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

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

preLights: A new way to share research?

Máté Pálfy is the Community Manager for preLights, a preprint highlighting service that was launched a year ago by the not-for-profit publisher The Company of Biologists.

Before taking up this role, Máté did his PhD at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, studying gene regulation using zebrafish embryos. He is a big supporter of open science and is excited to see how preprints will shape the future of publishing. Máté tweets from @mate_palfy and you can follow preLights @preLights

The Research Whisperer was very interested to hear more about preLights because we’re always up for different ways of sharing research, and this model appears to benefit the researchers, our scholarly communities, and the research itself. That’s winning all around!

While preLights is focused on the biological sciences, the potential for its format extends much further than this area.   


preLights 1st birthday cake! Photo from Mate Palfy.

preLights 1st birthday cake! Photo from Máté Pálfy.

When I was a PhD student, one of my favourite things to do was to discuss the latest experiments and results related to my research, and exchange views on where the field was heading.

I particularly enjoyed poster sessions at conferences, where early career researchers can easily engage with more established scientists and discuss unpublished, ‘raw’ science.

In many aspects, preprints (non-reviewed versions of manuscripts deposited on a public server) can be viewed as similar to unpublished research presented at conferences and other meetings. They facilitate collaboration and open discussions about the work, but are much more transparent than conference talks or posters, as the details of the work are better documented. Given these advantages (along with a number of others, discussed here), you might think that researchers would’ve already made the public discussion of preprints part of their routine. Unfortunately, this hasn’t really been the case. 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

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

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