Kirsten Ellis is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Information Technology at Monash University in Melbourne. She discusses how she deals with changing goalposts around performance outputs, being passionate about her research, having success at getting grants but trouble getting published. She discusses the impact that repeated rounds of redundancy have on morale and culture, and on being open and authentic at work. Authenticity comes through as theme throughout. And she talks about how she manages being a mother of three teenage girls, including one with a disability, as well as having a mother who is sick. Her non-negotiable going flying time every week is a key part of how she cares for herself so she can care for others.
Notes: For context, she also mentions a session with me around values. This was done as part of a Career Development Workshop that I ran at Monash at the beginning of the year, where I first met Kirsten. The audio quality is a little problematic in places but still understandable hopefully.
“Tell me to do amazing research and I will. I’m passionate. Having a matrix that says you have to submit blah papers per year is not going to motivate me.”
“If I look after myself first, I’m a much nicer person and can look after everyone else and bear a much greater burden the rest of the week.”
“Authenticity, this is part of me… my work is not completely separate to everything at home. I am a whole person.”
“Know your strengths, know your weaknesses…leave the ones that don’t matter to you, and work on the ones that are going to make a strategic difference.”.
She talks about (times approximate) …
1:30 Kirsten introduces her background in multimedia, starting PhD, and permanently employed 3 months into PhD as a lecturer, the advantages and disadvantages (missing mentoring, everyone very junior). Has been at Monash Uni since ’95 and at senior lecturer level (second level) and received her PhD 10 years ago in Oct.
4:55 Reflects that her honours student maybe didn't get as much support due to her inexperience; and as faculty they used to publish where ever they wanted, now there is much more pressure. Persistence beyond stupidity is her motto – serves her well as an academic. A lot of grant success. Also a lot of grant failure. So persistence an important aspect.
6:50 Goal posts changing. Originally encouraged to send out papers to count three times. So understands that the national research assessment exercise ERA is trying to stop this. Her research is in children and disability but her preferred publishing venues were not ERA ranked as high/A*. Told “not allowed to publish there anymore”. Driven by politicians who want to be accountable.
9:05 “Management in universities an interesting thing. One of my big bugbears is: Tell me to do amazing research and I will. I’m passionate. Having a matrix that says you have to submit blah papers per year is not going to motivate me to do amazing research. Tell me to do amazing research and it’ll get published because it is amazing, it will break new ground, it will help people. That’s going to inspire me, that’s going to make me work hard. But telling me I have to produce an unreasonable number of things per year. I don’t know that many people are motivated by the big stick, especially people in academia. You’re a HD (high distinction) student before you arrive. So they’re managing people the wrong way around for the type of people they have.” Discusses how the message comes down from vice chancellor level to the message she then gets that she has to publish 5 high quality papers in X venues and guess those venues 3 years in advance.
11:15 Strategies: went ERA chasing for a while and got a whole lot of rejections. De-motivating. And got confused about what she needed to do to get published. Grants above professor level but can’t get published but what she is doing has really good social impact. Discusses her work developing software for sign language teaching, 100% uptake in the market but can’t get published, very applied, can’t prove learning. Her strategy now: “I want to do amazing research that has huge impact. And if I do really good research it should get published.” So shifted from chasing ERA to focusing on research. And should be able to publish. Other strategy is using creativity as antidote to bean counting measures. Creative work eg braille keyboard. A lot of people like to have a clear separation between work and home. But for her sitting at home in front of the TV at night building new circuits is fun. “I’ve made it in the world. I get to have a job where I get to play with play doh and make a puppet without having to put up with children.” Using it in a grown-up way and doing good in the world. May also address gender gap as it appeals to different people. Easy to do creative things with technology now.
16:55 Importance of re-framing. Did a session ‘with me’ around values (Note: ‘with me’, Geri Fitz, at a Career Development Workshop GF ran at Monash) – recognizes equity and making a difference in the world are things she values so if she can do research around this it is motivating but ticking boxing is not. How to hook into people’s own motivation.
18:05 Is she benefiting from emphasis on impact? Impact becoming more important in other countries but not so much in Australia at the moment. Starting to have impact stories and that will make a difference to the acceptance of her work. Faculty is also changing. Great things happening and getting support through those mechanisms and clear definitions of where she needs to target, more acceptable to her work. Works in sign language teaching. But only 5 people in the world working on this. So won’t get high citations. How do you define quality? Is it popularity ie number of citations? “What is popular is not necessarily what is important.” And sometimes hard to get published when breaking new ground and proposing things that haven’t been done before and people aren’t there with you but doesn’t mean it’s not unique, important. A problem with the reviewing process, overwhelmed, reviewed by junior people, different reasons for rejecting the paper – is it rejection bias to get down to certain number of papers rather than a problem with the paper?
21:40 Most frustrating thing is not the rejection on paper but that this information is not distributed into the community, losing out on papers that could add value but don’t fit in the box of what is acceptable. A loss to the community. Her response: Using mentors. Taking feedback and speaking to people about what she is not getting quite right, how to present it so people can understand it. Discusses an issue where reviewers raise a critique about not focusing on children but it’s the teachers/parents who need help. Shows they don’t understand the context. All people she has approached for help have been helpful. Feedback is often around re-framing.
24:20 Being a senior lecturer level impacted by these publication issues? Explains the Australian context and what it takes to advance to the next step of associate professor. First time applied for senior lecturer, told she didn’t have ARC grants but a 10% success rate, hard to get, and hadn’t needed one 3 years prior. Shifting goalposts. Need to jump through hoops but the hoops are getting smaller and higher every year. Can miss a hoop because don’t know how they are going to change.
26:30 “Love my work! Do stuff that interests me.” Talks about how she spends time exploring/learning things to “put in the toolbox”. “It’s not about the technology it’s how we use the technology”. But have to learn those technologies. Often tech is a solution looking for a problem. She has things in her toolbox and can apply to a problem.
28:30 Biggest challenges now? Re-vamping a unit so the unknown and exciting. Department is growing and have now started an assistive technology group. Now feels she has more of a community happening, no longer on the outer, has a place. So change is not always bad. Some fantastic things happening. One course she’s not inspired about but have to take your load.
29:30 Has a daughter with a disability so a challenge being a mum working, with a disabled child. Difficult but also modelling for her three daughters. Mother is sick. Balancing out time at home and time at work. Careful about looking after herself. Always had a horse riding lesson every week but has hurt her hip. So need a certain amount of adrenaline to function. So now flying! That time when all problems go away. Just there and have to concentrate to survive. That puts the week in perspective. “ It’s a non-negotiable that I have this time every week.” Can be flexible when that time is. “If I look after myself first, I’m a much nicer person and can look after everyone else and bear a much greater burden the rest of the week as ensured my footings are strong first.” “Very important to me. It’s almost like mindfulness.” Did mindfulness with students with one of her courses. “My activity is a form of mindfulness. It’s where nothing else matters for a couple of hours a week. And that’s enough for me. … Resets everything and makes the world function better.”
32:40 Other strategies? Using creativity, children would say craziness. Reflect on stuff a lot. Having a growth mindset. Recognising you don’t have to be perfect, reflecting on what didn’t you get right, what would you change. In everything. In teaching. Continuously improving.
34:25 Importance of protected time each week. And strategies in place to be able to function eg with handling mother being sick. But we don’t talk about these sorts of things enough together. Using time before meetings to say hi, build relationships, not sit on the phone. How she also tries to care the sessionals (casual lecturers) below her. How does she have those conversations? Overshare … “authenticity, this is part of me… my work is not completely separate to everything at home. I am a whole person.”
37:38 Been through three rounds of retrenchments. Has effects on her. Thinks management don’t understand the impacts or manage the process well or recognize how much damage it does to culture. Impacts mentoring, collegiality, if concerned about yourself, hard to mentor others. Establishes competitive rather than collegial environment. No easy solution. Complex. Articulation of vision from the top can help to understand and process the changes, understanding where they are coming from, the reason. It’s not only about the bad news but the way it is delivered. Change often comes from government. But if we can have an articulation of why things are happening it can help make more sense.
43:20 Being a female in IT has some advantages, and some disadvantages. She is currently participating in a women’s shadowing program, to see why some of those decisions were being made and to understand the process more. Shadowing a Dean of Education in another faculty. Key insights? Book about ‘managing clevers’, managing smart people who are already motivated, get more out of them if give them freedom. And understanding structure of uni. Leaders at every level, always power relationships.
47:00 How does she play out her leadership role? Importance of being realistic and having a career plan, being strategic, whether in or out of academia, what skills are needed. “Know your strengths, know your weaknesses…leave the ones that don’t matter to you, and work on the ones that are going to make a strategic difference.”. So having a plan with staff she works with on. Tradeoffs of being in a teaching and research role rather the 3yr limited research only role. Permanent position enables taking a long-term view with research. If you are on a 3yr contract, difficulty of taking on a PhD student.
50:27 Two ways of moving through academia: those with a commitment to being in the one city because of family/other commitments; others who can move around because that works for them, easier for those without family. Different journey. So importance of having realistic conversations with people you work with/lead. Changing landscape of academia. Fine as long as people know what they are participating in.
52:15 Dealing with sick mother, and 3 daughters, one disabled? Actually working 0.8 not full time. Kids at an alternative school. Drops them off/picks them up. Works every evening. But that works for her, not a burden, a joy. Three teenage daughters. Always struggled going to conferences. Problem when submitting a paper of predicting what space her daughter will be in at the time of conference travel. Makes sure she writes those statements about “Relative to opportunity” on grant applications to explain impact of her circumstances on her academic track record. Not a whinge. But stating the facts and where the impact is. Helping people interpret what they are reading.
57:20 Daughter with aspergers and anxiety. Thinks there might be clusters around IT/engineering. Wonders if there are things we can do as organisations around this to support people with children where there are clusters. Having conversations together. “You will get to the other side of this.”. Does this face to face. Not on facebook. Authenticity of connections.
Book on leading clever people: Goffee R. & Jones G., 2009. Clever: Leading Your Smartest, Most Creative People, Harvard Business Press. https://www.amazon.com.au/Clever-Leading-Smartest-Creative-People/dp/1422122964
Book on Growth Mindset: Dweck, C. 2009. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books. https://www.amazon.com/Mindset-Psychology-Carol-S-Dweck/dp/0345472322