Ten tips for better research

Early in 2016, Robert Macintosh published ‘Top Ten Hints on Building Your Academic Reputation’, a post aimed explicitly at postgraduate students. It was republished in the Times Higher Education blog where it lost a lot of its postgraduate context. Robert was advising on building a career, and his advice may help you to build your career.

However, I don’t think we are here to build careers.

I believe we are here to improve our understanding of the world and work on hard problems. In that spirit, here are my tips for doing better research.

This is my view from sitting within the world of research administration, while undertaking my own research degree. In my day-job, I help people get funding for their research. That is, I help other people to do research.

These tips are designed to help you to shine, to get your future research funded, so you can do even better research. It’s a virtuous circle.

Get outside your discipline

“Academia is characterized by demarcation into specialist areas.” – Robert Macintosh.

By focusing on specialist areas, we have built an enormous depth of knowledge about specific topics. However, it isn’t always depth of knowledge that solves a problem. There is a growing recognition that research that combines, or cuts across, multiple disciplines is where real change happens.

Philanthropic funding agencies have known this for a long time. Their funding generally focuses on solving problems, rather than on the quality of the research itself.

Government (‘top tier’) funding agencies, on the other hand, have generally focused on the strength of the research. Your application is sent to senior researchers, who have a depth of knowledge in a specific discipline. They tend to give good scores to research from within their discipline, and score applications from outside the discipline poorly.

Some national research councils have seen this as an issue and have worked hard to help multidisciplinary projects get funded. For example, the Australian Research Council has changed their processes and the advice they give to both applicants and assessors. They can now show evidence that they are funding research that cuts across multiple disciplines.

You don’t need to be across multiple areas personally. The most effective research is, in general, team research. For any given problem, have a look at who else is working on that problem. Be open to opportunities to work with people from outside your discipline. It’s by combining with people with different approaches that you will probably get the most traction on whatever problem you work on.

Find your family

“…our neatly delineated interest areas are factionalised.” – Robert Macintosh.

We don’t have time for internecine warfare. I know it happens. I understand why. But we literally do not have time for it. There is too much to do, and too little time. All research has value and some of the best ideas come from looking at material that is deeply unfashionable.

Having said that, given that academia can be gendered, dangerous, and factionalized, you need to find your research family. You need a supportive group around you. Go out and find people you like, and who you are willing to work with. Or apply the Tseen test about whether you’re willing to meet these collaborators for breakfast. They may not be in your discipline, your university or even on your continent. But they get you, and you get them.

Just remember: they are a family, not a mafia-style Family. You support them, and vice-versa, but it isn’t about dying or killing for them. Your research family is a place of refuge and a reality check, not a sports team or a warrior band. It isn’t about fighting and winning – it is about building and growing.

Make social media your space

Finding your family can be hard when you are isolated. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a place where you could share your ideas and feelings, and find others who could do the same, quickly and easily. Wait, what’s that you say, it already exists

I don’t care whether you are sharing visions on Snapchat or defining your aspirations on Pinterest, find a social media space where you can talk about your ideas with others. That is where you will find new friends and collaborators (and trolls). [xxx link to troll definition]

By definition, social media permeates different spaces. Even if you want to, it can be difficult to keep your life and your work separate there. Some people find that uncomfortable, and find different ways to engage on those platforms. In a space without walls, there are different hierarchies. It is easier to build a network of people who are connected to the things that you are interested in, including your research. It is easier to build a group that you can reach out to when you need support and help, a Personal Learning Network. This is particularly important if you are casual, adjunct, sessional, or don’t have access to the benefits of permanent staff for some other reason.

Ignore the local chieftain

The established hierarchy is almost certainly aged, male, white, and patriarchal. I think that buying into that structure is a mistake [Declaration of conflict: I’m an older, white male and enormously privileged]. For a start, buying into an existing hierarchy won’t change anything.

Build your own ‘shadow’ hierarchy, based on archaic values like ‘fun’ and ‘generosity’. Collaborate with people that you trust and who trust you. Share. Care. Be kind. Be equals.

Think global – while you need to be aware of your surroundings, your research needs to be globally aware. It also needs to be in the now. Plugging yourself into the existing hierarchy won’t help with either of those things.

Do the work

Go out and do the hard yards. Research is slog. It is building small bits of evidence together, building on what others have done, and preparing the ground for others. More and more, it is about sharing (and caring), rather than carving out territory and building a personal brand.

You can’t be open if you don’t bring something to the table. So, share what you can, and take what you need.

Volunteer for things you enjoy

Nothing should be too much trouble. Make yourself indispensable.” – Robert Macintosh.

There are an enormous number of little jobs that need to be done to make the research world turn. Choose the ones that you enjoy, not the ones that others feel you must do, or the ones you think will help your career. Burnout is a real problem in academia, and you need to take care of your mental wellbeing.

In general, researchers are generous with their time, when they can be. Be generous, in turn, when you can. However, if you are working two jobs, have kids at home and are taking care of aged parents, be judicious with your time.

A professor stands at the top of a pyramid of scholars and students. Advice flows downwards and cites flow upwards. When funding runs out, the scheme collapses.

Keep your promises

“Build a reputation as someone who does what they say.” – Robert Macintosh.

I agree. If you say that you will do something, please follow through. Because research is a group process, it can often fail at the weakest point. Your little bit counts – it is, in fact, vital.

However, life is lumpy. Even if you are only doing things that you enjoy and give you energy, there will still come times when you can’t do everything that you planned to do. Let people know as soon as you know. Don’t sit on it and hope that things will get better. They won’t (I know because I do this all the time).

If you are working with your friends and good colleagues, and talking a lot (about life as well as work), then you may even see problems coming before they do. Talk to them about it – make them aware that they are overcommitting (even if you really want them to do it). Watch their back for them.

Build your portfolio

“Your papers, book chapters, conference presentations and so on need to be curated. Aim to publish in the right places.” – Robert Macintosh.

Do the best work that you can. Write it up as clearly as possible. Publish it to the right audience.

Finding the right peer-reviewed audience is tricky. I think that people should aim for highly rigorous open access publications, but I recognize that other people aren’t as wedded to open access as I am. However you slice it, Robert is correct – curate your work and publish in the right places (for your definition of ‘right’).

Wherever you publish, remember that you are looking to build a conversation. Your publications are your contribution, not your megaphone.

Find your own tone

Be respectful of established figures…” – Robert Macintosh.

Be flamboyant, if you must. Be a recluse, if you want. Hell, you can be flamboyant on social media and a recluse in real life (or vice versa), if that is what works for you. Just be true to yourself.

If you are a punk researcher, kicking over the canon and trashing the Academy, go for it. It could certainly use some shaking up. There is considerable pressure on public intellectuals to refrain from criticizing their university, their colleagues, their field, their country. To toe the line in every way imaginable. You don’t have to do that. If you are going to stand by your work, you’ll need to be brave.

If, on the other hand, you prefer non-confrontational peace and quiet, then make that your space. Academia should have space for everyone. Either way, the first step is to be comfortable in your own skin. It will help you to be confident in your work, and in your life.

It will also help enormously when the imposter monster comes to visit.

Don’t wait

Don’t wait for permission.

Don’t wait for others to die.

Blaze while you can.

Your time starts now!