Saturday, May 30, 2020

On writing titles – what do doctoral researchers need to know?

I’ve been preparing a workshop that includes a short section on writing titles. It’s an area of writing that I’ve always found difficult myself, and I am full of admiration for those who come up with clever, witty, memorable titles that perfectly encapsulate the subject or argument of the piece of writing. Within a specific field of research, it can sometimes feel like all the journal articles have almost the same title, with tiny variations to point to their very specific focus and contribution to the conversation. What advice can researcher developers offer to doctoral writers?
One of my colleagues has a particular talent for titles - he’s even inclined to dream up great titles and then work out what the article would need to be to fit that title. While that may not be good advice for doctoral writers, it’s kind of fun to be so inventive and playful when it comes to academic writing. Tim Moore’s (2020) article in the Australian University Review  62(1) - with its own memorable and helpful title! - offers interesting insights into quirky article titles. Moore reminds us that researchers are not necessarily sucked in by such wittiness: cleverly titled articles don’t actually receive more citations than those with more mundane but informative titles. However, I personally find memorable titles useful when I need to identify and return to articles read previously.
Moore’s article also includes some interesting reflections on the role of the colon in titles (e.g., “Colons in titles: frequency and value”), titles that use the form of verb-ing + noun (e.g., “Writing titles”) and alliteration (e.g., “Tentative titles in trying times”). These are all common forms and can be used very effectively (or not, as Moore also shows us).
Key message titles
Titles are extremely useful for carrying the key message of the article. This can be presented as a straightforward statement of the key finding or argument. Instead of  “Voice as a threshold concept in doctoral writing”, I could have been more direct: “Authorial voice is a threshold concept in doctoral writing”.  An advantage of this approach is that, even if readers never get beyond the title, they’ll still understand the main point being made. Identifying this one-sentence argument of the article is also a very helpful way to stay focused when writing, to avoid wandering off on tangents that might be interesting but are ultimately confusing for the reader.
Quotation from the text
I personally very much like the kind of title that takes a quotation from the text that encapsulates a key moment of insight or central message from the research. This was the inspiration for the title of a paper I wrote with a colleague on team supervision: “They’re the bosses” asserted one interviewee. And there we had it, the main idea that doctoral writers, in recognition of the hierarchies at play in the university system, need to respond to what all their supervisors ask of them.
Searchable titles
It is also good practice to consider what keywords are useful for readers looking for your research in databases and online. Be canny about how to write titles that optimize search engines so that the work is found easily. What are the keywords and their synonyms that readers are likely to look for? Try to cover this within 65-70 characters. Most academic journals offer good advice on this approach (see, for example, the guidelines from Taylor and Francis, Wiley  and  Elsevier).
Different titles for different genres
Doctoral writers very often need to communicate their research to an audience beyond their supervisors, examiners and disciplinary peers. We see some good examples of this used for Three Minute Thesis titles that are very different from the thesis title; instead of carefully including all details to ensure that an examiner is perfectly located in the topic, a short, catchy title for 3MT captures the listeners’ attention. Last year, for example, the winner of the Asia-Pacific 3MT competition, Jessica Bohorquez, entitled her talk “Guardians of the pipelines”, while her journal article is entitled “Identifying head accumulation due to transient wave superposition in pipelines”. At my current university (ANU), the 3MT winner, Lithin Louis, used the title “Mysteries of a beating heart” to present his thesis on “Molecular and cellular roles of RNA-Binding Proteins in cardiac biology and disease”. Similarly, posts for online newspapers such as The Conversation use much more accessible titles than their academic journal articles do.
When researchers are engaged in public outreach, their titles might need to be shorter than we usually see in academic articles and often also use more emphatic language (“hate”, “brilliant”). To attract the interest of a broader audience, it can also be useful to focus on the “who” part of the research, rather than the “why”; that is, drawing attention to the human face of research can sometimes be more emotionally appealing as a starting point to get your audience to read on.
Workshop exercise
The following exercise, adapted from Richard Leahy (1992), offers productive fun in generating lots of potential titles. I think it is useful to put clear timings on the exercise so that participants go with their first thoughts rather than agonising in what might already be a stuck place (maybe just 2-3 minutes each for the first 4 prompts, then faster for 5-7, and a little more time for the final prompt).
  1. Write a title that is a question beginning with What, Who, When, or Where.
  2. Write a title that is a question beginning with How or Why.
  3. Write a title that is a question beginning with Is/Are, Do/Does, or Will
  4. Write a title beginning with an -ing verb (like “Creating a good title”).
  5. Write a one-word title - the most obvious one possible.
  6. Write a less obvious one-word title.
  7. Write a two-word title, a three-word title, a four-word title, a five-word title.
  8. Think of a familiar saying, or the title of a book, song, or movie, that might fit your story.
This exercise often sparks some creative thinking that generates just the right title.
Moore does remind us that, “irrespective of the title, if the research is sound and the writing good, the work will find its way regardless” (p. 56). This is sound advice. It’s great to provide helpful titles for readers, but it’s never a replacement for good research.
Do you have some other exercises that you use with doctoral writers to help them design good titles for their work? I’m also keen to hear from you about better titles I could have used for this blog post - as I said at the beginning, it’s not my strongest writing skill!
Richard Leahy (1992). Twenty Titles for the Writer. College Composition and Communication 43(4), 516-519.
Tim Moore (2020). Academic clickbait: The arcane art of research article titling. Australian University Review 62(1), 54-56.

Monday, May 25, 2020

How universities came to rely on international students

This essay is based on an episode of the University of Technology Sydney podcast series “The New Social Contract”. The audio series examines how the relationship between universities, the state and the public might be reshaped as we live through this global pandemic.

It’s sad times for public universities as they fight for their survival. Most are reeling from a severe financial hit due to the loss of international students.
Universities are estimated to lose around A$3-4.6 billion in revenue from international student fees in 2020 alone, and more in 2021.
The government has locked universities out of JobKeeper - its COVID-19 wage subsidy scheme - despite the fact the sector is projected to lose around 21,000 jobs, of which 7,000 are estimated to be research-related.
International onshore student revenue was, as a share of all universities’ revenue, 26.2% on average in 2018, just shy of A$9 billion. For some universities, the dependency on international students is even greater, at around 30-40%.
Many in the government criticise universities for relying so heavily on international students for revenue. For instance,  Senator James Paterson recently told the Senate:
Over the last few decades our universities have bet big on the international-student dollar. Their institutions have boomed from what has been a very lucrative business, but they have become badly overexposed […] Universities argue they have pursued this market by necessity. They argue insufficient government funding pushed them down this path. It’s a convenient story that attempts to absolve universities of responsibility for the decisions they have made, and it is a false one.
But such views are false. And they ignore the history of international students from Asia studying in our universities.

A history of international education

In 1923, Sydney University accepted its first Chinese overseas student, N.Y. Shah from Wuhan, who was studying to become a teacher back in China.
From the 1950s, children of Chinese diaspora parents from countries such as Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong began to arrive in Australia to study.
This rarely mentioned cohort of private overseas students studied alongside students supported by the well-known Colombo Plan - an intergovernmental effort to strengthen economic and social development of member countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
In fact, so prominent was the Colombo Plan’s efforts in bringing students to study in Australia, it is still incorrectly believed to be the first major source of overseas students.
Historian Lyndon Megarrity estimates the Colombo Plan brought less than one-fifth of overseas students to Australia in the 1950s and 1960s. The vast majority came as private overseas students.
They went to Australian schools, sat for university matriculation and for those who passed, proceeded to university either funded by the generous Commonwealth scholarship scheme or by paying substantially subsidised university fees, just like Australian citizens.
By 1966, archival research shows private overseas students constituted 8.9% of full-time university enrolments and their numbers were growing. Immigration restrictions were also loosened to mean citizenship was available to private overseas students who had lived in Australia for at least five years.
Most met the conditions after attending two years of high school and the three year minimum for a degree.
While some stayed, of those I interviewed for a UNSW survey of overseas students who studied at the university in the 1950s and 1960s, it seems most returned to their home countries where an Australian university degree promised excellent career prospects.
There was obviously something about Australian education and society that appealed to our Asian neighbours, and pulled them to Australia where they lived for five years and more.

An unofficial government policy

In 1990 the Australian government introduced full fees for all international students. John Dawkins, the then Minister for Employment, Education and Training, saw an opportunity to establish university education as an export industry.
The year 1990 is significant because the Australian government was in the process of implementing the Dawkins reforms which reorganised the once diversified public higher education sector into a single national system.
The aim of the Dawkins reforms was to encourage more Australian school leavers to attend university and, on graduation, become part of a highly-skilled and educated national workforce.
To help fund this vastly expanded system and rein in costs, the government introduced HECS. Students could postpone subsidised and interest-free fees until their salary reached a certain level when they would repay the loan through the taxation system.
International student fees at this stage were not a significant source of university income. But they became so from the early 2000s after a decade of reduced government funding and a significant expansion of local student numbers.
Since government funding no longer covered the full costs of expensive research or the strong growth in domestic students, universities had to find funds from elsewhere.
It can be said that international student fees have become an unofficial part of the funding policy of consecutive federal governments.
Government actions and inactions that led to such a reliance on international fee income have created a system that challenges a belief many of us hold dear - public universities should be able to draw on public funds for their operations.
Where in 1989 universities derived more than 80% of their operating costs from the public purse, now it is estimated to be less than 40% - a figure well below the OECD average for public investment in tertiary education.

Where to from here

Since the 2000s, the shortfall has been largely made up by international student fees which have enabled universities to punch above their weight. On a population parity basis we have more universities  in the world’s top 500 (by some metrics) than Canada, the United Kingdom and United States.
And 2018 figures show we have some of the highest participation rates of school leavers in the world, at least 30% higher than is the case in the United Kingdom.
International student revenue funds a large proportion of university research. Shutterstock
Our universities also contribute enormously to national research and development - international student fees help sustain this. The Australian Bureau of Statistics confirmed this week more than half of the A$12 billion universities invest in research each year comes from a pool of funds that relies on international student fees.
International students, however, should not simply be measured by the fees they pay. Evidence shows while here, students contribute to the well-being of Australians by fuelling economic growth and prosperity that provides jobs for Australians.
University doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows are a large component of Australia’s research and development workforce. International students make up 37% of this vital group, working on important projects like breeding drought resilient crops, developing cures for diseases like COVID-19, and world-leading efficient solar and plastic recycling technology.
Some international students remain in Australia as our largest single source of skilled migrants. Others return to their home country to become leaders in business, politics and cultural industries with a respect and appreciation of Australian culture. We should nurture this good will, not trash it.

The next article linked to the podcast will look at universities and the climate.
Context of the Crisis was made by Impact Studios at the University of Technology, Sydney - an audio production house combining academic research and audio storytelling.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

The PhD: How to Make Working From Home Work

Working from home or hardly working? Are you struggling to make it work while using the same space and the same screen for work, leisure, entertainment and socialising? Merle shares her tips on how to get the best out of this situation and create a good, productive mindset..
Us poor PhD students, like many others, have been at home for a while now. This is now where we sleep, eat, live and now also work. For some this is business as usual. They are comfortable with this structure, and maybe actively seek it out, and prefer it to working from anywhere else. If that’s your case, lucky for you!
However, there are also quite a few people who aren’t used to working from home, or are, and don’t really like it. They might dislike it because it doesn’t fit their flow. Or because they constantly get distracted and don’t find it remotely productive. If you want some help with working from home, this article is for you.
The first aspect we are going to look at is space. This is the most constrained aspect. Your working space is now also your kitchen, living room, bedroom and Netflix area. Not good.
Now what can you do? It’s not helpful to work from your bed (unless that’s where you are most productive?). Our mind goes to either “sleep” or “chill” mode. Because that’s what most people do in their bed. This is associative reasoning, and really common. The fact that you get hungry if you’re working in the kitchen is caused by this as well.
So what can you do?
Create a space in your home that is just for work. If you can, create an impromptu office. If you don’t have that much space just lying about, create a micro-environment. This can be something as a specific side of the table and a chair. Or a specific corner of a room. You only sit there to work, and don’t do anything else there. Once you sit down there, you work. If you’re not sitting down there, you’re not working. Simple as that. This process lies at the foundation of classical conditioning, for my psychologists over here.
If it’s absolutely impossible for you to create any form of separate space, just put on a hat. Once you’re wearing that hat, it’s work time. Don’t laugh at me, then I won’t laugh at you. It’s the power of association.
Also, no one is going to see you with that hat on anyway.
When it comes to doing a PhD, working hours are flexible anyway. But now, with offices shut down and all meetings being online, possibly in different time zones, the average schedule has truly gone to sh*t.
This lack of structure isn’t ideal for those who thrive whilst having a structure. The solution? Making the world’s most flexible planning. Instead of planning everything by the hour, just set targets for the day. In this way, if you get up at 10 am instead of 8 am, you don’t have to feel guilty or bully yourself for “ruining” your planning. Because you haven’t! There’s still plenty of time to meet your targets.
What you’ll see from this type of schedule is that you’ll fall into your natural routine. For me, this is to start work at 11 am and work till 7 pm.
If your working schedule doesn’t have these spontaneous interventions and time zone issues, do feel free to plan your day by the hour. It can be really helpful!
If you want more info on managing your time during the PhD, read this article here.
DistractionIf a clearly defined space, your natural working hours and the power of association aren’t working, something else is going on. The most likely perpetrator? Distraction.
Distraction can come in a lot of shapes, but ironically, during these times, they’re all coming from the same source. Distractions now mainly manifest in the online environment, with having to use an online platform to call friends/family, have social events, but also to relax on your own with Netflix, YouTube and other culprits.
The “lucky” thing here is that with this change in distractions, all of them can be shut down in the same way: no internet.
Once you disable internet on your laptop, computer and phone (maybe not even have your phone near you, or on), most distractions during COVID-19 are shut out. This means that you should be able to code, write or read (if you’re using Google Scholar or similar, download the papers first, then read in PDF mode).
It seems rather drastic, but there is a phenomenon called switching costs, which refer to the amount of time that is lost when getting distracted from your work and having to dive back into it. This adds up. Switch your internet off!
If you have any tips on how to work from home, tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.
by Merle
Merle van den Akker is a PhD student with the Behavioural Science Group at WBS, looking into the effect of contactless payments on how me manage our finances. She tweets at @MoneyMindMerle.

Monday, May 18, 2020

More Than 70% of Academics at Some Universities are Casuals. They’re Losing Work and are Cut Out of JobKeeper

The National Tertiary Education Union this week struck an agreement with universities that no ongoing university staff member would be stood down involuntarily without pay. This deal is contingent on staff above a certain pay grade taking a cut of up to 15% of their salary.
It’s still uncertain how many universities will sign up to the deal – the Australian Catholic University has already rejected it.
Casual and contract academics are most vulnerable to imminent job losses. By mid-2018, an estimated 94,500 people were employed at Australian universities on a casual basis, primarily in teaching-only roles.
The number of precariously employed academics has been estimated at 70% of teaching staff in some universities. At the University of Wollongong, for instance, around 75% of staff are in insecure work – a figure that includes both teaching and administrative workers.
And yet in March, the university had failed to ensure wage support for casual staff needing to self-isolate for any reason.
In April, one-third of casuals at the University of NSW had reported they’d lost work. This reportedly cost them an average A$626 a week, and 42% were working unpaid hours.
Casual academics are not eligible for the government’s JobKeeper payments due to rules that require more than 12 months continuous employment with an organisation that has lost between 30-50% of its revenue – effectively ruling universities out. Casual academics are often on short-term contracts, such as a semester-by-semester basis.
Under the NTEU agreement, displaced casual and fixed-term contract staff will be prioritised for new work. This approach leaves many staff in a position of increased precarity. The likelihood of new work emerging over the next few months is low, given the downturn in international student enrolments and uncertainties around conducting fieldwork research given social distancing policies.
This highly skilled yet vulnerable group need greater support from our government.

A vulnerable workforce

Some estimates place revenue losses at Australian universities at around A$19 billion over the next three years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The university sector estimates this puts more than 21,000 jobs at risk over coming months, and countless more in the future.
The loss of international students is potentially catastrophic for the sector. An estimated A$2 billion in fees could be lost mid-year as international students are unable to arrive in Australia to start semester two studies.

Some universities, such as the University of Tasmania, have had to reduce the number of courses offered in 2021 to recoup funding. And universities have had to scale back spending, for example, on major construction works.
This week, Vice Chancellor of La Trobe University, John Dewar, said revenues could be A$150 millon under budget this year and up to A$200 million next year.
If this year’s required savings were to be made solely from staff cuts, this would require 200-400 job losses, he said. The 2021 budget gap could equate to 600-800 jobs.
In April, La Trobe and RMIT university had let go of hundreds of casual “non-essential” staff. Western Sydney University warned staff in April it would cut casual workloads as it faced mounting financial shortfalls over the next three years.
Despite these realities, both tenured and untenured academic staff are being asked to do more in teaching and research to support the country in the face of this pandemic. They are doing this with fewer resources.

What can be done?

Even before the NTEU agreement, many universities responded with clear policies and support in response to COVID-19. For example, executive staff at some universities – such as La Trobe and the The University of Wollongong – took a 20% pay cut, and froze any non-essential travel.
Many universities, such as Deakin, are providing paid leave for staff with caring responsibilities and paid isolation leave for those exposed to coronavirus. And others, like ANU and ACU, have extended benefits to their casual and contract staff. These include honouring existing contracts, paying sessional tutors despite reductions in teaching hours and paying casual staff to attend online professional development.

All workers need transparency around expectations and pay. But this is particularly important for casual staff, whose immediate and long-term work prospects are under threat despite having often spent years in universities building expertise. Although casual academics are on temporary contracts, some have been working for universities longer than their colleagues on continuing contracts.
In the United States a statement of solidarity started by 70 prominent academics has so far received more than 2,000 signatures. The signatories have refused to work with any university that does not support its staff.
Some might argue such declarations are performative. But our research interviews with precariously employed academics highlight how support from ongoing academic staff is critical to their experiences in academia. This includes their mental health, job prospects and future career paths.
Casual staff members already experience isolation and anxiety. Missing out on benefits such as special leave provisions extended to tenured staff while working from home may exacerbate this.
Breaks in an academic career or a lack of visibility – which could result from working from home, not holding a current contract or a lack of recent publications – can irrevocably damage future job prospects for any academic.
Tenured academics and leaders can make an enormous difference to non-tenured staff by being proactive in maintaining networks, ensuring transparent communication, providing mentoring and offering paid opportunities to co-author research publications.
The government has pledged to support employees from many other industries impacted by COVID, through policies like JobKeeper. As our third largest national export, higher education is crucial for building new knowledge and preparing our future workforce.
While the NTEU framework offers a starting point, further government funding is required to provide appropriate security to those who work on casual or fixed-term contracts in higher education.
Recognition of their work and clarity about prospects and pay can make a massive difference to the lives and careers of our non-tenured colleagues.