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

The impact producer

Photo by Ronald Yang | unsplash.com

Photo by Ronald Yang | unsplash.com

The #ImpactAgenda is upon us. Every government funding agency I know is looking for impact outside the academic sphere. So, I’ve been thinking about impact a lot lately.

One of the best ways to learn how to do things better is to look at how they’re done in an allied industry. The best example of this that I know of is the idea of bench-marking hospital admissions against hotel check-ins. At a basic level, both activities are similar: you are allocating a room to a person who wants to stay at your establishment. Yet the experience can be totally different. Hotel check-in is usually quick, friendly, and relatively painless. Hospital admissions, on the other hand, can sometimes be quite bureaucratic, protracted, and impersonal. The two experiences, while similar, are underpinned by completely different attitudes to the work. So, hospitals have learnt a lot about admissions from hotels.

By examining an idea in a different environment, we can sometimes learn not just how other people do things, but gain new ideas about how to improve our own activities.

For those researchers who are grappling with the impact agenda currently being rolled out in Australia, the UK, and other countries, it’s worth thinking about how documentary film-makers increase the impact of their films.

Making a documentary film can be a long and exhausting process. Finding funding, assembling a team, executing a plan when you never have quite enough resources, coping with team dynamics, keeping everything together long enough to get the job done, and maintaining a singular vision while doing it – all of this sounds a bit like a research program to me. Read more of this post

Does being happier count?

Photo by Garrett Heath | www.flickr.com/photos/garrettheath Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence 2.0

Photo by Garrett Heath | http://www.flickr.com/photos/garrettheath
Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence 2.0

I attended a work/life balance forum the other day.

It was an event that was a first step – I hope – in addressing the relentless anxieties around the gendered juggling of work, caring for others, and quality of life.

These are endemic struggles in contemporary work life and appear in sharp relief in academia. There’s an expectation that universities should be better at this kind of stuff, that they’d be more aware, and willing to implement changes or embed structures that bring about change. It’s a fair expectation.

Much of the discussion at the forum centred on efficient work practices, and setting boundaries for ourselves and others around our work. For example, until someone on the panel told us, I had no idea our university had guidelines for recommended meeting times: between 9:30am and 3pm. It makes good sense, and is a very simple way to make the workplace more inclusive.

One of the forum’s panel members is at a senior executive level and passionate about the possibilities of working out a balance between home life and workload commitments through the flexible work options offered by universities. He encouraged staff to speak with their managers about creating better working lives by considering these options.

I was heartened to hear this. Universities, and many other organisations, talk big about being ‘family friendly’ workplaces dedicated to offering flexible working options, but these options are rarely well exposed and taken for a turn around the academic block. It’s like having parents’ feeding or mother’s expressing rooms on campus at universities – given much lip-service and expected to be there but rarely as convenient as might be necessary (see my relatively considered rant about this issue in my personal blog, A Simple Story). 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

How my university runs Academic Writing Month (#acwrimo)

Photo by Mark Young

Photo by Mark Young

I was chatting with my good buddies @WarrenStaples and @jod999 the other week, as they wanted to know more about what went into the planning and running of La Trobe’s Academic Writing Month (#LTUacwrimo) in November each year.

Based on the fabulous, world-famous #acwrimo that was created by @charlottefrost in 2011, this month focuses on academic writing: the doing, the celebrating, and the learning of it.

This year will be the fourth time it has run at La Trobe, and the third time that I’ve managed many of the schedules and activities. The month culminates in the three-day RED researcher writing retreat (running for the 2nd time this year!), and has a significant social media component throughout the 30 days. As you can imagine, running an uber-packed, month-long program requires a team effort!

After much transparent prompting by @jod999, I thought it might be a good idea to share with you the layers of initiatives that we have running through our month, and how we pull it all together. I’ve had several questions about how we ran #LTUacwrimo over the past couple of years, and it would be fabulous to spread the #acwrimo love around more institutions!

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

Research under attack?

We solicited this post from a veteran researcher whose work has at times been under attack in the mainstream media. They have asked to remain anonymous, but wanted to share their experience and suggest constructive actions other researchers might take if they find themselves in a similar situation.  

The actual research and researcher’s location is deliberately anonymised in this post.

We think the advice that’s offered here is insightful and very useful. Research into controversial topics needs to take place, and those who undertake it can run the risk of being targeted. It’s always good to have clarity about how much support you can count on from your institution – or networks – should something like this happen. 


Arguing | Artwork by www.flickr.com/photos/lucy-wu | Shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Arguing | Artwork by http://www.flickr.com/photos/lucy-wu | Shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As academics, we quickly become used to people disagreeing with us.

Our families might disagree with how we spend our time. Our line managers might disagree with our research priorities. And granting bodies might disagree with the claim that our research should be funded. These are all par for the course in academic life.

Different, however, is when those outside of the academy disagree with us. Typically, when this occurs, it involves an ideological conflict between our values and those of others. When this conflict is heightened by particular debates over current social issues, this can result in considerable backlash against academics.

In my experience, such a backlash tends to take the following forms:

  1. Active attempts to discredit the research (e.g. through questioning methodology or interpretation of findings)
  2. Active attempts to discredit the researcher (e.g. through questioning their personal values or personal life)
  3. Active attempts to discredit research itself (e.g. through questioning academic pursuits as having any worth)

In certain cases, speaking back to the first form of backlash can be productive. This might involve working with your university’s media team to develop a statement that can be released to clarify any misperceptions. It can also involve selectively engaging with media outlets where you are likely to be given a fair opportunity to clarify any misperceptions.

To a certain extent, cases involving the third form of backlash can be ignored, given anti-intellectualism as an ideological position is difficult to counter through recourse to the merits of research, though recent examples demonstrate that there may be something to be gained by challenging anti-intellectualism.

Speaking back to attempts at discrediting us personally is something different altogether. Read more of this post