Beware excellence

At a recent international conference focused on research administration, there was the usual palaver about every researcher, their institution, and their dog achieving excellence.

It’s presented as why we’re in the game – to achieve this highly circumscribed and metricised ideal of ‘excellence’.

We’ve all heard this rhetoric before so I have a certain level of ennui every time I see the posturing.

This feeling also emerges for me these days when people use ‘innovation’, ‘engagement’, or ‘impact’. I’m extremely fond of Rolin Moe’s statement that “innovation means less than any other word we use in regular discourse” (The Innovation Conundrum).

I would say the same applies to ‘excellence’. Just about every organisation uses it, government policies are ridden with it, and senior executives at universities mouth it at every opportunity. But it usually signals little, and indulges in the conceit that if we say we have it, it makes us better than others who don’t say they have it (it doesn’t actually matter whether they have ‘it’ or not). Read more of this post

Ten tips for better research

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on October 12, 2016 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


Photo by Drew Patrick Miller | unsplash.com

Photo by Drew Patrick Miller | unsplash.com

Early in 2016, Robert Macintosh published ‘Top Ten Hints on Building Your Academic Reputation’, a post aimed explicitly at postgraduate students. It was republished in the Times Higher Education blog where it lost a lot of its postgraduate context. Robert was advising on building a career, and his advice may help you to build your career.

However, I don’t think we are here to build careers.

I believe we are here to improve our understanding of the world and work on hard problems. In that spirit, here are my tips for doing better research.

This is my view from sitting within the world of research administration, while undertaking my own research degree. In my day-job, I help people get funding for their research. That is, I help other people to do research.

These tips are designed to help you to shine, to get your future research funded, so you can do even better research. It’s a virtuous circle. 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

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

Staying on the radar

I unearthed this fragment of a post the other weekend. I started writing it in 2012, when I was about two years into a professional role at a university as a research grant developer. I had had about ten years of researcher life before that, with back-to-back research-only fellowships. My feelings about leaving my researcher self behind were mixed, to say the least.

Now, I’m about two years back into an academic job after leaving that professional role. And I have things to say to my 2012 self. 

Hopefully, this dialogue with the self is useful for those of you with ‘portfolio careers’ and seemingly zig-zagging career paths. It may never seem like the right way to do things, but  it helps to know that there isn’t a right way to do things.


Me, writing in 2012 while in a professional role: 

What’s the shelf-life of academic expertise?

This is an issue that’s haunted me ever since I started working on the ‘other side of the fence’ in my current professional research development role. I was used to being easily identified as ‘academic’ for many years, and it was the angst of having to explain being a research fellow position that occupied my time. Common things I’d have to say: “No, I don’t teach”, “no, I’m not supposed to teach”, “yes, I’m 100% research”, “yes, that means I don’t teach”.

Now, as a research grant developer, I’m in a role where I’m constantly advising researchers on what’s good practice and savvy research strategy. I can’t help but view my on-the-ground experience as a researcher for over a decade as a core part of the value I bring to my job. Similarly, if I’m not publishing, presenting at conferences, or debating critical issues with peers, am I a lesser occupant of this role?

For example, if I was awarded (and completed) a shiny competitive grant, does my experience in putting that application together count, more than five years later? If I haven’t published in an academic journal for over ten years, do I have credibility advising researchers on how to strategise submissions and papers, or negotiate editorial processes?

I’ve kept a part-time hand in with running the research network but, other than that, haven’t given an academic conference paper or written an academic article for about two years.

It feels strange. Read more of this post

What does it take to move from precarity to security?

dani-barrington

Dr Dani Barrington is a Research Fellow jointly appointed by Monash University and the International WaterCentre, and an Honorary Fellow at The University of Queensland.

Her work focuses on water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) in developing communities, meaning she is often referred to as ‘The Toilet Lady’ by strangers and ‘Sani Dani’ by at least one of her friends.

She tweets at @Dani_Barrington.


Photo by Oanh Tran

Photo by Oanh Tran

A lot of my friends and family are appalled that my contract ends in a few weeks and won’t be renewed.

But it makes complete sense to me. The university never had money to pay me in the first place.

For the past three years, I have been a research-only academic. This means that my salary has been funded from a government grant that my team and I won almost four years ago.

We have been working with informal settlements and enabling actors in the South Pacific to improve water, sanitation, and hygiene according to the priorities of communities themselves. It has seen me spend a large proportion of my time overseas conducting fieldwork.

But when that grant runs out, so does my current job. Read more of this post

Why the hell am I doing a PhD?

16693191307_ce583223d5_n

No entry, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Did I mention that I’ve enrolled in a Masters by Research, looking at crowdfunding? No? It must’ve slipped my mind.

Actually, I’m a bit shy about talking about it. I don’t want to jinx it.

I want to upgrade to a PhD, if all goes well. But I’m scared it won’t go well. All my hopes and fears sit within it. I want it to go well, and I believe that I can do it, but I’m still scared.

I’m scared for a lot of reasons. I watched my partner take five years to do her PhD. Five years! She spent a whole year on one chapter. It almost broke her. A lot of my friends have done PhDs and only one of them had a good time. Everybody else hated it, and some of them never finished. So, I swore that I’d never do one.

From past experience, I know that I am, at best, an average student. I love the idea of studying; I just don’t like doing the work. It took me five years to struggle through my undergraduate degree. Too much time playing, not enough time studying! Having no clue why I was there didn’t help either!

My previous efforts to get a PhD didn’t get past the ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I had a PhD?’ burst of enthusiasm.

Oh yes, I’ve been down this road before. More than once, actually. I work in a university. I work with researchers every single day. There seemed to be a million reasons why I should do a PhD.

Nowadays, not so much. There seem to be a million reasons not to do a PhD. Read more of this post