sarahkeenihan

Posts Tagged ‘academia’

Time to shake things up

In September 2016 on September 29, 2016 at 12:17 pm

change

Sarah: In April this year I wrote an off-the-cuff post about career pathways and dreams for my future.

Little did I know what was around the corner! I’m delighted to report that this month I will start a new role as Adelaide Life Sciences Editor with The Conversation Australia.

So what’s The Conversation? Taken from their website:

The Conversation is an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community and delivered direct to the public.

Our team of professional editors work with university, CSIRO and research institute experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public.

My job will be to work with researchers to help them craft well-written, accessible and news-worthy articles that anyone can read for free.

It will be a busy, exciting and quite demanding role, so please bear with me as I settle in and work out my new modus operandi for blogging and social media.

Vive le changement!

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Etching out a track in science

In October 2014 on October 27, 2014 at 12:48 pm

Kirsti career science

Kirsti: Last week Radio National’s Life Matters show featured a segment on early career researchers. Natasha Mitchell posed the question,

“Are we at risk of losing a generation of young scientists?”

I say yes, we are.

If you are under the age of 60 and in science, I’d suggest you listen to the podcast of that show. It chews the fat on some very important issues for science in Australia, for individuals in an already volatile labour market but also those trying to understand our planet, our place in it, and our potential to shape it.

Insecure short term contracts, tightening of funding for science, and lack of generational change in research teams were the main topics that were tackled on the show. There was also resounding consensus by the interviewees that etching a career in research in Australia at this time is hard.

Casualisation of the academic work force is happening all over Australia. I know, as I am directly impacted — partly by choice, partly not. I believe the shift to casual employment undermines the skills and value of workers, and provides no means of progressing upward. Furthermore, there is little to no opportunity to build a cohesive academic culture with casuals. Typically they don’t feel motivated to become a ‘real’ part of an institution that doesn’t want them ‘officially’, but is willing to exploit their talents for a teaching semester (or 12) or a special project. Needless to say, this is extremely damaging to scientists and – going beyond remuneration – it helps to maintain what Doug Hilton from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research in Melbourne calls ‘perpetual scientific adolescence’, or the ‘career neverland’.

Lack of generational change in research teams is a relatively recent phenomenon. Little turnover in the workforce since the 1970’s meant that older researchers were retained and those coming out of postdocs never really got the same chance to become independent. Consequently, researchers that spend a decade or more refining their skills aren’t faced with job ads and gaps to fill. Instead, they are continually more reliant on senior researchers for funding and positions within research teams. They never really get a chance to flourish, to be innovative lead researchers in their own right.

The treadmill starts there – with few to no grants to their name they’re less competitive, and being less competitive won’t land you a permanent job. Round we go.

The lack of funding for science compounds this problem, as the competition for money favours track record and productivity, not potential. So early and mid-career researchers are once again reliant on permanent, senior academics to be primary investigators on grants. The names on applications are the established scientists’; the brilliant ideas come from the younger scientists who are in the prime of their innovative and focussed careers. Round we go again.

Recently I’ve been thinking that staying in science and research without a permanent job is sort of like owning your own small business. Lots fail. Not the majority, but lots. You have to find your own salary every year. You are constantly chasing contacts, leads and potential for the next project or funding round. As a casual, you are doing this with no holiday pay, super or other benefits, and many do it while parenting on an almost full time basis. Lastly, it’s not looking like anything is going to change anytime soon.

I must admit, I am super happy with my decisions around my career trajectory. I am making conscious non-traditional stories around how to blend research with education, communication and understanding of nature (both engendering and sustaining a connection with it). It’s hard in many respects, but I like a challenge. Part time everything seems to be the answer for me.

But I really feel for those brilliant young things who have never, or who will never get a chance to discover their potential as a lead researcher.

Australia is far worse off for it.

[image thanks to wiredforlego on flickr]

Show us your skills

In August 2014 on August 5, 2014 at 9:21 am


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Sarah: Having an 11-year old in my house, I’m used to the term ‘skills’.

“Nice skills, loser”

“Oh yes! Skillage!” (after kicking a goal from an acute angle)

“Show us your skills”

Friday last week I was involved in a great event which also talked about skills. But not footy skills. This time it was PhD skills, or more specifically the skills you can pick up during a PhD and which are transferrable to a variety of work settings.

The event was PhD to Present (see program here, and tweets collected under #PhDtopresent here), organised by ANU Research Skills and Training. I was lucky enough to be a panel member, and also to hear a range of fantastic presentations throughout the day. It got me thinking about some of the skills which I use in my current work, and which I picked up during my PhD years. Here are five quick pointers that occurred to me as relevant to my own career, and might sound familiar to you too.

Getting started
The beginning of a PhD is like the biggest piece of blank paper you can imagine. What to do first? Pick something small, and do it. Then pick the next small thing, and do that. Lo and behold, two things are done, and you’ve started. Those small things can include seemingly insignificant actions like reading a paper and making a few notes, getting some equipment ready for an experiment, writing an email to source an antibody – anything that gets the ball rolling. Imagine someone saying to you “what did you do today?”  – you need to be able to give them a concrete answer.

Start in the middle
Once a wise nun sang “let’s start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start”. As it applies to writing, I beg to differ. Start in the middle. When thesis or paper writing, this can be the materials and methods section. Not creative, not interpretive, but just a good solid way to start seeing words on a page. For article writing, it can be as simple as writing out the quotes from an interview. Suddenly you might see how other words can form around them, and you’re on your way. I’ve also heard Allison Tait give this advice recently.

Task management
Lots of things to finish, multiple deadlines, many clients. Many of my weeks look like this. The PhD equivalent involved several experiments on the run, a presentation to prepare, and an association event to organise. At home, it’s each of three kids howling for attention/food/love. Best approach? Don’t panic! Deep breath, loudest squeaky wheel first, one thing at a time.

Know thyself
After four years of working on a single research project, most of time on my own, I got to know my own brain pretty well. Mornings = good thinky stuff going on. Afternoons = too knackered to be creative. Exercise = critical for a change of pace and making sure I slept well. All these are quirks I still apply – mornings are for writing, afternoons are for editing or cross-checking boring titbits, exercise is very important.

Pick up the phone
Yes, we can all email, SMS, tweet and Facebook to our hearts content. But nothing works like a real conversation for creating action and connecting as a fellow human being. If you’re not sure what somebody’s email meant, pick up the phone and clarify it. If that deadline is not going to be manageable anymore, pick up the phone and renegotiate it. If you need to find a speaker for a conference session, pick up the phone and have a yarn about it. Even better – if geography allows – arrange a coffee meeting. Real life interactions have less room for misinterpreted tone, and make it harder for the opposite person to send a “no can do” answer back purely out of annoyance.

[image thanks to flying cloud on flickr]