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

Setting up a professional network

Alyssa-smaller

Alyssa Sbisa, Florey Institute

Sally Grace,

Sally Grace, Swinburne University of Technology

Alyssa Sbisa is a neuroscience PhD Candidate at The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, researching the role of sex hormones in schizophrenia. Alyssa can be found in the Twitterverse at @LyssLyssLyss.

Sally Grace is a neuroscience PhD Candidate at Swinburne University of Technology. Her research interests involve brain imaging and mental illness. Sally tweets from @sallyagrace.

Sally and Alyssa are the Media and Communications Managers for the 2015 Students of Brain Research (SOBR) committee. You can find more about SOBR by visiting our website, Facebook page, and tweeting us at @SOBRNetwork.

The Research Whisperers invited Alyssa and Sally to write for us because we’ve been really impressed by the engaging and bright presence of the SOBR Network on social media.

Those with good networks deserve praise, and those who work so hard to create the conditions for others to build networks deserve even more. 


As a graduate student, you’ve probably come across more than one article stressing the importance of networking.

And, if you’re anything like we initially were, you probably find the idea of organising networking events daunting and wouldn’t know where to start.

This year, when we signed up for a student-run committee, we didn’t realise it would be such an incredible experience. Albeit rewarding, there has also been some hard work. In light of this experience, we want to share some useful tips in the hope that if others were to take the same journey they have an idea of where to begin.

What is SOBR?

sobr_logo-smallerStudents of Brain Research (SOBR) is a student-run initiative aimed at facilitating the networking of students in the area of neuroscience and brain research, from cellular and molecular science to clinical psychology.

SOBR was formed in 2011 in an effort to connect not only graduate students from institutes across Victoria, but also early career researchers, prominent scientists, and industry professionals.

Each year SOBR hosts two events: the Professional Development Dinner and the Student Symposium. The committee itself has grown over the years, and so too has the interest in our events. 2015 is the first year we have had a waiting list for the dinner, and we expect our upcoming Symposium to be even more successful than the last!

Engagement with our online social networks has also increased; in 2015 alone our Facebook ‘likes’ have increased by 35% and Twitter followers by 360%. The success of SOBR is grounded not only on the fantastic work of the previous committees over the years, but also some key strategies.

Creating, growing, and managing a network is definitely not a one-person job. The SOBR committee has eight members this year and each one is integral to our success.

If you were considering a similar initiative in your own research area, we recommend considering the following:

Read more of this post

Raising the risk threshold

Sumo! (Photo by Tim Ellis: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tim_

Sumo! (Photo by Tim Ellis: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tim_ellis)

When you get rejected from a journal or conference, or your grant doesn’t get up, do you retreat to your cave?

Do you have a bit of a tantrum and declare ‘What’s the POINT?’ to innocent passers-by?

I’ve done my fair share of this, and it’s all perfectly normal and healthy for a time. But you have to eventually leave the cave and stop yelling at passersby.

I was talking to a colleague about academic resilience recently – the ability to ‘bounce back’ after papers are heavily criticised or rejected, grants not awarded, or promotions not given.

I’ve seen people respond so differently to these events, though they all start with the same fallen expression.

Some take the entire process as an indictment on their work and position within the field, swear off wasting their time with it all, and disengage.

Others revisit the critique and feedback, and start reworking their submission for the very next round.

Still others revisit the critique, acknowledge that the comments about track-record or scope of project (or whatever) have truth to them, and they take a step back to work up those aspects before investing more time in the application and submission (and waiting…) process.

These responses align with a particular researcher’s level of professional resilience and their ability to absorb setbacks. Someone who is a tenured professor, for example, has more opportunity to choose their response. Those in the research precariat or on fixed-term contracts, however, may not have the luxury of resubmission or reworking; there may be no support to do these things at all.

READ MORE

Golden-brown grant applications

Mmm, pie (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Mmm, pie (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

A colleague once boasted to me that she had pulled together an ARC Discovery over a weekend.

I asked if she thought the application had a chance of being awarded. She shrugged and said she didn’t care; she was under pressure to submit an ARC application and that was what she was doing.

Even then, before my life as a research grant developer, I immediately thought, “Well, that’s a waste of everyone’s time.”

Yes, major grant systems are overloaded and under-resourced.

Yes, many excellent and worthy projects go unfunded.

And much that is not so excellent or worthy goes unfunded, too. I would venture to say that these should never have been submitted in the first place.

You can’t write a great major grant application from scratch in a weekend.

You just can’t.

As I’ve become more experienced on this other side of the fence in the area of research development, this fact has crystallised.

Even if you devote the whole weekend’s 48 hours to pulling it together, it won’t be great. It might be eligible and compliant, but chances are it’ll be flabby, inconsistent, and unpolished.

In other words, half-baked.

READ MORE

FoRs and the Alleged “Gaming” of ERA

Michelle Duryea, ECUMichelle Duryea has been the Manager of Research Quality and Policy at Edith Cowan University for over four years. She is responsible for the University’s ERA and HERDC submissions, research management systems, research policy development, reviews of research centres and research performance evaluation, reward and reporting.

Prior to working at ECU, Michelle was the Associate Director of Research Evaluation at the Australian Research Council, directly involved in developing the original ERA policy and guidelines.

Before working for Government, she occupied the position of the Senior Policy Officer for the Australian Technology Network of Universities. Michelle is on Twitter as @MishDuryea


Numbers (Photo by supercake: http://www.flickr.com/photos/supercake)

Numbers (Photo by supercake: http://www.flickr.com/photos/supercake)

Following a recent Research Whisperer post on ‘What’s a FoR?’, a Twitter conversation arose regarding the way Field of Research codes are assigned to publications for Government reporting purposes, specifically ERA (Excellence in Research for Australia).

This post is a product of that discussion and aims to clarify the role research offices play in preparing a university’s ERA submission.

More importantly, I also discuss the question of the impact these activities may or may not have on the publication practices of individual researchers.

In order to have a legitimate appreciation for what is involved in preparing the data about research outputs for an ERA submission, there are some fundamental ERA concepts which need to be understood initially, and which I will attempt to explain as clearly as possible.

Out of necessity, the following is taken largely from the ERA 2012 Submission Guidelines, so I apologise in advance for the “policy speak” but hopefully you’ll hang in there long enough for us to get to the good bit.

READ MORE

Lost and found

Balloon man (Photo by Jonathan O'Donnell)

Balloon man (Photo by Jonathan O’Donnell)

A few things happened last week that made this post both easier and harder to write.

What made it easier was that I had done a quick canvas of my colleagues about topics they’d like to see addressed on Research Whisperer. Susan Leong (@susanmeeleong), a member of my research network, wrote:

“Not sure if this has been addressed but I often have to remind myself why research matters beyond the Excellence for Research in Australia (ERA) rankings.

That it is worthwhile choosing the not-so-sexy trending areas to study.

Because once we enter into the borg of academia, it seems that is all it counts for, that and tarting ideas up for funding.”

Right, I thought. That’s not hard. Writing about why we have a passion for research will be easy.

So, I planned a post on why the research caper can be so rewarding, despite the constant institutional pressures and uncertainties. How you can lose track of time in the excitement of delving into a subject, and finding and collaborating with smart colleagues. The thrill of road-testing ideas and new topics at conferences, and weaving the feedback into future papers. The luxury of being paid for your intellectual work and its whims.

There was even a post recently by E. J. Milner-Gulland (@EJMilnerGulland) on why she loves her job in academia at the Imperial College Conservation Science group’s blog. She described why she appreciated the academic environment this way:

“It’s exciting to collaborate with people who I admire, developing new ways of thinking, particularly interdisciplinary projects when I can be stretched by understanding their perspectives and analytical tools. I also think I’m well paid, well supported and that universities try hard to recognise the constraints of childcare and other barriers to success.”

I also had an anecdote lined up about how ‘un-sexy’ topics can become government priorities and suddenly have a lot of grant money thrown at them.

Then I had a long phone call with one of my closest academic colleagues that derailed my neatly planned post.

READ MORE