Becoming autonomous

amy-loughman-150pxAmy Loughman is an Associate Lecturer in Psychology at RMIT University.

She has recently finished writing her PhD at the University of Melbourne, and has undertaken research at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and the National Institutes of Health in the US.

Clinically trained in neuropsychology, she is passionate about understanding the relationships between physical and mental health. A particular research interest of Amy’s is the gut microbiome and the potential relevance that this ‘forgotten organ’ may have for understanding human health.

Amy blogs at Mind Body Microbiome and is on Twitter at @MBmicrobiome.

Photo by Sergee Bee |

Photo by Sergee Bee |

I’ve recently taken up an academic position. Like, a proper, grown-up, paid academic position. One where I get to teach (which I like doing) and I can also do any kind of research I want to.

People outside of the research world might not appreciate just what a privilege that last point is.

Of course, anyone can steer themselves towards applying for jobs on research projects that interest them. But unless you’re a relatively established academic, and independently funded (i.e. You have project money, as well as a source of money that pays your salary such as a grant), you don’t actually get to choose much else.

For less established researchers, research assistant positions can be a great place to start. The research or project assistant role is a predominantly data-collecting, administrative and occasionally grant- or paper-writing gig. Those things can be fun, and even career-building, but at the end of the day (or rather the start), someone else is dictating what your work will look like. Intellectual input? Minimal. Autonomy to take the research where you want? That’s the principal investigator’s job. Research assistants are vital to making research happen, but eventually most people with drive and ideas of their own will be itching for more. So, like me, many people obtain a higher research degree such as a PhD. From there, many enter the independent research rat-race of underpaid postdoctoral fellowships, spending weeks of the year on writing grants with slim chances of success, and experiencing the general lack of stability that comes with a research career.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m prepared for all that. I love and believe in research too much to be put off by the competitiveness, scarce funding, and not-great money. Read more of this post

What makes a successful writing group?

angeladobele02-smallDr Angela Dobele is an academic at RMIT University in Melbourne. Her teaching and research practices seek to make vital contributions to resolving the social, environmental and wicked problems of our times.

In her scholarly practice, Angela aims to be grounded in real-world problems, critical in theoretical and marketing orientation, and andragogical in her approach to student performance.

Her thesis topic and subsequent research considers word-of-mouth (at the intersection of relationship marketing and communication theories), both online (viral) and traditional referrals. Her other research topics concern academic workloads and research on student performance. Angela can be found on Twitter at @AngelaDobele.

Photo by Mark Asthoff |

Photo by Mark Asthoff |

An Organiser’s Perspective of Writing Groups: Dr Angela Dobele (@AngelaDobele)

It’s really hard in a crowded academic life to make time for your own research writing and spend time with your colleagues.

To create a great foundation for doing both, I introduced a writing program at my institution that aims to help staff and research higher degree students with the twin goals of improving writing skills and ramping up writing productivity.  The program is currently in its fourth consecutive semester and gradually increasing in popularity.

I conduct two writing groups each semester. In the program, we use the metaphor of ‘landing planes’ (a phrase coined by one of my first participants, Professor Lisa Farrell) with each aeroplane representing the achievement of a specific writing goal, such as submission of a journal manuscript or book chapter.

Over the three previous semesters that the program has run, participants have successfully landed 102 planes. Landed planes include 27 papers submitted to top flight journals, 18 grant applications (including four ARC expressions of interest and an ARC Linkage expression of interest), and 10 journal re-submissions.

The program is having an impact because it:

  • Socialises a task that is traditionally lonely (writing);
  • Incorporates gamification in the development of new writing habits (specifically, habitual writing practice);
  • Develops skills that make a favourable impact on research performance (research outputs and quality of outputs).

Increasing writing productivity is not about writing faster; it is about writing more often. It is what Silvia calls making writing ‘routine and mundane’ (Silvia 2007, p. xi). Read more of this post

Research under attack?

We solicited this post from a veteran researcher whose work has at times been under attack in the mainstream media. They have asked to remain anonymous, but wanted to share their experience and suggest constructive actions other researchers might take if they find themselves in a similar situation.  

The actual research and researcher’s location is deliberately anonymised in this post.

We think the advice that’s offered here is insightful and very useful. Research into controversial topics needs to take place, and those who undertake it can run the risk of being targeted. It’s always good to have clarity about how much support you can count on from your institution – or networks – should something like this happen. 

Arguing | Artwork by | Shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Arguing | Artwork by | Shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As academics, we quickly become used to people disagreeing with us.

Our families might disagree with how we spend our time. Our line managers might disagree with our research priorities. And granting bodies might disagree with the claim that our research should be funded. These are all par for the course in academic life.

Different, however, is when those outside of the academy disagree with us. Typically, when this occurs, it involves an ideological conflict between our values and those of others. When this conflict is heightened by particular debates over current social issues, this can result in considerable backlash against academics.

In my experience, such a backlash tends to take the following forms:

  1. Active attempts to discredit the research (e.g. through questioning methodology or interpretation of findings)
  2. Active attempts to discredit the researcher (e.g. through questioning their personal values or personal life)
  3. Active attempts to discredit research itself (e.g. through questioning academic pursuits as having any worth)

In certain cases, speaking back to the first form of backlash can be productive. This might involve working with your university’s media team to develop a statement that can be released to clarify any misperceptions. It can also involve selectively engaging with media outlets where you are likely to be given a fair opportunity to clarify any misperceptions.

To a certain extent, cases involving the third form of backlash can be ignored, given anti-intellectualism as an ideological position is difficult to counter through recourse to the merits of research, though recent examples demonstrate that there may be something to be gained by challenging anti-intellectualism.

Speaking back to attempts at discrediting us personally is something different altogether. Read more of this post

Impact sensationalism: a means to an end?

Jenn ChubbJenn Chubb is in the final stages of a PhD at the University of York examining the philosophical effects of the impact agenda in the UK and Australia.

Jenn’s background is in Philosophy and she has a particular interest in virtue ethics, academic freedom and the philosophy of science. She tweets at @jennchubb.


Richard WatermeyerRichard Watermeyer is a Sociologist of education specialising in critical social studies of higher education.

His research interests include higher education policy, management and governance; academic identity and practice; public engagement; impact; and neoliberalism. He tweets at @rpwatermeyer.

Photo by kazuend |

Photo by kazuend |

We recently published an article in the Journal of Studies in Higher Education titled ‘Artifice or integrity in the marketization of research impact? Investigating the moral economy of (pathways to) impact statements within research funding proposals in the UK and Australia.

Our paper reveals that the need to articulate the potential impact of research, where it is not immediately obvious, can lead academics to embellish and create stories or charades about the impact of their work. Impact projections were described as “illusions”; “virtually meaningless”, “made up stories” – that were seen as necessary in order to secure a professional advantage.

This is perhaps not entirely surprising. After all, in making a pitch for funding researchers are inherently ‘selling’ themselves or their ideas. Polishing or enhancing claims may be the default position to make sure that a proposal stands out.

However, the extent to which this is being done may signal a deeper, systemic moral dilemma concerning the integrity of competitive research funding processes. Read more of this post

Saved by slow scholarship

Ali original b and w - smallDr Ali Black is an arts-based/narrative researcher.

She is interested in research that supports connectedness, community, wellbeing and meaning-making through the building of reflective and creative lives and identities.

Her recent work explores storied and visual approaches for knowledge construction and the power and impact of auto-ethnographic, collaborative and relational knowledge construction. One of her recent projects is Australian Women: Telling Lives.

Ali has a ResearchGate profile. She is still learning how to tweet but when she does it is from @draliblack.

Photo by André Freitas |

Photo by André Freitas |


I’m not where I thought I would be.

Identity. Ego. I reject them. They are things that I dislike, a lot. They are close cousins to competition, comparison, measurement, judgment, and (misguided) self-glorification. These are also things I dislike, a lot. But they hurt me even so. Do they hurt you?

It’s important to shed light on our academic experiences, to make public the stories of what it has felt like, and feels like, to be an academic. It’s important that collective conversations about academic culture and what constitutes our social, political, and intellectual life in the academy can take place. We need to share our findings on what matters to us, and how we might cultivate kindness in the academy, foster care-full work, and count that which is not being counted.

I have been in academia twenty years, as a teacher, a researcher, and an innovator. I have given it my all, and been driven, dedicated, passionate. My current job title does not reflect the work and time I have put in. Rather than move up the hoped-for ladder, I have slipped, lost footing, fallen with my re-location to this new university, like a mud-faced-red-faced failure. Read more of this post

More Open Access – take the pledge

7i8skr7iEva Alisic is a senior research fellow at Monash University, Australia, where she leads the Trauma Recovery Lab. She is also a visiting scholar at the University Children’s Hospital Zurich, Switzerland.

She studies how children, young people, and families cope with traumatic experiences, and how professionals can support them.

A generous and engaging colleague, and a scholar with great initiative, Eva has just finished a stint as co-chair of the Global Young Academy.

Eva writes on the Trauma Recovery blog and tweets via @EvaAlisic.

Two islands: The island of Doctor Moreau is closed and sad; while the island of Doctor More Open is welcoming and happy.

The Island of Doctor More Open, by Rob Jenkins.

“Come on in, the water’s fine!” tweeted Jonathan, one of the Research Whisperers.

I hope you’ll agree with him and join us for a More Open Access splash.

Why do we need more Open Access (OA)?

Many research articles are still not available

Despite substantial movement towards Open Science, we’re not there yet.

Many papers are still behind paywalls. And even those that are shared in repositories are often not indexed in Google Scholar, a frequent starting point for literature searches.

This is a serious problem for several reasons. I’ll focus on the practical ones. Most importantly, we expect practitioners in medicine, psychology, education and other fields to conduct ‘evidence-based practice’. How is that possible if they do not have access to that evidence base? The same is true for policy advisors – how can they base their policies on evidence, if they don’t have access to the evidence base?

Also, more and more citizen scientists are doing excellent, relevant projects. They could do even better if they had access to the literature. With much academic research being conducted with public funds, there is a moral imperative for those projects’ findings to be made publicly available.

Finally, a substantial number of researchers still can’t access all literature. This is a problem, especially in low-resource settings. There have been several great initiatives to improve access for researchers in low- and middle-income countries, from the Egyptian Knowledge Bank to Sci-Hub. These are partial solutions, and they are not known or accessible to all. There are grey areas when using ‘pirate’ sites such as Sci-Hub or #ICanHazPDF: access to research should be legal and free. Yet, arguably, these methods only exist because of a publishing system that is failing.

Read more of this post

Developing my portfolio career

Ian StreetIan Street is a postdoc at Dartmouth College working on how plant hormones affect plant development.

He is the writer of The Quiet Branches plant science blog and is looking towards a career in science writing or editing.

In his time away from the lab bench and writing, he’s a runner and cat owner.

Ian tweets from @IHStreet.

Photo by Ian Street

Photo by Ian Street

First, let me state my situation and some of the things I am assuming as I develop my career:

  1. Most postdocs do not go on to jobs as Primary Investigators (PIs).
  2. The longer you’re a postdoc, the less likely #1 becomes.
  3. Major depression ground me down mid-postdoc. Having a lot of support and writing has helped me recover some momentum.
  4. Deciding to leave academia is not easy. Introspection and experimentation are required.
  5. To find a job/ career outside academia, network, yes, but it is also important to gain experience in fields of interest if possible.
  6. The Internet is the key to my efforts from the small-town college where I’m a postdoc.

The career I’ve settled upon to pursue beyond academia is perhaps obvious: it is the world of science writing and editing.

Addressing Doubts

It seems obvious. Too obvious, for a few reasons.

This is the “Who are you to break out into a new field?” anxiety narrative I have in my brain:

It’s writing and editing. Who can’t do that, and do both well, in academia? Besides, the written word is apparently dying because pictures and video are more important/ compelling in the digital age. Writing is more than putting words on a page, of course. Getting things out of a brain in a coherent form (it’s always perfect in my mind, why can’t that just pop out on the page?!), letting an editor’s brains see it, review it, suggest changes, or say “no” (it’s almost always a “no”) is daunting. Then there’s the exposing of your ideas to a wider audience – this might be exciting, but it is also fraught with fear of rejection.

The path of a career transition is far from certain. Read more of this post