Why I Am Self-Isolating

self-isolationYesterday afternoon I came home at the end of a week away teaching and speaking at universities in Southampton (England) and Stavanger (Norway). It was an odd week: last Sunday emails were whizzing back and forth about whether events might be cancelled; by Wednesday night the organisers in Stavanger decided to cancel the last half-day of their conference scheduled for the next morning; and on Thursday morning they got so worried by rumours in Norway that Oslo airport was about to close, that they booked me a new flight back to Heathrow that afternoon and a hotel at the airport (I’d previously booked myself onto an early flight the next day to Manchester).

Between Monday morning and Friday afternoon I went through three airports (one of them twice) and eight train stations (three of them twice). I travelled in two planes, one tube train, eight regular trains, and four taxis. I stayed in three hotels, and had two work-related restaurant dinners with other travelling professionals. One was with a single colleague who had flown from South Africa to the UK to attend the course I ran in Southampton and the other was with around 35 people in Stavanger, many of whom had travelled a considerable distance on planes and/or trains to get to the conference.

Even so, considering the current stage of the pandemic, I would be unlucky to have contracted the virus. I took all the precautions I could; my hands have never been so clean. People in Norway were being very careful: elbow bumps replaced handshakes; hotel workers wore disposable gloves to serve food and drink and to collect used crockery and cutlery. But I won’t know for sure whether I have caught the virus for at least 14 days, maybe longer – and if I have caught it, then during those days I could infect tens or hundreds or even thousands of other people. Preventing this would save potential misery for individuals and families, and potentially also reduce – or, at least, help to spread – the burden on the health service. As the NHS has been undermined by ten years of austerity, plus the impact of Brexit, it is not in the best shape to manage a pandemic. Our hospitals were already full before this pandemic hit.

Making the decision to self-isolate, in the absence of official requirements for me to do so, wasn’t easy. Several things helped. Conversations with family members – some in their later years, others with several serious and complex health conditions including immunosuppression – were useful. These people are also self-isolating; like me, as much for others’ protection as for their own. One family member sent me this really well argued article which also helped. And my partner’s willingness to support my wishes was crucial. Also the requirements in other countries such as Canada, Norway and now New Zealand for self-isolation in circumstances like mine were helpful too. (I can’t find links for the Canadian and Norwegian requirements so my evidence there is anecdotal: I have family in Canada who recently returned from the Caribbean and are being required to self-isolate for 14 days, and an airport official at Heathrow told me of a similar requirement in Norway for travellers returning from the UK.) This photo, posted on Facebook, also helped – I’m interested in Ireland’s response because their Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, is a doctor, as is his partner.

Irish Daily Mail 13.3.2020 save many lives

(I usually source reusable photos from Pixabay, or use my own. I don’t know who generated this image; if it was you, and you want me to credit you or you’re unhappy with my use of the image, please get in touch.)

I am lucky that my work allows me to self-isolate. All my forthcoming speaking and teaching engagements have been postponed, most of them indefinitely, which means a loss of thousands of pounds of income over the next few months. However I have desk research to do for clients, and research teams I’m on are considering changes to planned fieldwork as bringing groups of – mostly older – people together in the UK and the EU doesn’t look like an option any more. Meetings are being moved online, though that can come with its own problems as tech providers deal with unexpected spikes in demand. So I can still earn a living, albeit a smaller one.

Then there’s the question of how to self-isolate. Usually when I get home from a trip I turn to domestic tasks such as shopping. My partner agreed to do that instead of me, so I offered to put everything away. While I was waiting I read some more and learned that the virus may be able to survive on hard surfaces for days. So, after putting away the shopping, I washed my hands again – and resolved to continue my frequent and regular hand washing during this period of self-isolation.

I won’t be going to shops or to the gym; I’ll be doing my grocery shopping online and doing yoga and lifting weights at home. I’ll call my hairdresser and discuss my planned appointment for Tuesday – if it’s just him and me in the salon, and I wear gloves throughout, maybe that would be OK. (I’m aware that he runs a small business and needs the work, so at this stage I’ll take the decision with him rather than unilaterally.) I will be using contactless payment and bank transfers for everything so as not to handle cash, in accordance with WHO advice. And so on.

There are so many decisions to make. How much distance do I need to keep from my partner? That’s a really hard one. We hugged when we were reunited yesterday, but we haven’t hugged since, though that’s not a firm decision. We are due to visit friends down south next weekend; I guess we won’t go, but we haven’t actually decided. A nearby friend had a baby recently and I’ve been longing to visit but now I doubt that will be happening any time soon. I miss my friends already, but at least I can talk to people on the phone, or text, or tweet.

I’m looking forward to Monday morning when I can go to my office in my usual work routine. I’m looking forward to a time when conversations don’t centre on the pandemic. I’m looking forward to feeling able to move freely again. But in the meantime, while my Government seems to be looking the other way, and the press supporting the Government have suggested that a coronavirus-induced ‘cull’ of elderly people could benefit the economy, I will be self-isolating because I am persuaded, by the evidence, that it is the most sensible course of action.

If you would like to quote from or share this post, please do. Let’s support our health services. Let’s save lives.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Random Acts of Kindness Day: Thanking Anonymous Reviewers

kindness 2Taking to Twitter this morning as usual, I discovered that today is Random Acts of Kindness Day (aka #RandomActsOfKindnessDay). My first thought was bah, just one day? One out of 365 (or even 366 in this leap year)? That’s rubbish; let’s commit random acts of kindness EVERY day!

Then I got an email from one of my editors. She had recently sent me three excellent anonymous manuscript reviews: engaged, thoughtful, really helpful to me in improving the text. It seems so unfair that they have to be anonymous; I wish I could credit them by name. I wrote a short email to each reviewer to thank them which I included in an email to my editor with a request that she forward them on. This morning she replied:

Thanks too for sending your responses to the reviewers, which I will send on.  I’ve never been asked to do this before and think it’s a lovely thing to do, especially when peer review can be quite a fraught process…

My editor has been working in academic publishing for almost 20 years. And she has never been asked to do this before.

I have always written thank-you emails to manuscript reviewers, and where possible to reviewers of journal articles. These are people who have spent hours, perhaps even days, helping me to improve my work for no recognition whatsoever. I know this is how academia works, but it seems to me simple human courtesy to say thank you.

I say ‘always’ and that’s not quite true. There was the time I got a manuscript review which was only half a page long and with nothing I could use. Some journals seem to have no way for people to get in touch other than the automated online submission system. I know some people get destructively critical or even abusive reviews, though luckily for me I haven’t had those. Whenever I can and it’s merited – which in my experience it almost always is – I say thank you.

Why don’t other people do this? If it’s just ‘not done in academia’ then that’s reason no. 48367 why I’m glad I’m an independent researcher. I honestly thought everyone would be doing it. Though if I’d given it proper thought, I’d have realised I’ve never had a ‘thank you’ from an author whose work I’ve reviewed anonymously…

So anyway, it turned out I did a random act of kindness today without even realising. But how about we make it not random? If you’ve recently benefited from anonymous peer review, can you find a way to send a short thank-you note to your reviewer?

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog (a random act of kindness!) if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Travelling For Work – The Reality

travelI travel quite a lot these days. It’s rare for a fortnight to go past without me having to pack my case at least once for a domestic or international trip. This week I’ve been in Strasbourg for meetings about the EU research ethics project I’m working on. How lovely, people say; lucky you. And indeed I am lucky, though not in the way you might think.

There is a whole lot of detail to attend to before leaving home. Arranging travel and accommodation can take so much time. I’d never been to Strasbourg before; I didn’t really know where it was, except that it’s in France, but France is a big country. I learned that it does have an airport, but the airport is a long way from the city, and there are no direct flights from any of my local airports. So on Monday I made an epic train journey via London St Pancras and then Eurostar to Paris, then on to Strasbourg from there.

Paris, you say, surely that’s glamorous? It is, though the ten-minute walk between Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est takes you through a very unglamorous part of the city. I had 68 minutes in Paris which wasn’t long enough to go anywhere or do or see anything I might have liked to go to, do or see. If I’d had a couple of hours and no luggage, I might have gone somewhere on the metro, but instead I had a bottle of cold citronnade in the station and did some people-watching which was fun.

I’m pretty good at packing these days. I travel light and it doesn’t take me long to get my things together. I have a little stash of Euros – but there’s always something – and this time I forgot to pack an adaptor. Luckily I had time to buy one at St Pancras, which I can add to my large and growing collection of international adaptors. (My favourite is a lightweight one my Dad bought for me when I made a big trip in 2016 which covers every country in the world. If I could only remember to pack it when I need to, I’d be golden. My last few overseas trips have been to Dublin and Belfast which is probably why I’m out of practice here.)

Then there are all the logistics. Where are the meetings? Where is the station? How far is it from one to the other? Should I find accommodation close to the station or close to the meetings? Which maps do I need to print out? (Yes, dear reader, I like maps on paper. They’re big enough to read, they don’t rotate of their own volition, and the batteries don’t run out.) What will the weather be like? What shall I wear?

I try really hard to get all the travel details right but I do slip up. For example, when I flew to Belfast earlier this month, I flew with Flybe but I booked through a third party and Flybe wasn’t mentioned till halfway down their email. When I was packing, I got mixed up and thought I’d booked with Aer Lingus, so I took my slightly larger case (which I didn’t even need to do as it wasn’t full) and ended up having to pay £35 at the airport to put it in the hold because it wouldn’t quite fit in their specified dimensions measurement box. Book it in online for the return trip, said the check-in clerk, it’ll be cheaper. So I did. Saved me a whole £6. A man next to me in the queue told me he works for Flybe and said all the budget airlines are taking tips from RyanAir about how to rip off passengers.

Then when I went online to book my train ticket for last Monday’s journey to St Pancras, I saw that first-class tickets were the same price as second-class for the train I needed to travel on. Happy days! I took a screenshot to show my client that I wasn’t wasting their money – and then when I picked up my ticket from the machine at the station, it was second-class. I fumed all the way home, planning my email of complaint to the train company, pulled up the screenshot full of righteous anger – and saw that I’d booked a second-class ticket after all. Probably force of habit.

I don’t get paid for travelling time, so I’ve become very skilled at working on trains and planes. Yet the night before I travel, I always sleep badly. I can understand myself worrying about oversleeping when I have to get up very early. I find it much less understandable when I don’t even have to leave the house till midday, like when I went to work in Belfast earlier this month. The night before I had the most ridiculous string of anxiety dreams – cancelled plane, incomprehensible message from airline, driver refusing to take me to the airport – I woke up feeling as though I hadn’t slept at all.

So there are many frustrations. But there are also joys. I arrived in Strasbourg at 5.40 pm on Monday, checked into my hotel, and went out for a walk around the beautiful mediaeval centre. There were some entertaining sights, an ‘artisanal creperie’ provided a tasty dinner, and I found a little supermarket for some treats to take home. That was a bit like having one evening of holiday, but the rest of the stay was full-on work from breakfast to bedtime. It’s often the way with these trips because the cost and effort of bringing people together means everyone feels we need to make the most of the time we have.

People often think this kind of travelling is glamorous and fun. Occasionally it is, but mostly it’s hard work and tiring. I’m glad I can do it, though; I learn a lot and that’s always a plus for me, even if I’m learning about European train timetables or hotels in Cardiff.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $25 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $25 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

The Mothership Project

mship-cover-2I don’t say much on this blog about my client work because most of it is confidential. But I’m delighted to have permission from one of my lovely clients to tell you about a project I’ve been helping them with over the last couple of years.

The Mothership Project is based in the Republic of Ireland and is a network of parenting artists run by four awesome artist mothers: Leah Hilliard, Michelle Browne, Seoidín O’Sullivan and Tara Kennedy. It was founded in 2013 as a result of Seoidín O’Sullivan’s frustration at struggling to retain her arts practice after becoming a mother. She fired off an email to a few friends who shared her concerns and set up a working group of volunteers. They organised workshops and discussions, show-and-tell events and reading groups, focusing on issues facing parenting artists such as visibility, time, money and precarity. Despite the name it is not gender-specific or even parent-specific but welcomes all artists who are primary carers of children.

In 2017 the Mothership Project made a successful application to the Irish Arts Council for funding to build on this work with a research project to find out what would help parents most, a pilot programme of artists’ residencies tailored for parent artists, and a publication of their findings.

The first I heard of any of this was a message from Leah Hilliard which came via this website in December 2017, asking if I could help advise them about the research. We spoke on Skype and I agreed to help. The Mothership team had drafted a questionnaire and wanted some feedback. We spoke again in January and, as luck would have it, I was doing some speaking and teaching in Dublin in March so I was able to meet three of the team in person – Leah, Michelle, and Tara, plus Tara’s six-week-old daughter Kim!

They piloted the questionnaire before it was finalised, put onto SurveyMonkey, and circulated the link as widely as they could. The questionnaire was quite detailed, asking questions about respondents’ art practice, their parenting experience, workspaces, childcare, financial situation, experience of artists’ residencies, and a final ‘is there anything else you would like to tell us?’ question. By the end of July 2018 there were 145 responses. I analysed those in August, using descriptive statistics for numeric answers and basic qualitative analytic techniques for text answers. This involved separating out the answers to each question and grouping similar ones together into categories, then writing about the categories and the number of responses in each category. Some of the responses to the final question were really positive about the questionnaire itself and the work of the Mothership Project.

My lovely clients were pleased with the analysis I sent them. They held their pilot residencies in the autumn for 15 parent-artists, and conducted an exit questionnaire which I was also able to help them analyse. The responses were overwhelmingly positive. Then they set to work to prepare their publication. They brought me over to Ireland to spend a day with them working on this. I learned that artists take a very different approach from writers to making a book. When I want to create a book, I sit down at my computer and write words onto a screen. When these women want to create a book, they start by figuring out how many pages it will be. Then they put a page of A4 for each page of the book up on a studio wall, and write and draw on Post-Its and on the pages of A4 while talking together to work out how to make the book they want.

pic for blog

The team were keen that the publication should be accessible, visually engaging and would act as an advocacy tool in the future. They wanted to have a two-page centre spread setting out the findings and recommendations which would be easy for the reader to find and reproduce. This focus on making the research visible and visual, and easy to use by other people, was paramount in the planning stage.

And a very fine book it is too, fulfilling all those aims. It was launched on 16 May in Dublin – I was working in Dublin again at the time, but unfortunately couldn’t make it to the launch as I was in an all-day workshop with another client at Dublin City University. So frustrating!

As an independent researcher, I don’t often hear about what happens as a result of research I’ve worked on, so I was delighted when Michelle got back in touch last week to update me. The research was covered in the Irish Times and is being taken seriously by policy-makers in Ireland, which is great news. Only last Friday she presented the methodology and findings at a conference called Measuring Equality in the Arts Sector at University College Cork. This was run by an organisation of the same name, known as MEAS, which was set up last year, with support from the Irish Research Council to monitor and report on representational inequalities in the arts in Ireland. It’s great to know that this kind of work is going on, and that my experience and skills have been able to make a tiny contribution.

Creative people frequently amaze me by what they achieve in the world, and the Mothership Project team are a great example. It was a real pleasure to work with them.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, are funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $25 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $25 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Knowing When To Stop

stopSometimes it’s hard to know when to stop. That could be when you’re still having fun and you don’t want to stop even though it’s after midnight and you’ve got to be in work at 9. In my early 20s I could get away with that. In my mid-50s? No chance. The dark sides of not knowing when to stop are dependency and addiction. Then there are the mental ‘ought’s and ‘should’s. I ought to finish reading this book, that I’m not enjoying at all, because the author took so much trouble in its writing. I should keep working on this collaborative piece even though my collaborator hasn’t answered my emails in months.

There’s an art to knowing when to stop. My mother, who is prone to outbreaks of wisdom, explained to me the point of stopping while you’re still having fun. Because what’s the alternative? Keep going till you’re not having fun any more? If you do that, you’re unlikely to want to do whatever-it-was again. Whereas if you stop while you’re still having fun, you keep the magic.

The ‘ought’s and ‘should’s can bog off. There are so many books (and journal articles, and – ahem – blog posts, and so on) that if you’re not enjoying one, why take the time to read it to the end? You won’t have time in your whole life to read all the books (journal articles, blog posts etc) that you do enjoy. So blow it out. Read the last page/paragraph if you need to satisfy your curiosity, then toss it and find something that suits you better.

And as for collaborations that have gone belly-up… that can be hard, when you’ve put in a lot of work and you’re not far from the finish line. But recognising when you need to quit is an important survival skill because it protects you from throwing good time after bad.

There’s another way this can work, too, which is not so much knowing when to stop as recognising that you have stopped. This has happened to me with my New Year’s resolution (I know! July! Not bad, eh?). My resolution was to review a book a week; i.e. an academic book, and to publicise this and encourage others to join in. I said from the start that it didn’t actually have to be a book a week, and I followed my own guidance; I reviewed 14 books between 1 January and 7 June, 12 on Wordery/Amazon and two for the LSE blogs. I haven’t reviewed an academic book in the last couple of months, though I’ve read quite a few. I will continue to review academic and other books but I’m not going to plug it as a ‘thing’ any more.

This is partly because hardly anyone joined in. A few people said it was a great idea, and one or two did write reviews, but it was evidently an idea whose time has not come, or has passed, or will never exist. Conversely, the monthly creative methods chat that I started in June has taken off rather well. And of course the point of all these things is not only to be the thing in itself, but also to raise my profile. Sounds cynical, in a way – yet I’m running a business and I have books and skills to sell. That doesn’t mean I’m trying to sell them to everyone all the time; that would clearly be unrealistic. I aim to create initiatives which will be of value to people in themselves, because I think that’s the best way to do marketing. Not to shout GIVE ME WORK AND BUY MY BOOKS AND BE MY PATRON but to generate resources and opportunities for people, which may lead to some of those people choosing to put some work or money my way. Or not – there’s no obligation and I like it that way. But the return on investment for these initiatives is low. For example, there have been over 5,000 downloads of Starting Your PhD: What You Need To Know and around 25 reviews worldwide, or one review for every 200 downloads. So evidently it’s sensible to invest time in the initiatives that increase my visibility rather than those that don’t, no matter how close they may be to my heart.

So bye bye, review a book a week. It was nice knowing you. And hello, #CRMethodsChat. You’re ace, and you happen on the second Tuesday of every month. Long may that continue.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $34 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $34 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

 

Why I Adore Email

email inbox not zeroThe number of emails these days is problematic for many people, particularly professionals. Efforts are being made to reduce the volume of email – and this is a good thing, in principle. Yet some of the methods people are choosing don’t seem to me to be solving the problem.

My perception of this is particularly acute because I’m an indie. If you work for an organisation that decides everyone will use Trello for project management, or your department decides to use a WhatsApp group for internal admin, then fair enough. You know what you have to do and everyone you work with is doing the same thing. But recently five separate clients have asked me to use Slack, Trello, Basecamp, SharePoint, and a WhatsApp group, for project management or discussions or both. Also, I have missed work offered to me via Facebook Messenger, and I rather think a prospective client has fallen out with me as a result which is a very unfortunate outcome from my point of view. I’m not signed up to Messenger (never did think it was a good idea to give FB my phone number) so I don’t always get messages people send me on there. Other clients have approached me via DMs on Twitter, which are slightly more reliable but again I don’t always get the notifications so I don’t always pick up the messages. I suspect it’s only a matter of time before the same thing happens on Instagram.

There are several issues here. Let’s start with social media. Not everyone is on Facebook or WhatsApp. Even if someone appears on a platform you use, they may not use it in the same way as you. If you send someone a private message for the first time, and you don’t hear back as quickly as you expect, let them know in a public space that a message is waiting for their attention. And generally I would advise not using these systems for professional messages. These messages are not searchable, and they cannot be backed up except through a saved screenshot which is also not searchable. They are certainly not confidential; I know email, too, can be hacked, but if you use appropriate security it’s more secure than web-based messages. Also, I doubt that agreements made via social media – especially in private messages – are legally binding; or at least, to my knowledge, that hasn’t been tested.

Then there are the web-based programs and apps such as Trello, Slack, Basecamp and Sharepoint. Several of these are designed on the basis that one person = one login = one location. And the login is usually your email address. These systems are designed for organisations, not for indies. Recently I had a Basecamp account with one organisation and then needed to use my email for a different account with a different organisation – but the web-based system couldn’t provide that option. I spent best part of a day working with the second organisation’s IT department to find a way to resolve this problem. And of course, for me, that time is unpaid, which makes it even more galling.

All these systems are intended to reduce the volume of work in general and emails in particular. In my experience they don’t; they increase the volume of work and of emails. Learning a new system takes time and it’s not always easy. I now get email notifications from several of these systems, sometimes in multiples per day, clogging up my inbox. I can turn off notifications but then I have to remember to log in everywhere regularly or I miss important work messages. Logging in to several systems several times a week = more work.

However, it is true that the volume of email has become a problem. These days I get around 50-250 emails per day; I know some people get many more. A lot of these are junk or spam and swiftly deleted, but the rest take time to answer. There are various methods we can use to help manage emails, such as:

  1. Inbox zero. This is not about having no emails in your inbox, it’s about managing your emails so effectively that they don’t take up space in your head. Implementing some or all of the suggestions below can help you to achieve this.
  2. Those e-newsletters that induce only guilt because you never actually read them? Unsubscribe. The annoying spam that keeps on coming? Unsubscribe. Now that the EU has instituted GDPR, unsubscribing actually means something.
  3. Check email at specific times, say once in the morning and once in the afternoon. The rest of the time, turn off email notifications so you can concentrate on work.
  4. When you read an email, if possible deal with it straight away. If that’s not possible, tag it and make a note on your to-do list or equivalent to make sure it doesn’t get forgotten.
  5. Use folders to sort emails into ‘Read’, ‘Answer’, ‘Keep’ or suchlike categories. You can also use folders for emails related to specific projects.
  6. Delete everything you don’t need (though be sure it definitely is surplus to requirements).
  7. Don’t reply to any email unless a reply is truly necessary. If you’re cc’ed so you know what’s going on, do you really need to add to the discussion?

As this last point suggests, it helps to take care when you’re writing emails, too. Don’t write an email unless it’s really necessary, and when you do write, try to be as succinct as possible. I see, and I appreciate, a tendency to leave out the courtesies, such as ‘I hope you’re well’ (which is horribly insensitive if the person you’re emailing has a chronic health condition, as a lot of us do) and ‘best wishes/kind regards’. Email, used properly, is more like a conversation, with direct exchanges.

It seems to me that email has huge advantages over other systems. For example:

  1. You can work offline (as I often do – I’m writing this post on a train) including during power cuts, at least for as long as your battery lasts.
  2. Email is searchable. I recently had an email from someone I couldn’t remember but who evidently knew me quite well. I found the last email she’d sent me – 10 years ago! – which reminded me that we had worked together on a project, and meant I could send her a suitable response.
  3. You can tag emails with different colours for different actions.
  4. Emails can be filed by topic or project.
  5. Email is easy to back up and preserve.
  6. Agreements made by email have legal standing as contracts.

So, for all its downsides, I would like to stick to using email. But am I a dinosaur? Or am I missing something crucial? And what do you think about professional communication in 2019? Let me know in the comments.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $34 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $34 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

 

Funding for Indie Researchers – update

coins on handSocial media recently brought to my attention the fact that my post on this topic from January 2016 is now woefully out of date. The UK’s research councils now have an umbrella body, UK Research and Innovation, which came into operation last year. So far it doesn’t seem to have improved the funding situation for indie researchers in the UK, though I live in hope.

Anyway, the good news is that I have found a couple more funding sources that UK indie researchers can apply to. Also I have updates on those that were in my previous post, including one for European researchers. So here goes.

The British Academy offers Small Research Grants, in partnership with Leverhulme, of between £500 and £10,000 which may be spread over two years. These grants are for research expenses only, in the humanities and social sciences. Projects may be solo or collaborative. If collaborative, the lead scholar must be based in the UK, but beyond that, people from other countries may be involved in the project. The funders look for a clearly defined piece of work with an identifiable outcome.

The Wellcome Trust offers Research Fellowships for health-related researchers in the humanities and social sciences who do not hold established academic posts. These are for up to three years (or even longer, if part-time) and can be of a total value up to £275,000. You need to work at a ‘host organisation’ and the grant can cover a basic salary, personal removal expenses, and research expenses.

The Independent Social Research Foundation offers Independent Scholar Fellowships for European researchers. They are intended to buy out someone’s time for up to a year, with a maximum award of £25,000 or €28,500 depending on location, to enable them to work on a research project or an article or book.

The Leverhulme Trust offers Research Fellowships for experienced researchers in any discipline, including independent researchers, to complete a piece of original research. The fellowships may last for 3-24 months and the maximum value is £55,000. The awards provide research expenses over and above normal living costs and/or provide a contribution towards reasonable replacement costs or loss of earnings.

The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust offers Fellowships for travel in one or two continents, for 4-8 weeks, to find ‘innovative solutions to today’s most pressing problems’ from experts abroad. The grant covers all the costs of travel: transport, accommodation, food, visas, travel insurance, and so on. It does not cover loss of earning or replacement costs.

On the one hand, these are paltry amounts of money compared to the £6 billion of UKRI funding each year that indie researchers can’t access directly. But on the other hand, I could do a great deal with a small five-figure sum. This is partly where I think the larger funders are missing a trick: indie researchers don’t have big overheads so we’re very cost-effective. So far I’ve tried for Fellowships from the Leverhulme Trust and from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust; no luck yet, but I shall keep trying.

Then of course there’s Patreon, crowdfunding and so on. This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $34 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $34 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

 

 

Independent Research: The First 20 Years

20 yearsI began work as an independent researcher 20 years ago. The first project I took on was an evaluation of a county-wide substance misuse training strategy, in my home county of Staffordshire, for the Drug Action Team. Drug Action Teams were partnerships at local authority level set up by the Labour government to bring agencies together to address substance misuse of all kinds: illegal drugs of course, but also alcohol, pharmaceutical drugs, and other substances such as solvents. The Drug Action Team worked with staff from nightclubs and prisons, schools and hospitals, magistrates’ courts and housing providers – the remit was broad and training was a central part of that work. My previous experience, of working for four years as a training administrator in blue-chip City of London companies in the late 1980s, was very helpful.

My records show that the first meeting I attended was on 8 March 1999. I followed this up with a memo which I emailed to some colleagues and printed and posted for those who didn’t have email. Yes you read that right: in 1999 not all professionals had email, and I was lucky that I did. However, I didn’t have a laptop or a mobile phone. I knew a few people with mobile phones but I didn’t want one – in fact, I didn’t get one until my clients switched from saying “Do you have a mobile?” to asking “What’s your mobile number?” I got a laptop first, a Hewlett-Packard Jornada 690 ‘Pocket PC’ that ran Windows. But in 1999 I took meeting notes by hand and typed them up later on my desktop computer.

I did semi-structured interviews with interesting people all around the county, and also took notes for those by hand. And I had no data analysis software so I did that by hand too. The interview notes are long gone but I still have the analysed data in Word documents.

I thought that project would be a one-off. At the time I was earning my living as a freelance proof-reader and copy editor for academic publishers which was paying £10-£20 per hour. The project appealed to me as a chance to use my research skills once more and to earn a chunk of money – the budget was £5,000 and I charged £15 per hour for my time. But the people I worked with liked what I did, and word got round, and before I knew it I had a whole new career. I did a part-time MSc in Social Research Methods at Staffordshire University from 1999-2001 to improve my skills.

I worked at a desk in the corner of my small dining room, sometimes spreading out onto the dining table. It was a quiet place to work apart from the intermittent sound of my external dial-up modem. By the summer of 2001 I was too busy to cope alone so I started my limited company, We Research It Ltd, and took on another researcher to help with the workload. The two of us were quite cramped in my little dining room and it soon became apparent that we needed an admin assistant as well. I ended up moving to a place nearby, that I’d spotted while out on a bike ride, which had an office in the garden.

The three of us worked there together for a couple of years until I decided that I didn’t really want to go the employment/expansion route and made them redundant. They were nice people and good workers but I was struggling to bring in enough work to keep all three of us afloat and none of us were really happy with the situation. I continued to work with the researcher through sub-contracting until the recession hit in 2010.

The MSc was a huge help and I went on to do a PhD which I was awarded in 2006. But there was much I had to learn from experience, because the qualifications didn’t teach me how to work effectively with clients, or manage my company finances, or promote my business. Nobody told me that as an external team member I could become a scapegoat for events beyond my control; I had to learn that the hard way. No lesson explained that sticking to your ethical principles can become more difficult when you really need to earn some money. Nothing taught me how to combine being professional with being humane in a wide range of complex situations.

The period between gaining my PhD in 2006 and the change of Government in 2010 was a golden time. I rarely had to bid for work; I had good statutory and third sector networks across the Midlands and beyond, and most of my work simply arrived in my inbox. Then the new coalition Government brought in austerity measures and my networks imploded. I hadn’t seen that coming at all because I didn’t believe any UK Government could decimate public services (I do now). In 2011-12 my income plummeted. That year my company turned over less than £11,000 and I couldn’t pay myself anything out of that so I had to get a part-time job for a couple of years to make ends meet. But less work meant more time. I could finally write the book I’d been thinking about writing for the previous five years and start networking with academia. Fortunately for me, the writing and networking paid off, and I got my career back.

It took a few years to recover from the recession but I think I’m there now though there’s still a dent in my savings. I’m pretty good at my job these days, even if I do say so myself, though I know I can still make mistakes. But I’ve learned such a lot over the last two decades. I have been, and am, so lucky to be able to keep doing the work I love.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $17 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $17 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

How Independent Researchers Can Help Academics

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in summer 2016; this updated version is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.

independent workDo you know the independent researchers in your discipline or field? Have you got a clear strategy for when, how, and why you would involve independent researchers in your work? No? Then you’re missing a trick.

I have been an independent researcher for almost 20 years. In that time, among many other things, I have worked with a number of universities in the UK and abroad, and I have helped clients to commission work from independent researchers. I know that, in some cases, independent researchers can really add value to university-based research and teaching projects, whether by conducting work themselves on behalf of the university or by being part of a team involving university staff. I am also sometimes paid to write or co-write journal articles and, more recently, a book. Yet, too often, university staff don’t even know, let alone think about, what independent researchers can offer.

For a start, indie researchers have more time to think than university staff, because they don’t have to tangle with bureaucracy and time-consuming internal meetings. Their fresh perspective can be useful to help disentangle problems that seem entrenched, or simply to provide a different view of a situation. Also, they are not limited in what they work on by managerial directives or departmental policy. Therefore an indie researcher is unlikely to have the depth of knowledge in any single subject of a professor who has spent decades studying one area. However, they are likely to have a broad working knowledge of several related areas, and the ability to bring themselves up-to-date fast in any area they haven’t worked on for a while. This flexibility can be very useful for an academic department in a number of different ways. Three main ones are: as part of a team on a funded research project, to augment your teaching programme, or to fill gaps in your capacity.

Allocating time and costs for an independent researcher within a funding bid 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. Also, any credible independent researcher should be willing to put in some unpaid time up front, perhaps to write a section of the bid or to give feedback on a draft.

Generally, though, you shouldn’t ask indie researchers to do unpaid work beyond an initial getting-to-know-you meeting and proportionate input on funding proposals. If you do want or need them to do further unpaid work, think about what you can offer them in exchange, such as use of your library, an honorary position with access to paywalled journals, or free use of meeting rooms. 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 to most indies is ‘exposure’ because in these days of social media we can all expose ourselves.

Indie researchers’ day rates look high, but at times they go for weeks or months with no paid work, and they have none of the benefits of employment such as holiday pay or sick pay or conference budgets. For example, I charge universities £800/day for teaching, £400-$600/day for research work I can do from my office. Last year I was able to pay myself £17,000 – around one-third of what I would be taking home if I’d spent the last 20 years in academia. 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’.

You need to recognise that indie researchers are not in the position of salaried academics who can go to as many conferences, or collaborate on as many journal articles, as they like, without that affecting their income. If you want an indie researcher to run a seminar for you, you should pay them for their work. If you want them to speak at a conference, at the very least offer them a free place and expenses; they will still be giving their time for free, and they will be unable to earn any other income in that time.

Funders understand all this and are used to indie day rates – which are, after all, similar to the rates at which academics charge themselves out to funders. Even so, given the high cost of indie researchers, you’ll probably only want to build in a small number of days for them. But they should be able to get a lot done in those days, because many indie researchers – and certainly the good ones – are highly skilled, focused, and very productive.

It is true that a minority are not so good, and you do need 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, the indie researcher you chose for your team is now a full-time lecturer at the other end of the country.

Talking of lecturing, independent researchers can also be useful for all sorts of teaching, whether a single seminar, a module, or PhD supervision. HE students at all levels are usually fascinated by the perspective of indie researchers, who often bring practitioner experience as well as real-world research expertise. Sadly, university finance departments are not always helpful, as they can expect independent researchers to join the payroll for as little as, say, one day of work a month over six months. This is not economically viable for indies – I’ve turned down work offered on this kind of basis – so you will need to make sure you can navigate your internal finance systems effectively.

Independent researchers can also come in handy when you experience personnel problems. You know the kind of thing: you’re most of the way through a project and a key person goes off on maternity leave, or gets a job elsewhere, or decides to move abroad. There is still data to analyse or writing to be done and the department is maxed out. But you’re clearly heading for an underspend on that person’s costs, so if you know some good independent researchers, pick up the phone. One or more may well have the skills and capacity to help you meet your deadline.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $12 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $12 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Independent Research, Writing, and Financial Reality

money twenty pound notesEvery so often I post about how much money I make. As I’m just finishing my 2017-18 accounts, it seems a good time to update this.

I have written before about the difficulties the recession caused to my business and the bumpy road back to reasonable prosperity. In 2017-18 I invoiced for £34,338.54 of business, a bit down on the 2016-17 figure of £39,939 though that was partly because I took on a sizeable contract in the spring of 2018 but didn’t receive my first payment instalment until after my year end on 31.7.18.

The amount I invoice for is representative of the amount of work I do, not the amount of money I have in my pockets. In 2016-17 my post-tax profit was £14,057 – and I was able to pay myself a bit more than that because I’d had an even better year in 2015-16, as reported in my earlier post. In fact, 2015-16 was by far the best year of the last 8 years.

So it’s still bumpy, but the bumps are evening out, and I’m beginning to feel that I’m back on my financial feet (except when I think about my pension plans, eek, must do something about that). It helps that my mortgage is paid off, I’m happily child-free, and I don’t have expensive tastes. Also, I have plenty of work scheduled in for early 2018. For the first time in eight years, I don’t feel as if I should spend every spare moment trying to generate work.

Also, my research business doesn’t represent the whole of my income. There is also the income I derive from writing, which in 2017-18 was royalties of £1,663.70 from my trade published books and £306.25 from my self-published books, plus £268.64 from the wonderful ALCS. That’s a total of £2,238.59 for the year – though again there were outgoings to set against that: memberships of the Society of Authors and the Textbook and Academic Authors’ Association, royalties to Nathan Ryder who co-authored Self-Publishing for Academics, and all the books I bought. Altogether that comes to £593.48 and brings down my writing-related income to £1,645.11. Which is enough to pay for a month of writing time. I have to look at it that way, and not think in terms of an hourly rate, or I’d never write another word… if I wasn’t a writing addict.

Writing income is bumpy too. As my trade royalties arrive annually in October, I already know that they are lower in 2018-19 (£947.46) and I don’t really understand why. But I have a new book out this month, and I’ll have two short books out next month in the new series I’m working on for SAGE, plus two more next July, and I’m also co-editing and writing for a new series for Routledge, and have three other book proposals in the pipeline. The SAGE and Routledge books come with small advances totalling £1,250 so far, so in this financial year I’ve already made more from those than from the royalties on my published books. I’m hopeful that perhaps by 2021 I’ll make enough to buy myself out for two months of writing time. At that rate it should only take another 30 years of work to be able to write full-time, so it doesn’t look as though I’ll achieve that dream, as I’ll be 87 in 2051!

Sometimes people think that because my day rates are comparatively high, I must be rich. In fact, my day rates don’t only cover a day’s work, they also cover holidays, sickness and bereavement leave, time spent on unpaid but essential work such as admin and accounts, travelling time, business expenses such as heat and light and IT equipment and accountants’ fees and so on, and of course tax to be paid.

There are independent researchers who make more money than me – I know of one who is registered for VAT, which suggests they turn over more than £85,000 per year, but they work very hard for that, travelling all around the world for most of the year. That may sound delightful and glamorous but I can assure you that travelling for work, while it does have lovely moments, is mostly about trains, planes, taxis, hotel rooms and classrooms or meeting rooms. I like to work overseas, and could probably make more money if I did more of it, but once or twice a year is about right for me.

I think it is important to be open about how much money I make overall, not least because so many people ask me what it’s like to be an independent researcher. For me, it’s a terrific lifestyle, but it wouldn’t suit everyone. I’d say it’s probably as difficult as being an academic or practice-based researcher but the difficulties are in different places. If it’s an option you’re considering, you need to be as realistic as possible about the financial side.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $11 per month. If you think four or five of my blog posts are worth more than $11 in total – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!