Why bother creating postgrad groups?

Photo by James Petts | www.flickr.com/photos/14730981@N08

‘Barometer’ | Photo by James Petts | http://www.flickr.com/photos/14730981@N08

The question of how to build a research culture occupies a lot of big-brained types at universities, at all levels.

PhD researchers want to feel they’re a part of, and can contribute to, a good one. Professors like to think that they helped create and grow a thriving one.

University executives want an excellent one yesterday, preferably bristling with national government grants, effective and fat industry partnerships, top-flight publications, and seamless higher degree candidatures and completions. Sometimes, they want this almost instantly.

Research cultures are complex and often fragile systems, and when you look too hard for specific components to engineer one, the whole thing can evaporate.

Can you force staff to be productive without having a good research culture? I think you can – but you won’t have productive or happy researchers for very long, in that case. Nor would you have particularly good research.

For me, one of the best barometers of the health of an institutional research culture is the presence and activity of graduate researcher groups and associations.

Why?

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Dividing up the money

Australian 10, 20, 50 and 100 dollar notes

Poster money, by Michael Coghlan on Flickr

Dear applicant

Congratulations! We have decided to give you a grant.

Unfortunately, funding is tight, so we have cut your budget to the bone. Sorry about that.

Yours truly,
The funding agency

Sometimes, you can win only to lose.

One of the trickiest times for any research team is when you have to work out what you can do with a reduced amount of money.

The decisions that you make at this point will shape your whole project. They may also have repercussions for the team dynamic. If Professor Needs-Grant feels that they didn’t get their fair share of the loot, they can get grumpy. Their enthusiasm for the project may disappear, or at least diminish.

There are ways to improve this situation.

Before you submit the application 

First of all, when you are designing your project, assume that you won’t be fully funded. After all, it is the norm for funding agencies to cut budgets so they can fund as many grants as possible. Assume that will be the case. Ask each of your research partners to provide the costing for their part of the project. This should include the correct figures for their time on the project, as well as the funds that they want to spend. Then talk to everybody about where things overlap and how different elements might be combined. Work out, with your co-researchers, what will happen if things get cut. Talk about what the project will look like if the postdoc isn’t funded, or if you don’t get all the fieldwork money.

Imagine the possibilities and talk about them with your team. Work out what is the minimum amount that would make a viable project.
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Then and now

Photo by Jeff Sheldon | unsplash.com

Photo by Jeff Sheldon | unsplash.com

In the last five years or so, I’ve completely changed my attitude to communicating research.

Guess how much I used to do before?

None.

I published in journals and scholarly books. I presented at academic conferences and ran a research network. I dutifully applied for research funding. I thought of myself as a good, productive academic.

And that was it. I wasn’t really on Twitter and I blogged about our network activities – but only really for our members. I didn’t do community forums or write for other non-academic publication outlets.

Don’t believe me? Read on!

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I wanna be leader

Lincoln, carved in state at the Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Sometimes, different people write to me with similar questions.

I always like it when this happens, as I only have to write one e-mail in reply. It saves a bit of time.

Here are two complementary queries I’ve received:

Just a quick question about the makeup of the team. I am hoping to put in a grant where I am project leader but I’ll be the only person from our university. The team members are in other unis in Australia and south-east Asia. They are all Associate Profs and higher. Does this pose a complication with me being the most junior and my university being the administering organisation?

At this stage I really do need some more information about how cross-institutional collaborations work. Given that there are 6 academics on this team, it is important for me to ensure that our university is clearly recognised as a partner. Any guidance you can offer would be greatly appreciated, as I’ll need to start negotiating all of this with the research team.

Both the requests are seeking information about how to structure their team. This mostly revolves around who will be the project leader.

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Hello, social media pushback!

There was a time when I used to leave people alone about their social media engagement.

Whether they wanted to get involved or not, that was their business. Who was I to say otherwise?

Oh, how things have changed.

In my current role as a researcher development academic, I’ve become That Person.

I’m the one who goes: “So, do you have a Twitter account? Have you set up your Google Scholar profile? Have you put your work in the university repository? Really? It’s easy to get started, and can be so much fun, and these are the professional benefits… [5 mins of waxing lyrical]… would you like me to help you get started?”

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Don’t be late

Table showing 23 teams completing applications. Four start 30 weeks out, the rest come in afterwards. One team starts three weeks from deadline!

Applications in a 30-week development program, from expression of interest (EoI) to withdrawal (NFA) or submission.

This diagram shows the flow of applications during a recent development round for a major government funding scheme. If you are in the US, think ‘National Science Foundation’. In the Commonwealth, think of a major Research Council funding scheme.

Have a look at Team 23, right down in the bottom right-hand corner of the chart. They started their bid at the very last minute. They didn’t make it to submission. They were late. Really late! “Why are you putting in this application” late.

I hate applications like that. Here’s why. Read more of this post

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