Chatting with Anita Collins

By Honor Coleman

Dr Anita Collins is an educator, a musician and an academic. But trying to sum up her career in just three words doesn’t do her justice – she’s also a musical director, an active member of the TED community (her TedED video on the benefits of music for your brain has been watched over 30 million times), manages a Twitter account and Facebook page – Bigger, Better Brains – and maintains an interest in the plight of early career researchers – she’s a coach and mentor, and a co-founder of the early career research group, ‘the Mushrooms’ (because ECRs are so often kept in the dark and fed a lot of sh*t). Despite this busy schedule, she has still found time to bring together young and professional musicians (via the Goulburn Strings Project) and make a number of media appearances, most recently appearing on Kinderling to talk about the Lullaby Effect. Not to mention she has pretty amazing cake decorating skills and a great shoe collection.

Anita and I braved the brisk autumn weather of Melbourne (for as long as possible before hustling inside somewhere warmer and drier…) to sit down and have a chat about her career and views on navigating her way in academia, life as an early career researcher, and trying to finish a PhD with a newborn. I thought I would pass on a few great thoughts, tips and tricks from our chat:

“I’m having a baby with my body and a baby with brain and those two can’t co-exist all the time.”

Anita had a baby at the start of her PhD and she would not recommend it. The day of her confirmation was also the last day she was allowed to fly, so suffice to say trying to write a thesis and nurse a newborn was less than ideal. Then again, there’s no good time to do a PhD and there’s no good time to have a baby. Despite the ‘baby brain,’ Anita felt there were some advantages to having a baby during her PhD. In particular, it made her much more efficient (i.e. ruthless) in terms of her time management. And her strategies are actually just great pointers for anyone trying to get a PhD done in a hurry (so, all of us). She learned how to write one paragraph at a time, in sequential order, and set aside chucks of time (like when her daughter was asleep) to get them done whenever possible. Before writing chapters, she would send the plan to her supervisors and if they said yes, “write away!”, otherwise adjust and make another plan before writing. Anita also advocates for good use of resources – make use of university resources or other services, such as statistical help or professional editing. This way you can focus on the actual research itself, rather than the grammar. Sticking to this, Anita managed to finish her PhD in 2 years, 8 months. This isn’t to say that it was an easy process, but the two babies couldn’t co-exist for any longer than that.

“How can this research make me a better teacher?”

When Anita sat down to choose her research topic, she asked herself the question, ‘What would make me a better teacher?’ This is because she was working as a teacher and lecturer when she began her PhD research. Throughout the process of the PhD and continuing work in academia, Anita felt that staying grounded in her chosen teaching practice increased her authenticity as a researcher. As someone who is completing a combined program incorporating both clinical and research work, this was something that resonated with me as well. It can be a bit of a juggle (on top of the classic work-life balance juggling act) but understanding how research might be interpreted or used at the coalface in practice can help guide our choices as a researcher.

“Just do it and see what happens.”

As is evident from Anita’s CV, she takes up as many of the opportunities that come her way as she can. This was another important piece of advice. Like the idea that keeping a foot in the door of both research and real-world practice (where possible) can improve both, taking on multiple roles can make us better at each of them. However, there are both pros and cons to taking on multiple roles; for example, while the experiences may be complimentary, sometimes the stress and exhaustion from one role can spill into the other(s). But Anita doesn’t subscribe to the notion that anyone should pick a single area and stick to it. By wandering and following your interests, you may surprise yourself with what you are capable of and where you end up.

“Balance is actually a really interesting idea, because it’s not actually about equal on each side, it’s just about doing the best you can at different times.”

When the conversation turned towards personal and professional well-being, particularly for women in academia, Anita’s advice was to find the middle-ground, the best fit between what is required of you and what you are good at and love doing. Part of this also involves recognising that sometimes, life just gets in the way. This can be particularly challenging in academia because, as academics, we choose our own area of research based on what we are interested in and passionate about. This can make it hard for us to disentangle ourselves from our work and critiques of our research. While this is not a problem exclusive to the research world, there has been a lot of recognition recently of the high rates of mental health issues within academia, which may reflect some of this internally generated pressure. As such, it’s important to realise when we’re too invested in something – a project, a goal, a publication count – and to recognise if we’re placing our emphasis of worth on this. Academia can be a very fulfilling career, but it is important not lose sight of our worth outside of this arena. And as illustrated by the quote above, it’s also about trying to do the best we can, when we can.

“We are our own worst enemy a lot of the time.”

Talking some more about women in academia, Anita and I discussed her work with the early career research group, The Mushrooms. As part of this project, Anita and her colleagues looked at performance criteria for both academic and professional staff across a number of universities. We discussed their findings, which are particularly interesting in light of recent research suggesting that more women are leaving academia (e.g., young women scientists are leaving in far great numbers than their male colleagues). While criteria for professional staff tended to focus on collaborative efforts and teamwork, criteria for academic staff are typically more achievement focussed – such as publishing the most papers in the least amount of time. These criteria don’t really acknowledge the value of someone who is also a partner, a parent, or someone who is working outside the academic sphere as a teacher, clinician, or communicator.

But how are we our own worst enemy when it comes to fulfilling these performance criteria? Well, men are often better at looking at the criteria and saying, “You asked for this, I’ll give you this.” Women, on the other hand will often approach it with a, “You asked for this, I’ll do that and see what else I can do with this.” Unlike men, women also show a tendency not to reapply for jobs after they have been unsuccessful, not to mention a need to be more prepared when applying for the job in the first place (*cough*Hilary Clinton*cough*). For those who may be interested, Annabel Crabb’s book, The Wife Drought details some interesting research and anecdotes on how men and women in Australia approach the ‘work-life balance’ differently (and how wonderful it would be if we all had ‘wives’). Obviously what we really need here is a shift in the work culture (that not only allows women to progress in the workplace but also allows men to stay home if they so choose), but given that’s a way off yet, being aware of how we may be acting as our own ‘enemies’ can help us navigate our career paths with clearer vision.

In terms of her own career path, Anita has recently been exploring opportunities to see how things work beyond the ivory tower, in the industry setting. When I first got in touch about the interview, Anita wondered if she was the right person to talk to about life as a woman in academia as she was perhaps a touch jaded … Having said that, she would not take back her decision to work in academia – the knowledge and skills she has gained from the research process are highly valued in any setting and no doubt Anita will continue to do very interesting and exciting work. Watch this space!