A letter to my researcher friends

This format is one I’ve used on my personal blog a number of times, I write a letter to my niece each year on her birthday, so I thought I would try it here because what I have to say is personal opinion, gut not evidence, and reflections in response to a number of colleagues asking deep questions about the point of their work:

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Dear Researcher Colleague,

I’m writing this in response to a number of public reflections and questions about the value of research, made not by those of us outside academia, but from those within it. As someone who gave up an academic career quite early on (due principally to frustrations that my efforts and research wasn’t making a difference) I am often very critical of academia, as a system, and many within it who seem more focused on their own careers/publication records/promotions, than making their work useful. The REF (Research Excellence Framework for the uninitiated) has been something of a mixed blessing really, an attempt to even out the impact and point of research, that has in turn just been played like any system before it. All of that said, I’m not giving up on the value of research just yet. What follows are some thoughts on why. So, I’m going to offer some thoughts, from outside looking in, because I think it is often easier to spot the positives that way!! You can of course do what you like with this, read it or don’t, share it or don’t, comment or don’t; I’m not offering answers, just musing and no doubt that will develop over time.

1) Recognise we live in turbulent times. It’s not an easy time to be an academic, sure it’s not an easy time to be anything right now. It seems at times that we are overloaded with the misery and scale of injustice and those of us who take time to reflect, often resort to that which is in our control, ourselves. This is, in my humble opinion, a good thing, but I think being an academic can often leave exceptionally talented people feeling quite isolated, and in my experience, as a profession academia is way more competitive than collaborative. Go easy on yourself, there are enough critics out there without you joining them!

2) Collaborate don’t compete. Building on the last point, right from day dot in academia the focus is on self, plagiarism and collaboration are actively discouraged, even as undergrads you are encouraged to learn for yourself (maybe that’s moved on, I hope it has, but that was the case in my day); the focus was very much on survival of the intellectually fittest. There was competition for grades, competition for jobs, competition for places on a PhD and then years immersed in quite solitary study as a PhD student. All of that said, if you really want your research to make a difference, to have value, to be worth it, then you need to collaborate. Collaborate with each other and fellow researchers, but perhaps most importantly, collaborate with those whom your research is intended to benefit. Ditch the language of participants, or worse still subjects, and ask yourself how you can work together to find new knowledge or document existing lives, hardships, successes and so on.

3) Ask who you are doing it for? If you aren’t sure who you would collaborate with, then why are you doing research? Next time you attend a meeting, or write a paper, or start putting together a funding bid, or sign up for a conference, ask yourself who you are doing it for. Yes, realistically, you must feature in your answer, but who else? If the only people you can identify is you and your colleagues and then you slip into answers like your research centre/organisational reputation/REF score, then maybe it’s time to reconsider what you’re aiming to achieve. If you intend to improve something, or influence policy or practice, that’s great, but make sure you plan how you will do that. Producing knowledge and reports is not nearly enough.

4) Don’t underestimate your own credibility! Don’t make the mistake of overlooking the value of good research, good data and good information, collected rigorously, by skilled researchers. We are overloaded with spin, it has crept into every area of our lives, the media being a main culprit, but also the implementation of government policy borders on propaganda at times; within this environment, a solid piece of research, even if it only states what everyone else knows or assumes to be true, is a valuable commodity. In recent years I have repeatedly experienced my opinions being overlooked and taken for granted, not because I know less or have less expertise, but simply because I have no professional job title to associate myself with! If you have a job and a job title, then you have an opportunity to use that credibility for a greater good; don’t take that for granted.

5) Recognise your skills. Years ago when I had just started my PhD I was horrified to be told that I couldn’t just get on with it, even though I had it all planned and approved, no, in their wisdom ESRC had changed things so I had to spend one of my three years studying research methods. I was livid, impatient to get on and totally unconvinced that I needed to study research methods, given I knew enough about the ones I intended to use. Fifteen or so years later, I still consider that PgDip to be the most useful qualification I have! Truly understanding research methods, ethics, statistics and being able to stand back from a situation and critique it, is one that benefits me on a regular basis. While I totally believe that good research should be coproduced and conducted with those whom it is designed to understand or benefit, I also think that good research requires a thorough understanding of the research process, and to that end I’d recognise your skills and expertise as a researcher. It’s not something anyone can walk off the street and do well.

6) Be brave and take risks. Researchers are rarely independent, in fact most have multiple task masters to appease. Many are likely to feature, including the research group or centre that you work within, your broader department, the university or collaboration, research funders, those you are researching, the REF – all of these stakeholders have competing demands and requirements and they rarely mesh together easily. It is therefore not surprising that you might wake up one day and wonder who you are working for. Having briefly asked yourself that question, if you decide that research is still for you, then maybe it is time to be brave, and take risks a little. It is so easy to slot into group think, to do what you know works, to bid for what funders are most likely to fund, to play it safe. The problem is playing it safe leads to a sort of inertia, you play it safe, find what you suspected, record and report that and get challenged as to what the point is. Challengers are right to point out that your contribution is too bland, too late, too obvious – so take it up a notch. When was the last time that you set out on a piece of research and genuinely had no idea what you would find? If you are simply confirming your own suspicions then you’re playing it too safe!

7) Nurture others. One of the best ways in which you can take risks is in nurturing others. If you have the opportunity to supervise or mentor postgraduates than jump at it with both hands. I’ve met lots of postgrads and early career researchers since launching VivaCards, and they nearly all tell me the same thing, that they’re worried about passing their viva and not making mistakes. When did academia move so far to the right? When was there a right or wrong answer to the challenge of making an original contribution to knowledge? If we are moulding postgrads into asking safe questions, telling us what we already know, adding to an existing evidence base, then we are not only limiting the knowledge that we can develop, but we’re also limiting researchers of the future. We all end up playing our part in the conspiracy and we become complicit with it, if our research is in ever decreasing circles then eventually we’ll implode. Look up and look out, and encourage others to do the same.

8) Speak up and speak out. Related to most of the earlier points is that as a researcher, you have a platform, and people listen to your voice. You have a view to offer many conversations; you have skills that many others don’t; you have credibility and understanding, so take the opportunity to raise your voice and speak up and speak out. The next time you are invited to speak at an event, or a conference, or a meeting, ask what you can do to increase your impact further. Perhaps accept on the condition that you take a co-researcher, or person who has first hand experience of what you are speaking about, along with you. If you are unable to do that, then take a more junior researcher, introduce them, open doors and grow your collaborative network. On which note don’t get too tied up in fear of tokenism, I swing on this all the time, but I think fear of tokenism can paralyse us and ensure we make no progress whatsoever. The worst of all worlds.

9) Get angry. This is an obvious statement writing this two days after the General Election in the UK. It almost doesn’t need saying, but I wonder how long the anger will last. As researchers we are trained to be clinical, to remove ourselves from our research as far as possible, to not influence what is in front of us. I think the time has come to turn this on it’s head, to step up and influence. It’s time for everyone to react to what they see, get angry or passionate or sad, whatever it is for you, but then channel it. If we really want to change the world, and even out the society that we live in, then we need to take steps to do this together. I think clinical distance has had it’s day, join up, eat together, talk together, party together (or picnic together)…and then work together to build a better future.

10) Think laterally. If you are still doubting the value of your work, collect evidence of your own impact. Think creatively, do things differently. Turn the tables, at the very least have conversations in new spaces, with new people. Step outside your comfort zone, connect with others who are more creative than you are, or who have different experiences to offer. If you’d like some ideas to start with check out the Social Care Research Impact site (I’m totally biased having been involved in putting it together, but I love it, and there are some great ideas on it). If you are really in doubt, then maybe stop spending money to attend conferences (which are mostly closed door, talking shops, for those in the know and in the budget), and spend it in more creative ways instead.


Four of the finest, most passionate, most creative researchers I know: Sara Ryan @sarasiobhan Damian Milton @milton_damian Chris Hatton @ChrisHattonCEDR and Hannah Morgan @HannahnagroM

I hope that this can be the start of a conversation about the value and point of research; I’m delighted that people are questioning the value of their work, but I think to really answer that question we need to gather input from those outside academia. In the last eighteen months I’ve met many researchers who have offered something of themselves to support JusticeforLB; to be blunt I don’t think we’d have got anywhere near as far as we have, if we’d not had such an amazing group of researchers supporting the campaign. So maybe the question doesn’t need to be ‘is what you’re doing worth it’, but maybe instead it could be ‘how can we make it even more worthwhile’ and to that end, maybe it’s time for academic activism to step up.

What do you think?

Much love,

George x

4 comments on “A letter to my researcher friends”

Fantastic, George. I love the positivity – neither complacent nor helplessly hand-wringing but a challenge and a set of actions to take.

Denise Turner says:

This ought to be made compulsory reading for all academics. Its poetry!! Especially the bit about competition. Seen otherwise sane people driven totally mad by this! And collaboration to bring down boundaries. Just did Autoethography event yesterday where this was very much a theme. V inspiring

Naomi Barnes says:

So much of this resonated. Particularly the “get angry” bit. I write with passion and the academy cuts me off at the knees due to genre rules and regulations. Love the blogging format for exactly that reason. I also like your point about the almost obscene focus on self, protection from plagiarism and lack of collaboration. I think academia is becoming more collaborative, but people are chosen for how they can enhance each others’ track record rather than how they can change their field. Nice. Really enjoyed this piece.

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