On the road again

Two years ago I moved house for the 8th time. It was the fourth time I’d moved for a job and the second time I’d moved overseas.

As an academic, moving is an occupational hazard. Almost every academic I know has moved at least once in their career. Some have moved states to do their PhDs, others have moved countries for postdocs. Some have moved to big cities for promotions, others have moved to small towns for tenure.  Moving allows us to collaborate with new people, develop new skills, and explore new ideas. And, depending on where you end up, it can make for holidays in some pretty cool destinations!

Overseas or interstate moves, however, are not for the faint-hearted. If you’re contemplating making a move, here are my Top 10 Tips for making it there without sacrificing your physical or mental health.

(1) Talk to as many people as you can, at every stage of the process. Don’t wait until you’ve been offered the job to find out about the place you’ll be living and the people you’ll be working with. Visit if you can and make the most of Skype & Google if you can’t. Things to consider include the climate, the language or culture, and whether you can pursue your hobbies there (swimming pools and yoga studios were important to me). If you are moving with a partner or children, employment opportunities and schools will also need to be considered, as will access to doctors if you have a medical condition.

(2) Accept that you will need to put your research/teaching/supervision on hold while you move. Advise colleagues, industry partners, and students of your plans as early as possible and work with them to minimise disruptions to ongoing projects and ensure continuity of supervision for ongoing students.

(3) Back up all your data and review ethical and legal requirements for the storage and movement of data. Depending on the nature of your research you may have to leave hard copy data behind and if you’re taking it with you it may take time to make all the necessary arrangements.

(4) Ask for and accept help. This piece of advice was given to me by the wonderful Dr Kylie Smith, who made the move from Australia to the USA. When I asked Kylie how she survived the move, she said “This is not the time to be shy or proud. This is the time to ask for help and accept it when it’s offered.”

(5) Make lists. From visa applications and mail redirection to finding somewhere to live and getting your hair cut for the last time, the number of things you need to do before you leave is overwhelming and you will not be able to hold it all in your head. Make lists and work through them systematically. If you are moving with a partner or children, delegate. If you’re moving alone, breathe!

(6) Have a farewell. If you’re an extrovert this might be a given, but it’s also important if you’re an introvert. The idea of a party where I’m the centre of attention is my idea of hell. I’d much rather slip quietly out the door, while no-one’s looking, after a nice dinner with a few friends. But it’s not about me (or you!). A party is an opportunity for the people who care about you to say good-bye and to feel acknowledged for the role they’ve played in getting you to where you are or, more importantly, where you’re going.

(7) Engage in plenty of self-care. Moving is exhausting, both physically and mentally, and it’s important that you find time to rest, relax, and care for yourself. In the craziest week of my move (a week in which my old job ended, I moved out of my house, I moved in with friends, I put tenants in my house, I flew to another city for Christmas with my family, and I applied for my British visa), I did 7 yoga classes in six days. Although this presented a small logistical challenge, it was essential for keeping my body strong and my mind calm.

(8) Throw money at the problem. If you can afford it, pay for help. Whether that’s paying the moving company to pack your belongings, or paying someone to clean your house, out-sourcing a few jobs can really take the pressure off. If you can’t afford to pay professionals, invite your friends around for a working bee. If you supply the beer and chips, they’ll supply the labour. Trust me!

(9) Reduce, recycle, re-gift. As you pack up your office and your home, you’ll discover a mountain of things you no longer need or can’t take with you. From staplers to mattresses, almost everything you don’t want can have another life and throwing things into landfill should always be a last resort. Charities will welcome donations of good quality clothes, books, furniture, and household items. Most cities will have a company that recycles mattresses for a small fee, with the majority returning any profits to charities. Craft or sporting supplies can be donated to local childcare centres or schools, while food and toiletries can be donated to organisations that support refugees, homeless people, and families doing it tough. Your colleagues will happily take your stationery and your friends will gladly accept those two bottles of rum you claimed were for baking.

(10) Have fun! In the busy-ness and craziness of moving, it can be easy to misplace your excitement. Take a moment to stop and reflect on the wonderful opportunity you’ve been given and the fabulous new adventure upon which you are about to embark!

 

Have your recently moved for an academic job? Got other tips? Share them in the comments!

Non-Required Reading: Redux

A few years ago I wrote a post about the importance of reading for pleasure in academia and suggested a non-required reading list for PhD students. The basic premise was that although great writing comes from great reading, great reads are rarely found in academic journals. Instead, if students want to write well, they need to immerse themselves in quality fiction, narrative non-fiction, essays, feature writing, memoir, and poetry. In short, phrasebanks are not the answer to poor academic prose, Shakespeare is!

There’s been a lot of interest in my Non-Required Reading List recently, so I thought I would revisit it. But rather than making the list prescriptive, as I did last time, I thought I would offer a simple framework and a list of resources. This would give students and supervisors more flexibility in how they approach the list and allow the resources to grow over time as I discover and remember other great reads (or you suggest them!).

Framework
Every month you should aim to read four long-form articles of your choice from Long Reads, The Atlantic, or Mosaic, and one quality work of fiction, non-fiction, or poetry.

Resources
Fiction:

Non-Fiction:

Poetry:

 

Can you recommend other great reads that should be added to the Resources? Or have you got feedback on how you or your students have used the Non-Required Reading List? Leave me a comment!

 

Cake & Collaboration

The last line of my academic bio ends with the sentence “Siobhan believes the path to good research is paved with cake”. It’s an attempt to bring some lightness to the all too serious world of academic research, but more importantly, it’s a values statement. Because cake – unlike Freud’s cigar – is never just cake.

Brought into the tea room of a University, cake tells my colleagues I value their company, their contribution, and their compassion. Brought into a meeting with industry partners, cake tells community organisations that I value their time and their expertise, and I can be trusted with the vulnerable people they represent. Brought into interviews with research participants, cake tells carers and people with dementia that I value their stories, that I’m a person too, and that I understand how nerve-wracking it is to share your darkest thoughts with a complete stranger.

Of course the cake must be home-made. There’s no value in a store-bought cake. The value comes from having spent my own time and energy to create something just for my colleague, my partner, or my participant. That’s how people know I care.

And I care because I recognise that I cannot do good research alone. We often think of ground-breaking researchers as single entities – Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Neil deGrasse Tyson – but all research is the product of collaboration. My own collaborations span departments, universities, states, countries, disciplines, languages, and sectors. And my research is richer for it.

But in the early stages of a research career it can be hard to build collaborations, and part of my goal with this website and Shut Up & Write Tuesdays is to support emerging researchers. Which is why I recently became a Social Media Correspondent for Piirus, an academic networking website that helps to facilitate research collaborations across the world. The team at Piirus share my values and have good research – not profit – as their primary goal.

As part of my role at Piirus, I’ll be using my own social media and online presence to encourage researchers – particularly those in the early stages of their careers – to join Piirus. You’ll see that I’ve added a link to Piirus on the sidebar of this website and in my Twitter feed you’ll see the occasional Piirus-related tweet or retweet.

Piirus doesn’t offer cake, but it certainly offers collaboration. And when it comes to good research, that’s the next best thing!

Non-Required Reading

When I was traveling in the US last year I picked up The Best American Non-Required Reading 2014. I love compilation books, but it was the phrase ‘non-required’ in the title of this one that really piqued my interest.

I’ve long believed that (a) great writers are great readers and (b) great reads are rarely found in academic journals. And, with this in mind, I’ve often fantasised about creating a reading list for PhD students that would improve their academic writing by introducing them to a range of quality fiction, narrative non-fiction, essays, feature writing, and poetry.

Of course some academics would argue that if a PhD student has time to read for pleasure, they’re not working hard enough. But I think this is a dangerous attitude. Most PhD students struggle with writing and the majority of supervisors have neither the time nor the skills to offer meaningful guidance. Encouraging students to read widely and read well is a fast and effective way to improve their writing. It’s also a powerful way to promote the sort of work-life balance practices that are essential to surviving life as an academic! (And if that weren’t convincing enough, there’s also the fact that intellectual cross-pollination of exactly this sort has been responsible for some serious scientific breakthroughs!)

The only real problem I can see is how to narrow down the list. There are so many fantastic things to read and most PhDs only take three years. But I had a bit of time this week and I thought I’d at least have a go. So here, for your consideration, is my draft Non-Required Reading List for PhD Students.

Year One
Every Month: 4 articles of your choosing from LongReads, The Atlantic, or Mosaic
January: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
February: Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage by Hazel Rowley
March: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
April: Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill
May: The Best Australian Essays (your choice of year)
June: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
July: The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart by Ruth Behar
August: Cloud Street by Tim Winton
September: Shakespeare on Love edited by Michael Kerrigan
October: Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt
November: Joe Cinque’s Consolation by Helen Garner
December: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Year Two
Every Month: 4 articles of your choosing from Long Reads, The Atlantic, or Mosaic
January: The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch
February: Tall Man: A Death in Aboriginal Australia by Chloe Hooper
March: Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese
April: An Opening: Twelve Love Stories About Art  by Stephanie Radok
May: My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel
June: A David Sedaris book of your choice
July: Electricity for Beginners by Michelle Dicinoski
August: On Beauty by Zadie Smith
September: The Best Australian Essays (your choice of year)
October: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
November: The Collected Stories by T. Coraghessan Boyle
December: All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

Year Three
Every Month: 4 articles of your choice from LongReads, The Atlantic, or Mosaic
January: The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan Daum
February: Eucalyptus by Murray Bail
March: The Beginner’s Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize by Peter Doherty
April: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
May: Out to Lunch by Andy Kissane
June: We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
July: The Best Australian Essays (your choice of year)
August: The Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl by Roald Dahl
September: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
October: The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker
November: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
December: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Got other suggestions? Leave me a comment.

Artisanal Academia

In a recent post about the nature of academic work, Zen Faulkes described his research as “hand-crafted”. It was a term I’d never seen associated with academia before, but one that made instant sense.

As I thought about it, my brain started doing word association, generating a list of words that describe hand-crafted things. I scribbled them down as they came to me: organic; one-off; skilled; time-consuming; precious; valuable; lost art; expensive; beautiful. And as I wrote, I realised that good research is all these things. It is an organic process in which progress is sometimes fast, often slow, and the best ideas come from having time and space to think, explore, experiment, and discuss. Every piece is unique and makes a valuable contribution to humanity. It is time-consuming and the people who do it are highly skilled. It is expensive, but the outcomes are precious and beautiful. And I fear it is becoming a lost art.

In the current academic model (where universities are businesses first, and places of learning & understanding second), research and the people who do it have become commodities. The word association list would include terms like metrics, output, impact factor, H-index, benchmark. The focus is on quantity, not quality. Researchers are judged on how many papers they publish and how much money they bring in, not whether they’ve made a meaningful contribution to the world. They are seen (as Sharon McDonough has so beautifully described) as pieces of machinery; viewed as a disposable means of production rather than people.  In this model there is no time for ideas to develop, no interest in the process. This model does not produce research that is unique and valuable; it produces masses of papers that no-one has time to read or contemplate, let alone translate into action. In short, this model forces talented, skilled, and passionate people to sacrifice their craft in the name of productivity.

My home is full of things that are hand-crafted. A loaf of bread from my favourite artisanal bakery, a hand-woven blanket I bought while in the US, a hand-coloured lino print by Evelyn McGreen. I understand that the price ($8.50 for the bread; $300 for the blanket; don’t ask about the print) is a reflection of the time and skill involved in making them. I recognise that although it would reduce the cost, rushing the creative process and cutting corners with ingredients and materials would make for an inferior product. I also value the people who crafted these things and the journey each product has taken on its way from their home to mine – I can see the baker kneading bread out the back when I stand at the bakery counter; the blanket came with a hand-written thank-you note from the weaver and a picture of her sheep; and I have fond memories of the time I spent in McGreen’s home town.

My research is also hand-crafted. The studies of suicide risk in family carers of people with dementia, for example, were a world-first. No research had ever been conducted on this topic before and our work opened up an entirely new field of study and highlighted a host of additional issues that needed to be explored. It also required a unique combination of high-level scientific and interpersonal skills, and had significant and immediate implications for practice and policy. Despite this, I have spent the last 5 years on a series of short-term contracts and each time a contract ends I am made to wait until the 11th hour while the university decides whether I am worthy of their money. (While I wait I look around my home and wonder which hand-crafted beauty I’ll have to sell to make rent if they decide I’m not.) The pressure to produce is also constant. Most recently, for example, the university offered me an ‘interim contract’ of just 2 months’ duration which came with the condition that I had to have three papers submitted for publication in that time. (The fact that I had published double the expected number of papers during the previous contract was, apparently, immaterial.)

So when I walked into the artisanal bakery just before Christmas and saw the Help Wanted sign, I was definitely tempted. But I’m passionate about research and determined to be a force for good in academia, so I resisted the urge to fill in an application form. On Twitter, the #circleofniceness hashtag is used by academics seeking to bring a bit of humanity back to universities. But perhaps we need another hashtag – #artisanalacademia – for those times when we want to remind the world that research, just like good bread, woven blankets, and great art, is hand-crafted. And as with all hand-crafted things, the people who craft it must be valued, respected for the contribution they make, paid what they are worth, and never forced to rush the creative process or sacrifice quality for quantity.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Journalist?

I was recently invited to take part in a workshop, hosted by the AAG, entitled ‘Navigating the Media Jungle’. It’s a dreadful title, but it reflects the level of trepidation most researchers feel about having to engage with the media. In preparation for the workshop I’ve put together my top tips for postgraduate students, early career researchers, and academics seeking to engage the media. I hope these will reduce your fear and make your next encounter with a journalist a more rewarding one (for you and them!).

Stalk Your Prey
How much do you know about the media? How much (and what type of) media do you consume? If you want to navigate the media jungle, you need to stalk your prey (that’s the only jungle reference in the whole post, I promise!). By consuming plenty and varied media, you’ll have a better understanding of where and how to pitch your work for maximum impact.

But don’t just consume media passively, pay attention to the following….

  • How often do they publish or broadcast? Constantly, daily, weekly, monthly…
  • What type of pieces do they produce? Short, long, left-leaning, conservative, human interest, political, scientific…
  • Who is their audience? Children, adults, older adults, working class people, middle class people, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds…

This type of information will allow you to target your work to the outlets most likely to run with it (see ‘Pick Your Battles’ below), and give you a sense of the timeframes within which you’ll need to work. Programs like The Media Report also offer great insight into the ‘behind the scenes’ of journalism and the media.

Make Friends with the Journalists
Repeat after me: Journalists are people too. Academics often talk about journalists like they’re the enemy, but if you’re really passionate about communicating your work to the public you need to make them your ally.

Twitter is a great way to engage with journalists. You can use it to provide positive feedback on their latest story, introduce them to your work, and respond to calls for ‘talking heads’. If a journalist comes to know you as a reliable, positive source, they’re much more likely to be interested in your work down the track. Top tip:  Don’t badger them. If a journalist decides you don’t have enough for a story, say thank-you and move on.

Also, if you’re working with print journalists, it’s okay to ask to see a draft of the article. Some journalists will say no (& you must respect this!), but those who care about getting the facts right are often happy to oblige. A few tips to smooth the way…

(1) Explain why you want to see it.

(2) Don’t change the copy. Journalists are entitled to their perspective on a story and as media professionals they know what will attract readers, listeners and viewers. So correct technical errors, but leave the rest alone.

(3) Give feedback promptly. Journalists work to tight deadlines and if you don’t give your feedback promptly, they will go ahead without your input.

Start Small
If you’re just starting out, try pitching your work to local papers and community radio stations. They ‘re always eager for stories – particularly those that have a local flavour – and are less intimidating for first timers.

Also, start with print media (where there’s time to review a story before it goes to press and kind journalists will edit your waffly sentences into something tighter) and work your way up to radio and then television. Print and radio interviews are often done over the phone, which allows you to have your notes in front of you and be wearing whatever makes you comfortable. Television requires you to speak without notes and look professional, so it’s not for the faint-hearted.

Pick Your Battles
While it’s tempting to send your press release to every media outlet, it’s not always the smartest move. It’s important to pick the outlets that are going to do justice to your research and whose journalists have the necessary time and experience.

If your work has the potential to be sensationalised (topics like suicide or terrorism, for example), you may want to steer clear of the commercial television and radio programs, and stick to the ABC (in Australia), the BBC (in the UK), and PBS or NPR (in the USA). Similarly, if your work is highly technical, you may want to avoid the major daily papers and instead target high-end websites and magazines like Wired or New Scientist. If your work has a ‘human interest’ angle and you can connect journalists with real cases, target longer-form publications such as The Monthly or The Atlantic. These are also good targets for people whose work is historial, political, or creative.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
Unless you are a seasoned professional (and trust me, you’re not), you should never do a media interview ‘off the cuff’. Never! Ever!

Instead, prepare a series of short, concise statements about your work. Think about the type of questions a journalist is likely to ask and have one statement prepared for each. Print these out and have them in front of you when you’re doing an interview. Make sure that you include some statements about the real world implications of your work and, where possible, be ready to recommend a real person the journalist can talk to (i.e. someone who’s had the experience you’re talking about, or whose life would be affected by the findings).

It’s also okay not to answer a question. Do this politely by explaining that it’s outside the scope of your expertise or wasn’t part of the research you conducted.

Work with Your University’s Media Office
Your University’s media officers deal with journalists every day and many of them are former journalists. They can help you draft and distribute press releases, arrange interviews, and even give you one-on-one media training.

A few tips to help them help you…

(1) Give them plenty of warning. You are not the only researcher in the university and it takes time to draft press releases and liaise with journalists. A week’s notice is ideal, even more if you can swing it.

(2) Draft your own press release, or at least provide some dot points. This can help if your work is highly technical or if you have a particular spin you’d like put on your story. When drafting press releases, remember to write for your audience. Keep the language simple, put the most important information at the top, and provide real world examples.

(3) Tell them who you’d like to target. Use the information provided in ‘Stalk Your Prey’ and ‘Pick Your Battles’ (see above) to identify the media outlets most likely to be interested in your story.

Work with the Journal’s Publishers
If you want media coverage to coincide with the publication of an academic journal article, you should work with the journal’s Publishers. They can tell you the exact date that your paper will go online and you can use this to schedule your press release. As a professional courtesy you should send a copy of any media coverage to the Publishers and the journal’s Editor.

Be Available
Your diary should be completely clear the day you send out a press release. You should have access to the internet and your phone should be fully charged. If a journalist can’t get hold of you they will either (a) write the story without your input or (b) dump the story and move on to something else. Neither is a good outcome.

On a related note, once you develop a profile, journalists may contact you for commentary on current events or other research. Only say yes if you really know what you’re talking about and, if you have to say no, try to recommend someone else so that you get a reputation for being professional and helpful.

Get More Bang for Your Buck
The 24hr news cycle means there is a constant demand for ‘new’ news. Unless your story has legs (i.e. it’s the cure for cancer), it’s unlikely to be replayed or republished after the initial broadcast or print run. But you can maximise its impact with your own Twitter account or Facebook page, as can your colleagues and your University. If you have a website or blog, you might consider adding a media page that includes links to all the coverage of your work.

Accept That Your Story May Not Make It
If the Prime Minister resigns the day you send out your press release, chances are your story won’t run. This  is just the way it works and there’s nothing you can do about it. Keep your fingers crossed and hope for a slow news day.

Keep It In The Family
Finally, in the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I am related to a journalist. I sent a draft of this post to my sister – the talented Erin O’Dwyer – to make sure I hadn’t missed or misrepresented anything. She gave all of the above her journalist’s seal of approval and offered the following additional tips:

  • Be easily searchable. (My interpretation: If you’re not online, you don’t exist)
  • Reply promptly to social media, email and phone enquiries.
  • Keep your language informal. (She wrote this twice, so it must be important)
  • Add yourself to expert lists, including your mobile phone number.
  • Never send a press release to a generic info@ or news@ email address. Phone and ask to speak to the chief of staff or the specific reporter. Then send your release directly to the right person.
  • If a journalist has recently written a story on a particular topic, say asthma or loneliness, they’re unlikely to want to revisit the same topic straight away.

Got any other tips? Please leave a comment.