When we think about research, we might think of brooding half-lit figures slumped over piles of books in library nooks. Or lab coat-clad characters pipetting in the early hours of the morning.
But doing the research is only one part of the equation. How should we communicate it? This is one of the questions that Associate Professor Inger Mewburn has dedicated her career to addressing.
Inger is the University's Director of Research Development. Through this role, Inger helps researchers develop career skills by running university-wide programs.
"Academia is a really competitive, difficult job and doing a PhD is not enough to learn how to be an academic. People like me are like coaches for high performing athletes. Researchers are great at doing research - but some struggle with writing, communicating and project management."
“In my teaching, I help people finish large, complex projects with multiple stakeholders. I do some of this via direct coaching, and my team runs workshops and courses that help people become better writers and communicators. I help ANU take part in competitions and provide strategic advice to various committees and to any staff who want help with their PhD cohort.”
One of Inger’s pet projects over the years has been administering her famous The Thesis Whisperer blog. Started over 10 years ago, The Thesis Whisper is dedicated to the topic of doing a PhD and has over 100K followers. We asked Inger about how the blog came about.
“My work is so hard to define and I do such a wide range of things that at my previous university they just called me 'the thesis whisperer' - I thought it would be a good name for a blog - and it was!”
“Originally it was a way of sharing my workshop material online in a format that people could access whenever they liked. It's evolved from there over 10 years - for a long time I had guest posters and a community content model, but this year I reverted back to just me. I do some YouTube and podcasting as well. I just like making things.”
Like many of life’s best moments, Inger found herself studying and teaching pedagogy by complete accident.
“I became a researcher developer completely by mistake in 2006. I was asked to fill a maternity leave position. Prior to that I was an architect and taught people how to design and draw buildings. I learned how to be a research developer 'on the job', and by reading papers that other researcher developers wrote.”
Victoria Firth-Smith, an experience designer in the Researcher Development team, works closely with Inger on a variety of programs. Together, they help researchers at ANU build networks across disciplines.
“Research impact is very important. Being able to communicate to research colleagues in one’s discipline and beyond – to government, investors and users – is an essential skill. ANU has such incredibly talented candidates, supporting them share their expertise with the world is a lot of fun.”
One of the programs that Victoria and Inger, the ANU 3MT Final, recently held it’s 2020 iteration on 4 September 2020.
Victoria explains how Inger’s approach to mentoring has inspired her:
“Inger is incredibly supportive of people’s goals and ways of knowing and being in the world. She and I meet with all 3MT finalists one on one to find out what each candidates motivations are for the 3MT, what they wish to say and do with their 3 minutes on stage. Inger creates save environments for candidates to be ambitious, honest and confident which is often a contrast to how students have been supported through other competitions.”
“Inger is famous for being the Thesis Whisperer, and some on campus call me the Whisperer Whisperer – I’m extremely proud to work with Inger, she is smart, generous and enthusiastic.”
Mentoring and coaching 3MT participants is one of Inger’s favourite parts of the job.
“My favourite part of coaching is seeing people become more confident about what they do and why they do it.”
If research development is a career you are interested in, Inger has some advice for building your skills.
“Be the kind of person who organises conferences and workshops for your fellow students. This kind of event experience is helpful and will teach you a lot about how to work with academics!”