Is the academic lone wolf extinct?

Photo by Krishh | unsplash.com

Photo by Krishh | unsplash.com

Academic lone wolves get a bad rap.

In today’s hyper-collaborative academic world, the idea that researchers might work on something alone, get funding alone, and publish alone, is weird and even abhorrent to many.

Yet, it is the reality for many humanities and social sciences academics, from postgraduates to senior scholars. They have projects where they publish and work on projects alone, as well as collaborative and joint initiatives that involve others in their own discipline and beyond.

It’s not a case of either/or, but the general vibe in many academic ‘advice’ streams is that scholars should not work alone.

Scholars can and do work alone, and they can be excellent colleagues, productive academics, and generous mentors. Sure, there are some researchers who work alone because they don’t play well with others, but many work alone because it is an expectation of their disciplines. Some work alone because they enjoy working alone, but it doesn’t mean they can’t work with others.

Not only is sole-authorship relatively common practice, it is in fact a sought-after signal that the researcher has the ability to create and complete major intellectual work. The opaqueness of who did what can be the source of much contention on work that involves more than one named investigator or author. Humanities scholars are not as often embroiled in these debates because they practice a discipline “where text and author are tightly coupled; where the process of inscription implies intimacy with one’s materials” (Cronin 2003 [196 Kb PDF]).  Read more of this post

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Nowhere to hide

Shots fired! Photo by Sebastian Kanczok | unsplash.com

Shots fired! Photo by Sebastian Kanczok | unsplash.com

Can vice-chancellors ever really know what it’s like for emerging researchers and precariat postdocs?

I was reading two vice-chancellors discuss how to take pressure off young academics the other week and it made me increasingly ragey.

Set-ups like this are doomed in many ways because you’re asking people with incredible privilege and a fair whack of authority and power to empathise with emerging scholars who have little to none of those elements.

I’ve let this #headasplodey-ness simmer for a couple of weeks because it’s all too easy for outrage to rule, and I had to admit that my initial outrage was nothing new. People have been outraged for ages about the fact that privileged, executive managerial sorts have the nerve to comment – often gauchely – on what the situation is like for those most vulnerable in their organisations.

The inclusion of the mini-interview at the end, which included the vice-chancellors sharing with us where they were holidaying was just a smidge off-colour, I thought, given the preceding verbiage about difficulty of securing positions, restrictions on resources and subsequent appointments, etc.

So, I sat on my hands for a bit.

After mulling over my outrage about the interview article, these were the particular issues that stayed with me: Read more of this post

Re-skilling

Rusty horse (Photo by Marcus Schwan) | flickr.com

Rusty horse (Photo by Marcus Schwan) | flickr.com

I was reminded recently of how much you need to keep exercising some skills as a scholar.

What you learn in academia isn’t like ‘riding a bike’ and there are skills that can be forgotten. In my case, I should probably confess that I don’t even know how to ride a bike so we’re talking about being way behind the 8-ball here.

The skills I’m talking about are those involved in editing a special issue journal.

The setting was as amenable as it could be for a good outcome. I was co-editing the issue with one of my best academic buddies. We had worked together on different projects before, including co-authoring a piece of writing, and we knew we could work together.

The journal was one I was very familiar with and had published with a couple of times before. It was a publication friendly to our particular focus and range of topics.

The general editor of the journal was also a good academic friend so, really, it was as collegial an environment as it could be.

I have previously edited six special issue journals, across a range of publications and with different co-editors or solo. Even so, I hadn’t edited a special issue for a few years and I felt rusty. Read more of this post

Do I have to move up the ladder?

Photo by Geran de Klerk | unsplash.com

Photo by Geran de Klerk | unsplash.com

My last post about sharing hard truths in the academy seemed to really strike a chord, particularly with early career researchers who confirmed that hearing the truth was better than being placated with false assurances. People contributed some great comments: well considered and sometimes sad.

One of these comments, from Megan, included an interesting question:

I have one, maybe slightly odd, question. I did a PhD so I could work in research, not to scale the heights of academia. I love my job but I love other aspects of my life just as much (!) and am not keen to have to put my job above all else as it seems is necessary to progress (from what I have observed anyway). Basically I would be more than happy to keep working as a level B, say, on different projects and feel confident enough in my general skills (I had a career before academia) that I could do this. I also know that senior academics need good people at that level to actually deliver their projects.

However it seems to me that staying at the one level is not possible as a career path – the institution kind of forces you to look and move ‘upward’ because of the need / desire for high performing researchers. And while I know some projects have non-academic project managers I’m not as interested in that as would still like to use my academic skills / write a bit and so on. Just wondering if anyone had any thoughts on this.

This prompted so many thoughts that I had to write this post! My caveat for this is that it is drawn from my own experiences – I would be very interested to hear from anyone who knows of research into promotion patterns and aspirations in academia.

So, where to begin?

The short answer is that you could have a career as a Level B academic. If you manage to land a continuing Level B position (title of ‘lecturer’, 2nd step up from entry-level continuing academic appointments), you could – if you wanted to – stay at that level for as long as you like. That is, as long as you’re not made redundant by your institution, or ‘fail’ to do your basic job as an academic (in which case, you may then be ‘performance managed’ out of your role).

If you’re fulfilling the job of a lecturer (and probably beyond), and just don’t ever feel like applying for promotion, this becomes interesting. I’m writing a chapter for a book on ‘academic wellbeing’ that focuses on the very question: what it means when you know that fighting for your work/life balance means a direct compromise of promotion chances and track-record building opportunities. Read more of this post

Truth be told

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 8 June 2017 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


It’s safe to say that the funding and employment prospects for researchers in Australia are poor.

When I first drafted this piece, I wanted to say that the prospects were ‘challenging’, then realised that this is the way we have come to talk about—and cloak—the many stark inequities in our system. The circumstances are not challenging in the sense of being a series of personal adversities that must be overcome.

The perfect storm of scarce career pathways, highly metricised researcher valuation, and diminishing funds for research mean that early career researchers work in an area that is broken in many ways. There are options—good, bad, and often precarious. The challenges are systemic and institutional, with pressure brought to bear on the individual as a consequence. Read more of this post

I don’t need money to do research

There are some fields in academia that don’t need funding for research to happen.

Sure, I know no research is ‘free’ to produce and share – there’s the salary of the researchers, organisational infrastructure (e.g. tech, desk-space), libraries, and the costs of presenting at conferences for a start.

But to do the research itself doesn’t always need a lot of money.

It may need just a little bit of money or, sometimes, none at all. It does always need time, and that’s the commodity that’s probably in shortest supply.

I come from a humanities (specifically, literary studies) background. My PhD research could have all happened through me finding the time to sit and do a metric tonne of reading and synthesising of materials that I access through my university library and on the internet. I can do my literary studies research and writing without needing to talk to a single other person or having to travel.

It’s not just the humanities. There are many other fields of research where buckets of cash are not what it takes to make the work happen.

I know it’s the kind of thing you’re not meant to say. I have been publicly shamed for saying it in work meetings in other professional incarnations. When colleagues have talked about it, they get shushed – sometimes seriously – because naming such a situation runs counter to the dizzy fiesta of funding that our institutions and research sector crave. Read more of this post

Predatory publishers and events

Excerpt from academic spam I received on 2 Feb 2017.

Excerpt from academic spam I received on 2 Feb 2017.

It seemed like such a good idea at the time.

‘Let’s write something on predatory publishing!’ I said.

‘Let’s talk about all that academic spam we get!’ I said.

I even roped in my fab colleague from La Trobe’s Borchardt Library, Steven Chang (@stevenpchang), to write something, too. He was keen. We swapped links on email and Twitter.

Then the groundbreaking resource, Beall’s List, officially went dark. It can still be salvaged in Wayback form (that is, a cached version) but it won’t feature updated information anymore.

For me, not having Beall’s List active is a big blow against the tracking of, and education about, predatory processes in contemporary scholarship. I used it all the time and, though Beall is not without his critics, I found it to be of strong value and an excellent way to build awareness around what constitutes the slimy underbelly of academic endeavour. Read more of this post