Tseen Khoo + Jonathan O’Donnell – The Origins of the Research Whisperer

We started the Research Whisperer (RW) in June 2011 as a collegial initiative. We had enjoyed the camaraderie and connections generated by the success of The Thesis Whisperer (our role-model), and its creator, Dr Inger Mewburn, is an excellent e-enabler. With Inger’s blog as our model, and her ability to make blog-keeping look effortless, she had done a lot of the heavy lifting for us. We could just dive in and get started. At about the same time as we fired up RW, other colleagues were launching The Teaching Tom Tom. Three group blogs may not a movement make, but it sure gave us social media momentum and a lot of intra-institutional warm fuzziness.

First, let us take one step back:

We started at RMIT University in January 2011, taking up brand new positions as Senior Advisors (Research Grant Development). Jonathan was responsible for the College of Design and Social Context, and Tseen was in the College of Business. These roles were intended to boost the ability (and amenability) of staff to apply for research funding. Our core business is to advise on grant schemes, review applications, initiate ways of building the soft skills of research expertise, and generally contributing to the stimulation of a university research environment.

Having seen how The Thesis Whisperer served as a valuable touchstone for research higher degree students, we thought a similar blog aimed at researchers would be worth exploring.

So, how did we actually get started?

We chatted with Inger a few times, initially thinking that we might road-test the quality and traction of our posts on The Thesis Whisperer before branching out into a stand-alone blog. As instant gratification would have it, the stand-alone came into being before the suggested trial Thesis Whisperer posts. Bringing blogs into being is too easy!

It’s important to note that we didn’t want a blog that stood in for a university research office; we were much more interested in tapping into a broad range of expertise, and having conversations around issues associated with academic research cultures. For example, instead of writing about the winning way to write an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery grant application (which, given the vagaries of the system, we’d never presume to do!), we’d address general approaches to competitive grant rounds and grant-writing. The advice and discussion would be broadly applicable and conversational in tone. It would not involve nitty-gritty wrangling about guidelines and the policies of various schemes.

We conceived of RW as a focused repository of expert perspectives and advice. These issues are often topics that our researchers may not attend a workshop for (e.g. building conference or journal karma, and why research rocks), or are what we want to consider core competencies in the research game (e.g. how to make a GANTT chart and Research Grant Applications 101). Many of the posts address recurring obstacles or gaps in expertise that we’d identified among our researchers. We wanted to offer a resource that they could access at their leisure, engage with when they needed it, and would give them a quick “in” with aspects of being a productive researcher.

How is it going?

It has only been four months since we started RW, and…

[Jonathan] …it has turned out to be as easy as we thought.

[Tseen] For me, it has been a learning curve in terms of producing regular content. I’ve never had to post regularly to my personal blog. I’m realising the rugged truth of what Inger has said (paraphrasing here) ‘a blog is a like a baby that’s always hungry’.

We’ve received very positive feedback already from a wide range of followers (on the blog and through Twitter), as well as from our institution’s researchers and professional staff. The blog content will be broadened by the number of people who will also be contributing; it has taken a little while to build up the blog’s profile so that people are happy to contribute. Involving other research culture colleagues at our institution would be wonderful.

Given the relatively new nature of university engagement with social media channels, there was some internal resistance to the initiative; much of this anxiety derived from issues of content ‘ownership’ and whether RW would channel appropriate institutional priorities and strategies. While the university is still in the throes of finalising a formal social media policy, RW has been given the go-ahead as an ‘experimental’ research development initiative over the next twelve months.

We plan to use this time to establish RW as a valuable research community resource for our institution, as well as a welcoming professional space for sharing research development practice.

For us, the strength and value of the blog (and its companion Twitter stream) lies in these two areas:

  1. Being able to encourage and inform scholars about academic research cultures and strategies.
  2. Building a professional network and embracing the idea of creating a ‘community of practice’.