24 June 2019

The ARC’s Australian Laureate Fellowships not only support unique and vital projects of inquiry led by some of Australia’s most accomplished research leaders, they also provide a host of mentoring opportunities for the up-and-coming next generation of research leaders.

This is particularly the case for the prestigious Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellowships—which are awarded to a successful female candidate from the humanities, arts and social science disciplines and the science and technology disciplines respectively, to undertake an ambassadorial role to promote women in research. These distinguished fellows, who receive additional funding to undertake their important role, are first selected as Australian Laureate Fellows before this additional fellowship title is awarded.

Professor Joy Damousi, a Professor of History at The University of Melbourne, has been leveraging her ARC Kathleen Fitzpatrick Laureate Fellowship to run an intensive mentoring scheme for early career researchers (ECRs) in the humanities and social sciences. Since 2015, a total of 278 women from all disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences have come from universities across Australia to participate in the week long program, held annually at The University of Melbourne. 

“The program criteria was that participants had to be within ten years of receiving a PhD,” says Professor Damousi. “This meant that there were women straight out of their PhD, as well as  those in the upper end of the scale and so closer to ten years out, and there were women who were somewhere within that range.”

Professor Damousi says that the mentorship and leadership opportunity offered by the Kathleen Fitzpatrick Australian Laureate Fellowship was central to her motivation to apply in the first place.

“Up to that point I had mentored ECR women in a range of different forums within my university and externally to it, but in a less structured and more informal way.”

“I was keen to develop a more formalised structure, as well as run a program which went beyond my discipline and involved ECR women across Australia. This Laureate Fellowship provided the perfect platform for developing such a program and so it was the ideal scheme for me to apply for to foster this vision.”

Professor Damousi says that the Australian Laureate Fellowship provided funding for ten women to participate in the program, and that she was able to leverage this funding through the named laureate platform in order to attract more funds to cover the cost of more participants attending the program. 

Professor Damousi plans to continue the program beyond her Laureate Fellowship, which runs until November 2019. This will involve raising funds from universities to sponsor their own ECRs to attend the program.

“One of my aims is to establish a network of participants at each of the universities to continue a more formal peer mentoring program for those who have completed the program,” says Professor Damousi.

The establishment of such a network would be a great outcome of the Laureate Fellowship, and already, peer-mentoring groups have sprung up in some universities, organised by women who undertook the program, and Professor Damousi is fielding requests from universities to run shorter versions at their universities. 

Dr Madeline Taylor, an Academic Fellow from The University of Sydney School of Law, who attended the final mentoring workshop in February 2019, says that she found the week-long program instrumental in developing a number of skills in advancing an academic career as a young female researcher.

“Mentoring, or rather as Professor Damousi calls it, ‘sponsorship’, is instrumental to a career in research,” says Dr Taylor. “Throughout the workshop, I found myself drawing links to my own experiences with other female sponsors from whom I had received mentoring throughout my PhD, in my publication opportunities, and in building an international research networks as Professor Damousi has.”

“As a result of the program, I have now become a mentor for students interested in my research area of expertise in Energy and Natural Resources Law. I was approached by the Sydney Law School Students Society to undertake this mentorship role and happily accepted to act as a mentor for students entering the legal discipline,” says Dr Taylor.

Dr Fiona Mayne, a lecturer at the Graduate School of Education at The University of Western Australia, says that the program went far beyond what she had thought or imagined.

“The program moved me from feeling deeply inadequate in my role, to feeling as though I had practical strategies to not only cope with the job, but to succeed as an academic wanting to make a difference to students through my teaching,” reflects Dr Mayne.

“The days were paced very well, building through the week so that a final talk at the end given by a guest, Professor Mary Wlodek, became a life-changing experience for me, particularly in terms of what I now expect of myself and of those with whom I work and interact. Each element of the program was essential in leading to the final deeply-inspiring outcome. I came out of the training feeling that every ECR needs this experience!”

Dr Kiera Lindsey, recipient of a 2018 ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) based at the Australian Centre of Public History at the University of Technology Sydney, participated in Professor Damousi’s mentoring program in 2016. She says that as a direct result of the program, she decided to apply for, and was successful in, her DECRA application.

“The 2016 Kathleen Fitzpatrick Mentoring Program gave me a bigger sense of the world in which I work and time to think carefully about my place within it,” says Dr Kiera Lindsey. “I was at a crossroads in my career, asking big questions about what sort of academic and historian I wanted to be, what I wanted to do, with whom, where and how. This program of discussions and activities gave me time to reflect and recalibrate. It also introduced me to colleagues and senior figures who are doing really interesting work with whom I have maintained contact.”

“Most importantly,” adds Dr Lindsey, “we had a lot of fun, which is crucial to getting the synapses working and learning something new.”

Image: Professor Damousi running a mentoring session. Credit: Rachel Stevens.