Academic writing ‘outside’ academia

JayThompson-smDr Jay Daniel Thompson is a freelance writer, researcher, and editor who teaches at the University of Melbourne. His website can be found here.

Jay is also Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, and continues to publish in the fields of Literary Studies and Cultural Studies.

He can be contacted via email at

Readers of The Research Whisperer will be familiar with that old chestnut ‘publish or perish’. This is supposed to be the key to getting (and keeping) an academic job.

Stairs Carnegie Building, Dunedin (Photo by Kim Tairi |

Stairs Carnegie Building, Dunedin (Photo by Kim Tairi |

So, what about those non-academics who publish academic writing— the latter broadly defined as writing which is scholarly in nature and appears in traditional academic mediums (e.g. peer-reviewed journals, edited collections, and so forth)? Why do these people put themselves through the blood, sweat, and peer-review?

Who are these people exactly?

Let’s start with the latter question.

Non-academic academic writers (to coin a terribly inelegant term) come in many guises. Some are working in ‘industry’, and bring coalface knowledge to academic publications. Publications in the ‘hard sciences’, for example, frequently feature ‘industry’ input. There are those writers who require publication notches under their belt in order to win that coveted fellowship or lecturing gig. Creative arts journals frequently feature submissions by artists (painters, creative writers, and so forth) who have a scholarly tone. Then there are those folk who are drawn to academic writing by a love of words and a desire to contribute to a particular field or discipline.

I traverse several of the groups listed above.
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3 ways to fix those meetings

[Image origin unknown]

[Image origin unknown]

Every academic I know loathes meetings. Loathes them.

They view meetings as obstacles to (rather than elements of) work, wasted time, forced upon them, and – even worse – as forums for awful colleagues to showcase their awfulness.

Having attended many meetings in my academic and other professional lives, I can’t rally much of a defence for meetings. They are the bane of many working lives, academic or not.

Now, I’m not talking in this post about getting together with collaborators, new colleagues, or catching up with buddies under the guise of ‘meetings’. These could turn out badly, but they’re more likely to be energising and fun events. And they’re often by choice.

However, no-one’s ever said that of the majority of work meetings, particularly those regular committee and staff ones.

Some of the meetings I’ve enjoyed the most are the ones I don’t attend. They’re the ones being livetweeted (or subtweeted) by my buddies on Twitter (often behind locked accounts because, you know, #clm).

But, despite initial appearances, this post isn’t just another long whinge about meetings!

This post is about how to try to fix the main things that are wrong with meetings. I want to help you help others make meetings useful. Oh yeah, I said it: useful. As a baseline, you should be observing meeting etiquette no matter how cheesed off you are that you have to attend.

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One weird trick to get a research grant

Psst. Wanna know a secret? This one weird trick will let you read other people’s grant applications, even before they are funded. Not only that, you get to decide who gets the money.

And it won’t cost you a cent.

1 tip to get a grant. See applications before they get funded. You decide who gets the money.In the past, when talking about how to write a better application, Tseen has advised you to ‘be the assessor’ – to channel the assessor and understand what they are looking for. It is great advice.

The most effective way to do that is to actually become an assessor for a granting agency. Actually, I recommend that you put your hand up for two – one in your home country and one overseas.

Here’s why:

Write better applications

Grant applications are a particular genre of academic writing. They are carefully structured documents that provide detailed plans for the future. They require information that never appears in other sorts of academic writing, such as budgets, CVs, and Gantt charts.

They look forward, when most other academic writing looks back at work that has already been done.

We don’t write them very often and we don’t read them very often. Compare the number of articles that you’ve read recently to the number of grant applications you’ve read ever.

By reading more grant applications, you will learn to write better grant applications. You’ll see what sort of evidence impresses you and what style of writing engages you. You’ll see what enrages you, too, when an otherwise good application contains obvious gaps or someone submits drivel.

Not only that, it will help you to place your own work in context. If you can see how other people position their work, it will help you to position yours.

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Everybody wants to save the world

Darkseid vs. Thanos (86365) [Photo by JD Hancock |]

Darkseid vs. Thanos (86365) [Photo by JD Hancock |

Everyone loves declaring that their research will influence policy, and thereby be the catalyst for enduring, transformative, and positive change.

But is it all just wishful thinking? How much does research actually influence policy?

With the Australian Research Council touting a new Research Impact Principles and Framework, being able to demonstrate that your research has influenced policy or program implementation becomes even more valuable. In the UK, with its Research Excellence Framework (REF), ‘impact’ has already become quite the dirty word.

I’m writing about this now because, in the craziness of November last year, I attended a seminar hosted by La Trobe University’s Institute for Human Security and Social Change. The presentation was by Duncan Green, Senior Strategist for Oxfam, and it was advertised as a talk about “how change happens”.

Given grant application and national research council demands, this topic is hard to resist, right?

As flagged above, “influencing policy” is one of the things that many academics argue that their research outcomes will achieve, along with produce a generous number of publications, storm the frontiers of new knowledge, and bring forth a herd of rainbow unicorns.


The tyranny of the timesheet

This post was inspired by the National Tertiary Education Union 2014 conference on Insecure Work. Thanks to the National Tertiary Education Union for inviting the Research Whisperer to be part of the conference, and for paying for my airfare and accommodation. I learned many things, and this post covers some of them. 

A timesheet with 'No more!' across it in big red lettersI hate timesheets.

It has been a while since I needed to fill out a timesheet, but my visceral distaste for the timesheet ritual remains very strong.

It wasn’t just that they were fiddly and annoying and stupid (although they were). I hated what they represented – they made me feel unvalued, disempowered, and disposable.

At the back of my mind was the lurking knowledge that I could be dismissed with an hour’s notice, that I was a ‘resource’, that I was temporary.

It didn’t matter that my boss valued my work, and I had excellent relationships with them, or that we had a long history of working together.

When you work at a university, you learn that there are two different drivers for all activity: personal ethics and institutional imperative.

When the institutional imperative calls for a review or a restructure or any other activity that requires shedding jobs or saving money, the nicest people can end up doing truly horrible things, no matter what their personal ethics call for. If the rules say you get sacked without notice, you get sacked without notice.

Timesheets, at their heart, represent hourly paid work. This work gets called different things in different places – sessional, casual, adjunct, whatever. Names have power, though, so I think that we should call it what it is – hourly paid work (except on your CV, when you want it to sound as shiny as possible). By doing this, we take away the mystique, the special language, of the academy. By calling it hourly paid work, we bring it into the same world as stacking supermarket shelves and flipping burgers. We bring it into the marketplace.

It is important that we do that, because one in two jobs at Australian universities are now casual or contract. [1]

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Do you have a toxic collaborator?

What's yours? (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

What’s yours? (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

At some time in everyone’s academic lives, there will be cause for collaboration angst.

It may all start golden: big ideas, excitement about working with new colleagues, the potential for fancy-pants funding and intellectual glory.

And if you were invited onto a prestigious team by a favoured prof…well, you’d almost fall over signing up, right?

Then, down the track, you’re looking at the fifth ‘I still haven’t done it’ email from Collaborator 2, or – worse still – finding no email from Collaborator 3…ever.

How many times is it physiologically safe to roll one’s eyes at Collaborator 4 for declaring yet again that they should be first author?

I’ve written before about how to find research friends and make co-writing work, which have focused for the most part on the positive habits and traits that lead to successful, satisfying collaborations.

This post focuses on the flipside.

Finding out that your co-writer or co-investigator is awful to work with could be a gradual soul-destroying process, or a very rapid soul-destroying process. Either way? Soul destroyed.

Added to the mix are complicated intersections of status, power and privilege, and often emotional baggage from professional (or deeper) friendships. The earlier you can see that the collaboration isn’t going to work, the easier it may be to duck out of the project, or at least implement processes that will mean you emerge with your sanity and sense of self intact.

Here are 5 signs that you may have a toxic collaborator: READ MORE

Escaping the ivory tower- if only for a little while

dani-barringtonDr Dani Barrington is a Research Fellow jointly appointed by Monash University and the International WaterCentre.

Her work focuses on water and sanitation in developing communities, meaning she is often referred to as ‘The Toilet Lady’ by strangers and ‘Sani Dani’ by at least one of her friends.

She tweets at @Dani_Barrington.

Detail of Borugak Jagyeongnu, an enormous Korean water clock

The water clock, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Put your hand up if you feel guilty leaving the office at 5pm.

Keep it up if you feel it makes you a ‘bad’ academic.

I realised a few weeks ago that I consider myself a ‘bad’ academic for having a healthy work-life balance. And this really p*ssed me off.

I made a deal with my supervisor when I decided to apply for a PhD: I was over the undergraduate student lifestyle, and I would only do a PhD if I could treat it as a ‘real’ job, where I worked normal hours and took normal holidays.

Otherwise, I was going to accept a graduate position in an engineering firm (the fact that professional engineers may not have a healthy work-life balance was not apparent to me on graduating in 2007, pre-Global Financial Crisis, especially when taking an engineering position in Perth seemed the ‘safe’ option).

I LOVED studying for my PhD – I was making a fortune (well, compared to my previous casual income of $100 a week plus Youth Allowance), I got to work on stuff I was interested in, and I travelled overseas to conferences.

Yet, throughout my PhD, I kept attending seminars where I was reminded that if I wanted to continue in academia I was going to have to dedicate my entire life to the cause, including working weekends and potentially neglecting family obligations.

As a result, I wasn’t that interested in staying in academia when I finished my PhD.

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