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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Should I apply?

Recently, I needed to write an FAQ (frequently asked questions) page about finding research funding. I thought of some questions that people often ask me, but they didn’t seem very interesting. So I asked Twitter.

The response was immediate and wonderful. Not everything came in the form of a question, but everything related to question that people ask. Here is the first of my responses to my Twitter-asked questions. I’d like to thank Ana Isabel Canhoto (@canhoto) for triggering this post.


The Great Wall of China, stretching off into the business

That must have been a lot of work, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Should I apply?

Let’s skip over the existential aspects of this question and assume that you are an academic required to undertake research as part of your job. Let’s also assume that you’ve finished your PhD. If you haven’t, go do it now. Don’t worry, I’ll still be here when you come back.

Sometimes, your research doesn’t require any funding. You might be working on an aspect of pure mathematics or ethics, and all you need is a computer, a good library, some peace and quiet, and the occasional chance to talk to smart people working on the same stuff. Or you might be working on a very small part of an overall research program that doesn’t need any extra staff, any equipment, or any travel. In that case, don’t apply for funding. You don’t need it and it won’t substantially improve your research. However, those situations are pretty rare.

In all other cases, you should apply for funding. However, there are some important things that you need to consider.

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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

Easing the load

The Fairy Horde and the Hedgehog Host, an artwork featuring a hedgehog that has been colonised by fairies

When fairies attack, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

People seem to be talking about how the peer review funding system is in crisis – more applications, less funding, not enough reviewers, etc. Always eager to help, here’s this Research Whisperer’s Top Five ideas on how funding organizations can reduce their workloads.

My examples are based upon the Australian Research Council (ARC), as this is the system I know best. However, these ideas can adopted by any funding agency. After all, I pinched three of them from existing funding schemes.

1.  Review a set number of applications

One of the fears seems to be that a rising number of applications is forcing the quality of peer review down. The thinking goes like this: more applications means more reviews required. More reviews means more applications per reviewer (on average). Reviewers, therefore, may be spending less time on each review, or even be refusing to review applications. Without suitable reviews, the system of peer review falls over, catastrophically.

If this fear is justified, one response could be to cap the number of applications accepted. This process is known as ‘demand management’ in the UK context. The ARC knows how many admin people it has, how many people it has on the College of Experts, how many assessors it sends applications to, how many reply, how long the average application is for each scheme. These figures could be munged together to provide an upper limit of applications that the ARC would accept for each funding scheme that it runs.

If they know their capacity, the question then becomes how to make sure that only that number of applications are presented each round.

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5 quick and dirty tricks for the terminally busy researcher

This post is written by Dr Inger Mewburn, over at the Thesis Whisperer, who is struggling on a number of fronts to keep her research work cooking and stay sane.


Short Cut Road (Photo by Nic McPhee - http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicmcphee/)

Short Cut Road (Photo by Nic McPhee – http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicmcphee/)

Busy-ness is something of a badge of honour in academia, but I am genuinely busy right now.

I fly 500kms to work and back each week, hold down a fairly demanding job, and want to spend some time with my family. When I am busy, ‘good practice’ goes out the window. At home, this means I stop planning dinners, cleaning behind the toilet, or pairing my socks. At work, I stop filing my references, tagging entries in my database, or cleaning out my inbox.

Chaos reigns but, curiously, things still get done. I’m a productive person who is deeply lazy, so I’m open to any and all hacks that make my life easier. This is a small selection of my quick and dirty research tricks. These tricks save me time and, if I can be honest with you, I use them even when I’m not very busy. I share some of these with you in hope that you will share some of your own in the comments.

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Get me a project manager, stat!

Underside of a Roman arch, showing the keystone in the centre

Keystone (Photo by Jonathan O’Donnell)

A while back, one of our Twitter followers asked whether The Research Whisperer had any posts about project management.

At the time, I could only think of @jod999’s megastar post about what a Gantt chart is, and mine on whether you can fix a broken Gantt chart.

While Jonathan’s post was about planning and putting in place a feasible and ideal timeline, mine talked about the common mistakes and remedies for timelines that don’t behave.

Research projects are very much about project management, and that tweet nudged me in the direction of this post.

Project management skills are elements that many sectors require, and this means that there is a weighty bunch of pixels already dedicated to the topic. For a great recent post on research project management, read @evalantsoght’s “Smart way to manage a large research project” at the Next Scientist blog.

Rather than rehearse what many others have already said (better than I could), I want to focus on someone  you should consider requesting as part of a major research grant:

Get yourself a project officer or a project manager. 

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Who works harder?

Dr Angela Dobele is a creative, results-oriented academic with progressive career accomplishments in research, teaching and community engagement. Her research focuses on three main areas: word-of-mouth referrals (including technological communications), gender diversity, and teaching and learning. Angela’s teaching disciplines include electronic marketing, services marketing, new product development, marketing management and integrated marketing communications. 

As well as immersing herself in research and teaching, Angela is a Foster Dog Carer, enjoys Science Fiction and plans on taking music lessons (any day now…).


Fight-Talk (Photo courtesy of FooDavid)

If you’re a female academic who thinks you’re working harder than your male colleagues, you may well be right!

Not only that, you might be working harder, but you’re less likely to be in the professorial ranks.

I was part of a team of researchers (from RMIT and Griffith universities) who found that, while women are shouldering the majority of the workload at each academic rank, they are under-represented further up the pecking order.

Our results show gender equity in terms of workload on five key workload measures, but there was inequality in terms of pay and status. It confirms what many already presume: it is still the case that fewer women are employed in senior ranks. These results suggest, despite policy reforms, inequity continues to be a problem in the Australian higher education sector.

Our study focused on business faculty employees, and showed that female senior lecturers – the ‘middle’ tier – are teaching an average 848 students compared with their male counterparts’ 229. The number of courses co-ordinated by senior lecturers was an average of 4 for women and 3.2 for men.

Despite shouldering much of the work, women are underrepresented in the higher ranks: senior lecturers, associate professors and professors. For example, in one of the universities studied, one fifth of the male staff were professors, compared with no women.

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