Reflections on doing an invited keynote

Donald Nicolson has worked in academic research since 2001 and is still an independent scholar, much to the chagrin of himself and his family.

In July 2018, he gave an invited keynote address to the Association for Borderland Studies conference in Vienna, from which this piece arose.

His first book ‘Academic Conferences as Neoliberal Commodities’ was published by Palgrave Macmillan. Some people think it is not bad.

He can be approached on Twitter @the_mopster.


Photo by Nathan Dumlao | unsplash.com

Photo by Nathan Dumlao | unsplash.com

“We would like to wholeheartedly invite you to give the introductory keynote speech at our conference,” said the message on Research Gate.

“Oh yeah,” I thought, “Another scam conference invitation!”

But one that was not scheduled for Las Vegas or Bangkok. Working from the cautious maxim that I should not be so cynical, I decided to do some investigating, just in case. A one-hour Skype call with the Conference Chair convinced me that she and the conference were both real.

This was not a case of too good to be true. Very quickly, I had gone from cynicism, to shock, to pride, to excitement at being invited.

One year on from this invite, with said keynote done in July 2018, I am in a better space to be able to reflect on this. I learned a few things, and am sharing them here!  Read more of this post

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Family and fieldwork: on longing and commitment in knowledge production

May Ngo is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.

Her research focuses on the nexus between religion and development, in particular on the case study of Catholic nuns and their work of accompaniment and solidarity with factory workers in Cambodia in the garment export industry. She is interested in examining transnational religious actors whose activities particularly addresses the question of how we respond to the ‘other’ who is a stranger, particularly within the context of global inequalities.

Her other research interests include theology, migration, diaspora and literature. She is also developing her father’s memoirs of his time with the Vietnamese communist army as a novel.

May has a blog at The Violent Bear it Away, and tweets at @mayngo2.

This article was first published in ARI News on March 2017 and is reproduced with kind permission.


Photo by May Ngo

Photo by May Ngo

They were waiting for me at Phnom Penh airport with a handwritten sign with my name on it.

We had never met before as adults, but one of my cousins said he recognised me straight away from the photo my Dad had sent him. My aunt said I looked exactly like my mother.

I stayed with this aunt and her two sons for a month in Cambodia, in a tiny apartment above their mobile phone repair shop on a bustling boulevard in the capital Phnom Penh. Having only two rooms, they vacated the larger room above the shop for me while the three of them slept in the smaller room downstairs.

I had come to Cambodia to do a fieldwork phase at the start of a new research project.

Born in Cambodia but having grown up in Australia, my time there raised the question for me about what it means not only to return to the “motherland” to do research, but to do it with family. Not research specifically on my family, but with them in the sense of their presence being part of the quotidian landscape of my fieldwork, and consequently providing a personal entry into the everyday spaces and rhythms of life in Phnom Penh. Read more of this post

This wasn’t always me

Photo by Tseen Khoo

Photo by Tseen Khoo

There’s a post I tend to share when major grant round results are announced.

It’s ‘Picking up the pieces‘. In it, I emphasise that “I can say that I truly understand how you feel. I threw my hat in the major grants and fellowship rings many times; very few times was I successful.”

I always thought those sentences failed to convey the howling disappointment, derailment of career, and emptying out of all confidence that these results can bring.

It is hard, after all, to capture the sound of your professional self decomposing in half a second after realising you’re not a named awardee.

This post, below, was originally published on my personal blog at the end of 2010, seven years ago. It felt like my lowest point, career-wise. I was not in a good place.

I wanted to re-publish it to the Research Whisperer audience as a collegial artefact, to share my thinking about academic identity and scholarly life at a very raw time. Read more of this post

New Year’s resolutions for women in academia

penny-oxford-250pxPenny Oxford had a number of organisational learning roles in the corporate and government sectors before joining the staff development team of a university in 2006. Since then, she has left the higher education sector and returned so many times that she’s lost count.

Penny has worked in faculties and central research offices in research support, project management, and researcher development roles. She’s most proud of her contributions to the WiSci (Women in Science) and SPAM (Strategic Promotions Advice and Mentoring) programs at the University of Sydney. SPAM could not have happened without the wisdom, guidance and inspirational brilliance of Professors Daniela Traini and Fiona White, and Professor Emerita Robyn Overall. It succeeds because of the outstanding generosity of all its mentors, including Professor Mike Thompson (winner of the inaugural Golden SPAM award for mentoring) and Judy Black, super-mentor and astonishing thespian talent.

Penny tweets from @Penny_O_.


Time to reflect. Photo courtesy of Penny Oxford.

Time to reflect. Photo courtesy of Penny Oxford.

January is traditionally a time to reflect, plan, and – if you’re that kind of person – come up with some New Year’s resolutions!

As we move into another academic year, I’d like to suggest some career development resolutions for female researchers, particularly women in the STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) disciplines.

I’ve worked with many of you on career planning, mentoring and promotion support programs over the years and I am in awe of your brilliance, tenacity, resilience and generosity.

I’m also saddened by the scarcity of women in leadership roles and frustrated by a culture that’s not always completely fantastic when it comes to embracing diversity, so I thought I would distil what I’ve learned from many wise mentors into a list of promises that you can make to yourself, to help you take charge of your career in 2017. Read more of this post

Our 2017 dreams

Photo from NASA | unsplash.com

Photo from NASA | unsplash.com

For this traditional end-of-year post, we’re sharing our 2017 dreams as viewed through our Research Whispery lens.

Yes, you read that right: we’re in the higher education sector and we still have dreams!

Given it’s our 5th birthday this year, it’s a fitting way to think. Read more of this post

A confession about working weekends

I came back to academia after being in a professional role for over three years with a promise to myself: I will not work across weekends.

As I mentioned in a recent post, some people derided my promise. Many more laughed in disbelief, or were encouraging in their words but exuded an air of ‘that promise is doomed, doomed!’. Having been in a professional job where I found it extremely easy to maintain the boundaries between work and non-work time, I was very used to having weekends in my life. I assumed that transitioning (again) into an academic role while keeping weekends free would be relatively easy. It was the status quo for me at the time, after all.

Two and a half years after returning to academia, then, how is my promise of ‘not working on weekends’ going for me?

Terribly, I have to say.

And I acknowledge this with some shame.

I know a lot about academic overworkpeer pressure dictating how many hours we spend at our jobs (sometimes pushing scholars to quit careers), and the dominance of ‘administrivia’ in our working lives.

I’ve read heaps on work/life balance in academia (from many sources including Tenure, She Wrote, Raul Pacheco-Vega, and various scholarly studies [like this one by Osbaldiston and Cannizzo]), and how overwork is not necessary for success. I constantly advocate for self-care and regeneration time for researchers. I loved Dani Barrington’s post in RW and cheered her declaration that “although research will never ‘just’ be a job, it is, in fact, a job” (Escaping the ivory tower).

And yet…I have a confession to make. Read more of this post

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