Personal Branding for Academics

stylish-logoThis is a post with a difference: it’s written by Tee Ola, Managing Editor of Stylish Academic, a fashion and lifestyle website for academics and other professionals. Tee completed her PhD in Digital Media and the culture of democracy in 2015. And although she works full-time in digital marketing in higherEd, she is never faraway from the lecture theatre.

My own post for this week, The Unstylish Academic Speaks, is on the Stylish Academic blog.

Do you see yourself as a brand or just an academic/scholar busy with research, writing, publishing and teaching?

Your personal brand is the sum total of you and how you’d like to present yourself to the world – or at least certain target audiences (colleagues, students, employers, funders, etc.)

It is not vain or narcissistic to be intentional about your personal brand.

To be intentional about your personal brand as an academic is to carefully curate the aspects of your complex life that fit in with the professional goals you’ve set for yourself.

“I want to be a leading thinker in… <insert niche field> ”

What steps can you begin to take in this direction?

You are neither lying, nor pretending when you cater to your personal brand. You are simply putting your best foot forward (like we all should).

Branding and marketing yourself are not dirty phrases. And simply sitting back to allow your work to do the talking will not cut through the clutter of the information age we live in.

You can decide to stand yourself out, and by extension, your work, through your personal brand.

Here are 2 reasons why I think it’s important to pay attention to your personal brand as an academic:

  1. Because your personal brand is happening with or without your deliberate input…
  2. Because it is vital for career progression

Your personal brand is happening with or without your input

Your personal brand already exists.

You are already being perceived in a particular manner  – online and (or) offline; so why not get in there and control the narrative since it’s happening anyway?

In this highly digitised world, you have tools at your disposal to do this.

Gone are the days when opportunities for academics to provide public commentary on topical events in the news were limited to newspaper pages, radio and TV.

Today, you can tweet directly at a journalist, set up your own blog, podcast, or YouTube channel … and so many other opportunities for public engagement.

A few of my favourite academics (in my area of digital media and communication) that do this so well are Jeff Jarvis, Zeynep Tufecki, and Evgeny Morozov.

The first time I attended a conference in London where Morozov was a speaker, and I got the chance to speak with him in person – I was star-struck. I was a 1st year PhD student, so that’s excusable.

However, my point is, my respect for him and his work had grown over time from following and listening to him on Twitter.

His views influenced my thinking as I wrote my thesis.

Morozov’s commentary on topical events as they happened helped shape and make me rethink my arguments as I wrote about the democratic potential of the Internet.

His personal brand as a thinker who runs counter to certain dominant ideas that the Internet is a panacea to the woes of the world was established and clear, so I understood it and engaged.

(The Net Delusion – how not to liberate the world by Evgeny Morozov).

Is it clear what you stand for as an academic/scholar?

I like to tell people that my Twitter followers wrote my thesis with me.

Part of my personal branding road map was being vocal about my research work online, and inviting commentary from others.

This was effective in that people understood what my research was about (I also blogged about it), so I got mentioned on Twitter threads (conversations), which often ended up as great illustrations in my thesis or talking points at conferences.

Your personal brand is vital for career progression

Selling ourselves as academics may run counter to certain long held ideals about the rarefied world of academia – mostly unwritten or unspoken – but adhered to all the same.

As an aside, another of those ideals I challenge through my platform, Stylish Academic, is that academics are not meant to be stylish or pay any attention whatsoever to physical appearance and so on.

In fact, the shabbier you look, the more likely you are to be perceived as working hard in your field – and vice versa. It’s as if this “is our way of telling the world we’re too focused on matters of the mind to care about what we put on our bodies.”

There are many more ideas like these, firmly rooted in age-old academic culture.

Hence, on personal branding, unlike our counterparts in the corporate world, we may tend to keep our head down, eyes peeled to the screen, and fingers glued to the keyboard – let the lines fall where they may.

It’s a new season. And like this Times Higher Ed article says in the title, being brilliant doesn’t cut it anymore.

I love how the author, John Tregoning puts it, “we have two things to sell, our ideas and ourselves…the main product we sell is ourselves. This product is defined by our CV: where we have worked, on what and with whom. But these strands need to be pulled together into a single memorable “personal brand”… This brand comes into play when meeting potential collaborators, conference organisers and funders.”

I find this so persuasive.

Handling your personal brand is vital for career progression – in and outside academia.

There is so much more I have to say about personal branding as an academic.

If you’d like to engage with me on the subject of intentional branding for academics and/or practical steps to follow, or you have any questions at all, please feel free to contact me here.

Thank you for reading.

And for readers who would like to know more, Tee Ola has kindly provided some useful online resources:

Navigating your digital profile – YouTube

Use brand thinking to build a stronger you – Vitae

A Twitter thread on social media tips for Early Career Researchers – Prof Nathan C Hall

Is Peer Review Bad For Your Mental Health?

peer review peopleI am currently waiting for peer reviews of two books I’ve worked on: one sole-authored, one co-authored. We don’t talk much about the experience of waiting for reviews, and it’s not something that appears to have been researched. Yet it’s something everyone doing academic work has to go through and it may be bad for our mental health.

I’m finding it particularly difficult at the moment because a lot rides on these reviews. The sole-authored book, which is on a contentious topic, has already had one set of reviews. Reviewer 1 was utterly damning, saying ‘I couldn’t find anything to praise’. Luckily, reviewers 2 and 3 were more measured, offering both praise and constructive criticism, and their input helped me to revise and strengthen the typescript. However, in the process, my editor and I realised that we needed further reviews from people with a particular kind of specialist knowledge. My editor approached around 10 potential reviewers, but only one agreed to do the job. So I’m gibbering – what if that person agrees with Reviewer 1?

The co-authored book is in a contentious format. My co-authors and I decided that I would be the person to liaise with publishers, as I have form in this process. The last time I liaised with academic publishers for a co-authored book was in the early 2000s, and I’d forgotten how heavily responsible it makes me feel. Fortunately, I’ve found a publisher that is interested and has sent the book out for reviews, to two professional academics and two students. This is great – and terrifying – but at least there are four reviewers. Even so, what if they ALL think it’s rubbish?

In many ways I love the peer review system. I welcome feedback on my writing, and I’m not at all averse to constructive criticism. I am by no means arrogant enough to think I can write a good book without input from others. Yet peer review, as a process, is fraught with uncertainty. Comments may not be constructive, or may not come at all. They may be positive, or negative, or in between, or a mixture.

There is a body of research which demonstrates that uncertainty has a detrimental effect on mental health. Luckily for me, my mental health is fairly robust right now, so I can use this period of uncertainty as an opportunity to build further resilience. But what about those who aren’t so fortunate? We’re hearing a lot about the mental health crisis in higher education, but nobody seems to be talking about the potential contribution of the peer review system to this crisis. Given the evidence of links between uncertainty and mental health, it seems likely that there may be a relationship here.

I’m not arguing that we should tear down the peer review system and replace it with something completely different. Time spent waiting for reviews also has a positive effect, in that it creates necessary distance between the author and their work, meaning sensible revisions are easier to make. But I do think we need to be aware of the effects of uncertainty and take steps to reduce its impact on us. Here are four ideas.

  1. Aspects of life fall into three categories: those you can control, those you may be able to influence, and those you can neither control nor influence. Spend most of your energies on the first, some on the second, and none on the third. So I will spend my energies on hard work and good fun, and with any luck I won’t have much energy left for fruitless worry about the outcome of the peer reviews.
  1. Plan for different outcomes. Plans for positive reviews are easy, plans for negative reviews more challenging. For me, the worst-case scenario is that the publisher decides not to publish after all, which would mean – for either book – several years of work down the pan. However, that is unlikely, and if it does happen I/we can revise and submit again elsewhere.
  1. Acknowledge how you’re feeling. Writing this blog post is one way for me to acknowledge my own difficult feelings about this waiting period. In professional UK society the culture is not to talk about feelings much, if at all; if anyone asks how you are, the standard answers to give include ‘I’m fine’, or (with an eyeroll) ‘snowed under’. It’s as if we’re not allowed to give a real answer to the question. Yet suppressing our emotions is also bad for our mental health, so let’s talk about the difficulty of waiting, being in limbo, for unpredictable peer reviews.
  1. Practise self-care. All the usual stuff: eat sensibly, take exercise, get enough sleep – or, if you can’t sleep, rest your body quietly in a dark room and try to still your mind. There are some good video soundtracks and podcasts online to help you sleep. Work can be part of self-care when it’s work you enjoy and you don’t do too much. Spending time with loved ones is definitely part of self-care.

The peer review system can also be hard on reviewers, such as by asking more of people who are already too busy, and offering only intangible rewards. Saying ‘yes’ to a review request adds an extra burden of work, saying ‘no’ comes with an extra burden of guilt. Some people deal with this by deciding how many reviews they will undertake, such as 12 in a year, or three per draft article or book they themselves submit. That’s a great example of focusing on what you can control.

If you’re waiting for reviews yourself, the wait will be over, sooner or later. I hope you will be able to use the advice in this post to help make the process a little easier – as I intend to do myself. I wish you luck.

Indigenous Research Journals

Last year I published a reading list for people interested in finding out about Indigenous research methods. This is a follow-up post listing Indigenous journals that are interdisciplinary and publish methods-related work. As with the previous post, it is not exhaustive. Apart from anything else, due to my own limitations, I have only included journals written and published in English.

All of these journals are peer-reviewed except where stated. Information is correct to the best of my knowledge, but if you spot any errors, please let me know and I will update this post.

International Indigenous Policy Journal

IIPJThis journal is based in Canada and outlines its goals as follows:

  1. To promote evidence based policy making.
  2. To encourage quality research based on partnerships with Indigenous Peoples.
  3. To develop networks of policy researchers and policy makers, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and their communities.
  4. To improve scholarship related to Indigenous issues.
  5. To spark debate on important policy issues facing Indigenous Peoples around the world.

The journal publishes research articles, policy articles, editorial articles and book reviews. It is fully open access for authors and readers.

aboriginal policy studies

This journal is also based in Canada. It publishes original, scholarly, and policy-relevant research on issues relevant to Métis, non-status Indians and urban Aboriginal peoples in Canada, and also welcomes comparative work from an international Indigenous context pertinent to Canadian readers. It is fully open access.

AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples

AlterNativeBased in New Zealand, AlterNative publishes scholarly research on Indigenous worldviews and experiences of decolonization from Indigenous perspectives from around the world. Founded in 2005, it has been published by SAGE since 2017, and is available on subscription. Authors can make their article open access through the SAGE Choice programme at a cost of US$3,000.

International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies

This is an Australian-led journal covering Indigenous scholarship in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. It is peer reviewed and fully open access.

Journal of Indigenous Research

JIR is subtitled ‘Full Circle: Returning Native Research to the People’ and is based in the US. It was set up in response to community requests for the return of information regarding research conducted among their people. It aims to publish short articles of 1,500-2,000 words, accessible to lay people, outlining research outcomes and their relevance for Indigenous peoples. Articles published in JIR will also be sent to local Indigenous newspapers and websites. It does not appear to be peer reviewed. It is open access.

As well as these interdisciplinary journals, there are also Indigenous journals for specific disciplines such as education, law, and health. Some are listed here.

If you know of other Indigenous research journals that are interdisciplinary, or lists of journals for specific disciplines, please contribute in the comments below.

Cartoons, Comics, and Graphic Novels in Research and Academia #2

comics with catsMy last post on this topic argued that this is more of a movement than a moment. In fact it was even more than I knew (no doubt still is) as I’ve found out about a number of other resources and activities on the topic since then.

In my last post I mentioned the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, which is published by Taylor & Francis which is part of the multinational Informa plc, and so is paywalled, although there are a couple of open access articles. I have also found another paywalled journal, Studies in Comics, which has an open access issue from its archive. Ernesto Priego kindly reminded me, via Twitter, of The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship which is open access and well worth exploring.

In September, The Annals of the Entomological Society of America published an open access article called Sequential Science: A Guide to Communication Through Comics by Carly Melissa Tribull. This is both interesting and useful, as it contains information and resources on how to make comics and use them in educational settings. I thank Jonathan O’Donnell from RMIT in Melbourne for bringing this to my attention.

Also, as well as the BA in Cartoon and Comic Arts offered by Staffordshire University, the UK also offers a Comics and Graphic Novel Masters degree at the University of Dundee. This is overseen by Professor Chris Murray whose main research area is comics.

The pocket-sized Graphic Guides have been around for a long time. They describe themselves as ‘comic book style’, but this isn’t really accurate in my view; they’re more like short guides illustrated with cartoons. Perhaps for this reason, I’ve never got on with them particularly well, though I know a lot of people love them. However, I’ve discovered an exception in Queer: A Graphic History. I’ve had a copy of this book for some time, and I think it’s terrific, but I only discovered last Friday that it’s part of the Graphic Guides series. This isn’t obvious because it’s in a larger format with a different type of cover. Queer is written by Meg-John Barker (aka MJ), who spoke about their book at an event I went to in London recently (see below for more on this). It is always interesting to hear from other authors about their processes, and about the delights and sadnesses, triumphs and pitfalls they have experienced along the way. I have a great deal of respect for MJ because they are able to make difficult concepts accessible in a way I admire and long to emulate. People at the event were talking about how much their students love Queer and how useful it is for teaching. I can see why; I would have loved it as an undergraduate maybe even more than I love it now.

If you’re into graphic medicine, there’s a tasty-looking conference coming up in Cambridge on 16-17 February 2018. It’s called Comic Epidemic: Cartoons, Caricatures and Graphic Novels, and the call for papers is out now for anyone from the social sciences or the medical humanities; deadline 15 December. Successful applicants will be offered two nights’ accommodation in Cambridge and up to £100 for travel costs.

The seminar series Look Who’s Talking: Eliciting the Voices of Children from Birth to Seven, funded by the University of Strathclyde and held earlier this year, produced visual minutes of the sessions. Some of the people involved with this series have also used cartoon storyboards in research, to investigate the perceptions of students aged 4-15 about learning something new. Both of these projects were led by Professor Kate Wall from the University of Strathclyde, who kindly alerted me to them via Twitter.

Last month I was fortunate to be able to attend the event An Agenda for Graphic Social Science at the Open University in Camden. This is where Meg-John Barker presented their work, along with several other interesting and interested people including a journal editor and a publisher as well as several scholars. This account of the event identifies five areas of activity – blog posts, networking event, curation of resources, academic event, and sharing/recording expertise – and calls for volunteers to help take them forward. If you want to play with the cool kids, get in touch and get involved. We’d love to have you.

I’m sure that’s not all… but it’s all for now. And enough, I think, to argue that these media are moving from the fringes towards the mainstream in research and academia. Even so, if you have anything to add, please do so in the comments.

 

Cartoons, Comics, and Graphic Novels in Research and Academia

Cartoons, comics, and graphic novels in research and academia are having a moment. Actually it’s a bit more than a moment, but before I go into that, let’s start with some definitions. In terms of the visual arts, as I understand it, a cartoon is generally understood to be a single drawing; a cartoon strip or a comic strip is a series of a few sequential cartoons. Comics and graphic novels are more interchangeable terms for longer works, though people tend to use ‘comics’ to refer to the more lightweight end of the spectrum or reading matter for children. Conversely, ‘graphic novels’ are viewed as more serious and adult. In fact, though, they’re essentially the same thing: a graphic art medium for storytelling.

Academics from a range of disciplines are beginning to realise that this form has a great deal to offer for research communication and teaching. It is taught in some universities, though usually bundled in with other arts techniques such as illustration or animation. Few universities are offering sequential graphic art as a stand-alone or interdisciplinary subject at present, though there are some exceptions at undergraduate and postgraduate levels in the UK and the US. For example, in the UK, Staffordshire University’s BA in Cartoon and Comic Arts has been running for some years now. In the US, the University of Oregon offers an interdisciplinary Comics and Cartoon Studies minor, and Minneapolis College of Art and Design offers a Comic Arts major option on their Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Savannah College of Art and Design offers undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in sequential art, which are also available in Hong Kong and online. California College of the Arts offers a Master of Fine Arts degree in comics, as does the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. No doubt there are others too, though I haven’t found any outside the US/UK. For example, there are no such courses in Australia at present, though the Sydney Comics Guild suggests keeping an eye on MIT in Melbourne, presumably because they may run one in time to come.

Although the UK has few courses, it does have other initiatives. For example, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics is based in the UK. This journal focuses on the production and consumption of comics in their cultural, institutional, and creative contexts. An international Research, Outreach and Pedagogy Network (ReOPeN) for graphic novels and comics is based at Lancaster University. A mini-conference on comics and graphic novels in academia was held in Kendal in October, part of the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. I was lucky enough to go to this and meet academics working with comics and graphic novels from as far afield as Perth, Australia, as well as closer to home. Then there’s this free event in London tomorrow (tickets still available!) on graphic social science, which I will also be attending. Next year in London the historians are holding a two-day conference on the pre-modern world in comics. And it’s not only the academics who are using comics: this video demonstrates the use of graphic art, animation, and puppets in health evaluation research.

Comics are also being used for communicating science and medicine. As these links suggest, there is also a wider international focus on graphic art in academia and research. For example, the PathoGraphics conference in Berlin last month looked at the use of comics to communicate about illness and disability, and a recent Twitterchat via the #MethodsMatter hashtag focused on work in this area from various African countries.

I’m sure there are many more examples. I was teaching writing for publication to staff at the University of Derby yesterday and I mentioned graphic novels. One staff member said she didn’t like them as a reader, but she thought she should take steps to overcome her dislike, because she understood they were gaining traction. Another staff member, Dr Katy Vigurs, had been involved in producing a comic about student debt with students in her previous role at Staffordshire University. There’s a lot of this about, and it’s growing. So I think comics and graphic novels in research and academia are not so much having a moment as becoming a movement.

Creative Research In Practice

like cloudIt’s not often I get to share an output from the commissioned research I do. Sometimes clients don’t want to share publicly for reasons of confidentiality, and sometimes there are other reasons they don’t publish. As a commissioned researcher, I can’t publish the work someone else has paid for without their agreement. But I’m glad to say that Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) has published the full report of the research I did for them last year with my colleague Roxanne Persaud.

The research question was: How can QMUL improve students’ experience with respect to the inclusivity of their teaching, learning, and curricula? The original brief focused on the protected characteristics covered by the UK Equality Act 2010: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion and belief, and sexual orientation. Roxanne and I advised QMUL to take a more holistic approach to inclusivity, as the protected characteristics don’t cover some factors that we know can lead to discrimination and disadvantage, such as socioeconomic status and caring responsibilities. We recommended Appreciative Inquiry as a methodological framework, because it doesn’t start from a deficit perspective emphasising problems and complaints, but focuses on what an organisation does well and what it could do better. (It doesn’t ignore or sideline problems and complaints, either; it simply starts from the standpoint that there are assets to build on.)  And of course we suggested creative techniques, particularly for data-gathering and sense-making, alongside more conventional methods.

Roxanne and I were both keen to do this piece of work because we share an interest in diversity and inclusion. Neither of us had worked with QMUL before and we weren’t sure whether they would appreciate our approach to their brief. Sometimes commissioners want to recruit people who will do exactly what they specify. Even so, I’d rather say how I think a piece of work needs to be done; if the commissioner doesn’t want it done that way, then I don’t want the job.

QMUL shortlisted six sets of applicants. The interview was rigorous. Roxanne and I came out feeling we’d done ourselves justice, but with no clue as to whether we might have got the work or not. But we did!

The research was overseen by a Task & Finish group, made up of staff from different departments, who approved the methods we had put forward. We conducted a targeted literature review to identify key issues and best practice for inclusivity in the UK and overseas, and set the research in an institutional, societal, and theoretical context. The theoretical perspectives we used began with the theory of intersectionality developed by the law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, which we then built on using the diffraction methodology of the physicist and social theorist Karen Barad. These two theories together provided a binocular lens for looking at a very complex phenomenon.

The timescale for the research was tight, and data gathering collided with Ramadan, exams, and the summer holidays. So, not surprisingly, we struggled with recruitment, despite strenuous efforts by us and by helpful colleagues at QMUL. We were able to involve 17 staff and 22 students from a wide range of departments. We conducted semi-structured telephone interviews with the staff, and gave students the option of participating in face-to-face interviews or group discussions using creative methods. These methods included:

  • The life-sized lecturer: an outline figure on a large sheet of paper, with a label indicating what kind of person they are e.g. ‘a typical QMUL lecturer’ and ‘an ideally inclusive lecturer’, which students could write and draw on.
  • Sticker maps: a map of organisational inclusivity, which we developed for QMUL, on which students could place small green stickers to indicate areas of good practice and small red stickers to indicate areas for further improvement.
  • Empathy maps: tools to help participants consider how other students or staff in different situations think and feel; what they might see, say, and do; and where they might experience ‘pain or gain’ with respect to inclusive learning.
  • Screenplay writing: a very short screenplay depicting an interaction between a student and a very inclusive lecturer, or between a student and a less inclusive lecturer. The screenplay will include dialogue and may also include information about characters’ attributes, the setting, and so on.

We generated over 50,000 words of data, which we imported into NVivo. Roxanne and I spent a day working together on emergent data coding, discussing excerpts from different interviews and group sessions, with the aim of extracting maximum richness. Then I finished the coding and carried out a thematic analysis while Roxanne finished the literature review.

We wrote a draft report, and then had two ‘review and refine’ meetings for sense-making, which were attended by 24 people. The first meeting was with members of the Task & Finish group, and the second was an open meeting, for participants and other interested people. We presented the draft findings, and put up sheets on the walls listing 37 key factors identified in the draft report. We gave participants three sticky stars to use to indicate their top priorities, and 10 sticky dots to use to indicate where they would allocate resources. People took the resource allocation incredibly seriously, and it was interesting to see how collaboratively they worked on this. I heard people saying things like, ‘That’s important, but it’s already got five dots on, so I’m going to put another one here.’ I wish I could have recorded all their conversations! We did collect some further data at these meetings, including touch-typed notes of group discussions and information about the relative frequency of occurrence, and importance, of the 37 key factors. All of this data was synthesised together with the previously collected data in the final report and its recommendations.

The comparatively small number of participants was a limitation, though we did include people from all faculties and most schools, and we certainly collected enough data for a solid qualitative study. We would have liked some quantitative data too, but the real limitation was that most of the people we reached were already concerned about inclusivity. We didn’t reach enough people to be able to say with certainty whether this was, or was not, the case more widely at QMUL. Also, while none of our participants disagreed unduly with our methodology or methods, others at QMUL may have done so. In a university including physicists, mathematicians, engineers, social scientists, artists, doctors, dentists and lawyers, among others, it seems highly unlikely that anyone could come up with an approach to research that would receive universal approval.

Yet I’m proud of this research. It’s not perfect – for example, I’ve realised, in the course of writing this blog post, that we didn’t explicitly include the research question in the research report! But its title is Inclusive Curricula, Teaching, and Learning: Adaptive Strategies for Inclusivity, which seems clear enough. I’m sure there are other ways it could be improved. But I’m really happy with the central features: the methodology, the methods, and the flexibility Roxanne and I offered to our client.

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.

How Independent is an Indie Researcher?

independent womanI have always loved being independent. My parents like to tell the story of the time when, soon after I learned to walk, they took me for a picnic in a local park. My father put me down on the grass, and I got to my feet and toddled away. My mother looked anxious, and my father said, reassuringly, ‘She won’t go far.’ But his confidence was misplaced, because I headed determinedly off into the wide green yonder, and he had to do a quick sprint to bring me back before I came to grief.

When I began researching, I called myself a freelance researcher, or a consultant researcher. I didn’t start calling myself an independent researcher until Immy Holloway told me I should, at a terrific research methods conference in Bournemouth in 2006. (The same conference where I met the incomparable Ken and Mary Gergen, as a result of which they kindly wrote the foreword for my creative research methods book.) As soon as Immy suggested the phrase, I took to it immediately. It seemed to suit.

I love working independently. Particularly at the moment, when I’m mostly home-office-based and writing – though after a few weeks I’ll be pleased to have the meetings and teaching that are scheduled then. But for now, I’m really happy sitting alone at my desk, looking out at the garden growing into spring, listening to the birdsong and the squeals of next door’s children on their trampoline, and writing this blog post.

You know, though, I’ve been thinking recently that despite being officially an independent researcher, I’m actually very dependent. For example, I am completely dependent on others for my income. If nobody chooses me, or not enough people choose me, to do available work, I will go under – particularly as there is so little research funding for which indies can apply. Also, I often need to ask for favours, from small (please can I put your name down as a referee for this research tender?) to large (please will you write a foreword for my book?). As an independent writer, I am dependent on readers for reviews, whether official written ones on websites or in journals, or unofficial verbal ones – the coveted ‘word of mouth’ (at least, it’s coveted if the words are complimentary). More worryingly, I am also dependent on readers to help get my books translated into other languages. My publisher tells me that this usually happens when a bilingual academic makes a proposal to a non-English publisher and offers to support the translation. I am only fluent in English, and although I have good international networks, they’re mostly in English-speaking countries. Unlike institution-based scholars, I have never been able to afford to go to a conference outside the UK where I might make contacts with bilingual academics who could help with translations, perhaps in return for other favours. As a result, I know very few people who I can ask to help with translations. (If you know anyone in the social sciences, arts, or humanities who might help, do tell me please!)

I remember when my supervisor and I were planning my viva. I knew who I wanted for my external examiner, but my supervisor over-ruled me, because she didn’t know the person I wanted, and she did know someone else who she thought would be good (and was). She said she was sure he would do it because he owed her a favour. I have learned since then that a lot of academia seems to work through giving and calling in favours. In such an environment it feels odd to call myself ‘independent’.

The book I’m writing is on research ethics. In the Indigenous research paradigm, reciprocity between researchers and participants is a key ethical principle. However, in the Euro-Western paradigm, researchers have found that attempting such reciprocity where there is an imbalance of power is difficult and can even have dangerous consequences (Israel 2015:137-8). I can’t find much work on reciprocity between academics, and what I can find addresses reciprocity between countries or disciplines and doesn’t say much about power imbalances. I haven’t found anything about reciprocity across the walls of the academy, where there is undoubtedly a power imbalance. I’m glad to say that, in my own experience at least, academics have mostly been courteous and often generous with their help and support for my work, even though, as an indie, I can’t reciprocate in all the same ways that I could if I was based in an institution. This potentially makes me even more dependent, because I have less to offer than salaried mid-career academics. As I progress in my work, will this power imbalance grow? Will it adversely affect the reciprocity on which my entire career depends? Or am I needlessly worrying about something because it feels insecure, when in fact it doesn’t really matter?

How To Become An Indie Ally

cat-and-dogCalling academics! Do you want to be a useful ally to independent researchers? Then here’s how you can. No, wait, let’s start with why it’s a good idea. Independent researchers can add considerable value to academic research and teaching projects. We bring a fresh perspective, which can be useful to help disentangle problems that seem entrenched, or simply to provide a new view of a situation. We have time to think, because we don’t have to tangle with time-consuming internal meetings and university bureaucracy. And we are not limited in what we work on by managerial directives or departmental policy. Also, we are flexible and can sometimes help out at short notice, such as when a colleague has an unexpected leave of absence at a crucial stage in a project. One potential downside is that an indie researcher is unlikely to have the depth of knowledge in any one subject of a professor who has spent decades studying a single area. On the other other hand, indie researchers often bring a breadth of knowledge across several related areas, and are skilled in bringing themselves up-to-date fast in any area they haven’t worked on for a while.

Another reason it might be a good idea to support independent researchers is that, as the options for tenure in academia decrease, the likelihood of any academic ending up as an indie increases. So supporting indie researchers and scholars may prove to be an investment in your own future. An academic of my acquaintance told me recently that she wonders why staff at her post-92 university are regularly asked to give free support to universities in the much richer Russell Group (another structural faultline of academic inequality). She has decided to stop offering free training to other universities, whatever their grouping, because it affects the market for independent workers. Be like her!

So those are some reasons why it’s a good idea to use indie researchers; now let’s look at how they can be used. The three main ways academic departments use indie researchers are: as part of a team on a funded research project; to augment a teaching programme; or to fill gaps in capacity. Of course there are many other ways, from delivering a single class or seminar to providing years of doctoral supervision.

Here’s how to help make that happen.

  1. Get to know your local indie researchers and/or the indie researchers who work in your field. This way, when you need some help in a hurry, you’ll have an existing relationship as a springboard.
  1. Be mindful that indie researchers don’t receive a salary; nobody is paying for their time. Any decent indie researcher should be willing to come to an exploratory meeting without expecting to be paid. However, it will be helpful if you can acknowledge the imbalance: you are drawing a salary for your time at that meeting; they are not. It will be even more helpful if you can at least reimburse their travel expenses, and maybe give them lunch. Please do not expect an indie researcher to come to more than one meeting without recompense. Some academics still think it’s OK to ask an indie to run a workshop, speak at a conference, and write a chapter for an edited collection. A salaried academic could say ‘yes’ to all of those without pausing for breath, even though the tasks probably require 2-3 weeks of full-time work to complete. If you’re not paying an indie, you’re asking them to do that in their own time. That’s equivalent to asking a salaried academic to work on a dozen consecutive Sundays. If the latter would give you pause, so should the former.
  1. Understand how independent researchers’ day rates work. These day rates look high, but at times we go for weeks or months with no paid work, and we have none of the benefits of employment such as holiday pay or sick pay or conference budgets. For example, I charge universities £800 per day and in 2015-16 I was able to pay myself £17,000 – around one-third of what I would be taking home if I’d spent the last 17 years in academia. In the last five years, I’ve had two good years and three lean years. There are other compensations to the indie lifestyle so this is not intended as a sob story. But it’s surprising how many intelligent people still think ‘high day rate’ equals ‘rich person’.
  1. If you really can’t pay an independent researcher, but you want them to work with you, think about what you can offer them in exchange for their skills and labour. They might be glad to have use of your library, an honorary position with access to paywalled journals, or a free place on a professional training course. Most indie researchers are open to barter as long as you can offer something that is of value to them. What won’t be of value is ‘exposure’, because in these days of social media we can all expose ourselves.
  1. Where appropriate, allocate time and costs in your funding bids for input from one or more independent researchers. This sends a positive message to funders: it shows that you are thinking beyond the walls of the academy and taking a creative approach to your bid and your project design. Any credible independent researcher who you plan to include should be willing to put in some unpaid desk work up front, perhaps to write a section of the bid or to give feedback on a draft.
  1. Raise awareness among your colleagues of the value, and support needs, of independent researchers. If you have the contacts, and want to earn serious brownie points from the indies in your networks and beyond, lobby for indie researchers to have access to research funding.

One caveat: it is important to perform due diligence. Ask for a CV, with references; follow up the references, and spot-check a couple of items from the CV. If the independent researcher hasn’t been independent for long, it would be worth quizzing them about their intentions. Due to the economic climate and the casualisation of academic work, some people are setting up as independent researchers in the hope of earning a few quid while they’re searching for salaried employment. It won’t help your research plan if, by the time you secure funding for your three-year project, your nominated indie researcher is now a full-time lecturer at the other end of the country.

I hosted a lively Twitterchat about independent research for #ecrchat on 24 February, and was hoping to link to the resulting Storify from this post but technical problems have intervened. If we are able to storify the chat in future I’ll include the link here. I was also hoping to refer to the Storify for any points I may have missed, as I’m not at all sure the above list is exhaustive, so if you have any points to add, please include them in the comments below.