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!

The Ethics of Independent Research Work #1

ethicsI guess we all know by now that I bang on a fair bit about research ethics, but I haven’t written about the ethical aspects of working as an independent researcher. I have come up with ten ethical principles for indie researchers. Many of these no doubt apply to other forms of self-employment too, but they definitely all apply to independent research work. This post contains the first five principles; I will post the other five next week.

  1. Be honest about what you don’t know

If a client says, ‘You know the legislation that…’ and you don’t, it’s best to say so. It can be tempting to nod while making a mental note to look it up online later, but that can lead to disaster. People often fear that saying they don’t know something will make them look stupid, but paradoxically the reverse is true. If you are clear about what you do know and honest about what you don’t, you will build trust with your clients much more quickly and effectively.

  1. Be clear about your capacity

Allied to this: don’t take on work you haven’t got time to do, because that won’t do anyone any favours. You won’t produce your best work for your clients, and you’ll end up burned out. OK there are times where you may choose to work at maximum capacity for a short time, e.g. as one contract ends while another begins, or to fit in a quick piece of work for a valued client. But keep these brief and infrequent, and make sure you build in recovery time. Independent research is a great career (at least, in my view), but no career is worth damage to your health and relationships.

  1. Charge a fair rate for the job

If possible, find out what the going rate is, and charge that. The going rate will vary across sectors and between countries. I have written before about how I charge for work: in brief, I charge less for charities and longer projects, more for universities, governments, and work I don’t really want to do.

Also, don’t take on jobs with inadequate budgets, unless you’re desperate for the money and prepared to accept a very low day rate. I’ve been offered a three-year national evaluation with a total budget of £5,000. Perhaps someone ended up doing that work for that money, but they would either have done a very poor job or effectively accepted an extremely low day rate.

  1. Don’t accept work on an unethical basis

One potential client rang me towards the end of the financial year to ask if I could invoice her for several thousand pounds that she had left in her budget. She said she was a bit busy, so could we sort out what I would do for the money at a later date? I didn’t know her so I asked why she had rung me. She told me she had wanted person A, but they were too busy so they suggested person B, who couldn’t take it on either and suggested me. Nowadays I would probably say a simple ‘no’, but it was early in my career, and person B was quite influential. I agreed to invoice, but only after meeting with my potential client to decide whether we could work together and what I would do for her.

Another time a commissioner rang me to ask me to evaluate a service because he wanted to close it down. I said I would evaluate the service if he wished, but I would not pre-determine the findings; they would be based on my analysis of the data I gathered. He agreed to this. I did the evaluation, and found – unequivocally – that the service was highly valued and doing necessary work. The commissioner paid my invoice, then found someone else to do another evaluation saying the service should be closed down, whereupon he closed it down. Again, with the benefit of hindsight I probably should have said ‘no’ to the assignment, but I naïvely thought that if I did the research the commissioner would abide by the findings.

  1. Don’t take work outside your areas of expertise

You may have more than one area of expertise. I have a few: children/young people/families, housing/homelessness, substance misuse, volunteering, service user involvement, third sector, training. Each of these areas formed part of my professional work before I became an independent researcher.

Earlier this decade I got an email asking me to do some work around learning disability. I replied, explaining that it was not one of my areas of expertise, and saying I didn’t think I was the best person for the job. The potential client came back saying they thought I was right and apologising for having bothered me. (I didn’t mind. I never mind answering queries about possible paid work.)

Oddly enough, a few weeks later I got another email, from someone completely different, asking me to do some work around learning disability. After rolling my eyes and thinking about buses, I sent a similar reply. This time the potential client came back saying that I sounded perfect for the piece of work they wanted to commission. They thought someone with a good knowledge of research methods but little knowledge of learning disability would bring a usefully fresh perspective to the problems they were trying to solve. Which is further evidence for (1) above.

So there you have the first five principles of ethical research work, according to me. Come back next week for the other five.

How To Get Paid On Time

lateAs an independent researcher I feel lucky because bad debt is a problem I rarely have to face. My clients are charities, local authorities, government departments, universities – all organisations with money in the bank and not much chance of going bankrupt. Of course that’s always a possibility, but people who work for private sector organisations or private clients are much more likely to find themselves owed money they will never receive.

Late payment, though, is a perennial problem that can play havoc with my cashflow. I yearn to name and shame, though I think that would be counter-productive in the long run, so I won’t. But I will say that, of the groups I’ve mentioned, charities are most likely to pay promptly and universities are by far the worst offenders.

In the UK we have a Late Payment of Debts Act in recognition of the difficulties that late payment can cause to small businesses. If you are a salaried person, imagine your employer told you, towards the end of one month, that they hadn’t got their admin organised so you’d be getting paid a month late. Not good, right? I cite the Late Payment of Debts Act on all my invoices, though I don’t think it makes much difference. What it does mean is that if I issue a big invoice and/or payment is really late, I can claim interest – though the amount is tied to the bank base rate of interest, which is currently very low. Sigh… But even though claiming interest doesn’t do much for my income, it does focus clients’ minds, so I think it’s worth doing from time to time, particularly with serial offenders. I have had clients’ finance departments try to refuse to pay the interest, but when I point out it’s a statutory requirement, they back down.

However, that is a last resort. There are more constructive things you can do to ensure you get paid on time, or at least as near to on time as possible. First, invoice as soon as you’ve done the work, or as near to that as you can manage. If you take your time about invoicing, you have less moral high ground to occupy if you need to chide your client for taking their time about payment. That’s illogical, of course, but nevertheless true. Second, keep track of your invoice dates and amounts – I use a spreadsheet. Third, chase every late payment as soon as it’s late, or as near to that as you can manage. Chase politely: I use phrases like ‘My records show…’ and ‘your organisation agreed…’ to depersonalise the message, as the late payment is very rarely the fault of the person who answers your emails. Ask when you can expect to receive payment, and don’t be afraid to chase again if you don’t receive payment or further information by that date (or a couple of days later, if you want to appear more forgiving than naggy).

International payments may take much longer than UK payments, there is no legislation to help, and it doesn’t matter what you say on your invoice. Payment periods of 90-120 days are not unusual. There is no good reason for this, and it’s annoying, but if you want to do international work you have to suck it up. Of course not all overseas clients will be late payers, but be prepared.

In fact, ‘be prepared’ is the cornerstone of financial survival as an independent researcher. You need to keep enough money in your bank account for six months’ running costs as a minimum, 12 months to be comfortable. ‘Running costs’ include all your business overheads, the amount you feel able to pay yourself, and your tax bill. That way, if you get a lengthy contract with long intervals between payments, you can keep yourself afloat until you get paid. That approach was helpful to me this year when I landed two good-sized contracts, both starting in late May. One is a five-month UK evaluation contract with two payment instalments; I have just received payment of the first, and the second is likely to arrive in late November or early December. The other, a three-year international research ethics contract, is supposed to accept invoices quarterly but I have not yet been able to issue my first invoice. If I hadn’t had a financial cushion I’d have gone under by now. So take heed, would-be or newbie independent researchers, and be prudent.

The Gear Changes of Independent Research

gear changeI have been an independent researcher for almost 20 years, yet I still find the gear changes difficult.

All of last week I was in top gear. On Sunday night I arrived in a reasonable chain hotel in a city centre. The hotel was as these hotels are: clean, reasonably spacious, comfortable, soulless. I asked for a quiet room and got one, plus the bathroom had an actual bath of a decent size. These things can take on enormous importance when you’re working away from home.

I spent the week zooming around the city in taxis and holding meetings with people during which I typed copious notes. I was facilitating the meetings too so I had to pay a lot of attention to what was going on. There was no scope for doing other things on my phone under the table or staring out of the window. Luckily most of the people I met with were lovely and what they had to say was interesting – that isn’t always the case.

I managed one brief meeting for a different project, one bus journey, and one long walk (it wasn’t supposed to be that long but I got lost, ahem). Other than that it was wall-to-wall meetings then back to my hotel room to work on the report for my client while dining al desko on snacks grabbed from a local supermarket. I could have gone out to eat but didn’t want to take the time. Also I didn’t want a restaurant meal after a full hotel breakfast and a working lunch which was generally quite copious too.

I got home on Thursday night. On Friday I had another meeting for a different project and spent the rest of the day writing the report. And all of Saturday and all of Sunday too, holed up in my office, nose to keyboard, while the rest of the world lazed around in the sunshine. I finished the report around 6 pm on Sunday and emailed it off to the client with a deep sigh of deadline-met relief.

In top gear I run smoothly and at high speed. I’m comfortable there, but of course it’s not sustainable long-term. Sometimes I have to drop to a lower gear for a while. And that’s where this whole analogy breaks down because, in a vehicle, changing gear is generally quick and fairly uncomplicated. For this independent researcher, it takes at least 24 bumpy hours, sometimes several days.

Monday was a weird day. I didn’t quite know what to do with myself; how to prioritise the jobs on my to-do list; whether to take some time off. I felt unsettled, out of sorts. I know this feeling so well and yet it always takes me by surprise. It can be almost as discombobulating when I’ve been in low gear and need to rev up, though at least then I can deploy my personal carrot-and-stick self-discipline techniques. But I haven’t found equivalent methods for managing the change-down days. Stopping altogether, that’s easy. It’s when I still need to work, but don’t have to go at steam heat, that I find the adjustment hard.

I’ve heard similar tales from people with jobs as diverse as journalists and heating engineers, so evidently this isn’t unique to independent research. But it’s an odd phenomenon and, in my experience, rarely discussed. Perhaps this comes in that well-known category of ‘more research needed’.

The Undisciplined Interdisciplinary Researcher

undisciplinedLast week there was an interesting conference called Undisciplining that I enjoyed following on social media. The conference subtitle was ‘Conversations From The Edges’ and its stated aim included ‘to foster collaborations and dialogues across disciplines and beyond academia’. There was live blogging, a workshop on making sociological board games, a feminist walk, and all manner of other creative ways to promote reflection and discussion at the conference and elsewhere. But although it talked about working across disciplines and beyond academia, the stated purpose of that was ‘to shape the nature and scope of the sociological’.

From what I read about this conference, its participants were keen to consider how sociology might be changed, extended, morphed into anything at all that could be useful in some way – but would still, in the end, be sociology. As the conference was sponsored by The Sociological Review this is perhaps unsurprising. Yet, despite its aspirations to interdisciplinarity – ‘undisciplining’ – it seemed like a disciplinary conference.

While I was pondering on this, my attention was drawn to a blog post by Ayona Datta about why she supports early career researchers. This sentence resonated with me: “Despite the rhetoric of interdisciplinarity, there are very few institutional and intellectual spaces that actually support interdisciplinary work.”

My first degree was a BSc in social psychology at the London School of Economics. In the early 1980s, few psychologists were experimenting with qualitative research, so my degree was entirely quantitative. What I learned in my first degree influences me today, yet I’m neither a psychologist nor a quantitative researcher. I studied social research methods for my masters’ degree which was mostly taught by sociologists and anthropologists. My PhD was cross-disciplinary, with one supervisor from social policy and the other from the business school. Today, I think I am a researcher without a discipline. Perhaps I am an undisciplined researcher.

But research is a topic, not a discipline. So does this mean my work is interdisciplinary? I think it does, for two main reasons. First, my main topics of interest, i.e. research methods and ethics, are interdisciplinary. A geographer might invent a new method, which is then adapted by an anthropologist, reshaped by a poet and used by a lawyer. Research ethics don’t vary much across disciplines either. Second, I read across disciplines, like a magpie, searching by topic, picking out the texts that look shiny and passing over the dull ones. I don’t have a disciplinary imperative to keep up with this journal or that blog. I began to read like this as an undergraduate, pre-internet, finding that tracking trails of interest through bibliographies in the library was far more interesting than trudging through the prescribed reading list (though sadly it was less use when it came to writing assignments).

I’m not anti-disciplines, though, as such. I think perhaps there is merit in learning and thinking within particular fields for some purposes. But I am anti-disciplines when they constrain thought and action. To help avoid this, I think discipline-based researchers and scholars should make regular visits to other disciplines, such as through reading, collaborating, or attending conferences. During my undergraduate degree, every student was expected to take a module outside their core subject. I learned a lot from studying anthropology, sociology, and literature, which enhanced my learning of psychology. (I was amused to find that this approach has been introduced as an ‘innovation’ by another London HE setting recently. My cackling splutter of “LSE did that in the early 80s” received a frosty reception.)

Academics often tell me they can’t work in this kind of way because of constraints which, to be fair, often seem more institutional than disciplinary. So is the problem here that disciplines serve the needs of the institution? Was the Sociological Review able to sponsor a conference more radical than some because it is a publication, not an institution? Is it, as many have suggested and I myself suspect, because I work outside an institution that I can do truly interdisciplinary work?

Being a researcher, I generally have more questions than answers. I wonder, though, whether interdisciplinary work holds dangers for those in power. I wonder whether this is why independent researchers are not able to write for The Conversation or apply for funding from research councils. I suspect my forthcoming book, Research Ethics in the Real World, which certainly is interdisciplinary, is going to annoy some people. More than one academic has told me they wouldn’t have been able to write it from within academia.

I would have loved to go to the Undisciplining conference, but I couldn’t afford the cost plus the unpaid time to attend, so I’m glad they did so much on social media. I will try to do my part on that front at the Research Methods Festival in Bath next week. That’s a truly interdisciplinary conference, with geographers, philosophers, sociologists, criminologists, health researchers, artists, economists, and many others too. I’m running a workshop on writing creatively in academia, which means I get a sizeable discount plus my travel paid, which means I can attend the rest of the conference. I can’t wait!

The Variety Of Indie Research Work

varietyOne of the things I love about being an independent researcher is the sheer variety of projects I work on and tasks I might do in a day. Yesterday, I was only in the office for the afternoon, yet I worked on at least seven different things. Here’s what I did.

First, I checked Twitter, and found a tweet with a link to a blog post I wrote about an event that is part of a project I’m working on with and for the forensic science community. This is a new departure for me, in that I haven’t worked with forensic scientists before, though the work itself is straightforward. I’m supporting a small group of people with research to identify the best way to create a repository for good quality student research data, and it’s surprisingly interesting. So I retweeted the tweet.

Second, I dealt with the morning’s emails. The arrival of a purchase order I’d been waiting for weeks to receive – hurrah! I formulated the invoice and sent it off to the client. Then some correspondence about the creative research methods summer school I’m facilitating at Keele in early July – just three weeks away now, so the planning is hotting up (and there are still some places left if you’d like to join us – it’ll be informative and fun). The most interesting email was a blog post from Naomi Barnes, an Australian education scholar who is considering what it means to be a white educator in the Australian school system. This chimes with the work I am doing on my next book, so I leave a comment and tweet the link.

While on Twitter, I got side-tracked by a tweet announcing #AuthorsForGrenfell, an initiative set up by authors for authors to donate items for auction to raise funds for the Red Cross London Fire Relief Fund to help survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire. I’d been wanting to help: my father is a Londoner, I have always had family in London, I lived in London myself from 1982-1997, and one member of my family is working in the tower right now to recover bodies. So it feels very close to home. But I’m not in a position to give lots of money, so I was delighted to find this option which I hope will enable me to raise more money than I could give myself. I have offered one copy of each of my books plus a Skype consultation with each one. My items aren’t yet up on the site, but I hope they will be soon because bidding is open already. If you’re one of my wealthy readers, please go over there and make a bid!

Then I spent some time researching aftercare for data. Yes, indeed there is such a thing. So far I’ve come up with two ways to take care of your data after your project is finished: secure storage and open publication. They are of course diametrically opposed, and which you choose depends on the nature of your data. Open publication is the ethical choice in most cases, enabling your data to be reused and cited, increasing your visibility as a researcher, and reducing the overall burden on potential research participants. In some cases, though, personal or commercial sensitivities will require secure storage of data. There may be other ways to take care of data after the end of a project, and I’ll be on the lookout for those as I work on my next book.

By now it was 6 pm so I did a last trawl of the emails, and found one from Sage Publishing with a link to a Dropbox folder containing 20 research methods case studies for me to review. They publish these cases online as part of their Methodspace website. I like this work: it’s flexible enough to fit around other commitments and, like other kinds of review, it tests my knowledge of research methods while also helping me to stay up to date. Best of all, unlike other kinds of review, Sage pay for my expertise. So I downloaded all the documents, checked and signed the contract, and emailed it back with a ‘thank you’. By then it was 6.30 pm and time to go home.

As the old saying goes, variety is the spice of life. I certainly like the flavour it gives to my work. Some days I work on a single project all day; those days are fun too. Yesterday I worked in my own office, today I’m out at meetings locally, tomorrow I’m off to London. It’s always ‘all change’ and I wouldn’t have it any other way.