When research collaborations go bad

Stuff happens | Photo by Kim Tairi Released under CC licencse: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0

Stuff happens | Photo by Kim Tairi
Released under CC licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0

One of the toughest things to do gracefully in an academic relationship is to end it, or even question it.

Sometimes, even though you try, there isn’t a ‘good’ way to do it. Perhaps that’s why issues around collaborations – particularly what to do with bad ones – persist so strongly.

A lot of angst can be saved by early discussion about expectations from all team members – who’s doing what, when, and how. As mentioned in this co-authoring post, the division of labour doesn’t have to be equal, it just has to be clear.

On an academic risk management note, make sure you can tick these boxes before embarking on a collaborative project:

  • I’ve had at least one research conversation with the collaborator(s) I will be working with.
  • We’ve talked about division of labour and timelines for the project.
  • I feel comfortable facing my collaborator(s) first thing in the morning to talk about project and publication work. [This is a golden rule with me – ymmv]
  • I’m confident that my collaborator(s) bring relevant and appropriate levels of intellectual value to the project.
  • My collaborators communicate with me in a timely and constructive manner.

If you can tick off that checklist, it should mean few misunderstandings and disappointments. Read more of this post

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. Read more of this post

Do it because you can

In-between landscape (scale of 1:1): mangroves near Wynnum, looking towards Stradbroke. Megan McPherson, work in progress: Relief printed etching, rice paper, hand coloured with pigment ink, archival glues. Approximately 280 x 500 x 20 cms (hxwxd) (Undulating surface)

In-between landscape (scale of 1:1): mangroves near Wynnum, looking towards Stradbroke. Megan McPherson, work in progress: Relief printed etching, rice paper, hand coloured with pigment ink, archival glues. Approximately 280 x 500 x 20 cms (hxwxd) (Undulating surface)

I tried to let this particular white-hot rage die down. But it won’t.

So, hopefully, here’s a constructive post built from the foundations of my infuriation.

I heard a researcher talking about how they balanced their academic work life a while ago, and it made me very angry.

Basically, they said that anything that wasn’t clearly noted as part of their workload, they wouldn’t bother doing.

The implication being that anyone who did ‘extra’ or ‘unnecessary’ things were total mugs because those things weren’t getting them ahead in their careers – therefore, not worth doing. They considered the idea of communicating research (and social media as a whole) as a fad in which only the gullible would indulge their time.

They also seemed smug, and it’s always hard for me to like those who seem smug.

I agree that people shouldn’t fall on their swords and slog away at little recognised, exploitative roles or over-the-workload-limit tasks and responsibilities. I’m not saying that academics must carry the weight of all that needs to be done, because we know that it’s always already too much.

What made me so angry was that this researcher wasn’t talking about solidarity with colleagues in the face of workload adversity. They were totally focused on what would be worthwhile doing for their own career and promotion prospects; everything else was secondary, if not worthless. Read more of this post

What makes a good colleague?

Photo by Tseen Khoo

Photo by Tseen Khoo

Many people lament the growing scarcity of collegiality in our working lives. Many declare, in varying shades of purple prose, that it has been sacrificed on the altar of economic rationalism and for the missions of our managerial universities.

Research stars and groups get imported into institutions, often breeding resentment and discomfort from those who are already there.

Scholars who are already excelling gain more for their work; those who aren’t considered as such do not, and often find themselves without support to increase their research capacity.

Despite the rhetoric about collaboration and partnerships, the imperatives for outputs lead many to declare that collegiality and scholarly citizenship are under threat. This seems particularly true when people minimise any commitments that don’t directly produce outputs.

The oil that smooths the machine of scholarship is not only what people write, analyse, and publish. It’s not only presenting at conferences or supervising a higher degree student. Most of all, it’s not what promotions people have had or grants they’ve won.

There is a whole raft of intangible, essential, labour-intensive work that goes into a healthy research ecosystem. In an almost-metrics way, this work includes being a good critical friend to colleagues and students, especially those who aren’t directly in your area; reviewing for grants, book manuscripts, and papers; convening events that set the stage for a field or cohort to develop and progress; mentoring someone without having to… the list goes on.

At a totally non-metrics level, this kind of work encompasses supporting each other and providing encouragement, the social work of building connections between groups and individuals, being good communicators, and that most difficult element of bringing people together because they want to be together. This is the invisible (often feminised) labour of any workplace.

Giedre Kligyte and Simon Barrie argue that academics cling to an “unattainable collegial ideal situated in binary opposition to management” that “ultimately disguises the contingent character of this relationship and prevents both leaders and academics from imagining alternatives” (2014, p. 166). Kligyte and Barrie’s article (PDF available on UNSW repository – thanks, @giedre!) is thought-provoking, and forced Lacan upon me. I forgave them this because the paper made me think about the persistence of positing a halcyon past against which our increasingly soulless present is juxtaposed. This happens a lot in criticisms of neoliberal universities, and I’ve done my share of ranting about the invocation of a mythical golden age at universities. But that is indeed a whole other post.

Here’s what I wanted to focus on for this one: Let’s talk about what makes a good colleague. Not a utopian colleague. A good everyday colleague.  Read more of this post

One research whisperer’s career so far (Tseen Khoo)

Last year, the indefatigable Angela Dobele interviewed me for her Women and Research newsletter (Issue 2, 2015, pp. 7-8). The interview, with some minor updates, appears below. You can find the original version, and previous newsletter issues, at Angela’s website under “Networking Business Education”. Many thanks to Angela for allowing me to share my interview here! 

I wanted to share it on Research Whisperer because, of late, I’ve listened to several academics on panels talking about their research trajectories. These participants – whether they’re established professors, Mid, or Early Career Researchers – are almost always apologetic about the fact that they haven’t had a straightforward progression through an academic career. Very few scholars I know HAVE had what they think of as a straightforward trajectory.

For me, when looking at how others have travelled and the experience they bring, I find it more meaningful to consider what people have managed to create or invest their time in, rather than a clinical view of what jobs they’ve held. But before I wander too far off on that topic, here’s my 2015 interview with Angela: 

Asian Australian public history project: Hou Wang Temple (Atherton, Qld) | Photo by Tseen Khoo

From my Asian Australian public history project files: The Hou Wang Temple (Atherton, Qld) | Photo by Tseen Khoo

1) What is the best piece of advice you have received so far and why?

The best piece of research advice I’ve ever received (and try really hard to follow) is ‘Done is better than perfect’.

Perfectionism is a procrastinating behaviour and, in many cases, an excuse not to follow through on the risk of submitting that journal paper, or grant application, or conference abstract.

If you never feel it’s just perfect, then you can’t hand it over, so never completing anything is a sign of what a quality scholar you are, right? So wrong! Read more of this post

When word counts count: Responses to last week’s post from @thesiswhisperer and @katrinafee

Photo by Jonas Vincent | unsplash.com

Photo by Jonas Vincent | unsplash.com

My post last week – “Your word count means nothing to me” – generated a lot of agreement and some high-fiving about raising the issue of obsessing about word counts.

I’m very aware, though, that it could also have alienated some readers and, indeed, friends.

For this reason, I ran the post past Inger Mewburn (The Thesis Whisperer and thesis bootcamp devotee; @thesiswhisperer) and Katherine Firth (Research Degree Voodoo and one of the thesis bootcamp creators from University of Melbourne; @katrinafee) before I published the piece last week.

Inger and Katherine are people I like, trust, and admire. I wouldn’t be comfortable with offending them in the interests of a bloggy rant.

They both responded with typical honesty, warmth, and generosity.

I really wanted to have their voices in on the conversation, and they’ve very kindly allowed me to post their feedback in full in this follow-up post. Thank you, Inger and Katherine, for your considered comments and insight! Read more of this post

Your word count means nothing to me

A “sadistic” writing app, The Most Dangerous Writing App, recently appeared on my social media feed. It registers when you’re not writing – 5 seconds of no typing – and starts deleting what you’ve already written.

At first, I laughed and moved on. I thought it was a bit of a joke, that no-one would really use it for academic work or their thesis. If anything, I thought that people would see it as a critique of being blinkered to anything but words on the page and other ‘writing productivity’ ridiculousness.

I was wrong.

People started talking about wanting to use it at their next #shutupandwrite session, to see how it ‘might whip them into shape’. They felt they needed something to make them take their academic writing more seriously, and this app might be it.

I went a little #headasplodey.

Read more of this post

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