Calling time on conferences

Portrait of Dani BarringtonDr Dani Barrington is a Lecturer in Water, Sanitation and Health at University of Leeds and an Honorary Fellow at The University of Queensland

Dani works in the field of water, sanitation and health in developed and developing communities. She is passionate about working at the nexus of technology and society, particularly investigating how appropriate technologies, community-led programs and public policy can improve health and well-being outcomes.

She tweets at @Dani_BarringtonYou can read Dani’s other Research Whisperer posts here.


I love attending conferences. Not because of the exotic locations, but because of the amazing conversations.

Who has time for sightseeing when there’s so much networking to be done? I meet new people, continue discussions with existing colleagues, and get fired up about what’s going on in my field and how my latest research idea might fit in.

Recently, there have been articles about how prohibitively expensive conferences are, particularly for early career researchers (ECRs).

Photo by Mikael Kristenson | unsplash.com

Photo by Mikael Kristenson | unsplash.com

In some cases, these articles call for a scrapping  of the traditional model in favour of cheaper and more inclusive events, such as webinars. This worries me. Although I definitely agree with them on some issues, I feel like some of these “calls to arms” are missing the point of conferences and what I think makes them a useful expense.

Then I realised that, in most cases, the way that conferences are designed misses the point…

Read more of this post

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Postdoc pathfinding (Part 2)

Dr Beth Linas is the Manger of Research and Science at Vibrent Health, a health technology company whose goal is to use data-driven and evidence-based solutions for preventing, monitoring, diagnosing and treating diseases.

Prior to this role, she served as a fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) with the Smart and Connected Health Program, and the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research effort at the National Science Foundation.

Beth completed her postdoc fellowship in Infectious Disease Epidemiology at The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health where she also completed her PhD (2014) and Masters of Health Science (MHS, 2010). Her research and policy interests include the application of computer science to advance health as well as understanding how to develop and scale evidence-based digital and mobile health platforms to improve health outcomes.

Beth is passionate about and works to promote scientists who communicate science. She tweets from @bethlinas.


The Research Whisperer was approached by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to feature a couple of their great fellowship stories. We were happy to showcase the fantastic opportunities available to scientists through their programs. If you’re interested in applying for the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowshipapplications are due November 1! Please note: you must hold US citizenship, or dual citizenship from US and another country.

If you know of non-US programs that do similar things, please comment with links so that your colleagues can be aware of them and follow them up!


[Part 1 of Beth’s story appeared last week]

Photo by Mike Enerio | unsplash.com

Photo by Mike Enerio | unsplash.com

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF) application process is in-depth, challenging and long.

I submitted my initial application 1 November, 2014, and it wasn’t until July 1, 2015 that I knew where I was going to be placed. The placement process is much like a medical residency match. The office must choose you, and you must indicate that you are interested in serving in that office (after an extensive week of interviews in Washington, DC).

I was most interested in working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It was the agency I was most familiar with, given my training. I was taught very specifically the process and methods for crafting a grant to match NIH guidelines and regulations, I had been on the campus, I knew people working at the NIH, and I knew those who worked there were trained in public health.

But, to my surprise, I interviewed in the Directorate for Computer & Information Science & Engineering at the National Science Foundation with a program entitled Smart and Connected Health. Read more of this post

Postdoc pathfinding (Part 1)

Dr Beth Linas is the Manger of Research and Science at Vibrent Health, a health technology company whose goal is to use data-driven and evidence-based solutions for preventing, monitoring, diagnosing and treating diseases.

Prior to this role, she served as a Science & Technology Policy Fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) with the Smart and Connected Health Program, and the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research effort at the National Science Foundation.

Beth completed her postdoc fellowship in Infectious Disease Epidemiology at The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health where she also completed her PhD (2014) and Masters of Health Science (MHS, 2010). Her research and policy interests include the application of computer science to advance health as well as understanding how to develop and scale evidence-based digital and mobile health platforms to improve health outcomes.

Beth is passionate about and works to promote scientists who communicate science. She tweets from @bethlinas.


The Research Whisperer was approached by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to feature a couple of their great fellowship stories. We were happy to showcase the fantastic opportunities available to scientists through their programs. If you’re interested in applying for the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowshipapplications are due November 1! Please note: you must hold US citizenship, or dual citizenship from US and another country.

If you know of non-US schemes that do similar things, please comment with links so that your colleagues can be aware of them and follow them up! 


Photo by Mike Enerio | unsplash.com

Photo by Mike Enerio | unsplash.com

I am a trained infectious disease epidemiologist. I attended graduate school to gain a specialised understanding of the theory and scientific method of this cornerstone of public health, whose goal is to analyse patterns, causes and effects of human health and disease conditions in population; to understand epidemics.

PhDs are trained to be professional thinkers. We are expected to think big, study difficult, extensive and puzzling scientific questions that require tenacity, patience and extreme focus. Traditionally, to do this, many trained epidemiologists remain in the halls of academic institutions funded customarily by federal grant dollars.

As a graduate student, I trained under individuals who did just that. In fact, my mentor was an MD, PhD; he had completed both medical and graduate school, and the subsequent training required to be a licensed physician researcher. Today, he remains faculty at the institution that granted him his PhD, first as junior faculty and now as a full professor. Academia is what he lives and breathes (although, he does see patients in a clinic). This is not a knock on my mentor. I received excellent training in epidemiologic methods, social and behavioral determinants of infectious diseases, as well as critical thinking, manuscript writing, grant development and more. I was fortunate to have such a focused and present mentor.

However, I was never interested in remaining in academia. Read more of this post

#MelbWriteUp – 18 months on

Jason Murphy is a Knowledge and Communications Advisor at RMIT University. He created and manages Melbourne’s Write Up (#MelbWriteUp).

Jason works full-time and is undertaking his PhD part-time, a topic on which he’s written before. He’s working on a research project that critically examines the role of marketing in contemporary society.

He’s previously worked in industry as a graphic designer and in the arts sector with the National Gallery of Victoria and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney.

He tweets from @murphy_jason.


#MelbWriteUp August 2017 | Photo by Jason Murphy

#MelbWriteUp August 2017 | Photo by Jason Murphy

What started as an effort to keep the momentum of a writing retreat moving has evolved into a small, active community of writing support.

Back in May 2016, I wrote about the first #MelbWriteUp sessions that had taken place since December 2015. At that time, I wasn’t sure where things would head but was content to just go with it.

It has now been a year and a half, and I thought it was a good time reflect on the initiative, its value, and the challenges.

For those who’ve never heard of it, here’s #MelbWriteUp in short:

It’s a once a month, day-long meet-up that helps researchers focus on their work, block out all distractions (while still getting to be social), and collectively reach their individual research goals. (Write Up)

The first #MelbWriteUp sessions were more focused on providing a structure for the group by using the pomodoro technique. In a lot of ways, that was enough and has continued to be the backbone of the events. Read more of this post

What makes a successful writing group?

angeladobele02-smallDr Angela Dobele is an academic at RMIT University in Melbourne. Her teaching and research practices seek to make vital contributions to resolving the social, environmental and wicked problems of our times.

In her scholarly practice, Angela aims to be grounded in real-world problems, critical in theoretical and marketing orientation, and andragogical in her approach to student performance.

Her thesis topic and subsequent research considers word-of-mouth (at the intersection of relationship marketing and communication theories), both online (viral) and traditional referrals. Her other research topics concern academic workloads and research on student performance. Angela can be found on Twitter at @AngelaDobele.


Photo by Mark Asthoff | unsplash.com

Photo by Mark Asthoff | unsplash.com

An Organiser’s Perspective of Writing Groups: Dr Angela Dobele (@AngelaDobele)

It’s really hard in a crowded academic life to make time for your own research writing and spend time with your colleagues.

To create a great foundation for doing both, I introduced a writing program at my institution that aims to help staff and research higher degree students with the twin goals of improving writing skills and ramping up writing productivity.  The program is currently in its fourth consecutive semester and gradually increasing in popularity.

I conduct two writing groups each semester. In the program, we use the metaphor of ‘landing planes’ (a phrase coined by one of my first participants, Professor Lisa Farrell) with each aeroplane representing the achievement of a specific writing goal, such as submission of a journal manuscript or book chapter.

Over the three previous semesters that the program has run, participants have successfully landed 102 planes. Landed planes include 27 papers submitted to top flight journals, 18 grant applications (including four ARC expressions of interest and an ARC Linkage expression of interest), and 10 journal re-submissions.

The program is having an impact because it:

  • Socialises a task that is traditionally lonely (writing);
  • Incorporates gamification in the development of new writing habits (specifically, habitual writing practice);
  • Develops skills that make a favourable impact on research performance (research outputs and quality of outputs).

Increasing writing productivity is not about writing faster; it is about writing more often. It is what Silvia calls making writing ‘routine and mundane’ (Silvia 2007, p. xi). 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

Free the academic conference

Craig Lundy photoCraig Lundy is a Senior Lecturer in Social Theory at Nottingham Trent University.

After finishing his PhD in Philosophy at the University of New South Wales, Craig held a series of teaching and research positions in the UK and Australia, moving between the fields of Sociology, Cultural Studies and Politics. Most of Craig’s research has focused on exploring the nature of change, and in particular the usefulness of Gilles Deleuze and related thinkers for understanding processes of transformation.

In 2011-12, Craig teamed up with like-minded colleagues in London to create an annual conference with inclusivity at its heart – the London Conference in Critical Thought (LCCT).

This post speaks to one of the issues that prompted the creation of the LCCT: large and unfair conference registration fees.


2016 London Conference in Critical Thought program | Photo sourced from Twitter's @A2K4D

2016 London Conference in Critical Thought program | Photo sourced from Twitter’s @A2K4D

We have a problem with academic conference registration fees.

Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for a multi-day conference to attract a registration fee in the region of AUD$600 (USD$450, €400, £330). I have seen fees that are even larger, but it is the size of the ‘average’ or ‘competitively priced’ conferences that are perhaps greater cause for alarm.

There are of course exceptions to the rule, but need I say that the exceptions prove the rule, and only highlight our problem. Such sums may not be a big deal to some sections of academia, but they make conference participation prohibitive to many. Bearing this in mind, it becomes apparent what our problem really is: not nearly enough academics on ‘hard’ employment contracts see a problem with the status quo, and even fewer are willing to speak about the problem, let alone do something about it.

The status quo is morally compromised

Conference organisers do their best to put on events that serve the needs of their constituencies, and they generously sacrifice their time and labour for the good of the academic community. It’s important that we acknowledge and applaud their efforts.

Nevertheless, it must be said that the status quo regarding conference registration fees is to a large extent morally compromised. There are a lot of things that could be said here to illustrate the point, but I’ll limit myself to one: while ‘standard’ participants pay a registration fee, it is commonplace for keynote speakers to have their expenses subsidised or paid entirely by the conference organisers, these costs being covered (at least in part) by the collection of conference registration fees.

So, when participants such as students or unemployed/underemployed postdocs pay and ‘star’ keynotes don’t, we have a situation where the least wealthy participants are paying the way for the most wealthy. And I have yet to come across a convincing justification for this situation. Read more of this post