"Girlfriends of the Court"

New Kid on the Block

In Career, Education, Guest Post, higher education, legal education on December 16, 2011 at 9:46 pm
Early Career researchers, legal education

Early career academics - are they the pop stars of legal academia? *

Reflections of a NKOTB: my first two months as a legal academic

After ten years of study, five years of practice (including private practice and homelessness lawyering), two undergraduate degrees, three postgraduate qualifications, two children, hundreds of clients and thousands (millions?) of pages of legal documents, I came to the conclusion that I don’t want to be a lawyer. For now.

It wasn’t that I was burnt out, mistreated or jaded; I just don’t have the passion for casework at this stage of my career. But I loved the research and advocacy part of my role managing Victoria’s Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic, and the impact the law can have on society.

And so, after searching my soul, I joined the academe. Read on…

I started as a Lecturer at the Deakin University Law School in October, and teach legal skills and tax (but that’s OK). My research interests have been shaped by my experiences working with marginalised and disadvantaged clients, and my research focuses on poverty law, social justice and human rights.

My new colleagues have been really supportive and engaged, and as a newish dad, it’s fantastic having a more flexible workplace. I love the freedom to investigate any legal issues that come up – rather than responding to government inquiries or media cycles, I can be proactive in my research and writing. I’ve had pieces on high-profile blogs (see The Conversation and Right Now), agreed to write policy documents for terrific organisations like Homelessness Australia and Youthlaw (whose work I can now support while gathering data and ideas for august journals), and am starting to prepare journal articles on my areas of interest.

But there’s so much to learn! So many questions!

How do you improve your chances of getting published, especially when we’re competing with experienced researchers? Where do you secure research funding? How do you make sure that your research has impact, and that you can create change?

Am I the only person who asks these questions?

I suspect the answer is a resounding ‘No’. There are great resources out there – particular favourites are the Thesis Whisperer and Research Whisperer blogs, covering simple and important ideas like making time for research and Research Grant Applications 101.

But nothing beats meeting people in similar situations, or people who have been there before. My colleagues at Deakin have been great; I’ve strengthened relationships with academics in other law schools in my own socially-awkward way. But I think there must be a way for early career researchers in law to build closer networks, for professional collaborations and (more importantly) emotional support.

So, folks, what’s out there? What works for you? Or do we need something new to strengthen our networks?

Guest blogger  James Farrell teaches law at Deakin University. You can follow him on twitter at @_JamesFarrell

*Credit  Neal Preston at Corbis.

  1. Thanks James! I have always wondered if there is an Inter University network for early (or mid) career researchers. People starting out can find the academic environment isolating, and don’t necessarily have the resources to go conference hopping to meet their peers. Time to establish a Victorian (and then National) network?

    • Got mine as a gift, only to find out the connector doesn’t fit my new nexus phone. It is the crroect connector type, just that the form of the dock doesn’t allow the phone to seat in the connector. Others have reported that it has to do with the version of the Galaxy Nexus Verizon provides.

  2. I’m skeptical about the ECR framework, which defines early career researchers in a way that does not mean new to academia. So in my experience, you need to find your own way through. The emphasis on getting grants and publishing in A* journals is not helpful unless you are lucky enough to be part of a large and well coordinated team led by someone senior. This framework likewise won’t necessarily help you do the work that is meaningful to you (though it may if you work with like minded people and it fits the grant parameters). So if you are going it alone, in my view, you need to identify what’s realistic for you.

    For me that has meant aiming for two papers annually: one on legal ed, one on property law. I have exceeded that target lately, but that’s my base line. I publish where my work fits best rather than focus on the institutional parameters of ‘excellence’. Coming from a very small regional law school, I have also looked outside my discipline and outside my own institution to find collaborators and this is very rewarding.

    An inter university network has a lot of potential. I am presently part of the law associate deans teaching network and this is fabulous for T&L networking. Even a loose network via eg twitter I think would be rewarding for actual new legal academics (vs ECRs).

    By the way: how great to see you teaching tax! Will you teach it from a social responsibility perspective rather than a corporate perspective? It has so much potential…

    • Hi, Yes Kate, in my experience any formal framework that is structured by Universities or ‘Central’ is always an odd fit. What if you are older, but ‘early’ in your academic career? If you are part of a strong team…no problems, if you are a lone wolf..its harder. Maybe a PRAC label would work, Publishing and Research for Academic Career!

    • Thanks for your comments Kate. I agree that the definition of ECR is problematic, and that there are different expectations that new law academics face vs the ECR as traditionally defined.

      Your experiences and insights are pretty helpful for a NKOTB like me, and Melissa’s idea of a loose network of new legal academics is a great one – watch this space!

      BTW, the tax stuff is great. I practiced in the area before I went to the HPLC, so it’s great to use the experiences from both areas (ie black letter tax law and social justice/human rights). My research assignment this semester asks students to consider “If there are any elements of Australia’s tax system that are biased against women, how could Australia’s tax system better achieve gender equality?”

  3. Hi James, yes I’m in the same position. I worked in private practice and as an associate for 6 or 7 years. It was really when I had my first child that I realized that practice was not for me. I finished my PhD last year and had my first full year as an ongoing academic this year. It has been pretty grueling even though I had done sessional teaching previously. The push to publish and get yourself out there is hard, particularly when you’re teaching a whole heap of new subjects as I was this year. Don’t know what the answer to balancing it all is, but if I work it out I’ll let you know!

    P.S. I like your idea of an early career researcher network, Melissa. We have a group at Melbourne Uni, but my teaching load this year was so heavy I couldn’t attend (ironically).

    • Hi Katy,

      I’d really like to know more about the network at UniMelb. Can you forward some links/info? Is it legally focussed?


  4. Hi James

    Thanks for the nice comments.

    One of the simplest networking structures that I have seen is Shut Up and Write. A group of like-minded individuals get together at a cafe, write like hell for 20 minutes, chat for ten, write for 20, chat for ten…

    Thesis Whisperer runs one on Friday mornings and it is great. There are a wide range of different people who attend – some postgrads, some early career academics. But the issues chewed over are often the same – coping with kids and work, teaching v. research, what to buy for Christmas pressies…

    The Thesis Whisperer has written about Shut Up and Write! and so have I, at Writes Well With Others.

    Jonathan (half of The Research Whisperer)

    • PS: If you are based in the city, you are welcome to come and join us on Monday or Friday mornings.

    • Thanks Jonathan, “Shut up and write” sounds like a terrific support network/program. I’m based in Geelong, so may struggle to get their too often, but will definitely try it out. Do many law academics get involved? Do you think it helps if your support networks focus on a particular discimpline?


      • To tell you the truth, I don’t know the disciplines of many people at Shut Up and Write. I know what some of their topics are, and the interesting conversations that I’ve had with them, but mostly I know them by their Twitter feeds.

        I think that research collaboration is based on trust relationships. In my career as a baby researcher, I’ve collaborated with educationalists, lawyers, administrators, museum people and technologists. So, no, I don’t think that research networks need to be discipline-based. Most good research ideas come from the left-field, rather than the in-field (like I know what an in-field actually is).

        RMIT established an early career researcher network this year, and it was very successful. It was pretty loosely defined. It ran a few getting-to-know-you events. It ran a few workshops (including a brilliant one on planning a research career). It gave those people a voice and a way to talk together, through an ECR group on Yammer. Mostly, though, it demonstrated that there was a hunger for this sort of group and these sorts of activities. I think, over the next few years, it will be increasingly run by the members and will become stronger.

        Maybe you could start off with a pretty loose group, and then fork off a specialised legal group if there is enough members. Just a thought.

  5. Some really great questions James and stuff I’ve been struggling with too. I’ve been an academic now for almost 6 years although at least half of that time I’ve been on some kind of leave or another (OSP, Maternity leave, reduced workload after returning from maternity leave etc…) I’m not sure if I can say that I’m new anymore but I definitely don’t feel like a seasoned academic yet either. As Legal Eagle said, the first years are a killer. Teaching takes up crazy amounts of time and you still have to publish. It does get marginally easier when you can repeat subjects you have taught before.

    With regards to how you can have impact and contribute to change I’m still not sure and I would love to chat to other people who have discovered the secret. It’s something I think about a lot. I see my role as assisting those at the coalface and doing the kind of research they don’t have the time or resources for but would find helpful. Having come from the NGO sector you are probably in a great position to know where the research needs are in your area. I used to meet with people I knew from a couple of different NGOs and would ask them what they wanted me to look into. The problem was that they often needed things yesterday and did not necessarily need something in as much depth as I would produce for a paper. A couple of times however, we achieved great synergy and I was able to write papers on issues that they found useful and ultimately helped.

    Organising seminars and conferences have been great too in getting people working with refugees (my area of research) access to other people who might help them. As academics we have access to resources to make that happen. It exposes us to new ideas too.

    The other good way I’ve found is to do submissions for parliamentary enquiries etc… and turn those submissions into scholarly articles. It takes a lot of time to turn a submission into an article but at least it feels like you are doing some advocacy and the papers end up being on issues that are topical. It makes the papers a lot more attractive to journals too. That’s one area where we have an advantage over the more established researchers. We can be more flexible and cutting edge because we are unencumbered by existing projects, commitments under grants etc…

    I also think an early career research network is a great idea.

    • Thanks Az – these are all ideas I’ve been thinking about, and great to see that they’ve been working for you!

      I think an ECR network is a great idea – what sort of things do you think it should/could do?


  6. Loved the post James, and welcome aboard at Deakin! Being about three and a half years in myself, I often find myself feeling my way as I go. Not that this has been too difficult or even a problem – I’d like to think that if we’ve found our way into this job, we’re probably smart enough to work out most things for ourselves 😉 (We often expect that of our students after all!) But most important in allowing me to do this was having a network of people around me that I could go to (usually informally) for help / advice / guidance where necessary. The idea of an ECR network could very usefully and easily fulfil that kind of role on a wider scale. Will be ‘watching this space’ with interest 🙂

    • Hi Ben,

      Thanks for your post – and for so readily becoming part of my informal support network at Deakin! It’s great to hear that you’ve had success ‘feeling your way’, and I expect that most people in our situation can and do.

      What gaps might a new ECR network fill?


  7. Hi again James,
    I’m not sure I would qualify to be part of an ECR network but I envision it could be a place where new academics could discuss what has and has not worked for them, have sympathetic and understanding ears to listen to what’s hard and people to celebrate what is good with. It could also be a place where new academics could find others with similar research interests to collaborate with. These are definitely not ground breaking ideas but perhaps a start?

  8. I read this post with interest having just discovered your blog through a twitter feed (I’m not in the legal profession). Here at the University of Warwick (UK) we recently created an ECR network, based in a part of our library that is specifically aimed at encouraging interdisciplinary and collaborative research practice. Several commenters noted that the ECR definition is a tricky one and we took the view of encompassing everyone in the post-PhD stages of their career- from those who have just submitted a PhD to postdoctoral research fellows, research assistants, part-time tutors, EC academics new to Warwick, and anyone on their way to their first full-time, permanent position – basically, the end-point is self-defining as to whether you still see yourself as “early career” but the core of the definition is that it’s people in a transitional career stage.

    The idea is to enable support around many of the areas identified – publishing, getting funding, networking, establishing new research connections – and to provide peer-support for those who may feel isolated as the only ECR in their department. We’ve been running a few months and have so far discovered that it’s the peer-support and personal connections that is where the real value of this kind of network lies: people getting together and talking about issues that affect them, and hearing the experiences of others in a similar position. It’s also one of the few venues in which the early stages of collaborative, interdisciplinary practice is being actively supported for ECRs through our Research Network building initiative.

    There is also an online base which enables people to create connections even if they can’t attend events, and we’ve recently started a blog on “ECR life” which is going to build on the aspect of sharing experience and support online.
    The webpage is here http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/library/researchexchange/ecr/network/ and the blog here http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/researcherlife/

    I’d be interested to hear further thoughts on this, and to know if this might offer a useful model of the kind of network you were thinking of.

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