What a student wants to tell you about research mentorship

Mary Barber is an undergraduate student at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.

She studies Chemistry and English Literature and spends her days shifting her brain from microbiology and organic chemistry lectures to reading Proust and Nabokov to running experiments in the lab.

Mary is a funded research intern at Vanderbilt University Medical Centre and works in the department of Cardiovascular Medicine. 

Her current passion is using human induced-pluripotent stem cells differentiated into cardiomyocytes to understand how cancer treatment perpetuates heart disease.

One day, when she grows up, Mary hopes to be a physician researcher, treat patients with heart problems, write books, and do yoga every day. She tweets from @MaryC_Barber.


Photo by Tseen Khoo

Photo by Tseen Khoo

In high school, I wanted to be a makeup artist. Before that, I wanted to be an architect.

Somewhere in the midst of my adolescent ambitions, an excellent chemistry teacher told me I had real talent in chemistry, brought me scholarship applications, and guided me towards a career in the biomedical sciences.

Five years later, I am a third-year Chemistry student at my university, slated to take biophysical chemistry, biochemistry, and physics in the upcoming fall semester.

If it wasn’t for good mentorship, I would undoubtedly be a different person today and wouldn’t have found the opportunity to study science and conduct biomedical research. I would not have found my calling. Excellent, intentional mentorship has been instrumental in guiding me through the jungle-like journey of choosing a career.

I owe much of my scientific opportunities and success to those mentors who have taken special interest in me as a scientific thinker and developed me into a good question-asker and answer-seeker (i.e. a scientist). Research mentors are crucial in counseling students through the scientific process and training them to be the next generation of people who push the field forward.

Most readers of the Research Whisperer have likely moved beyond my training and scope of expertise, but I would like to offer some perspectives on what a desirable and effective mentor looks like to the maturing student researcher.
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Do I have to move up the ladder?

Photo by Geran de Klerk | unsplash.com

Photo by Geran de Klerk | unsplash.com

My last post about sharing hard truths in the academy seemed to really strike a chord, particularly with early career researchers who confirmed that hearing the truth was better than being placated with false assurances. People contributed some great comments: well considered and sometimes sad.

One of these comments, from Megan, included an interesting question:

I have one, maybe slightly odd, question. I did a PhD so I could work in research, not to scale the heights of academia. I love my job but I love other aspects of my life just as much (!) and am not keen to have to put my job above all else as it seems is necessary to progress (from what I have observed anyway). Basically I would be more than happy to keep working as a level B, say, on different projects and feel confident enough in my general skills (I had a career before academia) that I could do this. I also know that senior academics need good people at that level to actually deliver their projects.

However it seems to me that staying at the one level is not possible as a career path – the institution kind of forces you to look and move ‘upward’ because of the need / desire for high performing researchers. And while I know some projects have non-academic project managers I’m not as interested in that as would still like to use my academic skills / write a bit and so on. Just wondering if anyone had any thoughts on this.

This prompted so many thoughts that I had to write this post! My caveat for this is that it is drawn from my own experiences – I would be very interested to hear from anyone who knows of research into promotion patterns and aspirations in academia.

So, where to begin?

The short answer is that you could have a career as a Level B academic. If you manage to land a continuing Level B position (title of ‘lecturer’, 2nd step up from entry-level continuing academic appointments), you could – if you wanted to – stay at that level for as long as you like. That is, as long as you’re not made redundant by your institution, or ‘fail’ to do your basic job as an academic (in which case, you may then be ‘performance managed’ out of your role).

If you’re fulfilling the job of a lecturer (and probably beyond), and just don’t ever feel like applying for promotion, this becomes interesting. I’m writing a chapter for a book on ‘academic wellbeing’ that focuses on the very question: what it means when you know that fighting for your work/life balance means a direct compromise of promotion chances and track-record building opportunities. Read more of this post

Truth be told

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 8 June 2017 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


It’s safe to say that the funding and employment prospects for researchers in Australia are poor.

When I first drafted this piece, I wanted to say that the prospects were ‘challenging’, then realised that this is the way we have come to talk about—and cloak—the many stark inequities in our system. The circumstances are not challenging in the sense of being a series of personal adversities that must be overcome.

The perfect storm of scarce career pathways, highly metricised researcher valuation, and diminishing funds for research mean that early career researchers work in an area that is broken in many ways. There are options—good, bad, and often precarious. The challenges are systemic and institutional, with pressure brought to bear on the individual as a consequence. Read more of this post

I don’t need money to do research

There are some fields in academia that don’t need funding for research to happen.

Sure, I know no research is ‘free’ to produce and share – there’s the salary of the researchers, organisational infrastructure (e.g. tech, desk-space), libraries, and the costs of presenting at conferences for a start.

But to do the research itself doesn’t always need a lot of money.

It may need just a little bit of money or, sometimes, none at all. It does always need time, and that’s the commodity that’s probably in shortest supply.

I come from a humanities (specifically, literary studies) background. My PhD research could have all happened through me finding the time to sit and do a metric tonne of reading and synthesising of materials that I access through my university library and on the internet. I can do my literary studies research and writing without needing to talk to a single other person or having to travel.

It’s not just the humanities. There are many other fields of research where buckets of cash are not what it takes to make the work happen.

I know it’s the kind of thing you’re not meant to say. I have been publicly shamed for saying it in work meetings in other professional incarnations. When colleagues have talked about it, they get shushed – sometimes seriously – because naming such a situation runs counter to the dizzy fiesta of funding that our institutions and research sector crave. Read more of this post

Author order and disorder

Debra Carr has a BSc (Hons) in Materials Science and a PhD in Engineering.

Prior to joining Cranfield University, she was employed by the Ministry of Defence (SCRDE), Imperial College (Mechanical Engineering) and The University of Otago (Clothing and Textile Sciences).

Debra is a Chartered Engineer, a Fellow of The Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining and a Fellow of The Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences.

In 2012, Debra was a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellow. Debra’s research interests include personal protective equipment design and testing, and behind armour wound ballistics.


I’m a materials engineer specialising in textile science. After I finished my PhD, I first worked in Government and now I’ve been an academic for nearly 20 years.

I love working with my research students (MSc and PhD) and I try to give them as many opportunities to publish as possible.

When a student first approaches me, I talk about where their work might be published – should it be a journal, or conference proceedings? I encourage them to think about their work as publishable and plan the work right from the start for publication. I think this is as important for my students who are completing a taught Master of Science (MSc) that includes a 3-month research project resulting in a dissertation, as for my PhD students who are in a 3-year program.

Most of my personal research projects, and those that my research students conduct, are for customers who have a real-world problem (i.e. most of the work is applied in nature). Some projects cannot be published due to confidentiality and I let my students know this ASAP in the process. I always ensure we meet with the client.

As far as I am concerned, if an article is written from a thesis by either the student or me, then they are first author on the publication and I am usually second author as their supervisor. My boss and my institution (I believe) expect me to be second author. Obviously, these articles contribute significantly to my career progression as well as theirs and I have benefited from my students with respect to promotion. Other authors on the articles might be another research student or a staff member who has helped (academic or technical), and an industrial supervisor or a sponsor (particularly if the work was originally their idea – so an acknowledgement of their intellectual property).

Breakfast queue by Ross Strahan | www.flickr.com/photos/ross_strachan | Shared via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Breakfast queue by Ross Strahan | http://www.flickr.com/photos/ross_strachan | Shared via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Playing the academic game

Portrait of Dani BarringtonDr Dani Barrington is a Research Fellow in Water Engineering for Developing Countries at Cranfield University, and an Honorary Fellow at The University of Queensland.

Her work focuses on water, s16anitation and hygiene (#WASH); check out a video of the cool “Reinvented Toilet” she’s working on nowadays.

She tweets at @Dani_Barrington.


Photo by Lou Levit | unsplash.com

Photo by Lou Levit | unsplash.com

I play the academic game.

Those of you who’ve read my previous posts know this.

Like many people at my career stage, I juggle contract research with papers with teaching with grant applications with public outreach and university service. As exhausting as it is, I love the fact that I get to do all of these things as part of my job (OK, grant writing is the pits, but getting together with like-minded colleagues to hash out the initial project idea is super exciting!).

But, over the last year, it has become clear to me that there is a part of the game to get ahead that I won’t play: compromising my own values and the wellbeing of others.  Read more of this post

Choosing balance

Wayne Chan is a Physiotherapist at Chi Lin Nunnery Elderly Services and a Visiting Lecturer at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

He was formerly a full-time lecturer, and taught a number of subjects ranging from paediatrics to geriatrics. He is interested in geriatric rehabilitation, dementia, and active ageing.

He tweets at @WaynelsChan.


Photo by Eaters Collective | unsplash.com

Photo by Eaters Collective | unsplash.com

When I graduated from university, I never thought I would study for a PhD.

I’m a physiotherapist and love taking care of people with needs.

I hate being stuck behind a desk doing lots of writing and data processing on computers.

Due to the economic recession, however, there was almost no jobs available for physiotherapists.

Around this time, I joined the geriatrics program at The Chinese University of Hong Kong as a research assistant. With a passion for clinical research and having built a reputation for being reliable, I was given the chance to study for a doctorate.

The reasons I decided to do a PhD were two-fold: to give myself more options, and bargaining power, to choose what I would like to do at work, and to be less affected by the changes in overall economics. I had never previously thought about being an academic. Read more of this post