Lost and found

Balloon man (Photo by Jonathan O'Donnell)

Balloon man (Photo by Jonathan O’Donnell)

A few things happened last week that made this post both easier and harder to write.

What made it easier was that I had done a quick canvas of my colleagues about topics they’d like to see addressed on Research Whisperer. Susan Leong (@susanmeeleong), a member of my research network, wrote:

“Not sure if this has been addressed but I often have to remind myself why research matters beyond the Excellence for Research in Australia (ERA) rankings.

That it is worthwhile choosing the not-so-sexy trending areas to study.

Because once we enter into the borg of academia, it seems that is all it counts for, that and tarting ideas up for funding.”

Right, I thought. That’s not hard. Writing about why we have a passion for research will be easy.

So, I planned a post on why the research caper can be so rewarding, despite the constant institutional pressures and uncertainties. How you can lose track of time in the excitement of delving into a subject, and finding and collaborating with smart colleagues. The thrill of road-testing ideas and new topics at conferences, and weaving the feedback into future papers. The luxury of being paid for your intellectual work and its whims.

There was even a post recently by E. J. Milner-Gulland (@EJMilnerGulland) on why she loves her job in academia at the Imperial College Conservation Science group’s blog. She described why she appreciated the academic environment this way:

“It’s exciting to collaborate with people who I admire, developing new ways of thinking, particularly interdisciplinary projects when I can be stretched by understanding their perspectives and analytical tools. I also think I’m well paid, well supported and that universities try hard to recognise the constraints of childcare and other barriers to success.”

I also had an anecdote lined up about how ‘un-sexy’ topics can become government priorities and suddenly have a lot of grant money thrown at them.

Then I had a long phone call with one of my closest academic colleagues that derailed my neatly planned post.

We talked about a whole bunch of things: projects we’d worked on, our publications together, the doings of colleagues we had in common, events coming up, our families.

In the days since that call, I’ve been in a bit of a funk. I enjoyed the call. A lot. Too much.

I’m no longer in a position where I am expected (or supported) to do academic research. I have made a choice to work 9-to-5 so my time on the domestic front is consistent and maximised. I like my job; it’s continuing. I have two young kids and I live with a work/life balance that I find almost perfect.

But what I have realised over time, and that has been brought into sharp relief recently, is what the price of shutting down my research side is. I knew it would happen, but I didn’t realise how it would feel to lose expertise, connections, and most of the  opportunities to pursue intellectual passions. Initially, I had thought that I would keep up  my research – albeit at a slower pace. This hasn’t happened, and most of that has also been an active choice.

It was naive, perhaps, to think that consciously letting go of something I’d invested myself in for almost twenty years would be painless. I had been ambivalent about academia for a long time, and this led me to assume that I didn’t identify strongly as an academic.

In the thick of the endless hoop-jumping that was my experience of being a research fellow, I had forgotten what the particular satisfactions of research were. With an eye on the next project and how it might appear in the continuum of a CV (as I had changed disciplines), I hadn’t spent much time thinking about what it would mean to not be an active researcher.

Now, research is an inherent part of my job. I look out for funding and advise/ review/ edit grant applications (for other people’s research). The job still engages aspects of my research self, which is what makes it enjoyable and fulfilling.

But I’d be lying if I said that leaving behind my own research and the depth of its attendant social and intellectual connections has been easy. The pressure to produce research in academia can be stressful, and lead to all manner of self-questioning. It is, however, often what academics are defined by, and ‘in the game’ for. It’s only now that I’ve stepped away from the personal angst about my research – and the perpetual anxiety about whether it’s good enough, prolific enough, or collaborative enough – that I remember and appreciate its intoxicating aspects: the incomparable anticipation attached to fresh work and peak discipline events; and the highs and lows of creating and communicating new knowledge.

Ultimately, the thing I miss the most is the communal feeling of working with (and within) my research network to make a difference in the world. I’m only realising how rare this kind of close intellectual and political companionship is now that it’s shifting away from me.

Academia has many things that can be improved, and the whole idea of ‘measuring’ research is definitely one of these. In the midst of the arguments, however, let’s not forget that the imperative and passion for academics to do research as they see fit is worth fighting for. Academics are not only about their passion for research, but what are they without it?

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

8 Responses to Lost and found

  1. Linda says:

    Thank you for reminding me about passion at work. It is why I stick with this career despite of and because of its ups and downs. There is no job on earth where you get paid to think, get paid to talk to people about their thinking and get paid to research things in your ‘spare’ time. I always make time to ‘do’ research because it is thing that makes me feel like I am participating fully in this world. No day job can actually stop a researcher doing research. You will never give it up, it is an addiction. (Now where is that counsellor? I probably need help for my addiction.)

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      It’s true. You never totally give up research. For the moment, I think I’m channelling it in alternative ways (i.e. non-academic outcomes), but these come with their own challenges. I have a colleague who has been an independent history researcher for many years now, fitting his research around other jobs. I need to cultivate his zen approach to getting things done.

  2. Jonathan O'Donnell says:

    My partner is the curator at a museum. In the last two years, she has interviewed community members, catalogued the collection, accepted new acquisitions, answered countless questions from the public and requests from the media, catalogued the library and helped to organise and host a conference which has produced two special issues worth of papers.

    She fears that she is losing her research-mojo. Intellectually I understand why – she isn’t in the archives everyday and she isn’t submitting refereed papers. Her PhD hasn’t turned into a book. If she applied for an academic position now, she might not be competitive.

    As a history scholar, she worked alone most of the time. As a curator, she will often be applying for funds and then hiring people to do the work. Her input won’t be minimal, but it will be managerial. That doesn’t feel quite as real to her as being at the intellectual coal-face.

    From my point of view, she is adding much more to the sum of human knowledge as a curator than she would be as a lone researcher. Unfortunately, my reductionist solution-oriented view doesn’t help her much.

    Then again, I have a friend and colleague who maintains a national (international?) research network, blogs brilliantly, inspires new people in the field, networks like mad, provides great advice, generates positive energy wherever she goes and still feels this way, it seems. Somehow, if you aren’t thrashing over a journal article, it just doesn’t feel real. It’s a bitch.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I was talking this over with some buddies at #shutupandwrite, spurred on by a couple of us having seen your comment, and I said that the difference was that the active research your partner and I miss/get anxious about is the aspect of contributing and producing *our own* work – that feeling of creating new knowledge and putting it out into the world. I know it’s important to enable, facilitate, mentor, collate resources, and create space for research, but *making* that research is also incredibly satisfying (I’m finding).

      Also: am missing our coffee chats!

  3. Thanks for this really honest post Tseen – and for narrowing it down so well to the desire to make a difference in the world.

    As part of an advisory committee I’m just compiling case studies (for the new Australasian Research Management Society’s accreditation project, launching at the ARMS conference in September) and reading what got research managers into their areas is really interesting.

    A very senior manager actually said that her decision to leave research (mid-career, and loving her research) and go into management was motivated by following her passion and wanting to make a bigger difference, much bigger than she could make as a researcher.

    The limitations of an academic career and working in a large organisation was the main reasons that I left the academic research path, because I felt I could make a much bigger difference in other ways.

    I guess it really boils down to finding out what you want the difference to be that you make in the world and what your passion is.

  4. Tseen Khoo says:

    Thanks for your comment, Kerstin, and I’m really pleased to hear that you’re involved in the ARMS accreditation set-up. There are many aspects of research development that I enjoy, and the fact that people are almost always happy to talk to me is one of them! Plus, there are clear advantages to working within the university sector, all the doom and gloom aside.

    I think working out what ‘making a difference’ means for me is something that’s still in process. Did I really think I would change things with my research as an academic? Can’t I do many of the same things outside of academia, and in broader ways, to make that difference? It might take me a while longer to act on the outcomes – I always thought of myself as relatively quick to act, but I suppose career changes should be properly considered.

    Writing this post has been cathartic, and I’ve made a few choices recently that are different from before. :)

  5. amanibell says:

    Tseen, thanks for this post (and to all the commenters), which I’ve only just got around to reading. Perhaps part of what’s hard in your situation is that you’re surrounded by researchers, and working in a uni (where research is highly valued). It’s kind of in your face, all the time.

    When I first started working full-time at a university, I was in a general staff role. Luckily my boss was supportive of me getting involved in some research projects, but I found it tricky, knowing that I wasn’t really supposed to be doing research. I found the general vs academic staff divide very frustrating.

    Also hearing you on the work-life balance thing. I now work part-time, which results in some pretty hectic shuffling, juggling, shape-shifting [insert whatever cliche you prefer]. I’m certainly not on any fast track to academic brilliance. Oh well, these are the decisions we make, and it’s interesting to reflect on what might have been, and what might now be possible with some lateral thinking…

    (sorry for sideways gravatar, am in serious need of some wordpress skillz).

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Thanks, Amani. You’re right, of course, the proximity to research and researchers does make it worse in some ways, but it’s the kind of role that also allows me to engage using my existing skillbase and critical faculties, etc. So, intellectual satisfaction to some degree.

      >> I found the general vs academic staff divide very frustrating.

      Oh, this is such an insidious and irritating situation. Each side can be so ready to blame and misunderstand the other. And the arrogance. Let’s not start on the arrogance (from both sides).

      The sweetness of being regularly home to do the night routine with the kiddies and hang out with them on weekends is something I savour all the time, knowing how rare it can be.

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