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A Conversation with Graduate Students: Thoughts about a Transnational Academic Career

University of Lancaster - Professor Gordon Walker, Dr. Allison Hui, and Dr. Neil Simcock
University of Birmingham - Dr. Rosie Day

19 November 2014, 13:30-16:30

Administration Building, Conference Room 2


        What are the advantages and challenges of being an academic today? How can researchers from different disciplines work together? How do we decide what methodological elements to use? These were some of the questions the visiting scholars from the Demand Centre answered during their panel discussion. Each panelist shared their thoughts through the lens of their past experiences as a student and current experiences as an academic.

        Professor Gordon Walker, a trained geographer, began his career over 35 years ago. While completing his PhD, he researched risk in relation to living near environmental hazards such as chemical plants. One of the things that attracted him to this field was secrecy surrounding environmental hazards in the UK. In fact, the law required him to anonymize not only his informants but also his research sites. Walker also talked about some international variations in academia. For instance, when he acted on a Dutch dissertation committee, he found the procedure to be extremely formal, saying that it included a ceremonial processional. When the class discussion touched on globalization and mobilities, Walker emphasized that international mobility is not equal to international uniformity.

        Dr. Rosie Day presented on her past research experience about older UK residents and how they stay warm during the winter. She emphasized the different ethical dimensions that ethnographic researchers must consider. For example, her informants had to sign thorough informed consent papers. Academics must also consider potential risks to themselves, especially when are conducting researching in private homes. Day recognized that most of the audience was coming from a communications background, so she spoke about her experience working with communication professionals within academia. Most universities in the UK have their own communications offices that handle public relations. University researchers will seek their help when writing funding proposals. Furthermore, these offices also share responsibility for informing the public what the researchers are doing and why. This is especially important for public universities, which use taxpayer money.

        Dr. Allison Hui, a trained sociologist, is a Canadian who received her PhD in the UK. She completed a few years of post-doctoral work in Hong Kong, where she had also traveled as child to visit family. All of this moving around and noticing the differences in daily life sparked her interest in object mobilities. Hui has experimented with creative methodological practices, and she passed around an object journal that she had used in a past research project. She designed this book so respondents could write and draw about their object use in non-linear – even fun – ways. These were also used in follow-up interviews with the informants. Because Hui has academic and professional experience in her home country and abroad, she had a few things to say about making these international transitions. She suggests that it is not entirely true that the study and job markets are not totally global. Standards vary from place to place, and it can be difficult to keep track of these standards as people apply for jobs or university programs. One specific instance she encountered was how research quality was ranked. In the UK, there is a system in place to compare research between different institutions, something that does not exist in Canada. In Hong Kong, however, scholars are encouraged to have their work published in American journals.

        Dr. Neil Simcock (University of Lancaster) is at the start of his career as a post-doctoral researcher. Before joining the Demand Centre team, he worked on a two-year project that was a collaboration between Keele University and Marches Energy Agency. Through four case studies, they sought to discover how people learn about energy efficiency, particularly how much family and friends are involved. It was tricky at times to have a non-academic partner, namely due to differing aims and expectations for the project. Despite such challenges, Simcock made sure the audience knew that he actually found this research opportunity to be quite rewarding. They were able to connect with NGOs, engage with the general public, and make their findings available to a non-academic audience. On that note, Simcock concluded his presentation with a video that had been produced about this project. This was one of the ways that made their research accessible to the very people they were researching.

        In addition to their individual experiences, the panelists discussed their involvement with the Demand Centre. It is a five-year research center that is comprised of 45 researchers from 11 universities. In order to get the funding necessary for their energy demand research, they had to go through a competitive application process in which they proved how they had attainable goals in the following categories: relevancy, climate change, interdisciplinary cooperation, non-academic impact, communication with policymakers and the public, partnership with other organizations, and international reach. They needed additional funding in order to cover their travel expenses to Taiwan, which was disbursed through the British Council.

        As the name of this event suggests, the four scholars did not simply lecture but invited questions and comments at the end of each section. At the start, each attendee introduced themselves and their research interests, which the visiting scholars took notes on. Questions were welcomed throughout the afternoon, and the ≈30 attendees were even asked for their own ideas about research methodologies. 

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