Vice-chancellors redeemed?

Dr Muriel E Swijghuisen Reigersberg is a researcher development manager (strategy) at The University of Sydney, Australia, and previously worked at Goldsmiths, University of London, UK.  At Sydney, she oversees the development of a University-wide researcher development training program in collaboration with researchers, faculty staff and professional service units.

In her spare time, Muriel maintains an academic profile in applied and medical ethnomusicology, regularly presenting at academic conferences, penning academic texts, peer reviewing and blogging. She has also offered consultancy support to specialist research institutes in arts and humanities in Slovenia and Japan. Muriel is a keen supporter of the responsible sharing of academic knowledge.

 She is on Twitter as @murielSR.


Arc (Photo by Andreas Levers - flicker.com) Shared via CC 2.0

Arc (Photo by Andreas Levers – flicker.com) Shared via CC 2.0

This article is a response to Tseen Khoo’s great post Nowhere to hide (29th August) where she wonders whether vice-chancellors are capable of understanding the current struggles and working conditions early career researchers face in today’s modern university.

I’ll unpack some of the issues Tseen raises, using my third-space hat: the research manager/ researcher hat.

First, I should say that perhaps I am lucky. Not all vice-chancellors are the same and my encounters with senior staff, including the odd vice-chancellor every now and again, have been strikingly positive. I say ‘strikingly’ because when I was a junior administrator and early career researcher, I never had access to the upper echelons of the university.

Now that I do more regularly, and have had some conversations with senior colleagues, I have come to understand that issues such as fixed-term contractual arrangements; metrics; the ‘enforced’ mobility questions and definitions of what an early career researcher is (in terms of age, etc.) are rather more complex than I’d first imagined.

So this article is as much about my personal learning as it is about the lamentable state of affairs. Read more of this post

Advertisements

Nowhere to hide

Shots fired! Photo by Sebastian Kanczok | unsplash.com

Shots fired! Photo by Sebastian Kanczok | unsplash.com

Can vice-chancellors ever really know what it’s like for emerging researchers and precariat postdocs?

I was reading two vice-chancellors discuss how to take pressure off young academics the other week and it made me increasingly ragey.

Set-ups like this are doomed in many ways because you’re asking people with incredible privilege and a fair whack of authority and power to empathise with emerging scholars who have little to none of those elements.

I’ve let this #headasplodey-ness simmer for a couple of weeks because it’s all too easy for outrage to rule, and I had to admit that my initial outrage was nothing new. People have been outraged for ages about the fact that privileged, executive managerial sorts have the nerve to comment – often gauchely – on what the situation is like for those most vulnerable in their organisations.

The inclusion of the mini-interview at the end, which included the vice-chancellors sharing with us where they were holidaying was just a smidge off-colour, I thought, given the preceding verbiage about difficulty of securing positions, restrictions on resources and subsequent appointments, etc.

So, I sat on my hands for a bit.

After mulling over my outrage about the interview article, these were the particular issues that stayed with me: Read more of this post

Bullying in academia

Anuja, smiling.Dr Anuja Cabraal (@AnujaCabraal) has been working in academia for over ten years.

Over this time, she has worked on a lot of different topics, including learning and teaching, microfinance, social and financial inclusion, banking and migration. However, her real passion lies in qualitative research methods and methodology.

Her previous article for the Research Whisperer was about how to make casual employment work for you.


A close colleague of mine has been subjected to workplace bullying. It happened soon after she completed her PhD, when we both started working as early career researchers. She was bullied by two male professors. She later confessed that she didn’t realise it was bullying until much later.

Sculpture of a small girl, curled up, with her face to the wall

Untitled (stool for guard) by Taiyo Kimura at MONA.

This is what happened. I have masked some of the information because she didn’t want to be identified.

Let’s call my friend Jade. Jade worked in an open plan area, just outside the offices of two professors. At times, they would meet in their offices. At least twice a day, they would stand outside their office to talk and brainstorm ideas.

One day, Jade politely asked them if they would mind talking softly, move into their office, or go to one of the many meeting rooms, as she was trying to concentrate. In total, she asked them twice to do this. They then complained to the head of department about her behaviour. The head of department took their side, without even talking to Jade. He told Jade’s boss that he would not tolerate a researcher being rude to professors. (Let’s just leave aside the point that she had brought in a lot more research funding than either of them.)

Neither of the professors or the head of department ever mentioned the complaint to Jade, or even told her about the incident. Jade’s boss was the one to tell her about it.

Read more of this post

Lessons from the #postdocalypse

This post started life as a talk for the National Tertiary Education Union conference on Insecure Work. Thanks to the National Tertiary Education Union for inviting the Research Whisperer to be part of the conference, and for paying for my airfare and accommodation.


Graph showing biomedical PhDs rising to 2,500 per year, while plant sciences remain static.

Figure 1: US biomedical vs selected PhD graduates. Source:- Opinion: The Planet Needs More Plant Scientists, by Alan M. Jones, in The Scientist, 1 October 2014, via @Wyoweeds.

In the United States, in biotechnology research, a precipitous increase in PhD numbers over the last few years has resulted in unsustainable numbers of post-doc applicants.

People over there are calling it the #postdocalypse (figure 1). I want to use that as a jumping-off point for talking about insecure work in the research sector in Australia.

The situation in Australia is different to the USA. I’m looking mostly at contract research staff. That is, I’m looking at people who have insecure work, rather than people who are trying to get work. I do acknowledge, though, that the situation generally isn’t as dire as in the US. I haven’t heard of any postdocs here who are living out of thier cars. If you declare bankruptcy here, your student debt is wiped out, just like all your other debt.

Still, our data doesn’t look good, whichever way you look at it.

Australia is currently experiencing the lowest level of government funding for research since we started keeping statistics in 1979 (figure 2).

I’m always hopeful that we will convince the government to restore funding to CSIRO, the CRC program, and to research areas other than medicine. Read more of this post

Ask a question

Do it (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Do it (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

I’ve been loathe in the past to talk too much about what I do on an everyday basis in my job.

This is because I’d been made wary by certain (rare, it must be said) attitudes towards sharing information about internal processes for research development and researcher support.

I said then and I’ll say again now for the record: There’s nothing really new or ‘top secret’ in research education and development. As every Australasian Research Management Society (ARMS) conference testifies, there’s much to be gained and nothing to lose by workshopping or sharing your processes.

As yet, there is no laser-pen that will automagically generate a winning grant application. Until that pen happens along, what research education and development people do – academic or professional administrative staff – is hone models and ideas that have had a range of outings.

As in so many areas of intellectual and professional endeavour, lots of people have gone there before you, and they’ve been doing it for longer than you.

This does not mean the work is any less valuable to researchers who need to know about these strategies and methods. Nor does it mean the staff managing these researcher development programs are any less committed to finding better and more effective ways to help researchers make good research happen.

READ MORE