How ECRs can fast-track their institutional capital

Alex Burns is an Australian-based analyst, developmental editor and researcher.

He is currently Research Facilitator in the Research Facilitation Unit of Victoria University‘s Faculty of Business and Law, and is writing n a PhD at Monash University about strategic culture in counter-terrorism studies. 

Formerly, Alex was a senior quality and planning officer for Swinburne University, and a senior researcher with Smart Internet Technology CRC for three years.

Alex also blogs at


In a recent Home Cooked Theory post ‘In Praise of Strategic Complacency’, Melissa Gregg offers incisive, critical advice to Early Career Researchers (ECRs) about navigating universities in their first five years after PhD completion.

For the past three years, I’ve encountered similar issues for ECRs while in the Research Facilitation Unit at Victoria University’s Faculty of Business and Law.

This post engages with Gregg’s ideas, and offers personal advice on two key points:

1. Handling productivity.

Gregg critiques a ‘post-Fordist’ ‘neoliberal workplace’ that values “flexibility and productivity” over the “accumulation and duration of service.” This position leads Gregg to advise a counter-strategy of “strategic complacency.” I’m sympathetic to many of the issues and problems that Gregg raises about organisational ‘routinisation’, and to Gramscian and Foucauldian “counter-hegemonic” critique. But I differ in the solutions.

The workplace transformation that Gregg describes has occurred outside universities for over two decades. It is central to the management philosophies guiding the staffing cuts recently announced at several universities, which can be traced to GE’s WorkOut process under Jack Welch (firing the bottom 10% in annual performance reviews), time-based competition, international research metrics, and the human capital strategies of asset management and private equity firms.

These changes are not going away anytime soon.


Do you have a card?

Business cards for Star Trek

Star Trek Business Cards by The Rocketeer on Flickr

I know a bloke who works for a bank. Let’s call him David.

David is senior enough that he authorises his own business cards. As he was filling out the form, he realised two things:

1. The people who care about his business card are never going to see the form, and
2. The people who see the form don’t care what goes on his business card.

So, in the box labelled ‘Position’, he carefully wrote “Dilettante”.

Sure enough, when his business cards arrived, David found that the bank was paying him to be a dilettante.

I’ve just run out of business cards, so I’m thinking about what I should put on the form. It seems to me that my business card and my e-address book (where I keep everybody else’s business cards) are a bit behind the times.


Life, death and collaboration: How to find research friends

Found zen (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

For the first years of my academic life, I only ever published as a sole author. I worked on projects as a sole chief investigator and, for the most part, started projects by myself. Coming from the humanities of the time, this was not that unusual.

In my later years as an academic, almost everything I wrote or worked on was not as a lone researcher. I co-wrote, co-edited, was part of project teams and event committees.

In academia these days, the collaboration factor is huge. Perhaps even de rigueur. Track-records with no history of working with others are viewed with a suspicion. Heads of Schools and grant assessors may well wonder: is it because you don’t work with others, or because you can’t work with others?

While some ‘collaborations’ can be nightmares that you try to get over and done with as quickly as possible (therefore, aren’t collaborations in the holistic sense…), research collaborations can be the absolute best things in your academic life.

And, because you’re not an Emperor penguin, you don’t have to ‘mate for life’ with one collaborator. You can work with various groups and individuals off and on throughout your career, finding more along the way. Train that creative sensibility to find ways to work with people you respect and like; it will make your working life a happy place.

As with many things in life, the best way for these things to happen is organically. A forced research relationship makes the baby sloths cry.

With this in mind, then, what’s the best way to find a collaborator? First, remind yourself about what academic networking can mean.

Then, check out my top strategies for finding good collaborators:


RO Peeps: Phil Ward

The RO Peeps page lists the research office profiles of friends of The Research Whisperer. It showcases the talent and myriad trajectories that make us who we are.

Today’s RO  Peep is Phil Ward, who writes the Research Fundermentals blog. If you’re in the UK or Europe and interested in following the intricacies of the UK/EU funding circuit, make sure you follow Phil’s blog.


Name & Twitter handle: Phil Ward (@frootle)

Position title: Research Funding Manager

University: University of Kent

Location: Canterbury, UK

Highest qualification? MA

How did you get into this role, and how long have you been a research administrator/developer?
Like many in the sector, I fell into research administration. I was made redundant from Waterstones Online, a bookseller in the UK, and a job came up at the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC). I applied not knowing anything about the sector, and loved it. I’ve been on a steep learning curve ever since.

Now I’ve moved from grant giving to grant getting: it’s tougher, but more rewarding.

What other kinds of jobs have you had?
After university I had a whole range, from charity worker in Sweden, farm worker in Norway, care worker for children with learning difficulties, teaching assistant, book seller and literature sub editor.

What’s the most satisfying part of your job? Getting the grants! If only it happened more often…

What’s the thing you’d most like to change about your job? Funder success rates!

Favourite hobby-horse?
This is pretty much the same as ‘best advice to researchers’: think about the person who’s going to read your proposal, and make it easy for them to understand the basics of your project: What’s your research question? Why’s it important? How are you going to answer it? How are you going to disseminate the findings?

Dream job? Cartoonist

Best advice to researchers? Don’t give up!