It’s not about you, baby


A couple of years ago, I was struggling to find a sense of purpose after finishing my PhD. I didn’t understand this as the problem at the time, of course. I put my general ennui and sense of frustration down to needing a new job.

So, I went to my brother-in-law, who has managed to create a strong professional reputation and gets head hunted all the time (there’s even a wikipedia page about him), and asked him for career advice. After listening to me list my skills and abilities and the kinds of places I wanted to work, he stopped me and said:

“Inger – all I hear from you is about where you will be, not what you do”

Mark explained that career success depends on establishing a professional identity, yes, but that you can’t do this just by talking about the skills and attributes you have: you have to show people what you can do.

He explained that a sense of purpose or mission needs to underpin that ‘doing'; this helps to focus your energy. He worked on me until I managed to articulate a mission, which went something like this:

“The world is kind of screwed up. I believe PhD students are truly amazing, talented and capable people who can solve the big, difficult problems. My mission is to help them finish their degrees so they can get out there and do good in the world.”

In my post a while back about researcher autonomy and university strategy I claimed that my research isn’t driven by my passion – and strictly that’s true. I work in a unit which is dedicated to the smooth operation of research education – but it’s still important to me that I have a passion for my research. I know it’s kind of corny (I am Gen X after all, and only really comfortable with sarcasm and irony), but articulating it in this way highlighted that there’s a mission and higher purpose to my everyday work life and this realisation has completely reinvigorated my professional career. Mark helped me to see that all of what I do – reading, researching, writing, blogging - can contribute to this purpose. Even the boring and tedious stuff like sitting on ethics committees and drafting policy papers can be mission related.

More importantly, the mission helps me decide what not to do. It’s a kind of test, a filter through which I pass potential projects and collaborations. I ask myself, “Does this achieve the mission in some small way?” If not, I will avoid it (if possible).

Most importantly, the mission gives me courage to speak up in the workplace. I am not the sort of person who seeks conflict on my own behalf, but when I feel I am arguing on behalf of someone else I am braver and more assertive.

I think you need to have a sense of mission, something you feel passionately about or are interested in, to be a great researcher. Research takes a lot of thought, energy, and attention, which doesn’t fit neatly into family time. The hours can be long and – let’s face it – the financial rewards are not that great. Working on research for purely strategic reasons can be a bit soul-destroying, and you can’t do your best creative work if your heart isn’t in it.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about ‘strategic alignment’ and the reasons why it is important to be clear about, and articulate for other people, the purpose of your research. I pointed out that research that was aligned with what governments and universities think is important probably has a better chance of being funded.

Does it mean you have to do things which are not ‘on mission’ just to get ahead?

I’m an optimist. I like to think that if your mission is the better understanding of Ancient Roman building techniques, you should be able to get a big fat grant, even if that doesn’t seem to be connected to contemporary preoccupations like climate change. It’s just a matter of finding the right angle to sell it.

It’s difficult to find the right angle if you think that your research career is built around you and what you can do.

Let me give you an example. Last year, I attended an interesting talk by a colleague from the Maths Department here at RMIT, Dr Anthony Bedford. He runs the Sports and Statistics Group and was asked to speak because his research track-record is exemplary. It was a great because Anthony opened presentation by talking about his total failure to get grant money early on in his career. Anthony explained that the problem was he was putting himself at the centre and going for grant ideas that he could ‘do’, rather than putting the research topic at the centre and looking for ways to make research on that topic happen. His passionate research interest is in some kind of deep statistical analysis techniques, which he didn’t even try to explain, but the research topic he decided to explore was ‘sporting performance’. I guess he liked sport, too.

The statistical analysis methods were put in the service of this bigger aim but, more importantly, the centering of the topic – not him as a person – gave him a way to pull in colleagues and collaborators. Computer programmers – and brand managers – would call the  topic of sports performance ‘extensible’. An extensible computer program is one that is built with allowance for future growth. An extensible branding concept is something that allows several products to all be part of the same ‘family’. For example, Chanel is a set of qualities that have been defined in the public imagination through a history of products and the story of Coco herself. These qualities are now bundled up in a brand name “Chanel”, which can be attached to a whole range of things: dresses, sunglasses, perfume, and so on.

Sports performance is extensible; it can mean all sorts of things. The word ‘performance’ implies that you will measure something about sport, which ties in neatly with the statistical backgrounds of the researchers. You can measure a whole bunch of things: how fast people run, what clothes they should wear, what other people think about sports performance.  An extensible concept like sports performance holds a body of work together without presupposing what form that work takes – just like my mission statement.

So, can you get a big fat grant if your passion is for a better understanding of Ancient Roman building techniques? Indeed you can. Ancient Roman buildings are amazingly durable. I know of a research group who got a big fat grant exploring the composition of Roman concrete to find out why it lasts so long. Why? Because they argued it could add to the knowledge needed to safely store nuclear waste! Now that’s clever.

Is there an extensible concept or mission statement which can tie your research interests together? Or can your research be put in the service of another matter of concern that might have more lucrative funding possibilities?

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About Thesis Whisperer
Dr Inger Mewburn is the director of research training at the Australian National University. She writes for and edits the Thesis Whisperer blog and coordinates research skills programs for research students. The rest of the time she listens to research students who want to tell her their problems and writes on the subject of research education.

6 Responses to It’s not about you, baby

  1. Yes. Absolutely. I have been saying the same thing about grants lately. And I love your brother’s advice about careers. Thanks.

  2. Pingback: 2011-11-28 Log — Research Log of Zhenyu Ye

  3. Nisrin Manz says:

    thanks Dr !…at least it gives me motive and motivation to start pursuing my doctorate..:-)

  4. Dominic Redfern says:

    Thanks Inger, a great insight about getting yourself out of the centre if the equation. Its not about getting money to do your work but funding research that you will work on. A subtle but vital distinction.

  5. Pingback: The Thesis Whisperer has a new job! « The Thesis Whisperer

  6. Pingback: The Thesis Whisperer has a new job! | Top of Academia

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