this form of research practice, either in the comments or by e-mail. A quick note: I never write or blog about my current place of work, and I’d encourage commenters to de-identify your own places of work.

Points 1-3 cover supervision, ethics and discipline, and they appear in Part 1.

4. Ownership

This is an extremely vexed issue in community-based research practice. In a community organisation the board will have a policy on who can speak on the organisation’s behalf. This is typically restricted to senior management.

Senior managers in some organisations misuse these policies, and require their staff to publish articles and submit conference abstracts in the senior managers’ names.

In this situation, working in that role will damage your career by creating a publication gap, and it will doubtless corrode your motivation as well.

  • Prevent: negotiate before starting – Who owns the work and end products? Who can put their name to it? What happens when you leave? Can you publish from it?

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Seven issues in community-based research practice – Part 1

Daniel Reeders writes social marketing and public health strategy for a living.  He writes a blog, Bad Blood, about stigma and public health, and tweets as @onekind, for fun.

He has a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws (Melbourne) and is currently enrolled in a Masters in Public Health at a university he prefers not to name in case he decides to write about it.


Safety first (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Safety first (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

I got started in community-based research more or less by accident. I had always used interviews and focus groups as a social marketer in HIV prevention, but I could see neglected issues in my field of practice that seemed to warrant in-depth investigation.

They involved personally catastrophic but fairly uncommon events in small groups, such as HIV infection among gay and bisexual men from migrant and refugee backgrounds.

Survey and statistical methods can’t get much purchase on rare events in small groups of vulnerable people, but funders and service providers were nonetheless waiting for what they considered ‘real’ research to quantify the issue before taking action.

I wanted to break this impasse, even if it meant producing research that doesn’t count as ‘evidence’. Something is better than nothing, right?*

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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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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.

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How my research changed my life

Rod Pitcher is a PhD student in Education at The Centre for Educational Development and Academic Methods at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. The focus of his study is the metaphors that doctoral students use when describing their research and other matters related to their studies. He uses metaphor analysis to arrive at an understanding the students’ conceptions.


A tightly closed rosebud, full of promise

Rosebud by aussiegall on Flickr

Research changes the researcher. It’s not only a matter of gaining more knowledge – doing research changes the researcher as a person. That might be obvious, but why and how does it change the person?

Doing research is an emotional as well as an intellectual occupation. It involves feelings, as well as thinking. We make every effort to keep our feelings from influencing the results but we can’t keep ourselves from being affected personally by the work and results of the research.

Because of the nature of my PhD, I am writing my thesis in the form of a story about my research, including how it has changed me. My research uses metaphor analysis to understand students’ conceptions as expressed in an on-line survey in which they answered questions about their research. I extract the metaphors and then consider what they tell me about the people who answered the survey and their conceptions. Metaphors are very useful in this way as they express some of the personality of the person and provide insights into their thinking.

Searching for metaphors in my survey responses has heightened my sensitivity to them. I am now more aware of them in my own speech and writing and those of other people. This has changed my own ways of talking and writing because I feel the need to control my own use of metaphors.

When talking to other people or reading their work I take more notice of the metaphors they use. I will often think ahead in the sentence to see what metaphors are likely to appear. This can sometimes interfere with my understanding as I am concentrating on the metaphors more than the sense of the sentence. I find this particularly galling when reading fiction – I find myself critiquing the author’s use of metaphors and suggesting, in my mind, alternatives that could have been used and which might have given a more picturesque or colourful view and better understanding of the topic. I am certainly more sensitive to the colour added to the sentence by the metaphors, but I am also, with part of my mind, analysing the person’s use of metaphors and trying to attribute meaning to it.

In my own writing and speaking I tend to look ahead and notice if any metaphors are on the horizon. I then often make an effort to avoid using them for fear that I am revealing something about myself that I don’t want to give away. I find that this happens both in my academic and non-academic communications. I know that the metaphors reveal the user’s inner thoughts and emotions, as they have done in the survey responses. It is not so much that I want to hide my inner thoughts as a desire not to let out too much of myself for public view, since I am very much an introvert and private person. It sometimes makes my writing or speaking a little stilted as I try to quickly rephrase the sentence to avoid the metaphor. Sometimes I have to allow myself to consciously insert a metaphor so that the sentence makes sense or so that meaning and colour is added to it. And sometimes I use metaphors because I feel the need to aid my audience’s understanding of what I’m trying to say.

This change in me also reflects a change in my attitude to the participants in my research. I have come to realise how valuable they are to me. Without them I would have no data to analyse, but I now see them as people rather than just sources of data. The act of observing my participants and analysing the data they provide has changed my attitude towards them.

If you think about your own research and its implications you will find that you have been changed by it. If it is obvious that observation changes the observed then it should also be obvious that it changes the observer. How have you been changed by your research? Hopefully, for the better.

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