Why bother creating postgrad groups?

Photo by James Petts | www.flickr.com/photos/14730981@N08

‘Barometer’ | Photo by James Petts | http://www.flickr.com/photos/14730981@N08

The question of how to build a research culture occupies a lot of big-brained types at universities, at all levels.

PhD researchers want to feel they’re a part of, and can contribute to, a good one. Professors like to think that they helped create and grow a thriving one.

University executives want an excellent one yesterday, preferably bristling with national government grants, effective and fat industry partnerships, top-flight publications, and seamless higher degree candidatures and completions. Sometimes, they want this almost instantly.

Research cultures are complex and often fragile systems, and when you look too hard for specific components to engineer one, the whole thing can evaporate.

Can you force staff to be productive without having a good research culture? I think you can – but you won’t have productive or happy researchers for very long, in that case. Nor would you have particularly good research.

For me, one of the best barometers of the health of an institutional research culture is the presence and activity of graduate researcher groups and associations.

Why?

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Hello, social media pushback!

There was a time when I used to leave people alone about their social media engagement.

Whether they wanted to get involved or not, that was their business. Who was I to say otherwise?

Oh, how things have changed.

In my current role as a researcher development academic, I’ve become That Person.

I’m the one who goes: “So, do you have a Twitter account? Have you set up your Google Scholar profile? Have you put your work in the university repository? Really? It’s easy to get started, and can be so much fun, and these are the professional benefits… [5 mins of waxing lyrical]… would you like me to help you get started?”

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Top 5 reasons I’ll follow you on Twitter

Photo by Leon Ephraim | unsplash.com

Photo by Leon Ephraim | unsplash.com

Everyone’s in a hurry these days.

Time-poor researchers who are encouraged by their institutions and supervisors to ‘get on social media’ are definitely in a hurry. Many of them want to know in about five minutes flat what it’s all about, how much time will it take, and whether they can be bothered.

OK, maybe they’ll put in ten minutes.

When I first started giving workshops on researchers and social media, I found myself lowering the threshold when I talked about getting involved. I was presenting good ways that people could get value out of social media in a relatively short time. I spoke about how creating an accessible, professional digital footprint doesn’t need to take that long. I gave – and still give – examples of how to ‘be found’ and gain profile without having to be tethered to Twitter all day.

Recently, though, I’ve started getting a bit antsy about this demand for immediate reward without spending time.

This ‘where’s my golden doughnut?’ attitude, usually coming from those who appear to be set against social media anyway (and were ‘forced’ onto it by their Heads of School or other research leaders), contains a distinct derisive tone. Especially about Twitter.

I recently read and shared @professornever’s post on Academic Twitter. I was intrigued by the way she described her contrasting experiences with a political/social interest Twitter account, and an academic one. One of the key points of difference she noted was the fact that fewer people were likely to ‘follow back’ on academic twitter than on her other account.

On this point, Katherine Firth (@katrinafee) says:

“I think a major thing about building a community in academic Twitter is that people look at what you say, rather than whether you follow them. So it’s harder to get started–but pretty egalitarian once you are contributing to the conversation!” [my emphasis]

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Everybody wants to save the world

Darkseid vs. Thanos (86365) [Photo by JD Hancock | https://www.flickr.com/photos/jdhancock]

Darkseid vs. Thanos (86365) [Photo by JD Hancock | http://www.flickr.com/photos/jdhancock

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.

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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

Free to good home – one Research Whisperer

Map of Melbourne city, showing three campuses

RMIT’s city, Brunswick and Bundoora campuses, courtesy Google Maps

I’ve just finished a ‘grand tour’ of all the Schools in our College (read “Departments in our Faculty”, depending on your terminology).

It was great! I spent three days a week, for a month at a time, working in a completely different space.

In the middle of last year, when I came back from China, I sent a note to our seven Deputy Deans (Research). It was headed ‘Free to good home – one Research Whisperer’. In it, I asked if they would be interested in hosting me for a month. They would need to provide a desk and a chair, and access to electricity and the wireless network.

In return, I would spend three days per week in their School for a month. I’d still be doing my normal work, but I’d be a visible presence and would be able to meet with their staff, etc.

I was overwhelmed with the response. One school came back literally within minutes of the post. Every other school responded positively, with the last one even expressing the fear that they might be too late, and have missed the boat.

Every school was different. Some had real difficulty finding a seat for me. Others were able to give me a room with a view. For me, it didn’t matter where I sat, as long as I was where the action was.

Being in a central unit, it is easy to be seduced by the image that the centre is the focus when, in fact, the work happens in the schools, departments, and centres. That is where the teaching and research happens. Everything else is a scaffold to support that work.

Getting back to the periphery is a very simple, very powerful way to demonstrate that you recognise that fact. This is how it worked for me:

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Something you want us to blog? #tabit!

tabit

I sent out a heartfelt and somewhat random tweet the other day, about loving how people use the #tabit tag.

No doubt, there were those of you who thought, ‘What the heck is #tabit? What’s she on about? Why am I following this person?”

#tabit is a hashtag that stands for “there’s a blogpost in that”. This phrase is dropped regularly into face-to-face and online conversations among various #circleofniceness buddies, including myself and Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer).

In the discussion that followed my tweet, Francis Woodhouse (@fwoodhouse) suggested #tametabit: ‘there’s a meta blogpost in writing about using #tabit to flag good material’.

And, as is so often the case though we wish it were otherwise, Francis was correct.

When managing a blog, and speaking with others who do, a constant issue that’s brought up is the difficulty of maintaining the flow of content. It’s the key issue for whether blogs survive or fail in their first year. New bloggers may go nuts with posts for the first few months, then settle into a pattern of slightly sparser postings. As long as these postings stay constant and valuable, that’s not a problem.

It’s when they start getting further apart, with months of no activity, that problems set in. This is how blogs start to die.

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