Working for the rat race, are you wasting your time?

evan-smithEvan Smith is a Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of International Studies at Flinders University.

He is interested in contemporary history, politics and criminal justice research. He blogs about his research and aspects of 1980s popular culture at:

Evan tweets from @hatfulofhistory.

As we’re interested in #altac trajectories, the Research Whisperers approached Evan for a guest-post when we realised that he had been a researcher in the public sector who had returned to academia. How did these job changes happen? What were the drivers and challenges?

He has kindly shared his story with us here, and provided five strategies for keeping your research career options open.

I am a historian and a criminologist. Historian by training and criminologist, first by default, then by profession.

My postdoctoral career has been varied, and I’ve spent the last seven years in and out of academia (simultaneously – like Derrida, I am not a fan of binary oppositions).

In 2007, I finished my PhD in History at Flinders University, I then spent the next two years in casual academia while my post-PhD colleagues and I competed for jobs around Australia in history and politics.

In 2011, I started work at the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) in Canberra, conducting research into money laundering and organised crime. I didn’t have an undergraduate or masters degree in criminology but, in a stroke of luck, I had met a colleague at Flinders in the Criminology discipline. While I was a casual teacher, we had been building a research project that combined history and criminology.

By the time I was employed at the AIC, I had had two co-authored publications in the interdisciplinary field of historical criminology and another one had been accepted. Slowly immersing myself across disciplines, I had also taught law and criminology topics at Flinders, and it is this evidence of my transferable skills that (probably) made me employable by the AIC.


Why bother with research engagement?

Mark Hamann (James Cook University)After working for both NGOs and government, Mark Hamann is now a researcher and lecturer at James Cook University in Townsville.

His research interests cross several disciplines but generally relate to marine wildlife ecology, marine and freshwater turtle biology, marine wildlife management, conservation biology, and the impacts of plastic pollution on marine ecosystems.

Most of Mark’s current research projects are conducted with partners from government, industry, NGOs and Indigenous communities. He spends a considerable amount of his time talking about science and science delivery with his collaborators.

Last year, Mark participated in “I’m a Scientist get me out of here” and he was introduced to the world of online science communication. 

Mark tweets from @turtlesatJCU.

We already engage all the time. It’s a part of family life, work, and our everyday relationships.

Weave mandala (Photo courtesy of Mr Greenjeans on flickr:

Weave mandala (Photo courtesy of Mr Greenjeans on flickr:

Engagement describes a journey; it is about building a conversation, a friendship, trust and – ultimately – a working relationship.

But why do we need to do it? And how do we, as scientists, engage? Do the ways in which a researcher might engage differ from how we engage with friends and family?

In a professional sense, scientists need to engage across many sectors of society. They need to do this to keep their work relevant, market themselves and their research potential, and create networks that help build a career, another’s career, foster collaborations, or to assist in government decision-making processes.

General engagement models consist of a series of stages that shift the relationship from Information sharing through to Empowerment (Information – Consult – Involve – Collaborate – Empower). With empowerment comes a traditional relationship with shared deliberations, shared goals, and ultimately the shifting of power for making decisions from one party to another. The goal of an engagement exercise might not necessarily be Empowerment, but it is a highly sought-after endpoint in many community-based projects. It is certainly true, for example, in community-based management of natural spaces.

Many people have an intrinsic ability to engage, especially in a public arena, yet struggle in a professional setting. Getting it more right than wrong requires practice, patience, and risk.

In 2001, I had just started a working on a project to set up a sea turtle monitoring project in a remote part of Northern Australia. It was a short, one-year project to collect biological data from turtles so we could fill an important knowledge gap for their management. The challenge for me was that I had never been to an Indigenous community and had little knowledge of how to even begin.


Five ways to make a difference

Sticky notes listing impacts of climate change.

Impacts, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

We aren’t here just to generate papers, people.

We’re here to make a difference, to improve things.

Heaven knows, there are enough issues out there that need our help!

If your research sits within the academy, being cited by other researchers, then you might get a promotion. But you probably won’t make a difference.

Here are five ways you can get out there and help put your research into action. Read more of this post

Keeping everyone happy? (Community House Rules: Part 2)

Melissa Phillips has worked for over ten years with NGOs supporting refugees and asylum-seekers in Australia and the UK. She also lived in South Sudan from 2005-2009, where she worked with UN agencies and NGOs. These days Melissa is a full-time PhD student at the University of Melbourne on an industry-funded project. Her world seems a lot smaller but thankfully her research interests in forced migration and migration studies take her to many faraway places from the comfort of her desk. 

If you’ve followed the Community House Rules advice (as well as that presented in the fantastic comments), found your research partner/s, submitted a successful proposal, and agreed on the minutiae of your project agreement, you’re probably cashed-up and raring to go!

The following considerations are not intended as kill-joys for those of you with your hiking boots on ready to get into your fieldwork. Instead, they map out obstacles that can de-rail projects, and I suggest ways to avoid getting your boots dirtier than you may have intended.

These considerations do add more time to the planning and preparation stage, but if you’ve worked hard to get this far, a few more months won’t hurt. Trust me!

Danger (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

How is the project structured?

  • There are numerous ways to structure a project governance body that provides feedback and comment as the project progresses. It could be, for instance, an advisory group (composed of researchers and partners), or a wider Steering Group (with community representatives). Remember that consultation raises expectations and can lead to unexpected problems but, if it’s done well, groups can involve other influential players in the research and encourage a sense of project ownership.
  • When I was a little girl (ok, an applicant for a doctoral scholarship), I dreamed that my project would be consultative, representative and useful. So, I thought a Participatory Action Research approach would be the best fit because it encouraged real-time feedback. When I grew up, I realised this decision was not up to me, but it may be something you can consider.
  • On a more mundane note, you need to establish the key contacts for your project. The people who sign project agreements are usually too busy to get involved on an everyday basis. Make sure you know who you should be talking to in your partner organisation/s, and always get the contact number for the CEO’s Executive Assistant!


Community House Rules

Our first guest post for 2012 is by Melissa Phillips who has worked for over ten years with NGOs supporting refugees and asylum-seekers in Australia and the UK. She also lived in South Sudan from 2005-2009, where she worked with UN agencies and NGOs. These days Melissa is a full-time PhD student at the University of Melbourne on an industry-funded project. Her world seems a lot smaller but thankfully her research interests in forced migration and migration studies take her to many faraway places from the comfort of her desk. 


If you are working on an industry Linkage project, or have ever had to develop a research proposal, you’ve no doubt had to write a line or two about ‘community’. ‘Working with the community’, ‘engaging the community’, ‘giving back to the community’… you know the drill.

Researchers can and do have positive and rewarding interactions with communities and vice versa. Having worked on both sides of the divide, I really believe that partnerships between academics and communities are vital. Some of my most enjoyable interactions have been running, or participating in, a focus group. As a community worker I’ve loved listening to ideas that researchers can voice – ideas that I’ve not dared to think. Now as a postgraduate student I value the time and patience that community groups give to the questions that I ask.

Like any relationship, research-community partnerships require a bit of effort. I think that the trickiest part isn’t those few sentences that you draft for your research proposal – it’s putting them into practice.

In the past, I’ve managed a refugee settlement program and worked for a national refugee policy and advocacy organisation. What I’ve written below is based on my experience in the refugee and migrant services community sector. It focuses on the broader aspects of relationship building and will be followed up (if you promise to comment nicely on this post) with a more ‘how-to’ guide on working with communities, especially getting research participants. But first you’ve got to get your foot in the door!


Is it a real relationship? You and your industry partner

“Do you think they’ll call again?”

“Don’t look too keen!”

“Did you play hard to get?”

The process of finding an industry partner in research is often compared to forming a romantic relationship.

Analogies abound! Some internal schemes that encourage industry links are colloquially known as ‘wine and dine’ funds. Everyone talks about courting the industry partner, finding common ground, evaluating whether there’s a connective spark between the research team and organisation, and how one doesn’t talk about money too early.

I’ve been wary of using dating/wooing analogies in my posts. Maybe it’s my Women’s Studies 101 kicking in (hard) at the often sexist or exclusionary modes of representing these dynamics.

Maybe it’s because I never dated much.

I did read a fair share of Cosmo and Cleo in my teens, though, so I feel semi-qualified to dabble.

At the risk of morphing into a research Agony Aunt, these are my top 5 ways of knowing if what you have with your industry partner is worth it.

You know it’s the Real Thing when: