Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Growing into a career (Alex Lugg)

The useless tree  |  Image sourced from
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I help academics apply for and manage their grants.

This involves putting together a year-long grant development program for the highly subscribed Australian Research Council schemes, as well as providing ad hoc support for less popular schemes.

I work closely with College Associate Pro-Vice Chancellors (Research) to identify potential candidates for fellowship schemes and coax them into applying for them.

Our office also provides resources to assist academics write their funding proposals. Aside from that, there’s also a bit of problem solving- should anyone have misspent their funds, breached the agreement with their funding body or so on. It’s my role to help resolve these issues.

I didn’t set out to do this sort of work when I began my PhD.

While I was a graduate researcher, I did the sort of work a lot of grad researchers do: I was a sessional and a research assistant (RA).

Part of the work I started to do for my supervisor as an RA was research administration work. I found I had a bit of a knack for it, so the work for my supervisor led to work for my Department, then my School. This introduced me to the Faculty of Arts Research Office where I took up a maternity-leave replacement position at the conclusion of my PhD.

I hadn’t put much thought into the sort of work I’d do after postgraduate study, so much as assumed that nothing much would change. Basically, I figured I’d just continue into a postdoc, or teaching and research (fixed-term or casual - I wasn’t too fussed), and do the same sort of thing I’d done as a postgrad but with more money. So, when the 12-month Research Support Officer role came up, it seemed like a good way of getting a stable income while looking for something else.

The role I took initially had no need for a PhD. Nor did it require any of the skills a PhD holder might have that a graduate of any other degree would not.

So, after a month or so in the job I became really quite dissatisfied and went into a bit of a slump. I started to question why I’d bothered with a PhD if I was just going to do relatively simple administration work. I got quite frustrated and felt that I was a bit too good for the work I was doing.

After I made a few mistakes and pulled my head in, I started to learn a lot more, a process that was sped up by a few months when all of the senior positions in our office were left empty by either maternity leave or redundancies.

On reflection, even though I didn’t feel I needed the specific skills of a PhD to do the work, the skills I acquired while doing one have helped me advance my career more quickly once I started working. Compared with colleagues who started similar work about the same time, I have more quickly been able to orient myself in a research environment by drawing on my experiences as a PhD researcher, RA, and sessional teacher.

It has also become more useful as I have begun to specialise in grant development. I'm able to read and question proposals and ask questions about them that prompt improvement that those same colleagues have taken a lot longer to develop. Once I started to realise that my skills were actually useful, I began to take more interest in my work and make an effort to get the best out of myself.

There has been very little opportunity for formal training in my work (although that has changed more recently). However, I have had some excellent mentors and senior colleagues who have directly protected my own interests and from whom I have learnt a great deal. These sorts of people don’t just emerge out of nowhere; it was after demonstrating my interest in, and capability for, the work that we did together that they began to take more of an interest in me. I’ve found their support and advice to be invaluable. They have, for example, helped me reconsider problems, and my own abilities and weaknesses from a broader perspective when I get trapped in my own occasionally narrow field of view.

The best advice that I’ve had is to ‘put myself out there’. Some people can do this by making small talk at conferences. I find that to be quite painful.

Networking is really useful, so long as you do it in a way you feel comfortable. If you’re not comfortable it won’t work. Organise seminars, help people with problems (even if it’s not your job specifically), and write on people’s blogs.

Just showing up to things and being polite can make a big difference, too.

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Alexander Lugg is Senior Grants Advisor for non-health and medical schemes in the La Trobe University Research Office. 

His PhD is in Chinese Studies, but he’s never really used any China expertise in his work so far.

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