Free to good home – one Research Whisperer

Map of Melbourne city, showing three campuses

RMIT’s city, Brunswick and Bundoora campuses, courtesy Google Maps

I’ve just finished a ‘grand tour’ of all the Schools in our College (read “Departments in our Faculty”, depending on your terminology).

It was great! I spent three days a week, for a month at a time, working in a completely different space.

In the middle of last year, when I came back from China, I sent a note to our seven Deputy Deans (Research). It was headed ‘Free to good home – one Research Whisperer’. In it, I asked if they would be interested in hosting me for a month. They would need to provide a desk and a chair, and access to electricity and the wireless network.

In return, I would spend three days per week in their School for a month. I’d still be doing my normal work, but I’d be a visible presence and would be able to meet with their staff, etc.

I was overwhelmed with the response. One school came back literally within minutes of the post. Every other school responded positively, with the last one even expressing the fear that they might be too late, and have missed the boat.

Every school was different. Some had real difficulty finding a seat for me. Others were able to give me a room with a view. For me, it didn’t matter where I sat, as long as I was where the action was.

Being in a central unit, it is easy to be seduced by the image that the centre is the focus when, in fact, the work happens in the schools, departments, and centres. That is where the teaching and research happens. Everything else is a scaffold to support that work.

Getting back to the periphery is a very simple, very powerful way to demonstrate that you recognise that fact. This is how it worked for me:

In each school, I worked with the Deputy Dean (Research) to connect with staff. In all of them, we sent around an open invitation for staff to drop in while I was there, or to arrange a meeting. This increased my visibility, and reminded people that I was available. I had conversations with new staff about how RMIT works; with early career staff about how planning for research funding; and the usual conversations about where to find funds and how to develop specific applications.

Many staff made times to meet with me after I had left. Even though I’d just been down the corridor, the timing didn’t work for them. That’s OK. They met with me because I’d been in their School. That wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

The most valuable conversations, though, happened in the corridors and the tearooms. Casual encounters that would never have happened otherwise, where I was listening, rather than directing the conversation. Conversations about workloads and weekends and kids. ‘I didn’t know that you existed – I’ll be in touch’ conversations. Just day-to-day, ordinary conversations. These gave me more of an understanding of the lived experiences of the staff that I work with than any of their seminars or articles.

I also got to spend more time with the Deputy Deans (Research), too. One set up a special meeting with the Head of School, who was new, so that we could talk tactics. In one small school, we went through the whole staff list, sharing our thoughts about each staff member, and where they were in their research career. For others, I ran seminars and attended staff meetings. These are all things that I could do without spending time in the School, but had rarely done. They happened because I was there. Some of this activity has continued afterwards. I’m still being invited to staff meetings on an irregular basis, to give talks about different aspects of funding.

Even better than working with the Deputy Deans (Research), I got to hang out with the research admin staff. The administrative support for researchers varies dramatically from School to School. In some small schools, it might only be half a person, focused on managing post-grad enrolments. In other places, it is a number of staff, doing a variety of things. It depends on how much research is happening in that School. Knowing your research admin people, and what they do, is really important, whether you are a post-grad, a post-doc, a professor, or me. Spending time with them was great!

Overall, I now have a much better understanding of how research works in each School, and they have a bit better idea of who I am, and what our office can do to help.

It wasn’t anywhere near as hard as I thought it might be.

Years ago, I worked for the Sunrise Research Laboratory, an early advocate of laptops and ‘being digital’. I drank the Kool-aid and have always been proud of my ability to work anywhere, anytime. You know, the whole ‘digital samurai’ thing?

With ubiquitous wi-fi across all campuses, I could just pick up my laptop and go. Even better, I found out that I could make any phone on campus into my phone. So, if a School could give me a desk, a chair, and a power point, I was happy.

My College has staff working at an inner-city campus, a suburban campus, and a campus on the edge of Melbourne. Most meetings take place on the inner-city campus, and there are staff that have never been to the other campuses. Reversing the flow and going from the inner-city campus out was very pleasant, and well appreciated by the staff there. I ride to work when I can, and riding to our furthest campus was great for my fitness (ignoring the time I had a stack and fractured my elbow).

As well as that fractured elbow, there were other reasons why it wasn’t all roses. Working this way meant that I was only in my usual office one day per week, which meant that I moved a lot of meetings to that day. It became quite crowded.

Some Schools are enormously pressed for space, and had real difficulty finding somewhere for me to sit. They wanted me to come, but it was tricky to make it happen. There was one month where I didn’t go to any School, because admin arrangements just didn’t work out.

Timing can be crucial. I went to one School twice because the first time most of the staff were off-campus doing practical assessment with students. In the end, a month isn’t very long. Three days a week means that you are there for about 12 days. I wanted to set up Shut Up and Write sessions at the other campuses, but didn’t get the traction.

So, if you are an administrator in a central group, I highly recommend getting out to the periphery. You will learn more out there than you will in your cubicle.

If you want to make this work in your own organisation, here is my advice:

  • You need support from your boss. You’ll be out of sight a lot of the time, and that requires trust. Having a day a week at ‘home’ was one way to allay fears.
  • You need a good laptop, wireless connectivity, and either a mobile phone number that everyone knows, or a way to re-route your calls to your temporary phone.
  • Make it clear that you will be doing your own job, but in their space. Most people will see the value of having you there, whatever you are doing.
  • Organise for the head of research to send a ‘The Research Whisperer is here’ e-mail to staff when you arrive. Meet with them early to organises some activities while you are there.
  • In Australia, download the Lost on Campus app. When you are on a new campus, it’s good to have a great map.
  • Don’t be too precious about space. I worked at hot-desks, in post-grad rooms, and other people’s offices when they were on leave. I also worked in beautiful offices with lovely natural light. It’s all about swings and roundabouts.
  • Say thank you when you leave, and give the head of research a sense of what you did while you were there. Number of meetings with staff, how the seminar went, that sort of thing. Nothing formal, but something that makes it clear that it worked well.

Thanks to Paul Jones for starting this initiative while he was acting in my role when I was in China. I’m so glad that I kept it up when I got back.

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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He has been doing that, on and off, since the 1990's (with varying degrees of success). He loves his job. He loves it so much that he has enrolled in a PhD to look at crowdfunding for research. With Tseen Khoo, he runs the Research Whisperer blog and @ResearchWhisper Twitter stream, about doing research in academia.

4 Responses to Free to good home – one Research Whisperer

  1. Pingback: Embed yourself? | Knowledge for Lawyers

  2. Lisa Mac says:

    I love this… and makes me envious of city universities with campuses within a bike commutes distance. We’d have to add travel, accommodation, etc. etc. onto the bill. However, I agree that some of the most important conversations happen in the corridors and try as we might, (an by-golly we do!!) whatever technology we have just can’t replicate that. Thanks heaps again for this – inspiring stuff and even if we can get out once a year, the benefits will be well worth the $$.

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Lisa.

      One of the problems we have with off-shore campuses is that nobody wants to pay for accommodation unless the absolutely must. So people fly in and fly out without having the time to get to know local staff. Conversations don’t happen, bonds don’t form, ideas don’t get kicked about… It is a shame.

      Like

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