Life as a writer outside the boundaries of academia

Alex Goldberg is a scientific writer and social media manager for GA International.

He has a PhD in biology and previously worked as a postdoc in toxicology and medicine, having studied chronological lifespan in yeast, anti-neoplastic small molecules, and the biology of lymphangioleiomyomatosis

You can find Alex on LinkedIn.

 


Photo by Filip Kominik | unsplash.com

Photo by Filip Kominik | unsplash.com

No one who aspires to a fancy job as a tenured research professor in the life sciences should read this article.

For those who wish to follow this career path, I can give only one piece of advice: make sure it’s EXACTLY what you want out of life.

Life as an Academic

I started out relatively modestly as a graduate student in the fall of 2004. I wasn’t sure if I wanted a career in film production or biology, and because going into film meant repeating classes and working at Starbucks simultaneously, I opted into a Master’s degree, which paid a bit of money and allowed me some flexibility to learn about something I loved and to figure out the rest of my career later on.

My project was fresh and interesting, and I was given every opportunity to make my own way, reaching out to collaborators and carving out a small niche for myself in neuroscience and cancer. I was supported immensely by my Principal Investigator, who encouraged me to do my own thing and publish what I was interested in.

After seven years of grad studies, I was sure that I wanted to become a professor like my Principal Investigator. There were things I wanted to do differently, topics I didn’t have funding for that I wanted to get into. I even had my choice of postdoctoral positions lined up for me when I graduated, and I took the job where I’d get the most flexibility to create new projects for myself. I built up a smorgasbord of results, characterized around fifteen different compounds, published in some respectable journals, then figured I’d go and apply for professor positions by the end of my second year.

Up until then, I was enthusiastic about staying in academia. I was sure someone would notice my work and get back to me, if only for an interview. Read more of this post

When you choose to re-locate

Dr Donna Weeks is an international relations academic specialising in Japan-Australia relations, Japanese and Australian politics and society and related areas. 

In April 2016, Donna relocated to Tokyo to take up a position in the Department of Political Science, Faculty of Law at Musashino University. 

She blogs at Psephy’s ~ologies and tweets from @psephy. Donna is also on Instagram as @psephyspix, where she documents everyday #tokyolyf.


"Walking to work" | Photo by Donna Weeks

“Walking to work” | Photo by Donna Weeks

When your first degree was in Asian Studies and your first overseas trip was as an undergraduate exchange student to Japan, in some ways it shouldn’t be surprising that you end up in a teaching / research position in a university in Tokyo.

But when people here learn that the lecturer in Japanese politics and security is in fact an Anglo / Australian and the course will be taught in Japanese (with an occasional English flourish), there is inevitably a little bit of explaining to do.

This post addresses a question I’m often asked: What factors contributed to a mid-to-late career decision to leave your home city, family, community, friends and the familiar and take up a position overseas?

It speaks to the question of how mobile should we be expected to be in pursuing our careers in academia.

While the weighing up of the factors in any decision ‘to go’ will be many and varied, at the other end, the decision ‘to return’ might be equally vexing. In my case, the opportunity to pursue my research in a way not afforded to me in Australia was, in the first instance, my main motivator in ‘returning’ to Japan to work. But as I enter my fifth year here, with a visa requiring renewal, I find myself setting a different set of parameters that have more to do with questions about ‘What next?’.

There are several reasons why I chose this stage of my career to move to Japan, not the least being the current political environment in Japan and Australia (that’s not a political comment – that is my field of research). Read more of this post

Once more unto the breach

Image from pasukaru76 on Flickr | Public Domain

Image from pasukaru76 on Flickr | Public Domain

I am a researcher developer in an academic role.

In my field in Australia, this situation of being an academic appointment in a research education/development role is not that common. In my unit, all four of the research educators are academic appointments and we are all active researchers. This is rare.

Many research education and development units are staffed with professional roles, often with academic collaboration and input. It is a field where staff come from a very diverse range of disciplines, and often show up conceiving of it as an “accidental career pathway”. I first realised how prevalent this feeling was when reading my colleague Jeanette Fyffe’s 2018 paper on becoming an academic developer (yes, I’m pushing academic developer and researcher developer into the same bucket and I realise I may well be cursed for life…). Many who are in the researcher development field are PhD-qualified. For some professional staff in these roles, the researcher identity is one that becomes increasingly a remembered or historical one. For academic staff in these roles, the researcher identity is ongoing and always freshly fraught.

This post isn’t to set one against the other as superior (however and whichever way you may think they might be superior), but to talk about how it feels right now to be an academic in a researcher development role. I’m discussing this with the background of having been consecutively in roles there were research-only >>professional >>teaching/research.

Being an academic in researcher development feels like I sit partway between a more standard discipline academic role and a professional one. Across all the jobs I’m talking about for this post, I have stayed in the university sector but felt the pressures around it in differentiated ways. Read more of this post

Forging your post-PhD, during your PhD

Dr Wade Kelly is the Senior Coordinator, Research Impact, at La Trobe University, in Melbourne, Australia.

Wade’s PhD research focused on how and why universities and academics engage with communities.

This is Wade’s personal website and he tweets from @wadekelly.


Photo by Wade Kelly – used with permission

I am, perhaps, a unique creature in academia, an avowed extrovert.

Being around others recharges me and gives me energy.

That said, the prospect of cold-contacting people has never been a thrilling proposition. I once had a survival job working at a call centre that conducted surveys. I realised very quickly how little I liked cold calls. At the end of each call another number would appear on the screen then auto-dial. As I heard the tones through my headset another lump would emerge in my throat — over and over.

The work was soul sucking. I only lasted two weeks. There are jobs you do to pay the bills and hope that you never have to do again, and that was one. It turns out, however, that the skills I acquired during my brief stint in a call centre would come in handy down the road over a decade later!

This post is about how I built skills during my PhD for the post-PhD job search.

In late 2014, I gave up my permanent position as an instructional designer at the University of Alberta to start a PhD in Australia. I was back to square one at the bottom of the hierarchical heap. I left the security of a job, home, family, and friends and found myself in regional New South Wales, Australia, in a town called Wagga Wagga. There, I quickly found that if you wanted something done, it was easiest to pick up the phone. People would sometimes take weeks and even months (six months for one memorable email) to respond by email, but phones were answered immediately. Learning to pick up the phone again was but one of the strategies I identified and employed early in my PhD and throughout.

Early in my PhD program my supervisor encouraged me to insisted that I complete a 3-year plan. It was the first week of my PhD and I didn’t know where to start, but her eye was already on graduation and beyond. She knew that in order to get the most out of the PhD beyond your time as a PhD student, you had to make the most of your time as a PhD student. My plan included stuff about writing the thesis, outreach and engagement, teaching, committee work, post-PhD job-searching, and much more. Read more of this post

Stitching together an intellectual life

Photo by Quinn Bidmead | unsplash.com

This post is by a colleague we know through our Research Whisperer community.

She has chosen to remain anonymous to share her experiences of being part of the academic precariat in Australia.


I am looking at a flyer for an amazing opportunity to hear one of my intellectual heroes speaking. Registration for the symposium costs $100. In my head, I do the calculations: $100 for registration, an hour to get there and back and probably two hours if I just stay for one talk, so that’s four times $55 (the per hour rate I would be getting for doing what I am paid to do), which makes it $320 to hear a keynote. I sigh and push away the enticement.

Someone asks me to read their paper, or their ethics application, and the calculation fires up – can I afford to be a good colleague this week?

These are the daily decisions you make when you move from a salaried role to a casual one. They are also the decisions that cost the most, not just in monetary terms but also in professional development, networking, the chance to hear about opportunities and to stay current with reading and thinking.

I read articles about following your passion and chasing your dreams and I am angry and tired. Honestly, I’m pretty much always tired and have a low level thread of anger running through my system. I am a very interesting person.

I think what strikes me hardest about my precarious academic life is that this is not where I imagined I would be at this point in my life. We all have mental pictures of our futures and while mine was necessarily vague, it included worthwhile work, financial security, and intellectual challenge…making a contribution in some way to learning about our world. I believed, perhaps naively, that publishing, getting research money, having industry experience, and teaching would lead to job security. It did not. Read more of this post

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

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