Applying for that alt-ac job

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 25 July 2019 as ‘What we talk about when we talk about recruitment’. It is reproduced with the permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


A cubicle corner, showing office stationery and a desk phone.
A corner of the office, by Lonnon Foster, on Flickr.

Recently, I started a new job. One of the first things on my to-do list was to employ someone to work with me. I thought that it might be useful to reflect on the recruitment process, particularly for academics who are looking for an alternative academic job (an ‘alt-ac job’ as some people call it)—an administrative job within a university environment.

Hiring, like everything, is cultural. Different countries do it differently. I’ve spent most of my working life as an administrator at Australian universities, helping academics with their research grants. All I can draw on is my own experience. Please keep in mind that this may not necessarily translate to your situation. Read more of this post

Talking about salaries

Commonwealth Bank of Australia ten-shilling note, showing both sides of the note
Commonwealth Bank of Australia ten-shilling note, via Wikimedia.

At universities in Australia, we get used to knowing one another’s salaries (in rough terms). Every university uses the same basic salary structure, and has relatively comparable pay rates within that structure. So, if someone is a Professor or a Lecturer, you know roughly how much they earn.

This familiarity means that we often forget that this isn’t the case in all sectors. A friend who worked in the IT sector said that he worked for an organisation where it was a sackable offence to discuss your salary with a colleague. Everybody was on negotiated rates, and the last thing that management wanted was for workers to compare their pay rates, especially if they were doing the same work.

That isn’t really a problem until you want to include an industry partner in the budget of an application. Then these differences can be tricky to talk about. Read more of this post

Research funding for casuals

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) invited Tseen and I to speak to precariously employed (casual) academic members. This post is based on the talk that I am giving today. Thanks to the NTEU Victorian Division for hosting this event.


I can’t save you

It Gets Worse!

There are serious structural problems in universities worldwide. The number of permanently employed staff is shrinking. The number of precariously employed staff (casual, adjunct, paid by the hour) is increasing. I can’t change that. This situation isn’t getting any better. It gets worse.

  • Unionism (like the National Tertiary Education Union in Australia) provides an organised industry-wide approach to the problem. The union is your best bet for speaking truth to power, whether that be in representing you personally when you have an individual grievance, representing all members in discussions with the university, or talking directly to the government about sector-wide issues.
  • I can’t do that. My advice represents an individual approach to a specific part of the problem. This post talks about how you might secure research funding, which might help you to secure more permanent employment.
  • However, keep in mind that I write from a position of privilege. I’m permanently employed as an administrator at an Australian university. I’ve been doing this, on and off, for thirty years. So I don’t know your experience they way that you do. Keep that in mind as your read this post – your mileage may vary.

Read more of this post

I’m new

Photo by Aftab Uzzaman | http://www.flickr.com/photos/aftab

I’ve recently started at a new university. This is a good thing. It was time that I moved on, and I’m going to learn a huge amount in my new role. My new manager is amazing, and the team are excellent.

However, it is also a little bit odd. I’ve gone from being the person who knows everything to the person who knows nothing. Literally, nothing. Someone had to show me how to book a room. I don’t know how the systems work. I don’t know how finance works. I don’t know how HR works. I didn’t even know how the microwave worked (sorted this one out by myself, thankfully).

Some of these (photocopier, microwave) are mundane things, to be expected with a new environment. Some are a result of moving organisations – each university has its own way of doing things. In my old role, if I didn’t know how something worked, at least I knew who to ask. In my new role, I know almost no one. In one stroke, I’ve left behind a network that I’d built up over years. I have to build a whole new network (and I’m pretty terrible at the ‘names and faces’ thing).

Because of this, I’m keen to impress. There is so much that I don’t know, I’m trying extra hard when I do know something. I’m that kid in the class with their hand in the air, “Pick me, pick me!”. So keen to impress. So desperately keen. So desperate. Read more of this post

Creating and growing a personal industry group

A group of World of Warcraft avatars, of vastly different races and classes, united by their love of libraries.

Libraries and Librarians Class Photo (cropped), by Michael Pate, on Flickr

Recently, I read a draft grant application that included an allowance for dinner for the industry advisory group. I nixed it.

I explained to the applicant that, while it may technically be an allowable budget item, most reviewers of that funding scheme would see it as an extravagance.

This led to a discussion of how she was going to run her industry advisory group. They were going to meet three or four times a year, probably over dinner, to get an update on the project and provide advice and feedback. Essentially, it was a dinner party with a focus on her research.

That made sense to me. If you want to create your own industry advisory group, create a good dinner party. Invite people that you would be interested in having dinner with, and that you think would be interested in meeting one another. Make it diverse enough to keep the conversation flowing, but not so diverse that it is divisive. Talk about the things that you passionate about. Disagree, and agree to disagree. Build trust relationships. Read more of this post

Kids in bids

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 7 March 2019 as ‘Let’s talk about the kids’. It is reproduced with the permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


An statue of Clara Campoamor as a little girl, sitting on books and reading a big book with her name on it.
Clara Campoamor (detail) by Anna Jonsson, in Seville, 2007

Before I begin, I need to make it clear that I have no children.

As such, I apologise if some of what I say about families and research is a little off-kilter. This post stands in stark contrast to Sarah Haye’s beautiful piece, ‘How having kids made me a better academic‘. Think of me as the stereotypical reviewer of your research funding bids – an older male, with no kids in sight.

Recently, I read a grant application where the applicant had written:

“I am a mother of two small children (ages 5 and 8) and therefore for this period there was little time for research.”

There has been a strong movement over the last ten years to acknowledge the impact that being primary carer has on research careers. Many granting bodies now make allowance for the impact of raising a family, which is wonderful and long overdue. It is a step towards fairness and equality, and it recognises that researchers are people.

However, we don’t often talk about people in funding bids.

When we write research applications, we often shift into a depersonalised space, where the focus is on the ideas. When we talk about people at all, we speak formally: “CI Needs-Grant will take responsibility for…” and “PI Wants-Funding is a recognised expert…”.

For the most part, these conventions abstract us from our personal situation. I don’t think that is always a good thing, but it is the convention. Also, we describe a fantasy land of Full Time Equivalent workloads and balanced budgets, knowing full well that much of the work will be done out of hours, as self-funded overtime that takes us away from our families. We talk about research partners and research assistants in purely abstract terms, stripping away any indication that they are also friends and valued colleagues, who might be depending on this grant to save their job.

We shouldn’t do that when we talk about our families. They are special and shouldn’t ever be abstracted away. Read more of this post

Drop around for a visit

This article is based on material that I wrote in 1994, when working with Margaret Jackson and Rosemary O’Connor on a project related to encouraging research in disciplines that were not traditionally considered strong in research. It originally appeared in Margaret Jackson and Rosemary O’Connor. 1994, ‘Developing Academic Research Performance’. Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Melbourne, Australia.


Urbex image of an old and abandoned desk, with a bright orange chair behind it. On the wall is graffiti - TSJ
Beauty in decay #10, by Jinterwas, on Flickr.

Having someone come to visit is always nice. Unless they arrive unannounced, or stay too long, or too many people come at once, or… actually, there are a myriad of things that can go wrong with visitors.

Visiting researchers can be like that, too: a great boon to a research group when the visit is well planned, a special kind of hell for the guest when it isn’t.

Visits are usually initiated by individual staff members, based on their personal connections. However, the organisational support for the visit is generally provided by a research centre or group. They take a bit of work to organise, so it’s worth it to put in the planning time to make the visit a success.

How do you plan for a visiting scholar?

Well, if you were visiting, how would you want things to be organised? Thinking about the visit from the visitor’s point of view can help you to:

  • Clarify the purpose of the visit and set realistic expectations.
  • Understand the logistics and funding required to get a visitor to your campus.
  • Plan the actual visit, including a welcome kit for your visitor.

As a visitor, you would probably want to know why you are being invited to visit. This is often assumed and unstated, which can lead to mixed expectations. Read more of this post