Academic stereotypes: where are the positive stories?

I watched The Chair and did not like it. Sure, there were some good moments and important themes, but overall, I found it cliched and frustrating to sit through. North American academic stereotypes and norms already dominate global discourse on academia, even though they don’t always reflect the reality in other parts of the world.  

I was excited when I heard about the show. Academia narratives are rarely portrayed on TV, which I think is a missed opportunity to familiarise general audiences with a sector that is so often misunderstood. But it was just another version of the same clichés – university faculties are backward and stagnant, most academics are nasty, stupid, out of touch, or inappropriate, and social and cultural progress is just not possible in academia.

Imagine a different show reflecting the positive lived experiences of academics around the world, stories showing university departments can be progressive and supportive workplaces. Places where inspiring academics like Professor Kim and Dr McKay succeed in throwing out old stagnant systems and galvanise the next generation of citizens, thinkers, and leaders.

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Boycotting peer review is just a kind of gatekeeping

The ‘boycott peer review’ hot takes are reappearing on social media. Long-time readers of my blog may remember my post on why I think boycotting peer review is unreasonable, written the last time this hot take was doing the rounds. In that post I mostly focused on the impacts on the system and the editors, which are important reasons not to boycott peer review.

But refusing to review papers also impacts the authors. This is obvious and should not have to be said, but it seems that it is often forgotten when academics shake their fists at Big Publishing.

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The teaching-research ‘balance’ as an ECR

I’m almost at the end of the tunnel that was teaching this trimester*. It’s not my first time teaching or coordinating. I started this position last year, and I’ve had a few casual contracts before at different unis.

But I found this trimester particularly hard, mostly because of the amount of new content I had to create. This was largely due to a very outdated set of inherited lectures in one unit and a new set of topics allocated to me in the other unit.

I am utterly exhausted. I have had very little time to think about research, do research, write blogs, relax, sew, play my guitar, or do anything non-work-related since February (except for a few days of being unwell!).

This blog is not to whinge. I love my job, I love teaching and I really love the units I teach.

I am not the only academic to experience teaching fatigue. But it is unsustainable and new staff members, particularly early career researchers, seem to suffer this most. Yet it’s a ‘too hard basket’ problem that most academics don’t know what to do about.

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Applying for a PhD: worth it, why, and how

Last year I wrote about how Academia isn’t all bad, and a PhD is definitely worth it. PhDs are definitely a degree worth having, but how do you know if it’s a degree worth applying for?

This post is a bit more about how to actually apply for a PhD and what it involves, once you’ve decided you might be interested. Most academic structures and processes are unfortunately still influenced by a privileged history based on personal connections. How to find and enrol in a PhD can be a mystery to most prospective candidates interested in further training in the research side of science. Don’t be put off…

As a first-gen academic, I didn’t even know what a PhD was (or that it was a career pathway) when I started my environmental science degree. It wasn’t until I graduated from my undergraduate degree and worked for a year that I realised I really missed the investigative part of science. I didn’t really know what to do about this, so I got back in touch with one of my favourite lecturers to find out my options, and she encouraged me to pursue a PhD. After a few applications and false starts (on available but unsuitable projects), I found a primary supervisor and project that aligned with my interests and goals, at a university I didn’t know much about, in a town I’d never been to.

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Academia isn’t all bad, and a PhD is definitely worth it

I read this recent Thesis Whisperer post a few times, and it troubled me. Then they posted this follow-up post doubling down on the original argument denouncing academic writing.

Comments aren’t allowed on the Thesis Whisperer blog, so I’m writing here. I really think these posts send negative messaging to prospective (and current) PhDs. Do read the original posts, but here’s a quick summary of how I interpreted the Thesis Whisperer’s argument:

(i) the way we do PhDs needs to change;

(ii) we should galvanise PhD students to go against the norms of academia to get the personal outcome they want.

(iii) academic writing is ritualised and archaic and it “sucks”.

From a distance, this general argument might resonate. Yes, as with most sectors, there are many ways the past is holding academia back.

I agree, PhD students need to make sure they get what they need out of the 3 or more years they spend on the PhD.

But PhDs are definitely still “a degree worth having”. They will always provide the opportunity for graduates to develop a unique set of skills and expertise that are useful for academic and non-academic careers. 

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Breaking the Curse of the Postdoc

This week I had a bittersweet achievement. I started a great new job, moved in to my beautiful new office, and then immediately moved home to work for the foreseeable future, amid the simmering anxiety of this global pandemic.

Readers who follow my blog know that I moved to Armidale three years ago to start a postdoctoral fellowship at University of New England. Before that, I was at Charles Sturt Uni in Albury, where I did my PhD followed by my first three-year postdoc.

This week I started as a Lecturer in Ecology & Biology at UNE. The position was advertised in November last year; I applied, interviewed and found out I was successful a few weeks ago. I’m so excited!

But it’s a really strange time to be starting a new job – my thrill at joining the teaching team has understandably been overshadowed by the ongoing stresses of COVID19. Continue reading

Moving country is rewarding; but you don’t have to do it to have a successful research career

Early career researchers are often bombarded with career advice, solicited or unsolicited, from supervisors, peers, senior colleagues, family members, journals, random people on social media; sometimes this advice is helpful, sometimes it’s so ambiguous or outdated it can be potentially damaging.

This article in Nature’s Careers section covers a recently published study in the Royal Society’s journal Interface. The study considers the careers of physics researchers, based on this dataset of authors that have published in the American Physical Society’s three Physical Review journals. The study also looks at Nobel Prize winners in physics. So already, we have two very narrow subsets of ‘researchers’ within a single discipline.

The study found that the focal researchers (i.e. physics researchers who published in APS journals or who won a Nobel Prize) who moved overseas had more citations & therefore greater ‘impact’ on their field. In contrast to the media coverage, the author discusses the results by framing them within contemporary political discussions about immigration, cleverly highlighting that supporting migration from other countries boosts the host country’s social and intellectual capital. This is a completely valid point.

However, the converse is rarely true: you, an individual researcher, don’t have to move overseas to have an impact on your field. Continue reading

The research niche in academic community ecology

I loved this recent blog by Staffan Lindgren. I followed a very non-linear path to my current position and I’ve been struggling a lot lately with defining my research specialisation.

In high school, I failed chemistry, barely scraped through physics and maths, didn’t study biology, excelled at English, geography and history. I loved nature and being outdoors, but didn’t know there was a science career in that. So I went off to uni and did a Humanities degree (which I thoroughly enjoyed) and spent my early 20s trying out corporate communications, office admin, media, governessing on a remote cattle station, but nothing stuck. By this time, I’d discovered that science wasn’t all about lab coats and test tubes, so I went back to uni to study environmental science.

I didn’t plan to pursue a research career – I nearly failed undergrad statistics and never fit the norm of the ‘successful scientist’ promoted within the academic community. For my Honours year, I followed the well-worn path to vertebrate ecology, but had to switch projects halfway through the year because my supervisor disappeared on his own remote field work for the rest of the year without telling me. The only available project I could feasibly do in the 4 months left of my degree was monitoring a tingid biocontrol agent on its host, an invasive environmental weed. An insect career wasn’t even on my radar then, but that’s when I discovered how much I liked insect ecology. After two false starts at a PhD, I finally found a supervisor and project combination that clicked and the rest is history.

So it’s comforting to read of winding roads that have led others to long and inspiring science careers. Fingers crossed! Continue reading