Tag Archives: academic jobs

How to make sure people care about your research

No-one cares about your research. Particularly if it’s your PhD (or any other kind of doctorate). In fact if someone knows it’s the latter, or you mention it, they probably care less, or at least have alarm bells ringing that you’re about to launch into a prolonged account of your scholarship woes, the fact your supervisor hasn’t replied to any emails for 17 hours now, the horrible ethics committee, and the impossibility of writing only 100,000 words when it’s taken you 7 years and you’ve just got so much to say…

Even more of concern is the journal reviewer, or assessor of your grant proposal who is put off and frustrated before they’ve finished reading the first paragraph.

Fear not, for help is at hand! Fortunately, there is a really easy and effective way to avoid all these problems. Admittedly, this assumes your research does actually matter in some way, in the sense that it connects with something wider and non-trivial.

My solution will cost you nothing: no hard currency, no bitcoins, and no sleepless nights. Probably not even any extra words. In fact you may end up telling and selling the story of your research in fewer words than before! All it takes is a bit of trust, and a few minutes of your time.

My solution is this: when introducing your research, use a sequence that follows a ‘so’ logic rather than a ‘why?’ logic. This may well involve reversing the order of your ideas and sentences. If so, rejoice! – because this means you’ve already had all the right ideas, made all the right connections. You just need to turn it all upside down.

So what on earth is a ‘so’ logic, or a ‘why?’ logic, and why do these matter?

A ‘why’ logic is based on a sequence of sentences where each sentence is followed by one that explains the first. Example:

My research is about improving generic skills of university graduates.

This is important because employers increasingly look for generic skills in recruiting new staff, and repeatedly report shortcomings among graduates.

This matters because generic skills are known to be crucial to successful business innovation.

This looks great, right? It’s clear, follows a nice logical order, and explains to the reader why your research is important. I’ll admit, it’s not bad. Just I think it could be better. What’s really going on in the sequence above is an unwritten conversation with the reader. Let’s look at it again, this time with the silent responses inserted:

My research is about improving generic skills of university graduates.

[So what?]

This is important because employers increasingly look for generic skills in recruiting new staff, and repeatedly report shortcomings among graduates.

[Yeah. And? Why should I care about that?]

This matters because generic skills are known to be crucial to successful business innovation.

[Oh! Now I get it!]

Look at it from the reader’s point of view. You first sentence left them unconvinced, and probably rang all the alarm bells of dread, foreboding the terrors I outlined at the beginning of this post. Only after pushing you twice for more information, are they rewarded with something that they actually ‘get’, and might even care about. To them your research, in only three sentences, has been an uphill slog, full of doubt, experienced as some kind of puzzle that leaves them guessing. After each sentence they are left asking themselves: “why?”. This is the reason I call this a ‘why?’ logic.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can swap ‘why?’ for ‘so’. And we barely have to change a word. In fact we delete quite a few!

Generic skills are known to be crucial to successful business innovation.

Employers increasingly look for generic skills in recruiting new staff, and repeatedly report shortcomings among graduates.

My research is about improving generic skills of university graduates.

In this logic, you start with the idea that the reader really ‘got’ in the first scenario. The thing that matters most universally, directly and immediately to your readers. The kind of thing that they will accept as obvious, perhaps even unquestionable. There’s nothing wrong with showing a reader that you are both on the same wavelength. Take a shared assumption about something that you know to be a common concern. Something you don’t have to convince them to care about. Exploit what’s already there between you!

Then simply follow up with a sentence that leads from that towards your research, in a gradually narrowing down. What’s happening this time, is something more like this:

Generic skills are known to be crucial to successful business innovation.

[Absolutely! You sound like a sensible sort of person who knows what I care about. I’m curious. Tell me more].

Employers increasingly look for generic skills in recruiting new staff, and repeatedly report shortcomings among graduates.

[Yes. That makes sense.]

My research is about improving generic skills of university graduates.

[Seriously?! Wow! That’s wonderful! It’s just what we need. And it sounds very focused too. Tell me all about it in intricate detail!]

At each step you carry the reader with you, and one sentence follows on from the next exploiting this. Sentence 1 [brilliant!] so…. sentence 2 [amazeballs!] so… sentence 3 [no way! Where’s that Novel prize nomination form?]

That’s it. It may take you more than 3 sentences (hopefully not too many more, though).

Give it a try. I dare you. What have you got to lose?

Acknowledgement

I would like to acknowledge the influence of Martyn Hammersley’s framework for reading ethnographic research (see my video and podcast), Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler’s miraculous ‘tiny texts’ approach to writing abstracts, the group of UTS Doctor of Education students based in Hong Kong, and Lee Williamson from UTS’ Research Office. Without you all this would never have come to fruition.come to fruition.

Self-sabotage your academic career

I’ve been doing lots of workshops about academic careers, doctoral study, publications, perfectionism, study habits etc, recently.

Noah Riseman (of Australian Catholic University) pointed out this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education to me, and it is well worth a read. Be honest with yourself when you read it.

My big take home lessons (in a deliberately blunt style):

1. Don’t wait around for someone to pat you on the back and give you wonderful opportunities  / blank research funding cheques / book contracts / tenured jobs. If you’re not doing anything about this, you can pretty much assume no-one else is either.

2. Don’t delay by seeking perfection. Nothing you write will ever be perfect. Deal with it and get it out there. But don’t rush it all either. Hit the sweet spot (and I would add: be ready to accept that much if not everything we do at least in part reflects what we can do in particular times and circumstances).

3. Don’t mope and self-vicitimise in the face of failure and harsh reviews. Sure it will feel rubbish for a while. But if you’re not able to cope with criticism and rejection, academia probably isn’t for you. Sorry but that’s pretty much the size of it. And in case you doubt: I’m pretty happy to say I’ve been rejected by plenty of journals, research funders, and job panels in my time. Yes, it didn’t feel great when it happened. But no, I’m not embarrassed by it, or ashamed. Nor do I allow it to fuel self-doubt.

4. Be visible (and as per point 1, don’t expect others to go around shining the light on you), but be ready to step aside as personal and political storms pass.

5. Be flexible and coherent at the same time. Chances are the job that equals lecturing and researching on the topic of your PhD does not and probably never will exist. Be ready to go where the money is or jobs are. I moved from geography in secondary schools to a project about doctoral education, and now am researching health. But I can tell a coherent story about pursuing questions of learning, consistent methodologies, and developing theoretical approaches. Be ready to teach courses that aren’t in your direct area. It’s super-competitive out there so you can’t be precious. And you can’t be stuck in what was interesting / good for you at one moment in time. The world and academic disciplines will move (on) regardless of how much you still love your doctoral topic and paradigm.