Are my publications any good?

A pile of theses in a skip.

All that work! by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

The Journal Impact Factor may not be dead, but it is looking pretty ill. When a relatively conservative body like the Australian Research Council (ARC) says:

“The ARC is not prescriptive about what can be included [in a publication list], but applicants should be aware of the widely held view that journal impact factors are a poor measure of an individual’s research performance.” – ARC Frequently Asked Questions for Discovery Projects commencing in 2017, question 4.11

If journal impact factor is a poor measure, what is a good measure of “an individual’s research performance”? How do you know that your publications are any good?

You just know

I get asked this by new academics a lot. The question comes in many forms: “What measures can I use?” “How will people know?” “Where should I publish?”

The unspoken question often revolves around an uncertainty about, or a fear of, the value of their own work. Don’t do that.  Don’t pin the value of your work to the judgement of your peers, your promotion committee, or your grant assessors. That way, madness lies.

You know when you have written a good paper. You know when you have, through the pressure of deadlines, or the tragedy of lost data, written a not-so-good paper. Hold onto those feelings, that sense of judgement. It will sustain you.

Knowing that, here are some practical answers to this question.

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What does your soul (read: postdoc application) look like?

Portrait of Jonathan LaskovskyJonathan Laskovsky is the Senior Coordinator, Research Partnerships, in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University. He is primarily responsible for managing research partnerships support and administration within the College.

Alongside this role, Jonathan has research interests in modern and postmodern literature with a particular focus on fictional space and critical theory.

He tweets as @JLaskovsky and can be found on Linkedin.


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What queue? by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

I have a secret weapon. I can look into your soul.

By that, I mean that, as part of my role, I’ve had to read a large volume of academic CVs. Particularly postdocs’ CVs.

I’ve probably looked more than 600 CVs in the past year, and what has astounded me throughout that process is not the number of staff looking for employment (there are many), or the wide variety of academic pathways (an encouraging sign).

The thing that surprised me most is the sheer volume of CVs that seem to be actively trying to thwart the reader.

Applying for a postdoc position is a bit like applying for a grant application. There are lots of other people who are also applying. The person reading the applications could be trying to shortlist from over 300 applications, and is looking for reasons to drop your application onto the cutting-room floor.

I can’t help you with most of these factors. I can’t control the number of applicants and I can’t help you with journal articles you haven’t written, or grant applications that haven’t been successful.

What I can do is give you a short list of tips that can help keep your application in the initial cut. These mostly cover the CV but the principles apply to the Key Selection Criteria and other parts of the application.
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Academic writing ‘outside’ academia

JayThompson-smDr Jay Daniel Thompson is a freelance writer, researcher, and editor who teaches at the University of Melbourne. His website can be found here.

Jay is also Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, and continues to publish in the fields of Literary Studies and Cultural Studies.

He can be contacted via email at jaydthompson80@gmail.com.


Readers of The Research Whisperer will be familiar with that old chestnut ‘publish or perish’. This is supposed to be the key to getting (and keeping) an academic job.

Stairs Carnegie Building, Dunedin (Photo by Kim Tairi | www.flickr.com/photos/angels_have_the_phone_box)

Stairs Carnegie Building, Dunedin (Photo by Kim Tairi | http://www.flickr.com/photos/angels_have_the_phone_box)

So, what about those non-academics who publish academic writing— the latter broadly defined as writing which is scholarly in nature and appears in traditional academic mediums (e.g. peer-reviewed journals, edited collections, and so forth)? Why do these people put themselves through the blood, sweat, and peer-review?

Who are these people exactly?

Let’s start with the latter question.

Non-academic academic writers (to coin a terribly inelegant term) come in many guises. Some are working in ‘industry’, and bring coalface knowledge to academic publications. Publications in the ‘hard sciences’, for example, frequently feature ‘industry’ input. There are those writers who require publication notches under their belt in order to win that coveted fellowship or lecturing gig. Creative arts journals frequently feature submissions by artists (painters, creative writers, and so forth) who have a scholarly tone. Then there are those folk who are drawn to academic writing by a love of words and a desire to contribute to a particular field or discipline.

I traverse several of the groups listed above.
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Changing disciplinary horses

Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been mired in active discussions around who I am as a scholar.

Luckily for the world at large, these discussions exist mostly in my head, and only occasionally weigh upon the ears of close colleagues and my lucky, lucky partner.

The reason for these internal discussions is that I’ve started an academic job in a field that’s unrelated to my previous disciplines.

As a PhD student and then a research fellow, I have meandered through literary studies, cultural studies, heritage and museum research, touched on sociological work, and wished repeatedly that I’d built my expertise in science fiction and horror screen cultures.

The hinge that my scholarly work depends on is critical race studies, and the sub-field of diasporic Asian studies.

I have a shelf in my study that carries books and special issue journals that I’ve written and edited. It is my (occasionally successful) talisman against imposter syndrome. However, none of the publications I’ve had or journals I’ve published in overlap with the field Education Studies, part and parcel of the new role I’ve taken up.

Many times recently, I’ve moseyed through the literature around diversity and leadership in the academy (new field), and found a mini-Ygritte on my shoulder intoning, “You know nothing, Tseen Khoo.” And mini-Ygritte is right.

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Dangers of internal funding

Photo by Vadim Sherbakov (http://madebyvadim.com), sourced from unsplash (http://unsplash.com).

Photo by Vadim Sherbakov (http://madebyvadim.com), sourced from unsplash (http://unsplash.com).

I’ve benefited from different types of internal university funding for my research over the years.

The schemes I’ve accessed range from conference money to pilot project grants and new staff grants. They’ve offered the stepping-stones I needed to get projects going and build momentum.

This post talks about the dangers and opportunities presented by internal research funding, and flags the Top 3 types of internal funds that I’ve found most useful.

It’s important to plans ways to do research, even without a fat grant.

One of the internal grants I secured was specifically for developing and writing up a major grant proposal. It paid off a couple of years later when our team got that ARC Discovery project. Being able to get together for concentrated periods of time to nut out the grant application saved us heaps of time and focused our energies. It really worked well.

Most institutions have some form of internal funding for their researchers. Some have more than others. Some barely cover their researchers’ conference travel, others offer plush suites of articulated funding for just about every segment of the research cycle.

Internal funding is a good thing. It can boost project competitiveness and track-record before a go at a bigger external grant. It can certainly boost the confidence of researchers trying to get their work off the blocks, or build their CV in the early days of their research career. It can bridge external grant gaps and allow researchers to stay on the radar.

Internal funding can be a bad thing, however, when you have too much of it and no consequent profile in securing external funds.

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Keeping referees sweet

Cupcake salvation (Photo by Fooi-ling Khoo)

Cupcake salvation (Photo by Fooi-ling Khoo)

Choosing the referees to list on a CV and job applications can be a complex business, particularly when you’re starting out.

You want a balance of voices who could credibly recommend you.

Perhaps someone who has been your academic supervisor, an examiner, a senior colleague who knows you and your work well enough, someone you’ve RA’d for?

For a non-academic job, maybe – just maybe – that first round of referees might include the boss of the fish and chip shop you worked at over the summer.

For academic jobs, there are other considerations in the mix, too: Should you have at least one international referee? One internal referee from your current position? Will it look odd if you don’t include any of your supervisors as referees? What if Professor Z on the hiring committee sees that you used Dr X and not Associate Professor Y…?

After navigating the rocky straits of choosing and securing your referees, you need to ensure that they’re on board with you for the duration of your job hunt(s).

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Boost your postdoc chances

Kerstin Fritsches (Founder of Postdoc Training)Kerstin Fritsches is a former research fellow who spent the majority of her 12-year research career on soft money at the University of Queensland, Australia.

She learned more than she would like about the challenges facing early career researchers (ECRs). While her research focused on what fish and other marine animals can see (taking her to some wonderful locations), she has been passionate about improving the situation for ECRs, and involved in postdoc policy and career development training for many years.

An apparently universal need for accessible and effective career development training motivated Kerstin to leave academia and found PostdocTraining to offer career development training tailored specifically to postdocs and their institutions.


Winning a fellowship is a bit of a holy grail for early career researchers.

When these positions mean an independent salary, often accompanied by funding for research support, it’s no surprise that they are hotly contested and bring well deserved prestige.

Cardboard tubes painted to look like owls, lined up on a window sill.

Parliament (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Fellowships show you can win funding based on your track record and excel against stiff competition.  They can also end up being the key to long-term careers in academia, increasing your chances of continuing on a full-time research path.

Given their potential benefits, it’s worth looking more closely at how to go about securing a fellowship.

Each funding scheme has its own rules and traditions, so the 10 steps outlined here are general observations based on what I –  and my peers – wish we’d known when we started applying. Hopefully, they’re practical ideas for your own game plan.

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