ECR Journey Part II: The Journey Continues

The Monash University Malaysia Early Career Research (ECR) network organised its second symposium recently.

Titled 'ECR Journey Part II: The Journey Continues', the event brought the finest in academia to impart key insights to early career researchers as they begin their respective journeys in their chosen fields.

In his opening address, Professor Dr Mahendhiran Nair, Vice President (Research and Development), Monash University Malaysia, emphasised the importance of research-inspired teaching and identified ECR as one of the primary drivers of research.

"It is great to have your discipline areas, but the question is, how are the disciplines going to address global challenges? That's why researchers today have to be ambidextrous, where, apart from having the depth of knowledge in their discipline areas, they also have the breadth of knowledge in addressing some of the grand challenges we face today, that is multidisciplinary," he said.

Associate Professor Dr Grace Lee, Head of Department (Economic) shared the importance of coming out of one's comfort zone to leverage on the panoply of available opportunities, especially in a truly global institution like Monash Malaysia.

"Three years ago, I started to embark on a different direction, to do field experiment, to come out of my comfort zone. I used to do secondary data analysis, and I realised how it was getting tougher to get published in the top journals," said Grace.

"I feel fortunate because we have access to Monash Australia's network. Monash Australia's economic department is known to have one of the best teams in field experiments. I wanted to capitalise on that. It cost me my research output as well, because you need to invest a lot of time and effort. Although in this period, I probably don't see much research output, I am hoping to see more and more outcomes from now on.

"Get yourself out there, sit at a table that you don't see anyone from your school. Things don't just happen. Whether you know it or not, it's all carefully planned by you. You decide what you want to embark on. You need to have a plan. You also get inspiration from attending symposiums like these, where you meet different people, and you get different ideas."

Dr Alice Chuah Lay Hong, Senior Lecturer (Pharmaceutics), School of Pharmacy, parted some valuable points on the importance of multidisciplinary research and shared how she formed a multidisciplinary team for a recent ASEAN project.

"A colleague of mine from the School of Engineering and I discussed what we wanted to do. We then laid out the plan and started to recruit members for the team. Each member brought with them their contacts. This helped us build a team with diverse backgrounds, and we then managed to form contacts with NGOs, the government and industry players," she explained.

Drawing parallels with the creation of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which was a result of the collaborative effort between a British physicist and an American chemist, Alice said: "Multidisciplinary research brings a lot of new ideas. If we confine ourselves to what we know, we are so limited by our knowledge. If we work with people from different backgrounds, we will be able to create something new."

The pursuit of multidisciplinary research does come with the danger that the researcher may lose focus of his or her original research agenda, and Dr Joel Moore, Senior Lecturer in Global Studies, School of Arts and Social Sciences addressed this.

"In the last year or so, I started making it a specific goal of mine to start applying for grants. I had a research assistant (RA), and we kept the focus of my general research agenda, to ensure we don't sacrifice that, and then we started figuring out different ways to package it, to reframe it, to target different grants," he said.

"When these opportunities come, not all of them are going to work. But if you go with an open mind and have a firm grasp of what your research agenda and trajectory is, you can figure out ways. One of the things that I did exclusively was to go to stakeholders who are involved in the research area I was in."

The process of supervising postgraduate candidates can be a tricky one. The need to master social skills is of paramount importance when dealing with PhD students, for instance. Emotional issues, just as much as issues with competencies, can derail the prospects of a candidate.

"Fairness is fundamental, especially when you have more than one PhD student. There's a lot of comparisons that go on, and you need to keep the harmony within the research team," said Associate Professor Dr Adeline Ting, Head of Discipline, Biological Sciences

School of Science.

She highlighted the importance of communication, and the need to ensure that the candidate and the supervisor are on the same page. For this, she said it is vital for academics to put themselves in the shoes of their supervisees, to gauge where they stand.

"Students are working with you and not for you. Through mentoring, you know more about the students. Sometimes you need to be a mentor. Share your life experiences, and they will see you as humans," she said.

Dr Alpha Agape Gopalai echoed Adeline's point and said that he treats his students as equals.

"When they (students) submit a manuscript, and the reviewer rejects it, it can take a mental toll on students. Teach students how to deal with rejection. Handling rejection needs to be taught in students," said Dr Alpha.

Milestones are a crucial component in ensuring students deliver what is required of them, at a set time and date. Setting deadlines require proper planning as both students, and supervisors juggle with a myriad of other responsibilities.

"Something that I find beneficial at Monash is the milestone review, so even if you're not great at planning a project out, at least there is a formal support structure from Monash to ensure that you know what is going to happen at the eighth month, first year, second year and final year before they submit their thesis. So if you try and plan the deliverable around those milestones you should be doing great," said Dr Alpha.

He also stressed the importance of helping students to plan the research papers that they wish to get published. He said it is important to teach students what constitutes an excellent publication.

"It is not so much about writing an experiment report or finding a report and then just submitting it to a journal. It is more of understanding what the criteria of these journals are, what they are looking for. Some journals even look out whether you have cited enough of their paper to understand whether what you're publishing is relevant to their fields. These are little things we pick up along the way," he added.

There are a wide array of issues that the ECRs will have to negotiate in their arduous journey towards reaching their objectives. Professor Dr Helen Nesadurai, Professor of International Political Economy, School of Arts and Social Sciences, listed three types of tensions that supervisors and graduate research students will have to negotiate. She identified the three as the ones between supervisors and students, the ones between the principal supervisors and associate supervisors, and the ones between the supervisor and institutional realities.

"At the heart of these tensions is one of how you find that balance between under supervision and over supervision," she said.

"I find that each supervision begins as a very novel situation like starting work in a new organisation, and this especially matters in the arts and social sciences, in the humanities, because the graduate research student has his or her research project that is not usually integrated with that of the supervisors project or the supervisors project team. How you negotiate that relationship is significant for the doctoral research experience. This is not necessarily a linear process."

Freda Liu, Presenter/Producer, BFM Media Sdn Bhd, highlighted the importance of personal branding, and how to leverage on social media to stand out. She picked LinkedIn as a particular platform for academics to highlight their work and stressed the need to post consistently to create visibility.

"This is not boasting, but it's coming to terms with how fantastic you are, and the belief that you have something to offer. You do have something to share, you do have something to give," said Freda, as she urged academics to embrace social media.

In his closing remarks, Professor Mahendhiran shared his journey from his post-doctorate days, through to his rise to the position he occupies today.

"I used to do a lot of pump-and-grind research in my early days, but it never really stood out. You need to know the quality of your work. Self-reflection is very important as a scholar," he said.

He asked the audience, "What is your philosophy when it comes to teaching? How do you take your research and connect it to your teaching? I've discovered new stuff, how can I bring that into my department? How do the students use the course to have a global impact?"