Staying on the radar

I unearthed this fragment of a post the other weekend. I started writing it in 2012, when I was about two years into a professional role at a university as a research grant developer. I had had about ten years of researcher life before that, with back-to-back research-only fellowships. My feelings about leaving my researcher self behind were mixed, to say the least.

Now, I’m about two years back into an academic job after leaving that professional role. And I have things to say to my 2012 self. 

Hopefully, this dialogue with the self is useful for those of you with ‘portfolio careers’ and seemingly zig-zagging career paths. It may never seem like the right way to do things, but  it helps to know that there isn’t a right way to do things.


Me, writing in 2012 while in a professional role: 

What’s the shelf-life of academic expertise?

This is an issue that’s haunted me ever since I started working on the ‘other side of the fence’ in my current professional research development role. I was used to being easily identified as ‘academic’ for many years, and it was the angst of having to explain being a research fellow position that occupied my time. Common things I’d have to say: “No, I don’t teach”, “no, I’m not supposed to teach”, “yes, I’m 100% research”, “yes, that means I don’t teach”.

Now, as a research grant developer, I’m in a role where I’m constantly advising researchers on what’s good practice and savvy research strategy. I can’t help but view my on-the-ground experience as a researcher for over a decade as a core part of the value I bring to my job. Similarly, if I’m not publishing, presenting at conferences, or debating critical issues with peers, am I a lesser occupant of this role?

For example, if I was awarded (and completed) a shiny competitive grant, does my experience in putting that application together count, more than five years later? If I haven’t published in an academic journal for over ten years, do I have credibility advising researchers on how to strategise submissions and papers, or negotiate editorial processes?

I’ve kept a part-time hand in with running the research network but, other than that, haven’t given an academic conference paper or written an academic article for about two years.

It feels strange.

Initially, it was liberating. Being free of academic performance hoop-jumping can be intoxicating. After a while, though, I started seriously missing it, especially when my lovely colleagues would invite me onto fabulous projects that I couldn’t take on.

I was expecting these invitations to contribute or participate to dry up after a little while, after I’d had to send around my regretful emails about now being ‘non-academic’. As I had no formal time to do any research, any work I did would have to be in my ‘spare’ time and, with two young children, that was not something I chose to do.

Two years in, the invitations haven’t dried up. I’m still being invited to review grants and articles, be part of editing projects, give conference papers, and collaborate on new projects. I have standing international collaborative offers that pain me because I would love to work with some of those colleagues but, if I want to draw a sanity line between ‘work’ and ‘home’, I can’t right now.

While some things are slow to change (e.g. the process of writing a paper and going through a grant review process), others can move relatively fast (e.g. publishing protocols, such as major research councils moving to Open Access policies). With almost two years’ distance from the completion of my research fellowship, I’d have to say that one of the things that persist is one’s place on the academic radar.


Me, writing now in 2016, having moved back into an academic role: 

When I moved back into an academic role, I thought I’d send out that one “I’m baaaack” email and things would recalibrate to where they were back in 2010 when I left my research fellowship.

Talk about living in Wrong Town.

As I was writing in 2012, the invitations didn’t dry up two years into my other role, but three plus years in? They had certainly slowed down, and I had done consistent work telling people I wasn’t an academic anymore.

That news was finally gaining traction and being more widely known… right around the time I was trying to re-establish that I was back in academia. As we know, things move slowly in our sector, and this kind of news sure did!

The additional wrinkle in getting back into the space was that I was back in academia, but not in the way I had been before. If you haven’t been around me and listening to me angst in the past couple of years, allow me to summarise: I was a total hot-house flower who had about a decade of back-to-back, well-funded research fellowships and 100% research roles who was now in a teaching/research role and shifting research topic areas (if not disciplines…). It is a big change. While I’m here, let me apologise unreservedly to all those  RMIT teaching academics who I helped to plan research calendars and routines. I had no idea what it meant to have depleted brain-space from day-to-day teaching, let alone dealing with the 100s of students many academics have to manage every semester. Hats off to you!

Coming back to academia meant re-starting my various research pipelines. Some of this has been super-easy because of my sustained research network convenorship and standing collaborations with certain colleagues.

Other aspects? Not so much. It feels very much like I need to start again in terms of ‘stepping-stoning’ my research projects and all that pertains to that. Having done it all before, but knowing the contemporary funding context all too well, I look at it with some trepidation.

All that said, it feels good to be back. And working on being back – front and centre – on the research radar is invigorating, and kind of fun.

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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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