Why bother creating postgrad groups?

Photo by James Petts | www.flickr.com/photos/14730981@N08

‘Barometer’ | Photo by James Petts | http://www.flickr.com/photos/14730981@N08

The question of how to build a research culture occupies a lot of big-brained types at universities, at all levels.

PhD researchers want to feel they’re a part of, and can contribute to, a good one. Professors like to think that they helped create and grow a thriving one.

University executives want an excellent one yesterday, preferably bristling with national government grants, effective and fat industry partnerships, top-flight publications, and seamless higher degree candidatures and completions. Sometimes, they want this almost instantly.

Research cultures are complex and often fragile systems, and when you look too hard for specific components to engineer one, the whole thing can evaporate.

Can you force staff to be productive without having a good research culture? I think you can – but you won’t have productive or happy researchers for very long, in that case. Nor would you have particularly good research.

For me, one of the best barometers of the health of an institutional research culture is the presence and activity of graduate researcher groups and associations.

Why?

Read more of this post

Can blogging be a hobby?

Keep up and blog on (Photo by Alexander Baxevanis | www.flickr.com/photos/futureshape)

Keep up and blog on (Photo by Alexander Baxevanis | http://www.flickr.com/photos/futureshape)

It is ironic that I’m writing this blogpost on whether blogging can be a hobby at 11pm on a Saturday night when I’m technically on annual leave for a week.

I’m working this late because I made time to have a family dinner and catch up with my sister and her partner.

I also chatted with my partner about our well-intentioned and erratic packing for the camping trip that starts tomorrow.

What I didn’t do was spend time working on the post… until now.

This post is about how academics choose to spend our time, and how – quite often – when I’m not working, I’m blogging, or thinking about blogging.

I’m realising that writing for blogs has become my hobby. Other people may knit, play instruments, or cook.

I blog.

READ MORE

Do you have a toxic collaborator?

What's yours? (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

What’s yours? (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

At some time in everyone’s academic lives, there will be cause for collaboration angst.

It may all start golden: big ideas, excitement about working with new colleagues, the potential for fancy-pants funding and intellectual glory.

And if you were invited onto a prestigious team by a favoured prof…well, you’d almost fall over signing up, right?

Then, down the track, you’re looking at the fifth ‘I still haven’t done it’ email from Collaborator 2, or – worse still – finding no email from Collaborator 3…ever.

How many times is it physiologically safe to roll one’s eyes at Collaborator 4 for declaring yet again that they should be first author?

I’ve written before about how to find research friends and make co-writing work, which have focused for the most part on the positive habits and traits that lead to successful, satisfying collaborations.

This post focuses on the flipside.

Finding out that your co-writer or co-investigator is awful to work with could be a gradual soul-destroying process, or a very rapid soul-destroying process. Either way? Soul destroyed.

Added to the mix are complicated intersections of status, power and privilege, and often emotional baggage from professional (or deeper) friendships. The earlier you can see that the collaboration isn’t going to work, the easier it may be to duck out of the project, or at least implement processes that will mean you emerge with your sanity and sense of self intact.

Here are 5 signs that you may have a toxic collaborator: READ MORE

Free to good home – one Research Whisperer

Map of Melbourne city, showing three campuses

RMIT’s city, Brunswick and Bundoora campuses, courtesy Google Maps

I’ve just finished a ‘grand tour’ of all the Schools in our College (read “Departments in our Faculty”, depending on your terminology).

It was great! I spent three days a week, for a month at a time, working in a completely different space.

In the middle of last year, when I came back from China, I sent a note to our seven Deputy Deans (Research). It was headed ‘Free to good home – one Research Whisperer’. In it, I asked if they would be interested in hosting me for a month. They would need to provide a desk and a chair, and access to electricity and the wireless network.

In return, I would spend three days per week in their School for a month. I’d still be doing my normal work, but I’d be a visible presence and would be able to meet with their staff, etc.

I was overwhelmed with the response. One school came back literally within minutes of the post. Every other school responded positively, with the last one even expressing the fear that they might be too late, and have missed the boat.

Every school was different. Some had real difficulty finding a seat for me. Others were able to give me a room with a view. For me, it didn’t matter where I sat, as long as I was where the action was.

Being in a central unit, it is easy to be seduced by the image that the centre is the focus when, in fact, the work happens in the schools, departments, and centres. That is where the teaching and research happens. Everything else is a scaffold to support that work.

Getting back to the periphery is a very simple, very powerful way to demonstrate that you recognise that fact. This is how it worked for me:

READ MORE

Open plan, not working

Nanobot protected cubicle (Photo by Kevin Trotman - https://www.flickr.com/photos/kt)

Nanobot protected cubicle (Photo by Kevin Trotman – https://www.flickr.com/photos/kt)

This post has taken me an eon to complete. Most of the time, when I’ve wrangled with it, my biggest difficulty was trying to find a rational voice to use.

Academics like to think of themselves as adding reasonable, informed voices to debates. Conflicts of interest and biases must be declared.

Instead of waiting for a rational voice, then, I’m just going to write this post and declare my huge bias against open plan offices.

If you follow me on Twitter and elsewhere, you’ll know that I’ve ranted consistently about them, and the weasel-worded reasoning that’s often presented as their justification. I’m writing from the perspective of a humanities/social sciences background academic, not someone who works in a lab-based or research-team environment (so, ymmv).

In May this year, Oliver Burkeman (Guardian) wrote a cracker of a piece against open plan offices and who they actually benefit (hint: not those in open plan). This arrangement of workers has become the norm for new offices in most sectors, and universities are no exception.

The reasons that are most often given to staff as the benefits of open plan include: free flow of ideas and heightened collaborative opportunities among staff, easier identification as a cohort with your colleagues (recognition of your ‘team’), and better communication overall because of frequency of seeing others. You’ll see that I’ve deliberately not used the word ‘synergies’.

READ MORE

Are we there yet?

Francis WoodhouseFrancis Woodhouse is a postdoc at The University of Western Australia.

Born and bred in England, he did a bunch of degrees at the University of Cambridge—first a bachelor’s and a master’s in Mathematics and then a doctorate in Mathematical Biology—before moving out to Perth.

The content of Francis’s research is gradually including more biology every year. At the University of Western Australia he works in bioengineering and biofluids, developing models of knee cartilage damage and repair to understand and prevent the onset of osteoarthritis.

He maintains side interests in pattern formation, self-organisation, and microswimmer propulsion.

He tweets as @fwoodhouse and blogs at www.microbiohydro.com.


Tropic of Capricorn sign (Photo by Dan Dyer: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dwdyer)

Tropic of Capricorn sign (Photo by Dan Dyer: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dwdyer)

I’m every Aussie’s least favourite invader: a grubby, plummy pom.

But unlike the other half million of us here in Perth, I’m not here for the sun, sand or surf.

I’m here for the science.

Nearly a year ago, I left the crumbling mortar of England to take up my first postdoc, far away at the University of Western Australia. I’d never switched university before, let alone moved country, so I was a little apprehensive.

Will they understand me? Do I need special gloves to deal with all the redbacks? Can I apply sunscreen fast enough to keep up with the sunburn?

I needn’t have worried. Confusion, spiders, and sunburn have all been minimal, and I’ve settled in just fine. I don’t yet ask “how ya going?”, and “Australia” still has four syllables, but I’ve happily accepted the flat white and long black as the two coffees to rule them all.

The first thing I learned is that Australia is really rather far away from England. I always knew this on paper, but the soul-sucking malaise of twenty hours in the air made it feel very real indeed. The journey isn’t getting any easier with practice, either (and being forced to pause in Baku doesn’t help).

Thankfully, the malaise didn’t last, and the distance receded once I’d wrapped my head around the novel avian and arboreal life forms. With somewhere to live and the city sussed out, it didn’t feel so alien anymore. Before I knew it, a couple of weeks had gone by and it was time to start work.

Moving to Australia didn’t mean existing research connections had to languish, so I soon resumed interacting with colleagues in Europe and North America over the all-connecting Internet.

That’s when the perception of distance came back, and this time with tyranny.

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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 20,063 other followers