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

It gets worse!

This post is co-authored by Karina Luzia and Kate Bowles of CASA, and Jonathan O’Donnell of The Research Whisperer. It has been cross-posted to both blogs. 

It Gets Better’ is a great program, hosted in the United States, that aims to tell…

“…lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth around the world that it gets better, and to create and inspire the changes needed to make it better for them.”

The message is a simple one: Growing up is hard. School is crap, but don’t despair. It gets better.

This is a really effective campaign because it has found a way to tell the truth and help the people who need it.

It Gets Worse!We need a similar campaign for our hourly, adjunct, casual, sessional (HACS) academics, and for PhD students who dream of becoming professors one day.

The problem is that while we would love to be able to say that it gets better, we can’t. For the majority who undertake the PhD in the hope of securing a higher education academic career with access to the fullest range of benefits,

it gets worse!

Read more of this post

Why are grant applications confidential?

Photo of a large bag labeled 'Confidential Paper for shredding & recycling'.

Confidential Paper for shredding & recycling, by Dan Brickley on Flickr.

One of the first rules that I learnt when I started as a research whisperer was that grant applications are confidential documents. We should never talk about an application, other than with the applicants.

I’ve seen that rule applied with different levels of stringency at different times.

Think about these questions for a moment:

  • Should the very fact that someone is drafting an application be treated as confidential information?
  • Should you be able to talk to other people in the research office about a draft application? How widely?
  • Should you be able to send an application for internal review? Do you need to check with the applicant first?
  • Is an application still confidential after the grants have been announced? Can we put successful grant applications into a library, so that others can learn from great examples?
  • If two applicants are working on similar topics, and would gain from working together, can I introduce them to one another? How?

These questions define the borders of confidentiality. Most research offices would have different answers to some or all of these questions.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if confidentiality is the best way to go. Perhaps we have more to gain from broadcasting research ideas widely, than from keeping them close. 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

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

When research collaborations go bad

Stuff happens | Photo by Kim Tairi Released under CC licencse:

Stuff happens | Photo by Kim Tairi
Released under CC licence:

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