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 (angeladobele.com) 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

Are my publications any good?

A pile of theses in a skip.

All that work! by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

The Journal Impact Factor may not be dead, but it is looking pretty ill. When a relatively conservative body like the Australian Research Council (ARC) says:

“The ARC is not prescriptive about what can be included [in a publication list], but applicants should be aware of the widely held view that journal impact factors are a poor measure of an individual’s research performance.” – ARC Frequently Asked Questions for Discovery Projects commencing in 2017, question 4.11

If journal impact factor is a poor measure, what is a good measure of “an individual’s research performance”? How do you know that your publications are any good?

You just know

I get asked this by new academics a lot. The question comes in many forms: “What measures can I use?” “How will people know?” “Where should I publish?”

The unspoken question often revolves around an uncertainty about, or a fear of, the value of their own work. Don’t do that.  Don’t pin the value of your work to the judgement of your peers, your promotion committee, or your grant assessors. That way, madness lies.

You know when you have written a good paper. You know when you have, through the pressure of deadlines, or the tragedy of lost data, written a not-so-good paper. Hold onto those feelings, that sense of judgement. It will sustain you.

Knowing that, here are some practical answers to this question.

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What does your soul (read: postdoc application) look like?

Portrait of Jonathan LaskovskyJonathan Laskovsky is the Senior Coordinator, Research Partnerships, in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University. He is primarily responsible for managing research partnerships support and administration within the College.

Alongside this role, Jonathan has research interests in modern and postmodern literature with a particular focus on fictional space and critical theory.

He tweets as @JLaskovsky and can be found on Linkedin.


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What queue? by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

I have a secret weapon. I can look into your soul.

By that, I mean that, as part of my role, I’ve had to read a large volume of academic CVs. Particularly postdocs’ CVs.

I’ve probably looked more than 600 CVs in the past year, and what has astounded me throughout that process is not the number of staff looking for employment (there are many), or the wide variety of academic pathways (an encouraging sign).

The thing that surprised me most is the sheer volume of CVs that seem to be actively trying to thwart the reader.

Applying for a postdoc position is a bit like applying for a grant application. There are lots of other people who are also applying. The person reading the applications could be trying to shortlist from over 300 applications, and is looking for reasons to drop your application onto the cutting-room floor.

I can’t help you with most of these factors. I can’t control the number of applicants and I can’t help you with journal articles you haven’t written, or grant applications that haven’t been successful.

What I can do is give you a short list of tips that can help keep your application in the initial cut. These mostly cover the CV but the principles apply to the Key Selection Criteria and other parts of the application.
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Share your data, share yourself

This is the third post drawn from a talk that I gave last year at the University of Melbourne Researcher@Library event. Thanks to all involved!


A beautiful old door, with a big old lock and a tiny little new lock.

Old door, new lock, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

In the first of these articles, I talked about breaking out of your university bureaucracyThe second was about breaking funding boundaries. Both of those were written from the point of view of someone sitting securely within an organization, trying to break out.

But sometimes you end up working outside your organization. It might be because you choose to leave, or (more likely) because your organisations doesn’t want you anymore. It doesn’t matter how successful you are as a researcher and a lecturer if your whole area is wiped out in a restructure. Or you might be a casual or adjunct, paid by the hour, who is only tentatively linked to one or more universities. Or a researcher on a limited term contract, fueled by soft money, with no certainty of work next year.

Modern universities preserve no loyalty to their staff. As a result, I don’t think that we need to feel much loyalty to our universities.

Whatever the reason, you should push your identity out beyond the boundaries of the organization where you work, or build up one if you are independent. Here are three useful ways to do that, beyond social media. Read more of this post

Welcome to the Research Bazaar

dejan-smallDejan Jotanovic is the engagement, social media and communications officer at Research Platforms (ResPlat) Services at the University of Melbourne.

ResPlat provides research support with services such as cloud computing, data management and training in research tools and skills.

Dejan has also recently completed a Master of Public Policy & Management, with interests in inequality, social and science policy. Prior to this Dejan has completed an Honours in Psychology from the University of Melbourne. 

Twitter: @heyDejan / email: dejan.jotanovic@gmail.com


The Research Bazaar (ResBaz) is your one-stop shop for digital research tools, skills, and a community of support!

In late 2013, David F. Flanders (my boss) recognised a problem: with over 500 research tools and apps available to researchers across a plethora of faculties and disciplines, a traditional information technology helpdesk wouldn’t suffice. In reality, the modern complexities of research far surpassed the basic needs of bibliography management and a proficiency in Microsoft Word. Data had become Big. There was talk of a ‘Cloud’. Inter-disciplinary was the new “it” word.

The smell of a shifting research game was pungent in the air. David’s solution was to create a community of support around research tools. Rather than sit down and teach research tools (R-stat, Python, CAD, MATLAB, CartoDb – the list goes on and on) to each individual researcher, build a supportive, dynamic, diverse community that has the ability to reproduce knowledge without the constant requirement of top-down support. A community could help people to research better, faster, smarter. And so the Research Bazaar – ResBaz – was born.

ResBaz 2015 | Photo courtesy of Dejan Jotanovic

ResBaz 2015 | Photo courtesy of Dejan Jotanovic

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When you can’t always get what you need

mayngoMay Ngo is a recent PhD graduate in Anthropology from the Swinburne Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology.

Her thesis examined the role of religion in humanitarianism within the context of irregular migration in Morocco. Her research interests include religion, migration, development, theology, and fiction.

She is also developing her father’s memoirs of his time with the Vietnamese communist army as a collection of short stories.

May has a blog at The Violent Bear it Away, and tweets at @mayngo2.


This is a post in response to two blog posts on post-PhD graduate careers (How to construct a DIY scholarly career and 21st Century Scholar) that reflect a growing trend of what each post has termed a ‘DIY scholarly career’ and an ‘entrepreneurial 21st century scholar’, respectively.

Photo by Sebastian Boguszewicz | unsplash.com

Photo by Sebastian Boguszewicz | unsplash.com

In response to the increasing casualisation and scarcity of academic jobs, and instead of just waiting around to get an academic position post-PhD, these posts exhort graduates to make themselves more competitive by engaging in various academic activities (research, attending conferences, networking) without the support of a university position.

This would run parallel with what they are already doing job-wise, supposedly. Inevitably, all of this is self-funded, and includes an investment of time and energy outside of one’s regular job.

I found it interesting that both bloggers who advocate this have been able to get work in universities, in non-academic jobs. This implies a minimum level of working conditions and job security.

I work in a casualised, low pay, no-paid-holidays job. I do this out of necessity. I come home physically tired, cranky and, most of the time, not in a capacity to think – let alone write – academically.

What I push myself to do in terms of trying to get a foot in the door of academia are postdoc applications, which always involve writing well-thought out and well-written research proposals that take a lot of time and energy.

Apparently, this is not enough. Imagine my jaw dropping when I read one of the blog posts advocating that research could be done during lunch-breaks, at night, and on weekends. And, furthermore, that the research trips and conferences she attended were self-funded and used annual leave from her job. I thought, “This is a particular world where there are paid holidays and job security, but it’s not currently mine”.

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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 jaydthompson80@gmail.com.


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 | www.flickr.com/photos/angels_have_the_phone_box)

Stairs Carnegie Building, Dunedin (Photo by Kim Tairi | http://www.flickr.com/photos/angels_have_the_phone_box)

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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