The cruel world of funding peer review

This article began life as a presentation for Peer review and grant funding: From evidence to practice at Melbourne University, 17 November 2017. Thanks to Adrian Barnett and Philip Clarke for inviting me to speak.


Before I begin, I should point out that I write from a position of incredible privilege. I’m not an academic – I’m a university administrator. I am securely employed, and have been for most of my working life. My job is to help academics find funding for their research.

In that role, I work with Australian academics from RMIT University. I work with artists, designers, educators, social scientists and humanities scholars, primarily on their Australian Research Council applications. A significant number of the academics that I have worked with over the last seven years have been early career researchers, generally trying to win their first major grant.

Early career researchers face a cruel world these days. Even though they are an increasingly diverse cohort, they are still generally imagined as young, full-time academics without significant outside commitments. They aren’t. Many of them have significant responsibilities outside of work, taking care of children and elderly parents or working on limited visas, far from home. Most of them have no secure work, while being expected to take on increasing levels of accountability. Their research outputs, their teaching performance and even their scholarly engagement with the world are under intense scrutiny and evaluation.

All this has interesting ramifications for the peer review system that we use for government grants.

A professor stands at the top of a pyramid of scholars and students. Advice flows downwards and cites flow upwards. When funding runs out, the scheme collapses.

Beware the Profzi Scheme, on “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com

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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!

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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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Goodbye academia?

BRoesler1Bettina Rösler is a casual researcher and university tutor. She completed her PhD thesis, “Reimagining Cultural Diplomacy through Cosmopolitan Linkages: Australian Artists-in-Residence in Asia”, at the Institute for Culture and Society (University of Western Sydney) in 2015.

Bettina has also completed master degrees in English Literature/Cultural Studies at TU Dresden (Germany) and Translation Studies at Auckland University (New Zealand). The primary focus of her work is cultural and arts policy, Australia-Asia relations, and the translation of cultures and intercultural dialogue, with a focus on cultural activities and the arts.

We invited Bettina to share her perspectives with us as part of the lead-up to the #securework tweetchat on FRIDAY 17 July, 11am AEDT. The tweetchat aims to be part of a national conversation around insecure academic work. Also participating will be @unicasual @NTEUnational @acahacker @KateMfD and @NAPUAustralia.


#securework tweetchat on FRIDAY 17 JULY 11am AEDT, Join in, and share your stories and experiences!

The #securework tweetchat takes place on FRIDAY 17 JULY 11am AEDT.
Join in, and share your stories and experiences!

The semester is long over, yet I’m spending some time every week answering student emails regarding grades or additional feedback for assignments.

There seems to be an expectation for me to be eternally available for any potential issues relating to the particular units I taught. Students request more feedback on assignments or new unit coordinators require details from last term.

The problem here is the fact that I am not on anyone’s payroll and I am not getting paid for the time I spend responding to emails. I am a casual academic and I am not alone. More than half of universities’ academic staff are only casually employed (Bexley, James & Arkoudis 2011). These already high numbers of casual academics are increasing (Rea 2014), and I personally know at least a dozen highly qualified and competent early career researchers who struggle under precarious work conditions.

Like many others, I have recently completed a PhD and fought ever since to make a living.

Every term, I have to renegotiate work contracts, which can involve weeks of uncertainty and, sometimes, no secure contract until well into the semester. After an already long ‘income pause’ (i.e. semester break, which is even longer and more daunting over summer), any further income delays are likely to test my credit card limit. Receiving a salary for about 26 weeks a year is simply not sustainable.

I am in my mid-thirties, still sharing a flat (OK, I live in Sydney), cannot afford a car, and have not had a holiday in over a decade. I couldn’t even get credit for a new computer. Twice every year, I seriously consider going on benefits because I’m afraid I won’t be able to pay rent.

Biannually, I am thrown into deep existential debates on my position in this flawed academic system, and what I could do differently. How can I improve my chances and further my career? But it is very hard. For half of the year, I over-commit to make up for the time I’m not teaching. Finding suitable in-between research assistant gigs is rare and generally doesn’t match up with the semester dates. This has affected my social life and mental state. Sadly, this is likely to affect many casuals’ teaching quality (Clohesy 2015). While I am putting a lot of effort into tutorial preparation, I always feel I could do so much more. I could run a blog or Facebook group for the students; I could find more additional material; I could help develop and improve the unit content and incorporate some of the students’ feedback. Unfortunately, casuals are rarely given the opportunity or platform to do so – let alone be paid for it.

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