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

Ways to help

Photo by Clint Adair | unsplash.com

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

Learning to be a co-author

Dr Katherine Firth is a Lecturer at La Trobe University. Her PhD was on collaboration in writing.

Her recent book How to Fix your Academic Writing Trouble was co-authored with Inger Mewburn and Shaun Lehmann. She has collaborated on academic books and journal articles, and is currently working on three book projects with three different teams.

Katherine manages the blog Research Degree Insiders and tweets from @katrinafee.


Co-authoring can be very different for researchers from different disciplines.

In the social sciences and the sciences, for example, co-authored articles have become the norm over the last few decades. My academic background is in English Literature, where we do not usually write collaboratively (Leane, Fletcher and Garg, 2019, Nyhan and Duke-Williams, 2014). Publishing a collaborative article or book can still be a career limiting move in the Humanities where single authorship is the norm.

Co-authoring can lead to additional disadvantage for women (in both STEM and HASS fields), for junior researchers, and researchers from developing countries, who are more likely to find that their contributions are under-recognised or devalued.

Photo by John Schnobrich | unsplash.com

As an early career researcher, I tried to keep publishing in the traditional ways, what is sometimes called ‘lone wolf’ scholarship (as in this previous Research Whisperer post ). It is pretty tough and solitary out there. You travel to the library or archives on your own, you read alone, you write alone, you edit alone. You might eventually get to work with a Research Assistant, but their intellectual contribution to the work is typically small: transcribing, fixing references, fact checking, copy editing (in other words, work that doesn’t merit co-authorship). You might go to conferences and present a paper on your work to build an audience and get feedback, but there’s a still a gap between what you present at a conference, and whether anyone actually wants to publish the finished article. Often, the only feedback you get is from peer reviewers. Read more of this post

The care and feeding of critical friends

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 14 December 2018 and is reproduced with permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


Photo by Glen Carrie | unsplash.com

Photo by Glen Carrie | unsplash.com

Getting critical feedback on your work is one of the most difficult things to negotiate, whether you’re just starting out as a scholar or have published and been applying for grants for years.

We know that academia requires us to jump through hoop after hoop, so finding good ways to deal with this process of receiving feedback and constructively moving onto the next stage can make life a lot easier.

Often, the feedback you receive on your work will be from gate-keepers and assessor types or senior researchers in your area, possibly even your direct manager. These are often authority figures from whom you need ticks of approval, and they may not be of your choosing.

The value of a critical friend

To make research life and your academic career easier, I’d recommend finding – and keeping! – good critical friends. The idea of critical friends is extremely well established in education circles, and most academics have them even if they may not call them that.

As researchers, we need critical friends at all stages, and for many aspects, of our careers. Chief Executives of organisations often need them, and some universities even ‘out source’ critical friends for you.

Critical friends are colleagues whom you trust to read your work (whether that work is a grant application, journal paper, promotion document or research report) and give you rigorous, constructive feedback. They are supportive and invested in helping you develop your track-record. Read more of this post

The joy of Wiki

Photo by Rodolfo Mari | unsplash.com

Photo by Rodolfo Mari | unsplash.com

Earlier this year, I started a ‘Shut up and Wiki’ group at our university. It has been running now for over six months.

Many universities, often with researchers working with the Library, are showing their Wiki-friendly faces with wonderful edit-a-thons, Wiki-bombs, Wiki masterclasses, etc. I wanted to get us in on that action.

The initial idea with the group was to have a set time to meet up with like-minded folk (of all stripes and levels: academic, professional, student, profs, whatevs) and run the session like a standard ‘shut up and write’ session but with everyone working on their own Wiki projects, edits, or pages. Because we have a cosy group of stalwarts, the pomodoros don’t really need to be set and we just end up editing and chatting along as we see fit. It works, it’s fun, and we’re building bridges with other institutions around the these kinds of sessions.

Most importantly, we’ve got a great little group together that would otherwise not have come together in this way.

This post is about creating collegial spaces within our institutions, at a time when finding joy in what we do can be a challenge.  Read more of this post

Networking that works

Photo by Kyler Nixon | unsplash.com

Photo by Kyler Nixon | unsplash.com

Does everyone keep telling you that the key to a successful career is to have great networks?

Well, I hate to be the one to say it again, but it’s true. Having great networks makes working life – and research life in particular – much, much easier and more fun.

Where I diverge from much of the common rhetoric, however, is that I’m not a proponent of elevator pitches, speed-dating formats, or indeed networking events overall.

There are as many myths about networking circulating as there are gurus who will tell you that you must network, network, NETWORK (at that $1000-a-table gig they are organising…).

I hate networking events. In fact, I’ve managed to dodge most badged networking events in my career thus far. I even avoid conference dinners at conferences I have convened – usually by not scheduling a conference dinner.

Is all this because I’m actually that anti-social? Read more of this post

A call to arms for established researchers

Dr Matúš Mišík is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia. His main area of expertise is energy security within the EU. He also studies the role of perceptions within the EU decision-making mechanism.

Matúš has published articles in Nature Energy, Energy, Energy Policy, Geopolitics, Czechoslovak Psychology, Journal of Popular Culture, Comparative European Politics, Asia Europe Journal and Slovak Sociological Review. He regularly writes for the leading Slovak dailies and comments on energy policy related topics in the electronic media. He has undertaken study / research trips to Norway (2006), Kazakhstan (2009), Finland (2009), the UK (2011), Austria (2012) and Canada (2015-2016). Matúš will be spending the 2018 fall semester at the Carleton University in Ottawa as a EU visiting scholar.

He tweets from @misikmatus.


Photo by Finn Hackshaw | unsplash.com

Photo by Finn Hackshaw | unsplash.com

The decision of Swedish research institutions not to renew their contract with Elsevier after 30 June 2018 is the latest instance in the “database wars”.

Several countries – with Germany in the lead – have gotten into a dispute with major publishers over the rising prices for database subscriptions, which persist despite increasing numbers of open access articles.

I think it’s up to established researchers to initiate change in the way research results are being distributed.

Several governments have already claimed that publicly funded research has to be made freely available, while some research agencies require all supported research to be published open access. For example, the European Commission’s goal is to have all research freely available right after publication by 2020 and its grant schemes require all results to be accessible to everyone without paywall.

Journals have already started to offer open access options to enable unrestricted access to published papers, which requires authors to pay a fee to cover publishers’ costs. Read more of this post