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.

I spent all my undergraduate, postgraduate, and early postdoctoral years in a single university. I was a huge advocate of the idea that staying in one place didn’t negate being well-connected to the necessary academic field and one’s inter/national peers. This was in the days before social media, too! Many well-intentioned people would exhort me to move on from my home institution; they were often senior to me, and thought I would ‘waste’ my time staying in one place.

Every time they did that, it made me redouble my networking habits. I should point out that my networking habits don’t involved glad-handing and rehearsing elevator pitches. My networking can be summed up as channelling my professional efforts into finding ways to work with people I liked and admired. You can read more about my take on academic networking here.

I had personal reasons for staying in one place – moving on would have required really good reasons to disrupt my close social connections.

In the end, my desire to pursue the impossible (i.e. a research career in the humanities) led me to Melbourne and, two institutions later, I’ve modified my hardcore disbelief in the university shuffle.

I’m still not a big fan of moving for moving’s sake. There are universities where employing their own, post-PhD, is a no-no. Even though there may be no other jobs out there, those who are newly ‘doctored’ are told – sometimes very baldly – that there is nothing for them if they stay. Chances are, if a job’s advertised, competition is intense and it’s likely that local grads can’t compete on a few fronts with those with international experience and different previous roles.

But some can, and they shouldn’t be disadvantaged because of the allure of shiny degrees from other places. I think institutional prejudice against one’s own postdocs is a sad thing.

That said, having moved around a bit now, I can vouch for the development and growth of academic networks from occasional mobility. I’m not talking here about the relationship-hostile mobility that is expected in many parts of academe (as @astrokatie has written about so eloquently in “Academic Scattering“). I’m talking about the growth that can come from a change of place – dynamics similar to what @evalantsoght discusses in her post on “Academic Nomads“. Apart from the basic element of meeting and working with new people, and getting to know various workplace cultures, there is the uncomfortable, valuable process of shedding complacency and the predictable comfort of hanging with my academic buddies. I still hang (and work) with many of my buddies, but I also recognise that participating in academe – longer term – requires an agility and proficiency in relationships that recognises useful connections for myself, my network, and others in my group.

Yes, I have long been one of those people who only wants to work with my friends. To date, this has worked out beautifully. No dramas about unmet expectations, or weirdness about asking when something might get finished. No status marking. It’s not quite in finishing-each-other’s-sentences territory, but there’s a cocooning ease within the social terrain of those relationships that could do with occasional breaching.

I still like these collaborations (this is how I’d suggest finding research friends), but I’m realising the value of pushing myself socially and intellectually through working with new and relatively unfamiliar colleagues. Repeatedly, the research tell us that Australian researchers’ citation stats are boosted by working with international scholars. This is particularly so if those international scholars are based in North America.

At ARMS 2013, I attended a fascinating talk, “South Pacific: a collaboration core or peripheral ring?”, by Jean-Francois Desvignes-Hicks (Thomson Reuters). Jean-Francois’ presentation showcased the directions of intellectual traffic for relatively isolated South Pacific academics. Given their need for boosting the impact of their work, international collaboration is the norm. The presentation states, however, that the focus of these connections is driven by “economic factors, history, culture and language” that “have…a profound human influence on collaborations mediated through personal preference rather than strategic objectives” (ARMS 2013 abstract [.pdf])

Even if strategic career reasons weren’t enough for me, the frisson of working with new minds is a big drawcard. That is big academic fun, and one of the key reasons why I keep being drawn to academia despite its many challenges.


About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer based in Melbourne, Australia. She convenes the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN), is often on Twitter (@tseenster) and co-founded the Research Whisperer (theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com) with Jonathan O'Donnell.

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