From 2016 to 2017: Thoughts on Research Practice, Embedding Creativity, Punk Academia, and Work-Life Balance

In all my development programmes, I stress the importance of critical reflection and embedding reflection into your research practice. Nothing is learnt, if we don’t think about how to apply it and whether it worked. But like many, I can also find it difficult to dedicate the time to actually doing this. Reflective practice needs to become habit, much in the same manner as academic writing or blogging (see Pat Thomson’s post) – a part of your working life.[1] And so, I am beginning the New Year by reflecting on last year so as to better plan and act this year.

New Job, New Practice

Excepting politics, 2016 was actually a good year for me. Last January I started a new job, focusing on Early and Middle Career Researcher Development. While the post isn’t significantly different from my previous roles, it is my first academic contract, the first contract to recognise my research activities. This change in contract has led to a significant change in my professional identity and academic/research practice. Critically, I now undertake research on research capability development with the intent to move the field on from tips and tricks to research-informed approaches to development, enhancing my practice as someone responsible for designing development opportunities and initiatives for Early Career Researchers.

However, what became clear last year is that I need to more carefully construct my time. Moving from a reactive to a proactive job role has changed priorities and the way I work. Whereas research and academic writing was an additional activity, it is now an activity that requires dedicated time and space in my diary. I need to be better at making sure it doesn’t fall to the bottom of the ‘to-do’ list. This means saying ‘no’ and focusing on specific projects, something which I am getting much better at. When offered an opportunity, I ask myself a number of questions: 1) is it something that interests me; 2) how will this bolster my CV; 3) how will this support my career development; and 4) how will this help me get the next job? Perhaps blunt questions, and perhaps questions that somewhat deny curiosity-driven research, but time is limited and if I am to avoid working every evening and weekend, then I need to select the tasks and activities that are the most important and relevant.

The Importance of Variety and of Creativity

As well as changing my work priorities, the new job also gave me a greater degree of flexibility in how I plan my work. In my previous roles, a “just in time” approach was needed as I was predominantly supporting the deadlines of other members of staff. In this role, most of my job can be structured as I see best. What I have learnt is that I’m not at my best if I work on large projects over long periods of time. In fact, I’m much better if I work in short blocks on a variety of different things. This doesn’t necessarily come naturally, as you can enter a state of flow and become completely absorbed by the work being undertaken. Being in a state of absorption, though, doesn’t mean I am working well or effectively. In fact, it can mean the opposite. Taking time to plan a variety of tasks across the working day and week has, therefore, been incredibly valuable, particularly in terms of motivation and drive. To achieve this, I spend the end of every week planning for the next and the end of every month reviewing tasks that have been achieved and tasks to be achieved next month.

As well as embedding variety into my daily and weekly routines, I also believe it is important to embed creativity. I’m a musician and performer and enjoy reading (particularly poetry). It is sometimes all too easy to forget how these activities not only provide me with a space in which to think, but directly inform my thinking. I feel this type of creativity got lost last year, so in 2017 I want to reinvigorate my artistic side and undertake more performance papers and articles that may challenge traditional types of academic publication. Which leads me on to my next section.

Punk and Queer Academia

Most of us aware of the blogpost and subsequent discussion on serious academia that occurred last year. I like to see myself as both a serious and fun academic and feel you can be both serious and fun at the same time. For me, serious speaks of institutionalised practices, of management, of the ivory tower, and of traditional notions of academia. At its worst, it can lead to exclusion, the idea used to marginalise or devalue people who are, or whose work, is different and/or unique. Over 2016, inclusivity and equity in research has become an important area of work for me. It began with a blog I wrote in March last year on sexuality and academia and led to me attending a training session by Stonewall on being an LGBTQ role models. Looking back at the blog I wrote following the training, I have a much keener sense of my identity within the academy and where my sexuality can impact on my career. Prompted by Stonewall, I have taken steps to increase my visibility to support others and am feeling much more confident as a result.

Promoted by these experiences, I am now working with Ross English at KCL on a project that explores the experiences of LGBTQ doctoral researchers so that we can more deeply consider the support offered and spaces and culture in which doctoral research takes place. If your University would like to take part in this project, please get in touch.

This I hope is the start of a much larger project (and, perhaps, a life work – jeez!) that seeks to reconceptualise and re-enact the academy. Drawing on the history of punk and queer theory (as well as my work in performance studies), I want to explore how to create developmental environments and experiences that support, enable and encourage academic agency and that allow an inclusive, equitable, complex, and disruptive research culture to emerge. It’s work in progress, but if you are interested in this or have aligned research do let me know!

Work-Life Balance

I know the year ahead is going to be busy as I have a number of personal commitments and so this year more than ever I’ll need to ensure I have a healthy work-life balance. Academia is not a 9-5 job, but there are peaks and troughs and what last year taught me is that I need to exploit the troughs as much as possible. Last year also taught me that there are certain things on which I shouldn’t compromise, such as going to the gym, ensuring a healthy diet, and allowing myself within the working week regular time to take a break, to rest, and to step outside. I’m writing this today, with enthusiasm for the year ahead, as a result of taking time off to relax and refresh.

But, as professional and private lives begin to mingle, especially as a result of social media, I need to develop a way of managing this, as it is all too easy for a night in front of the television to become a night of talking about work on social media. It’s not quite work, but neither is it rest. This is something I have perhaps felt more keenly since researching equity and inclusion and actively talking and being open about my sexuality in development sessions and online. This kind of work, while important and interesting, can be emotionally exhausting as the subject matter is often personal and so rest, relaxation, and repair is an absolute must.

Four Resolutions

So, bearing all that in mind, what are my commitments for 2017? The below are my overly ambitious resolutions, written – as they should be – as SMART objectives:

  • To continue to reflect on my work – both achievements and failures – on a weekly and monthly basis through blogs and project management tools.
  • To embed creativity into my research practice with the aim of writing a couple of cabaret songs about my research.
  • To actively question and queer the academy. To look at alternatives ways of processing, thinking, and managing research and to present my findings as a paper.
  • To maintain a healthy work-life balance. To go to the gym no matter how tired, to avoid takeaways, and to make sure I rest and give myself time out throughout the week, every week.

[1] On reflective writing and practice see: Barbara Bassot. 2016. The Reflective Journal. 2nd Edn. London: Palgrave; Gillie E J Bolton. 2014. Reflective Practice: Writing and Professional Development. London: Sage. Jennifer A. Moon. 2004. ‘Using Reflective Learning to Improve the Impact of Short Courses and Workshops’. The Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions. 24: 4-11; Jennifer A. Moon. 2006. A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning. Abingdon: Routledge. *69-130*.


The Paper Unwritten; or Is my Sexuality holding me back in Academia?

I have missed the deadline now. It did look to be a great opportunity, but… Do I feel disappointed? Yes, absolutely, and for so many reasons. Did I make the right decision? I think so, at least it was the decision I felt I had to make. Has it impacted on my career? Well, it’s another opportunity missed; another “silence” on my CV…

This is my current state of mind following a call for papers for a conference on responsible research. It seemed the perfect forum for me to air my ideas on issues of equality and diversity in research. An international conference, with an eminent keynote. A great opportunity to network, share my thoughts, and to obtain an international perspective on my research.

So, why didn’t I put in an abstract?

Simply, because the conference is to take place Ghana, a country where, at present, acts of homosexuality are illegal. Now, whilst some may argue that nobody need know that I’m gay while I’m over there, that’s not as easy as it may seem. For one, my research involves discussions of sexuality in research (indeed, this blog is part of that research). Moreover, there are signs, mannerisms, culture; it’s part of my identity and who I am – not something I can easily hide, or wish to for that matter. My wedding ring, for instance, tells part of that story. Conferences are sometimes quite uncomfortable events as I find myself continually “coming out”, small talk forcing me to make the conscious decision of whether to correct someone when they assume I have a “wife”. Having been married to my husband for five years now, I am not comfortable with concealing this aspect of my life and neither should I even feel I have to. This, however, can make things difficult in some research contexts, both in the UK and abroad, and I feel impacts on the decisions I make regarding my career, including where I am comfortable presenting my research, where I undertake my research, and where I might apply for work. The conference in Ghana raises all these questions and to complicate matters further, and what really niggles at me, is that by not attending the issue isn’t discussed and remains hidden.

I should stress at this point that this blog isn’t about LGBT rights in Ghana, but about research careers, internationalisation, and mobility. It is about, what I call, the silences on my CV; the conferences I didn’t attend, the funding opportunities I was unable to apply for, the jobs that were closed off to me. All possibly affecting the advancement of my career. Indeed, the current focus on research mobility and increase in funding for international projects by funders such as RCUK, the British Council, the EU, and the Newton Fund (to name a few), while all brilliant and important initiatives, are not necessarily open to all, and at present there remains little support for those who may feel uncomfortable or have questions about undertaking research in particular regions or on particular topics.

More importantly, though, is that when it comes to job applications and promotion, these missed opportunities are unheard. They are silences; they are papers and grants unwritten. And while taken on their own they may not seem significant, they can mount up over a career. What I’m not asking for here is mitigating circumstances, but I do want to open a conversation about how we think about recruitment, promotion, and peer review, and also what an increasingly mobile and international research environment means for diversity, equality, and our research. Is there support for those who feel uncomfortable or who have questions? And how might we judge the CVs of those that have not been able to seize as many of the opportunities on offer? What is it we value in academia? Are candidates with a longer list of publications and grants always the most excellent candidates, or are they those with most privilege?

At Coventry, a responsible approach to research and supporting responsible research environments has been embedded across the early and middle career researcher development programmes. Issues, such as that described above, are discussed critically and in a safe and supportive cohort-based environment to not only raise awareness, but to think through how as a research community we can enhance and improve the environments in which we work. It will be interesting to see where these discussions go and what initiatives we might be able to develop to support equality and diversity in research.

While this blog has focussed on a single issue regarding sexuality, it is important to stress that this is only one example of why we need to start to challenge the status quo and openly discuss the place of equality and diversity within research environments. Indeed, there are issues regarding access, care work, disability, health, race, religion, class, gender that can all result in systemic inequalities that affect the diversity of our research community. This blog merely seeks to give voice to one issue that, to my mind, is silent, and is of increasing importance as we move to a culture that increasingly focusses upon and values international research and research mobility.

(As ever, I welcome any comments, thoughts, experiences to help inform my thinking).