Ways to help

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How do you help and support your precariat colleagues?

At Research Whisperer, we engage a lot with issues of precarity and casualisation. We think it’s a huge issue that needs urgent address in academia, and it’s a global problem.

We were recently invited to speak to casuals at an NTEU Victoria event where I talked about maintaining a consistent researcher profile while being part of the precariat, and Jonathan spoke on how to get research funding as a casual. We acknowledge from the start that while we focus on individual strategy and knowledge the issues of precarity are systemic and heavily embedded in our sector.

One of the things that I wanted to write about after the event was how those of us in more secure employment can help in this bleak landscape of increasing casualisation, and exclusionary and inequitable institutional dynamics.

Those who are in casual or fixed-term appointments are less likely and able to advocate within the academic system. Short (often multiple, simultaneous) contracts and insecurity mean that it is difficult to build momentum in fighting for equitable conditions and opportunities. That is why actions like joining a union (like the NTEU in Australia) can shift the action to an organisation that has more traction and resources in the system. The NTEU and the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) created the Uni Casual website to inform and agitate for change.

Just recently, universities in my state (Victoria, Australia) published data that shows the extent of casualisation in our universities – it’s quite shocking. These figures are for those on casual contracts, and doesn’t count those on short fixed-term contracts (who I would also consider part of the precariat workforce). Read more of this post

Furnishing our corners of the internet

Photo by Brande Jackson | www.instagram.com/brandejackson

Photo by Brande Jackson | http://www.instagram.com/brandejackson

Things in my life have been a little heavy and stressful lately so I thought it would be good for my heart and soul to write a post focused on the fun and ridiculous elements of the academic internets and beyond.

Working on Research Whisperer through the years, I’ve been more aware of the ways in which the higher education research sector is broken and the bad behaviours and structures that propagate inequity and career crises. It can feel bleak.

I can’t fix these things alone, and it’s easy to get quite down about any number of these issues and their seemingly unchanging (or very-slow-to-change) nature.

For me, retaining perspective on what is meaningful and pleasurable in life can disperse anxieties and enable me to concentrate on things that make me happy and where I feel I can do effective work that’s valued. This post features a bunch of sites and comics that I regularly read. A good way for me to recalibrate my world-view is through engaging with satire and the absurd, by participating in both the consumption and production of such cultural texts.  Read more of this post

Things it has taken me 8 years to learn

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Our good buddy The Thesis Whisperer wrote a fab post on ‘how to run a blog for 8 years and not go insane‘ in 2018. It is a cracker of a post and gives excellent insight into how TW has managed to maintain such quality and longevity!

At the time it was published, I read it with great interest, hoping that I’d be able to implement some of the strategies and not be writing things at 11pm the night before our weekly publication slot…

Alas, dear readers, Tseen did not implement any strategies.

Is she sitting on her sofa right now writing this post at 10:36pm? Indeed, she is.

The Research Whisperer celebrated its 8th birthday recently, and we posted this on our Facebook page:

Today, we have published 383 posts, have almost 42,000 followers on Twitter, over 6400 subscribers to the blog, and over 9200 followers on our Facebook page.

It was heartening to think about the community that surrounds RW these days, and the wonderful allies and friends we’ve made. For me, it has been a career transformative time. Just before we hatched RW, I was at a low, low career point. Working with Jonathan has been a delight, and I would never have thought that we’d have travelled this far down the road with our blog, being led by doing what we thought was fun. Read more of this post

Do or do not. There is no try.

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Are you often a no-show?

Or one of those people who says “Maybe” on a Facebook event?

I’m a veteran events organiser.  Throughout my career, planning and running events has been an integral part of the work I do.

Now, as a lecturer in a researcher development unit, convening programs is a big part of my job. It is my everyday. The joy of room bookings, mailing lists, registrations, and constant event promotion campaigns – they are all mine!

But before you feel that my life is just a big ball of enviable funstering (which, it must be said, it can be because I work with funsters), I think I should tell you about what makes me sad: When people don’t show up.

Now, regular readers of this blog will know that I have some very well-ridden hobby-horses (e.g. open plan offices). I’d like to introduce you to another one: people who RSVP for things, then don’t bother attending, cancelling, or sending an apology. This makes me particularly headasplodey when it’s a fully booked event and there’s a waiting list of eager folk.

We talk about this event ‘attrition’ regularly in my field. It’s a common problem across all institutions and disciplines. We keep stats on it. We brainstorm constantly about ways to address it. There are many ways that others have tried to increase their attendance ratios, including increased tracking of registrations, ramped up reminders, consequences for no-shows, etc. All of these options require significant time and resources to manage.

It’s a lot of work to put into supporting people to come along to something they have already said they’d come along to. Read more of this post

Being seen

Photo by Aaron Burden | unsplash.com

Photo by Aaron Burden | unsplash.com

Looking for another role can be an exciting and/or daunting state. It could mean that you’re finishing your PhD, coming to the end of your contract (still waiting to hear if your contract will be renewed…), or wanting to move on from where you are. There is work to do, however, before you are actually on that market. It is important work that needs to be started before you’re looking.

Let me start with two examples of what I mean:

  1. I was sitting next to a fabulous, proactive PhD researcher at ‘Shut up and write’ recently – let’s call her Nikeisha because that’s her name. Nikeisha was talking about the various things she’d done to position herself well and boost her chances of finding a position after completing the doctorate. These things included having her CV with her at a big conference where she had a poster and could immediately hand it over to interested lab heads or recruiting colleagues, applying to be part of an internship program (post-thesis submission) and specifying exactly the organisation they want to work in, and having a succinct and effective website. She’s a molecular biologist who worked with squid slime so I’m assuming she’ll get a role in no time – who could resist such a thing?
  2. I was cold-called by a PhD researcher who was almost submitting his thesis. Let’s call him Wade. I agreed to meet with Wade because a good friend had suggested me to him and he had flagged this in his email, as well as giving me the context of why he and my friend thought I’d be useful to talk to. While I may have still met him without the friend’s recommendation, I would not have approached the meeting with the same predisposed-to-like-him manner. In addition, he was very clear about why he wanted to meet with me and introduced himself via a courteous email and very slick and professional CV. Overall, I was dead impressed with Wade’s forthright approach, his clarity about his job-search context, and his considerate manner. He’s now a colleague of mine at the same institution.

The critical thread through Nikeisha’s and Wade’s pre-job search activities is that of positioning themselves to be seen. This is most important before you are actually on the market as, once you have to start applying around, the task of standing out in a stack of applications is that much harder.  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

Feedback and me

Photo by Charles Deluvio | unsplash.com

Photo by Charles Deluvio | unsplash.com

I have a troubled relationship with feedback.

It has been this way for many years, from my days as a PhD researcher in literary studies (where someone has literally fallen asleep in front of me while I was tutoring) to disjointed gigs as a guest lecturer and convenor where my contact with the student cohort was minimal and very episodic.

These days, I teach classes, convene intensives, and run multi-part programs all the time. And I must evaluate them constantly.

I’ve recently had a revelation that you should feel free to roll your eyes at: getting feedback is meant to be helpful, not harmful.

Let me sketch what’s happened a bit more.

One of the final things I had to do last year was convene three days of researcher intensives – two days for the Early Career Researchers and one for the Mid Career Researchers. It happened in the first week of December and I spent my last working week in 2018 following up properly with materials and links, and clearing urgent backlogged tasks. Never has a week appeared so short!

The theme was ‘engagement and impact’. This was not surprising seeing as ‘engagement and impact’ are the Sonny and Cher of Australian and UK higher education research circles in recent years. I invited Tamika Heiden of KT Australia to run a couple of workshops for us and it was great to have a Research Whisperer buddy come to play at my institution.

I also had the benefit of great chats with Tamika during those days. One of the things we discussed was the way we solicit and act on feedback. Read more of this post