Broken Academic Promises

broken promiseLast week I wrote a post begging established academics to keep their promises (or not make them in the first place). This started some interesting conversations with academics and independent scholars across Twitter and the blogosphere.

Peter Tennant, a healthcare researcher at Leeds University, responded on Twitter with sympathetic outrage.

Naomi Barnes, an independent researcher working towards a career in academia in Brisbane, Australia, shared her own experience.

Sarina Kilham, an academic from Sydney, Australia, made a good point about it being important for professionals to respect the value of each others’ time.

UK independent researcher Anne Cummins commented on the original blog post, simply saying: ‘This has happened to me too.’

Deborah Brian, an indie researcher from Brisbane, Australia, had a real horror story to tell.

An anonymous Australian academic, who tweets from a locked account as @snarkyphd, said: “I hire 20+ casuals /yr. Am clear when I can’t make promises, but lose great people to those who promise the world + don’t follow through.” And then: “What I observe is tendency to make promises to twice as many people as realistic so you don’t end up short staffed later on. So frustrating.” (I can’t embed her tweets in this post because her Twitter account is locked, but I do have her consent to share her words here.)

Naomi Barnes, in conversation with academic career guide Jo VanEvery, came back with another example:

Claudia Gillberg, a researcher in the UK and Sweden, broadened the debate further from her experience of living and working with disability.

Around this time I caught up with last week’s post from the Research Whisperer, written by Dani Barrington, on playing the academic game. She identifies ‘compromising my own values and the wellbeing of others’ as a common part of the ‘academic game’, which seems to parallel these conversations.

The last comment on my own post, last week, was from Jenni Brooks who is a senior lecturer in sociology in the UK. She says,

Thanks for writing this Kara. It’s important (but I confess slightly uncomfortable) reading for me, as someone in a permanent academic job in a university.

I realise that I’m often enthusiastic when I meet someone doing good work, and yes, if I’d love to work with someone, I will say. I hope that’s always accompanied by a qualification if there’s a chance things may never happen, but it’s quite possible that it isn’t, and that I too have promised things I can’t keep (I do always reply to my emails though, I promise!)

Being relatively new to a teaching (as opposed to research only) post, I’m still coming to terms with the ‘students above all’ mentality that means other things get put on the backburner sometimes, even if I’d rather they weren’t. For example, I was meant to be writing a funding bid with a friend in another university recently which, because of marking and other deadlines, just hasn’t happened. Neither of our jobs depends on it, so we’ll just do it later.

I wonder whether this very thing that you talk about does make me wary of working with people outside of the ‘university system’ though, whether that’s researchers, charitable organisations, or ‘service users’ (or whatever other appropriate term). I’m aware of the imbalance in funding/job security, and yes, it scares me if I feel in some way responsible for making sure someone else is paid – especially if I’m not entirely sure of how the system works. I’m also aware that this can (and has, in the past) made me seem ‘cagey’, and in some way like I’m trying to ‘protect university resources’, or ‘not share’ in some way.

I’m not entirely sure what my point is, but just wanted to say how thought-provoking your post was. I can see I need to do a lot of thinking about how to be a good ‘academic citizen’ (is that a thing?)

I think it is a ‘thing’. Evidently, so do many others. To be fair, independent researchers and scholars also need to be good citizens and colleagues. But as with all power imbalances, it is those who have the power who need to wield it carefully.

A Plea To Established Academics: Please Keep Your Promises

crossed-fingers-363478__340The university sector in the UK is in a shaky state at present. Several universities across England, Wales and Scotland have each announced over 100 redundancies, sometimes with the closure of a school or campus, and it seems likely that others will follow suit. Brexit is the reason most people give, though there may be other reasons too. The uncertainty is unsettling for mid- to late career academics, and very worrying indeed for early career researchers and doctoral researchers with academic ambitions. It’s also worrying for independent researchers, like myself, who work with academia.

There is a four-panel comic strip at PhD Comics called Things You Can Do In Academia That Would Get You Fired In The Real World. The ‘things’ listed are:

  • Abandon personal grooming
  • Be a jerk at other people’s presentations
  • Not reply to emails
  • Sit around and do nothing all day (quote: “it’s called writing”).

I would add a fifth ‘thing’:

  • Continually make promises you don’t keep.

The income of independent researchers depends on established academics keeping their promises. Given the number of imminent redundancies forecast in the UK higher education sector, there are going to be more independent researchers looking for work in the months and years to come. This post is a plea to established academics not to make promises, to colleagues in more precarious positions, that you can’t or won’t keep.

I have had many, many promises made to me by established academics, and I would estimate that over half are not kept. These kinds of promises have come through social media, at conferences, during my workshops, even at one-to-one face-to-face meetings specifically set up to explore how we can work together. I’ve never been an academic, so I don’t know for sure, but I would guess this is common, perhaps normal, within academia. When both of you have a secure salary, it probably doesn’t matter so much; perhaps it’s just a small irritation or disappointment when plans don’t come to fruition – or maybe sometimes it’s a relief. However, it’s a whole different deal when one of you depends on the other to follow through.

Unkept promises that come to mind include:

  1. “You must come and teach my students. Send me your CV and we’ll fix a date.” I send my CV, and never hear from the Professor again.
  2. “I’d love to write with you. Let’s do a journal article.” This is someone I would love to write with, too, so I say yes – then nothing happens.
  3. “I want to allocate some time in this funding bid for you to work with us on the project, is that OK with you?” Yes, I say, and agree to give input on the draft bid – then nothing happens.
  4. “I want you to come and speak at my event, and I have a budget to pay for your time and your expenses.” Great! Yes please! Then, guess what? Nothing happens.
  5. “Thanks so much for your workshop/seminar/class. The feedback was great. We’ll have to get you back next year.” Sometimes this does happen; mostly it doesn’t.
  6. “I’d be happy to give feedback on your draft article.” That promise is kept, and then, “I think you need to include a section on X,” which is the specialism of the academic in question. I agree. The academic offers to write the section and become second author; I accept with pleasure. I never hear anything further AND I ALREADY WORKED ON THAT ARTICLE FOR A WHOLE YEAR.
  7. “I’d like to give you an honorary position as Visiting Professor, which will mean I’ll be able to pay you to work with our students.” Sounds great, yes please. Only, er, it doesn’t happen.

What’s worse is that, while numbers 6 and 7 were one-offs, numbers 1-5 in the list above have each happened several times. I spent a couple of decades working as an employee in the private, statutory, and voluntary sectors, and I can tell you this doesn’t happen there. It didn’t happen in my independent research work, either, in the 2000s, when my clients were local and central government departments and charitable organisations. I’m not saying every professional promise made outside of academia is kept, but unkept promises are usually acknowledged, and the promisee kept up to date with reasons for the change of plan. At times I’ve had to chase by email asking for an update; I have always received a full reply outside academia, while within academia I have rarely received a reply at all. To be fair, some academics do communicate about their unkept promises, just as some manage to write, answer their emails, be courteous at presentations, and maintain a good level of personal hygiene. But too many do not.

Established academics, with a steadily increasing number of your colleagues in ever more precarious positions, you really need to be aware of this. Each of the promises above made my day and raised hope and excitement in my heart. Then, as the days, weeks, months went by with no further communication, the creeping feelings of disappointment, frustration, and disillusionment were sometimes hard to bear. And I’m an old hand at this. I think it’s going to be much more difficult for younger people who are desperately working so very hard to try to make a career in, or with, academia. So I beg you, established academics, please think carefully about the promises you make, and stop making promises you can’t or won’t keep.

Writer’s Block Debunked

writers blockI don’t believe in writer’s block. I think it’s an umbrella term for a whole bunch of problems, each of which has a solution. For sure, writing is difficult, and it is perfectly possible to get stuck. That happens to me all the time. But a complete block? I don’t think so. Seems to me ‘writer’s block’ is a lazy catch-all term which conveniently shifts responsibility from the writer to the ‘block’. That’s certainly not going to help.

Here are six of the things I think may be really going on.

Fear of failure. Writing for submission or publication can be terrifying. You’re working towards putting your work out in the world where it – and to some extent you – will be judged. What if people don’t like your writing? What if they don’t like YOU? This kind of fear can be paralysing.

Fear of success. Success equals change, and change is frightening, because it’s a leap into the unknown. This can be equally paralysing.

Boredom. This is a higher risk for long-term projects, or writing that has been imposed on you – say, by your manager, or a departmental imperative – that you don’t want to do.

Perfectionism. Novice writers sometimes think that writing is (or should be, or is for some people) as easy as reading. It isn’t. To write, you have to be willing to write badly first, and then make it good at the editing stage, sometimes through many revisions.

Running out of steam with a particular avenue or genre. Minette Walters is a successful author of psychological thrillers who published 12 books between 1992 and 2007, then didn’t publish another book for 10 years. She had become bored with writing psychological thrillers, but her publisher wanted her to carry on, presumably because they sold well. Now she has found a new publisher and is bringing out a historical novel. This can apply for non-fiction and scholarly writers, too, particularly if you’ve been writing in a specific area for some time and long to change tack.

Self-sabotage. If you say, think, believe that you want to write, but you’re not writing, then you are in some way sabotaging your own desires. This is a common human trait and probably links back to fear of failure, or perhaps fear of success.

Here are five potential solutions.

Freewrite. I love the technique of freewriting, and so do the doctoral students I teach it to. Here’s what you do. Set yourself a prompt, which must be in the first person and active voice, such as:

What I want to say is…

In this chapter, I want to argue…

I am writing this [thesis/dissertation/article/report/etc] because…

Then write for five minutes without stopping or correcting your work. This is only for your eyes so it doesn’t matter how scrawly or mis-spelled it may be. If you hesitate during the five minutes, write the prompt again, more than once if you need to, until it leads you somewhere else. Then see what you’ve got. You may well have a new insight or a phrase or sentence that you can use in your project. More importantly, though, you’ll have a load of words on a page, which – in five minutes flat – gives the lie to ‘writer’s block’.

Set small targets. Some people prefer word targets; others prefer time targets. Either is fine. Choose a target that feels easily achievable: perhaps somewhere between 100-500 words, or 10-30 minutes. Then set a frequency: once a day is good to begin with, or twice if you can manage that. And stick to it.

Switch projects. Working on more than one project is great because if you get bored, or stuck, you can move to another. I didn’t have a single idea for a blog post this morning, so I worked on a short story for a while till I came up with the idea of writing about writer’s block.

Keep a daily journal. Writing about your life, or some aspect of your life, for your eyes only, is a great way to convince your subconscious that you can write. This can be structured, or unstructured, as you prefer. For example, you might want to keep a journal of your dreams, or a ‘resilience journal’ where you write down three things you are grateful for and three things you did well each day, or a ‘reflective journal’ where you record what you have learned that day. Or you might just want to write whatever you feel like writing.

Go for counselling. If fear of failure, or fear of success, are really getting in the way – and, for some people, they can – then find a counsellor or therapist who can help you work on this.

If you have other solutions to share, please add them in the comment box.

Book Proposal for a Second Edition

kara-2nd-edWell, whaddaya know? You wait ages for someone to show you a book proposal, then two come along together. Three, in fact, as there are two book proposals for you to download from this post.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on this blog which included a link to download the book proposal for my second research methods book, Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide. Since then, the second edition of my first research methods book has been published.

I’m fond of this book. It took me five years to come up with the idea of writing a research methods book for busy people who are trying to fit research in around their jobs, families, hobbies, and generally their whole lives. Then it took me another 18 months to write. The first edition had good reviews and one of the great satisfactions about producing the second edition, for me, is that I know it’s an even better book.

So here’s the proposal for the first edition of Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide which I wrote back in 2011. You may find it interesting to compare with the proposal for my second research methods book which I posted a couple of weeks ago. One difference is that in the first book proposal I had much more idea about the content of each chapter than I did in the second. Counter-intuitive, right? It’s because they are very different books, drawn from different information sources, for different audiences (though I know some people have used and valued both).

Every book is a slog to write, there is no way around that. Luckily for me, it’s a slog I mostly enjoy. Also, each book seems to be a different kind of slog (at least, so far). The first book involved writing down everything I knew, looking to see where the gaps were, and figuring out how to fill them. The second book involved investigating a load of stuff I wanted to know about, then working out how to make it into a book. The third book, on research ethics, which I’m writing now, is involving more hard thinking than both the other two put together.

Producing a second edition is a slog, too, but it’s a much shorter slog. More enjoyable for me, too, as the part of book writing I like best is the part after the first draft has been churned out, where I have my raw material to mould and shape it into the best book I can produce. I did have to write one new chapter from scratch for the second draft, plus a few new sections, but even so, most of the work was the moulding-and-shaping kind.

Even writing the proposal for the second edition was less work than writing the proposal for the first edition. That was mainly because I could copy-and-paste some of the information across from the first to the second – though not all. I had to come up with a credible rationale for publishing a second edition: why it was needed, what new value it would offer. Here’s the proposal for the second edition, so you can compare them for yourself.

If you have one or other edition of the book, you may like to compare the relevant proposal with the finished product. You’ll see that there are changes between one and the other, which demonstrates that the proposal is not inflexible.

When my research ethics book is published, which should be some time next year, I’ll post the proposal for that one too.