Which academics are happy?

Lachlan Smith is Co-Director of Cloud Chamber.

He supports small and specialist institutions to develop their research culture, environment and income through strategy development and one to one research proposal support for academics. Clients include Newman, Leeds Trinity and Harper Adams Universities. He previously worked in research development at the University of Warwick as well as roles in the civil service, local government and economic development consultancy.

Lachlan is currently undertaking a part-time PhD at the School of Business, University of Leicester. He tweets from @HEresearchfund.


Academics everywhere are under increasing pressure to improve their performance and that of their institution, often by undertaking tasks that respond directly to new forms of measurement and management within the sector.

Image by rromer on flickr | Shared via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Image by rromer on flickr | Shared via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

League tables now exist for every imaginable university degree, region and specialism and the plethora of tables continue to grow.

Over the last eight years, since I started working closely with academics, the number of metrics has only continued to expand, prompting the question from an academic I know well: “Which academics are actually happy in English higher education today?”

The question took me by surprise. I had never been asked this question so directly before.

This academic had recently taken the plunge and resigned from her academic role in England and taken up opportunities in South-East Asia. Part of the driver for this was unhappiness with the English higher education sector, including heavy (and often unrealistic) teaching loads, burdensome administration and a lack of support from senior management, coupled with the introduction of more metrics into the everyday life of academics. These include the Research Excellence Framework (REF), Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and the associated National Student Survey (NSS). And, of course, there is the newly emerging Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), as well as a reduction in student fees potentially on the horizon to complicate the policy and organisational landscape further.

It is a pretty exhausting mix for anyone, and that’s just thinking about it, let alone doing any of this. How, for example, do people manage to do research – that key underpinning platform of universities? Read more of this post

How having kids made me a better academic

Sarah Hayes is an urban archaeologist and material culture researcher who focuses on the role possessions play in quality of life and social mobility. Her current research traces the material life trajectories of individuals and families during Victoria’s gold rush.

She is a current holder of a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) and Senior Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University.

Sarah has written for The Conversation and tweets from @SarahHResearch.


Photo by Sarah Hayes | All rights reserved.

Photo by Sarah Hayes | All rights reserved.

I suffered a serious lack of academic mojo when I came back to work after maternity leave for my second daughter.

I’d had to start her in childcare two months before my maternity leave ended so we wouldn’t miss out on a spot and, as is inevitable when a small kid starts childcare, she was constantly sick for about four months. Throw in her asthma, and you can imagine what a stressful time it was. The snowballing of head colds meant she weaned herself overnight at ten months (it might sound silly, but this was to be my last baby and the sudden loss of that closeness with her hit me hard). Though she had been a good sleeper, all the illness meant I was back to an average of three hours’ sleep a night.

The demands of modern academia are complex and at times frustrating. I found myself heartily questioning the purpose of my research and whether I wanted to be an academic. Archaeology wasn’t going to save any lives, so why exactly was I putting my daughter through all this childcare-induced illness? Read more of this post

Leveling up in saying ‘no’

Photo by Jason Leung | unsplash.com

Photo by Jason Leung | unsplash.com

If there’s one thing that seems to dog many academics’ lives, it’s the inability to say ‘no’.

We often find ourselves over-committed and frazzled with deadlines…and it can be a frenzy of our own making. I’m not talking here about being given inappropriate workloads or sky-high benchmarks to be met. These are larger structural and equity issues that need broader institutional change.

I’m talking about the culture of overload that is normalised, and the ways that we sometimes pile on the commitments despite knowing that we’ll regret it. We do have some control over what we take on – it can be a matter of doing some cold, hard stock taking about priorities.

Once upon a time, I was a menace to my future self for taking on too much and assuming things would work out OK. They often did work out OK, but only because I had to put in extreme hours, pull overnighters, or lose several weekends in a row to get things done when there was a deadline log-jam. Now, with a household that includes two kids, an elderly parent, and my partner, as well as various furry and feathery critters, I can’t (and don’t want to) carry out this kind of work blitz any more.

To aim for balance and a good life (not just surviving), I use a few methods that I’ve been trying haphazardly over the years. They’ve now crystallised into a good set of strategies for me to manage work and enjoy life – and manage life and enjoy work (seriously – it’s true). Read more of this post

The care and feeding of critical friends

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 14 December 2018 and is reproduced with permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


Photo by Glen Carrie | unsplash.com

Photo by Glen Carrie | unsplash.com

Getting critical feedback on your work is one of the most difficult things to negotiate, whether you’re just starting out as a scholar or have published and been applying for grants for years.

We know that academia requires us to jump through hoop after hoop, so finding good ways to deal with this process of receiving feedback and constructively moving onto the next stage can make life a lot easier.

Often, the feedback you receive on your work will be from gate-keepers and assessor types or senior researchers in your area, possibly even your direct manager. These are often authority figures from whom you need ticks of approval, and they may not be of your choosing.

The value of a critical friend

To make research life and your academic career easier, I’d recommend finding – and keeping! – good critical friends. The idea of critical friends is extremely well established in education circles, and most academics have them even if they may not call them that.

As researchers, we need critical friends at all stages, and for many aspects, of our careers. Chief Executives of organisations often need them, and some universities even ‘out source’ critical friends for you.

Critical friends are colleagues whom you trust to read your work (whether that work is a grant application, journal paper, promotion document or research report) and give you rigorous, constructive feedback. They are supportive and invested in helping you develop your track-record. Read more of this post

Residential writing retreats: three wishes for academic output

BronwynEager-150pxDr Bronwyn Eager works as a Lecturer, Entrepreneurship at Swinburne Business School, Swinburne University of Technology. Her research focuses on stress, coping and time-orientation in entrepreneurs and integrating entrepreneurship education into STEM domains.

She tweets as @bronwyn_eager, and is always up for a coffee and interesting conversations. Her ORCID is 0000-0003-4512-1263To learn more about her writing retreats, visit Academic Writing Retreats


Photo of writing retreat by Narelle Lemon

Photo of writing retreat by Narelle Lemon

If academia was a Disney film and I was a street rat (early career researcher) living on the sandy backstreets of Agrabah, who happened to summon a genie, my three top-of-my-head wishes would be: publications, grant money, and a pipeline of non-traditional research outputs.

But after the wishes were granted and I was flying away on my magic carpet, I’d realise my error (besides the fact that I’d forgotten to wish for world peace).

I should have asked for ‘time’ and ‘space’ and ‘someone to cook my meals’ so I could get on with what I actually love: reading, asking questions, collaborating with other academics, discovering answers, writing, editing prose, and disseminating my findings.

Outputs are by-products. If they were instantly granted through genie magic, then the joy of the journey would evaporate quicker than you can say “How’s your research going?”

Yet when you are under pressure to publish (just to keep, let alone advance, your career), have demanding teaching loads, a never-ending cycle of meetings, and deadlines, what you need is time. Time away from distractions. Time that you can dedicate to research. Mostly, that means time for writing.

Which is why, as the kind of person who walks through a weekend craft market thinking “I could make that!”, I decided to start running residential writing retreats.

Read more of this post

Laying the research groundwork

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 3 June 2018 and is reproduced with permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


Photo by Jon Tyson | unsplash.com

Photo by Jon Tyson | unsplash.com

When I’ve asked researchers about their funding streams, many want to talk about the projects they want grant money for. Drilling down a bit further, however, it becomes obvious that many of the projects aren’t actually projects…yet.

Some researchers have ideas for projects, while others have started initial discussions but haven’t gotten their collaborators to commit to the project yet. Some researchers have said they have a full-fledged project in their head but haven’t talked with anyone else about it. Often, even if the team has come together, the thinking around the project itself has not.

This makes it hard to talk to your university’s grants team because the research project you want funded isn’t properly baked. It’s all still a bit doughy and unformed. I’ve written before about why you should only submit golden-brown applications, and I know how much work it can take to get to that stage.

Most grants teams are fabulous and want to help you submit strong applications to those competitive funding rounds. However, it’s often neither their job nor do they have the capacity to get you to the project grant application starting block with a red-hot project and a team ready to go.

Grey areas

The problem here is the grey area of where this research development happens.

Particularly for early career researchers who may be fresh out of their PhD, starting that next big project—without a supervisor or the scaffolding of a degree—can be a significant challenge.  Read more of this post

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