Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Karaoke in Kazakhstan (Mia Tarp Hansen)

Striking view that meets the traveller landing in Almaty, Kazakhstan
(taken in late spring 2015). Behind the city lies the beautiful
Tien Shan mountain range. Photo by Mia Tarp Hansen.
Let’s start out by saying my topic isn’t exactly easy.

Doing research on human rights in repressive states is no dance on roses, as we say in Denmark. Unless you step on the thorns. But it does involve a lot of fun, too.

I remember my very first interview.

I had invited a famous, young, female human rights activist in Kazakhstan for dinner to interview her. She decided on the venue and, at 8pm on a rainy Friday evening in early April, I rocked up to the restaurant that she chose in upper Almaty.

The place was called “Kishlyak” and was serving Uzbek. It was one of those typical post-Soviet restaurants with wooden benches, kitschy interior, live music, and drunken parties full of beer bellies and stiletto heels at every table. There was a distinct smell of beer, cheap perfume, vodka, plov (the Uzbek national rice dish), and a bit of pee stench, too, it must be said. The music and noise was so loud that it was almost impossible to have a conversation.

Having a proper interview would be impossible in this setting.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

From PhD to high Arctic - my postdoc experience (Emma Bland)

Emma during her first days at the high Arctic | Photo from Emma Bland
I’ve just started a 3-year postdoc in middle atmospheric physics at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS).

Located in Longyearbyen, Norway, way up in the high Arctic at 78° latitude, UNIS is the world’s northernmost higher education institution.

So, how did a PhD graduate from La Trobe wind up living on Svalbard?

First, there are some world-class research facilities here, including an optical observatory for studying the Aurora Borealis, and a brand-new radar that is part of an international collaboration of which La Trobe is also a member.

Second, I visited Svalbard for a conference two years ago and went home feeling rather inspired! It seemed like such a fun place to live, with many opportunities for hiking, skiing and snowmobiling adventures, as well as unique wildlife and spectacular mountain scenery.

You can imagine my delight when I discovered that UNIS was advertising a postdoc position during the final year of my PhD candidature!

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Have you considered being a mentor? (Ana Garcia)

Image by Dan Carlson | unsplash.com
I am lucky to have a job that is closely related to my PhD research topic: peer mentoring.

I coordinate a program that places university students as online mentors for high school science students. Being able to connect research and practice is definitely helpful and it keeps me motivated to complete my studies.

It also means that since I spend so much time thinking about my topic, it can be difficult to explain what I’m working on to other people.

A few days ago, for example, a friend of mine asked me what mentors actually do when they work with students. ‘Are they supposed to be teachers?’, she asked.

I realised I had been talking about the benefits of having a mentor and the importance of mentoring, but failed to explain what a mentor is!

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

When the levee broke – travelling to the American South (Rachel Loney-Howes)

New Orleans on the ferry crossing to Algiers (the other side of the river)
where African slaves were brought and sold in the 1720s.
Photo by Rachel Loney-Howes.
I remember when the first posters went up advertising the study tour, “When the levee breaks”. The study tour was for undergraduates, but there were a few spots for graduate researchers.

I was thinking that there was NO WAY I’d be selected to go on the trip of a lifetime to the American South.

But there I was on Monday 6 June 2016, at Melbourne airport (at 6am) feeling very nervous and preparing for the longest flight of my life (Melbourne – Sydney – Dallas – New Orleans)!

With me were thirty undergraduate students, six teaching staff (including another three graduate researchers, like me), and five auditors (who wanted to come along for the ride).

After the three weeks we spent on the road together travelling from New Orleans to Memphis via Natchez, Vicksburg and Clarksdale (and a few more stops in between), we became like family.

This trip of a lifetime did not come for free, though!

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Why would you join an ECR Network? (Compiled by Tseen Khoo)

Photo by Christian Bisbo Johnsen | unsplash.com
The first Early Career Researcher (ECR) Network conference took place last year. 

It was organised by a volunteer crew of La Trobe ECRs, who hatched the event plan and ran with it! The conference was supported by the Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) and the Research Education and Development (RED) team. 

With more than 60 delegates, and key research leaders featured on the program, it was an important, fun event that galvanised a lot of activity and focus for the campus’ ECRs. You can read up on what happened at the 2015 ECR conference (Storify collection).

One of the best things that I saw before, during and after the event, was the growing camaraderie of the conference committee, most of whom were total strangers to one another before working on organising the event. 

And remember that these are ECRs we’re talking about: researchers who are early in their careers, keen to make their mark, focused on getting all their teaching, research and service activities happening and balanced. That makes them even more busy than normal busy. 

So, why would they put their hands up to be a part of the ECR Network and event committee?

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Thesis writing: an epilogue (Arjun Rajkhowa)

Photo by Davide Ragusa  |  unsplash.com
Time, time, time, see what's become of me
While I looked around for my possibilities
I was so hard to please
Don't look around
The leaves are brown
And the sky is a hazy shade of winter

Simon & Garfunkel, ‘A Hazy Shade of Winter’


My thesis emerged out of a lot of chaos.

I wanted to cover four very different cases and topics. In the end, I could only find space for two.

I wanted to write about a much bigger phenomenon. In the end, I could only discuss one small (or not small exactly… let's say 'significant') aspect of it. While being situated in the Media Studies department, I read and wrote a lot of sociological and political analysis, most of which I had to finally excise from the thesis. In short, my thesis had quite a chaotic coming-into-being.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

How to be a good conference goer (Tseen Khoo)

Photo by Evan Forester
(Creative Commons 2.0)
Many years ago, when I had to give my first few academic papers and the conference dates loomed sickeningly close, I’d be almost paralysed with insecurity and brimming with angst about what could go wrong.

I’d run through my paper over and over about a fortnight before it was due to be given; no ad-libbing for me!

The whole thing would be planned to within an inch of its life AND chockers with theoretical stuffing because there was a desperate need to make sure that what I presented would be considered ‘serious’ (and we all know that nothing says ‘serious’ like incredibly dense, almost incoherent jargon).

Thankfully, I evolved. A bit. It's all a process, right?

This post focuses on things I’ve learnt in the past decade or so’s conference-going and paper-giving.

Jo Byrne has written on RED Alert about how to prep well for a conference before you even leave home, from the delegate's side of things.

I discovered through being on both sides of this dynamic that this is how you make conference convenors love you:
  • Get your abstract and registration payment in on time.
  • Keep your presentation to time.
  • Be organised, and familiar, with the a/v you’ll need.
  • Remember that Google (or similar) is your friend. Don’t write to convenors and ask things like ‘So, what’s the weather like in X?’ or ‘What currency do you use?’. After all, you’re meant to be a researcher.
  • Turn up for your session. (Yes, it is tragic that I even have to include this, but there it is.)
So, what should you do when you're AT the conference? Your paper’s written (right? RIGHT…?), and you intend to turn up on time to give it. What else does a good conference participant do? So glad you asked!

A good conference presenter or delegate should:

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Want to improve the research culture around you? (Tseen Khoo)

Photo by Luke Michael  |  unsplash.com
If you're like me, you can't help yourself when it comes to being involved in a shiny new project.

It's especially the case if it means working with colleagues you know, trust, and respect.

This has been the story of my academic life, really, and my inability to say 'no' has led to a whole raft of opportunities that I wouldn't have envisaged.

So, it has worked well for me overall, even though there have been times when I've looked at my calendar and lamented humanity's inability to bend time (yet).

While I know that saying 'yes' to every option is not a great way to balance a life, my experiences with working on scholarly community projects have been the highlight of my working days.

The thing I missed most when doing these projects, knowing full well that they'd lead to bigger and better things for my area, discipline or school, was funding. Mostly, the outcomes from this work were not 'counted' the way research output is counted. There were no direct publications. Grant funding may come in, but in an oblique and longer-term manner.

Were the researchers affected happier, more connected with their peers, and likely to foster better relationships overall? Inevitably. Satisfyingly.

So, when I heard that the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), Professor Keith Nugent had agreed to create the Research Culture Fund (RCF), I was excited.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Planning for recruitment before your ethics application (Jason Murphy)

Image by Pavan Trikutam
As a communications lead in the Graduate Research School, I'm often asked to support the recruitment of participants for research projects from within and outside of La Trobe.

With the majority of these requests, what has struck me is that researchers are limiting themselves to email and flyers posted around campuses when there are a wealth of communication channels at their disposal.

Contemporary society equals communication overload. We're all used to being time poor, and constantly assessing whether the deluge of information coming at us is relevant or of interest.

To have a chance of communicating effectively these days means you need to tell your audience very quickly what it is your message is about. If they're interested, they'll be willing to take further action, such as clicking through to a webpage for more information.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Theory by the tramload (Melissa Kennedy)

Inside the Theory Tram | Photo by Melissa Kennedy
How do you make social theory ‘social’?

This was the question our Planning and Social Theory Reading Group asked ourselves as we developed the idea for a social theory salon. This idea went on to be generously sponsored by the Graduate Research School and College of Arts, Social Science and Commerce's Intellectual Climate Fund.

Importantly, we wanted to ensure that the event would complement the purpose of our reading group, which informally gets together to discuss the application of social theory to our studies in a space where we can 'grapple-in-common'.

While modelling the event on a French Enlightenment-style ‘salon’ evoked an interactive setting for the discussion of ideas, would it be enough to spark broader interest in a social theory gathering?

And where could we hold it? Should it be on campus? What if we took theory ‘downtown’ and held it on a tram...? Would it be distracting, maybe a little too much fun? What if it all went off the rails (literally and metaphorically)? Do we just do it anyway?!