Can a research career be planned, or is it serendipity?

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on January 19, 2017 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com


Recently on Twitter, Sarina Kilham (@sarinakilham) asked:

My answer to this very good question is the answer I give to many things: it’s complicated.

Photo from Kennedy Space Centrer (@SpaceX) | Unsplash

Photo from Kennedy Space Centrer (@SpaceX) | Unsplash

I would say yes, a research career should be planned to some extent, but you must also reconcile yourself to the fact that the plan is never set in stone. You need to be prepared for things to go off-plan or be completely derailed. In fact, in academia, a plan that works out exactly as you would have it may well be the exception rather than the rule.

All our plans for research depend on the roles we occupy and the considerable influence of whether we have a salary to sustain our lives. The most beautiful research career planning falls in a heap if that fixed-term contract isn’t renewed or sessional hours dry up. Even if you’re in a full-time, relatively secure position, life – and restructures – happen. There are some who declare that they would do their research no matter what, paying job or no job, and I’d venture to say that that is a relatively common declaration, but a rare reality.

So, make research plans – but know that they’re likely to morph into other things. You should keep making them even though you know this.

Why?

Because the value in planning your research career isn’t in the actual plan. It doesn’t lie only – or even mainly – in achieving the amazing goals you’ve set for yourself. It’s in the process of research planning itself. Read more of this post

New Year’s resolutions for women in academia

penny-oxford-250pxPenny Oxford had a number of organisational learning roles in the corporate and government sectors before joining the staff development team of a university in 2006. Since then, she has left the higher education sector and returned so many times that she’s lost count.

Penny has worked in faculties and central research offices in research support, project management, and researcher development roles. She’s most proud of her contributions to the WiSci (Women in Science) and SPAM (Strategic Promotions Advice and Mentoring) programs at the University of Sydney. SPAM could not have happened without the wisdom, guidance and inspirational brilliance of Professors Daniela Traini and Fiona White, and Professor Emerita Robyn Overall. It succeeds because of the outstanding generosity of all its mentors, including Professor Mike Thompson (winner of the inaugural Golden SPAM award for mentoring) and Judy Black, super-mentor and astonishing thespian talent.

Penny tweets from @Penny_O_.


Time to reflect. Photo courtesy of Penny Oxford.

Time to reflect. Photo courtesy of Penny Oxford.

January is traditionally a time to reflect, plan, and – if you’re that kind of person – come up with some New Year’s resolutions!

As we move into another academic year, I’d like to suggest some career development resolutions for female researchers, particularly women in the STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) disciplines.

I’ve worked with many of you on career planning, mentoring and promotion support programs over the years and I am in awe of your brilliance, tenacity, resilience and generosity.

I’m also saddened by the scarcity of women in leadership roles and frustrated by a culture that’s not always completely fantastic when it comes to embracing diversity, so I thought I would distil what I’ve learned from many wise mentors into a list of promises that you can make to yourself, to help you take charge of your career in 2017. Read more of this post

Changing disciplines

Last year, one of our readers wrote:

I would like to ask/know if it is possible to develop research and apply for funds affiliated in a faculty different from your field – that is, following a logic of interdisciplinary work, can we be affiliated in medicine and develop research in psychology, for example? Or be affiliated in philosophy and develop research in medicine? … Combining the two seems great but is it done?

Ape masks, hand and foot from planet of the apes

NYC – Queens – Astoria: Museum of the Moving Image – Planet of the Apes, by Wally Gobetz on Flickr.

Most of the researchers that I work with are working on interdisciplinary work, so I see this question more often than you would think. It generally comes in two different forms:

  • I’ve changed disciplines. How do I present the work in my old discipline to the best advantage?
  • I have a lot of expertise in one discipline, but now I’ve started moving to another disciplinary space. How do I get funding for that?

People are concerned that new readers won’t understand, or won’t give them credit for, their old work. Given that I’m generally talking to them about a grant application, that is a serious concern. Writing a funding application is all about getting the other person to understand and support your request. I don’t want anything getting in the way of that.

Talking about this change can be a challenge if assessors have an image of an uninterrupted progression through Honours, Masters, PhD, postdoc and onwards, all in one topic. Do you just drop your old work? If you include it, what do you do with citation numbers, where norms vary wildly between disciplines? Do you talk about why you changed? If so, how? Read more of this post

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 | unsplash.com

Photo by Sergee Bee | unsplash.com

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 www.flickr.com/photos/lucy-wu | Shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Arguing | Artwork by http://www.flickr.com/photos/lucy-wu | 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