ANU Decision Makers Series: Professor Jenny Corbett

(Photo by Ben Coughlan)

The daughter of two ANU alumni and a former ANU student herself, Professor Jenny Corbett has been coming back to this university for most of her life. Despite decades working abroad, including time in Japan and 25 years at Oxford in the UK, Corbett says she “never really got away” from ANU and Canberra. She has had a number of roles here over the years and in November 2012 it was announced she would permanently move to the Chancelry as the new Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research & Research Training), following the departure of Professor Mandy Thomas, a widely respected member of the Chubb executive, who moved to Queensland. Corbett had been acting in the role for a couple of months before her appointment was announced.

Previously the Executive Director of the Australia-Japan Research Centre in the Crawford School, Corbett says she fell in love with Japan in her undergraduate career (she majored in economics and Japanese, which “back then was not a very common combination”) and it has been a lifelong passion ever since. As well as her focus on Japan, Corbett’s academic area of expertise is economics, a discipline she has a PhD in from the University of Michigan. Her areas of expertise include international economics and international finance, as well as macroeconomics and comparative economic systems.

According to an online role description, the Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research & Research Training) “provides leadership in linking the quality and standards agenda across research and education, including strategies to enhance research and graduate education outcomes”. Typical university language, but I wanted to know what the difference was between ‘Research’ and ‘Research Training’ in her job title. Research training, says Corbett, is something that complements the fine research taking place by ANU staff and students. “It’s about the development of the next generation of researchers”, she tells me. “ANU wants to create a sense of engagement for PhD students. We want to give skills and create a sense of belonging and identity that will assist them to build their career before they even leave university”.

I asked whether there will be many jobs at ANU for graduating PhD students given budget cuts and the like, to which she replied that there was work being done to ensure places for the next generation of researchers, and she reminded me of the budget savings announcements made recently, where the Vice Chancellor Professor Ian Young said that the voluntary early retirement scheme for general staff would be extended to academic staff not as a saving measure, but to allow ANU to reinvest in academic talent. Young said back then that “a particular target for this renewal will be our many outstanding early and mid-career Fellows”. Corbett said it was worth noting that 50% of PhD graduates do not go on to university jobs anyway.

A student who wrote recently to Woroni asked why it was “almost impossible to work out online how to get admission as a PhD student at ANU” and I suggested to Corbett that this was a bit strange considering ANU’s ranking as the top, or near the top, of the rankings of research universities in Australia. Corbett acknowledged that the online admission process is “at the top of everybody’s hate list” but there is “no one size fits all”. I then asked her what prospective students could really do if the online process was so bad?, to which she assured me it was something the ANU would continue to work on improving. Woroni will keep an eye on this over the next few months. Note: A tip for any aspiring PhD student is that everything becomes just a bit easier if you can find a potential supervisor to help you go through the admissions process. There are no guarantees, of course, but if someone on the inside is advising you/pushing for you the chances of you getting in will increase significantly. Just go online, find someone in your academic area of interest, and email them/plan to meet up.

Who has been your greatest inspiration?

My high school teachers and principal. And Aung Sun Suu Kyi [who Corbett knew during her years at Oxford] for her passion, courage and commitment.

What’s your favourite café on campus?

Hedley Bull Gods, because it is a centre of buzz and a good place to catch people on the go. Also, Ivy (at Crawford School) because of the great view.

Do you read Woroni?

Occasionally – over many years.

Three words to describe your boss (VC Ian Young)?

Thoughtful. Concerned. Conscientious.