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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Are we there yet?

Francis WoodhouseFrancis Woodhouse is a postdoc at The University of Western Australia.

Born and bred in England, he did a bunch of degrees at the University of Cambridge—first a bachelor’s and a master’s in Mathematics and then a doctorate in Mathematical Biology—before moving out to Perth.

The content of Francis’s research is gradually including more biology every year. At the University of Western Australia he works in bioengineering and biofluids, developing models of knee cartilage damage and repair to understand and prevent the onset of osteoarthritis.

He maintains side interests in pattern formation, self-organisation, and microswimmer propulsion.

He tweets as @fwoodhouse and blogs at www.microbiohydro.com.


Tropic of Capricorn sign (Photo by Dan Dyer: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dwdyer)

Tropic of Capricorn sign (Photo by Dan Dyer: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dwdyer)

I’m every Aussie’s least favourite invader: a grubby, plummy pom.

But unlike the other half million of us here in Perth, I’m not here for the sun, sand or surf.

I’m here for the science.

Nearly a year ago, I left the crumbling mortar of England to take up my first postdoc, far away at the University of Western Australia. I’d never switched university before, let alone moved country, so I was a little apprehensive.

Will they understand me? Do I need special gloves to deal with all the redbacks? Can I apply sunscreen fast enough to keep up with the sunburn?

I needn’t have worried. Confusion, spiders, and sunburn have all been minimal, and I’ve settled in just fine. I don’t yet ask “how ya going?”, and “Australia” still has four syllables, but I’ve happily accepted the flat white and long black as the two coffees to rule them all.

The first thing I learned is that Australia is really rather far away from England. I always knew this on paper, but the soul-sucking malaise of twenty hours in the air made it feel very real indeed. The journey isn’t getting any easier with practice, either (and being forced to pause in Baku doesn’t help).

Thankfully, the malaise didn’t last, and the distance receded once I’d wrapped my head around the novel avian and arboreal life forms. With somewhere to live and the city sussed out, it didn’t feel so alien anymore. Before I knew it, a couple of weeks had gone by and it was time to start work.

Moving to Australia didn’t mean existing research connections had to languish, so I soon resumed interacting with colleagues in Europe and North America over the all-connecting Internet.

That’s when the perception of distance came back, and this time with tyranny.

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Golden-brown grant applications

Mmm, pie (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Mmm, pie (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

A colleague once boasted to me that she had pulled together an ARC Discovery over a weekend.

I asked if she thought the application had a chance of being awarded. She shrugged and said she didn’t care; she was under pressure to submit an ARC application and that was what she was doing.

Even then, before my life as a research grant developer, I immediately thought, “Well, that’s a waste of everyone’s time.”

Yes, major grant systems are overloaded and under-resourced.

Yes, many excellent and worthy projects go unfunded.

And much that is not so excellent or worthy goes unfunded, too. I would venture to say that these should never have been submitted in the first place.

You can’t write a great major grant application from scratch in a weekend.

You just can’t.

As I’ve become more experienced on this other side of the fence in the area of research development, this fact has crystallised.

Even if you devote the whole weekend’s 48 hours to pulling it together, it won’t be great. It might be eligible and compliant, but chances are it’ll be flabby, inconsistent, and unpolished.

In other words, half-baked.

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Back from the research fringe

Beware the Unstable Cliff Edge (Photo taken by Oanh Tran)

“Beware the Unstable Cliff Edge” (Photo taken by Oanh Tran)

Do your peers go around talking about how that colleague is ‘useless’ or a ‘lost cause’ when it comes to research?

How prevalent is the sentiment that – if you’re not a proven, grant-landing researcher – you’re not worthwhile having in the contemporary university system?

This has been something I’ve been wanting to blog about for a while. A recent anecdote from a colleague spurred me to consolidate my thinking about these exclusionary ideas surrounding research productivity and notions of staff worth.

The Anecdote:

A colleague told me about a mid-career academic in their department. This academic had never landed a significant competitive grant, wasn’t publishing very well (standard of journal papers was questionable) or consistently (lots of ‘revise and resubmits’ in the top drawer that never made it to the next stage). He was bitter and defensive about his research track-record, often hostile to feedback, and he appeared to withdraw from broader faculty research life.

He was considered a lost cause. Someone who would never be much chop in the research game.

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Gantts vs Zombies

Zombie fare (Photo by Tseen Khoo; Cake+decoration by Shayne Smail)

Zombie fare (Photo by Tseen Khoo; Cake+decoration by Shayne Smail)

As my experiences of university functions move beyond ‘plonk and cheese’ to gigs that involve sushi rolls, mini-quiches, and chocolate eclairs, I felt like it was time to write something about the slippage between the intimate and the professional in academia.

I’m particularly interested in the way that staff negotiate the grey area of social participation and personal revelation* as part of a university’s everyday rhythms. This is a topic that fascinates me, and the ‘and another thing!’ nature of this post probably reflects this.

I’ve often joked with my peers that my most enduring trauma in academia was watching colleagues boogeying on the dance-floor at the tail end of conference dinners. It is my scholarly primal scene. It is also another very good reason not to attend conference dinners, but I’ll save that invective for another post.

I mention the dance trauma because it’s an example of a time when I felt that I got to know too much about colleagues (you can tell a lot about people from the way they dance).

If there’s one thing I learned early in my academic life, it’s that many academics are extremely good at not-participating in institutionally sanctioned events. Being the introvert that I am, I appreciated this culture because I’m a picky participator. If there’s the faintest whiff of ‘team-building games’, I’m hard at work getting out of it. If anyone mentions a themed university event, I’m suddenly booked up…all the time, anytime.

At most of the functions I attended, academic staff were poorly represented, and the ones who were there tended to bemoan the heinous crime of being forced to attend when they were already the most wronged in the university ecosystem (i.e. they were humanities academics, or quant social scientists adrift in a sea of qual boffins, or a constructionist pitted against a school full of positivist educators, or …). Read more of this post

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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Five ways to make a difference

Sticky notes listing impacts of climate change.

Impacts, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

We aren’t here just to generate papers, people.

We’re here to make a difference, to improve things.

Heaven knows, there are enough issues out there that need our help!

If your research sits within the academy, being cited by other researchers, then you might get a promotion. But you probably won’t make a difference.

Here are five ways you can get out there and help put your research into action. Read more of this post

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