Life as an academic at a regional university
2 September 2014 2 Comments
Dr Mel Thomson completed her undergraduate Honours degree in 1998 in microbiology and immunology at the University of Melbourne.
She then migrated to the UK where she worked on various projects as diverse as allergy and cancer before undertaking further studies. She completed a Masters of Research in functional genomics in 2004 before reading for a PhD in microbial genetic regulation in Neisseria species (both at the University of York, UK).
After the award of her PhD in 2009, Mel became interested in the extra-gastric consequences of the host-pathogen interactions between gastric Helicobacter species and their human host.
She returned to Australia in 2011 to start her own group at Deakin Medical School, where she plans to continue her explorations of host-pathogen interactions leading to pathology affecting nutrient absorption in the gut.
Mel has recently become a national ‘torch bearer’ for the concept of crowdfunding academic research, with a track record of two successful Pozible campaigns: Mighty Maggots and Hips 4 Hipsters. She is involved in advocacy for Women in Science both nationally and internationally.
I recently caught up with several early- and mid-career research colleagues from regional Queensland and NSW at a national conference.
The last time I had seen them at this meeting was two years ago, when two of them were working on the end of their fellowships at metropolitan universities.
Meeting them again, I discovered that the two of them had moved to a ‘new’ university in a regional area outside of the conurbation they had previously inhabited.
One had followed their Patron to this new position. The other had decided to take an academic lecturing position to offer some job security in response to the increasingly unstable funding environment for early and mid-career researchers in Australia.
They knew I was from a regional campus of a Victorian university, and we got chatting about the differences they had experienced since moving out of town to a ‘second tier’ (or perhaps ‘third tier’?) university. I asked what kind of support and commitments they had, compared to before.
Like me, they reported good support from their employers (often via internal seed funding) in return for fairly high teaching and service loads. They also reported closer links with the local community, particularly the ‘worthies’ (or good ‘Burghers’, as I like to call them).
I was glad to find the experiences I had in the past few years were not just confined to me and my regional campus. So, let us embark on a journey through my recent experiences in the hope that they may be somewhat representative.
I had been ‘cyberstalking’ this particular university from overseas, as it was geographically convenient to the area I wanted to move to on my return from my 12-year diaspora. I was employed on a 3-year fixed-term contract in January 2011 after a 20-minute phone interview (conducted in my kitchen in Yorkshire, at midnight, in my pyjamas).
Due to contract commitments of my post doctoral position in the UK, I didn’t arrive at my shiny new academic position until mid-May that year.
The start was a little rocky as I felt I was treated as an afterthought – no office, computer or mentor had been assigned to me. I camped for the first few months as I struggled through the central administration system to set up approvals for the research work. I needed to start that work ASAP, so as not to leave a gaping hole in my track record. It was a bewildering time, learning the overly bureaucratic systems and acronyms, particularly as some of the people I needed to deal with were on other geographically distinct campuses and hence never more than a name on a phone or email list.
My line manager at the time was very supportive and helped guide me to opportunities for internal funding and grant writing workshops, to help me transition from a post doc into an independent academic. The support for my new teaching and learning responsibilities were ad hoc arrangements within the close-knit teaching team, and I was initially on the Honours program (and hence within my experience). So, the responsibilities in this transition stage were suitably ‘light’ as should be the load for any research-active academic in these new positions.
As I bedded down in my new department, which was mostly populated by early- and mid-career researchers like myself, I found new opportunities. This included the chance to use crowdfunding for research funds, as well as accelerated leadership placements. I also began to reach out to the local researchers for potential collaborators. I found a small but passionate group who shared my ‘bench to bedside’ mantra and who always said ‘yes’ to my crazy ideas.
I also reached out to the local community here in Geelong via my philanthropic grant applications and my first crowdfunding campaign. I found a group of friendly people who respected my position and welcomed me into their Rotary clubs and schools, to talk about my research and conduct science communication activities. I found myself under the benign scrutiny of the local daily paper, which enhanced my reputation and links with the local community in many unfathomable ways. I was also in regular contact with several of the local politicians and had my research mentioned in federal parliament’s Hansard as a result. I am sure that these kinds of opportunities would not have been open to me in a large urban area, with competing universities and institutes.
I realised that the Australian research community runs a fairly closed shop, and I’d have to make the effort to engage with urban researchers if I was ever to have such ‘world-class’ people as my collaborators and patrons (or get them to recognise my name on a grant application!). As a result, I spend many unproductive hours travelling on the freeway and the regional trains to attend networking meetings, seminars, and media engagements in Melbourne.
On more than one occasion, I have been the recipient of the patronising comment ‘Thank you for coming so far’ as if I live on another planet, not a city that’s only an hour away. There were also many offers of ‘I must come and visit you down there’, which I now consider the academic equivalent of ‘Let’s do lunch’ – something said with no intention of follow through.
But the biggest worry I have as a regional researcher is not that I will miss the informal networking opportunities of the coffee shops on the Parkville Strip, it is the creeping awareness that the chances of early to mid-career researchers from regional, non-‘Group of Eight‘ university obtaining an NHMRC or ARC fellowship or grant are slim to none.
This is based on anecdotal observations of the recent experiences of a couple of high-flying NHMRC fellows in my department (a Nature paper or two apiece) when it came to renew their fellowships. Their lack of success in maintaining an unbroken fellowship record seems to demonstrate that the research environment might count for a large part of a grant committee’s decision-making process. I haven’t crunched the numbers on this yet, and I’m still hoping this is only an anecdotal ‘feelpinion’, something that’s unsupported by facts. I’d like to be wrong. I hope someone does crunch the numbers and proves this to be purely a morbid fantasy of mine….please?
Meanwhile, I’ll continue to reach out from my geographically isolated couch via my blog and to my thousands of Twitter followers. I would urge anyone who is an academic at a regional university to do the same. Digital technologies can be your friend, to help you embed into your local communities, as well as maintain professional networks with like-minded researchers at national and international levels.
I will also enjoy my traffic-free commute to work along the beach and across the paddocks from my cheap house that’s walking distance to the water! It’s all about the lifestyle….!