5 quick and dirty tricks for the terminally busy researcher

This post is written by Dr Inger Mewburn, over at the Thesis Whisperer, who is struggling on a number of fronts to keep her research work cooking and stay sane.


Short Cut Road (Photo by Nic McPhee - http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicmcphee/)

Short Cut Road (Photo by Nic McPhee – http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicmcphee/)

Busy-ness is something of a badge of honour in academia, but I am genuinely busy right now.

I fly 500kms to work and back each week, hold down a fairly demanding job, and want to spend some time with my family. When I am busy, ‘good practice’ goes out the window. At home, this means I stop planning dinners, cleaning behind the toilet, or pairing my socks. At work, I stop filing my references, tagging entries in my database, or cleaning out my inbox.

Chaos reigns but, curiously, things still get done. I’m a productive person who is deeply lazy, so I’m open to any and all hacks that make my life easier. This is a small selection of my quick and dirty research tricks. These tricks save me time and, if I can be honest with you, I use them even when I’m not very busy. I share some of these with you in hope that you will share some of your own in the comments.

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Don’t just throw your keys in the bowl

The 1997 movie The Ice Storm (which I remember being rather depressing) depicts a 1970s ‘key party’. A key party, in case you missed this piece of 70s pop culture, was a way for suburban couples to engage in sexual experimentation, particularly swinging.

Stay with me here, because I think the swingers’ key party has a lot to tell us about why some research collaborations can go so terribly wrong.

The idea behind a key party is simple. Couples are invited to attend a party with a bunch of other couples. One of the partners leaves their car keys in a bowl. Later (presumably after large amounts of booze and whatever else), the other partner selects a random set of keys from the bowl and goes home with the person who owns them to…engage in certain activities.

Anyway, we’re all adults here so I don’t have to spell it out for you.

Moving along.

Why do I offer the key party as an analogy for research collaborations? We know that building good research collaborations is hard but, sometimes, I think we don’t give enough attention to how difficult it actually is, in an emotional sense.

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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.

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Culture beats strategy


The other day I was trying to explain what it’s like to work as a research academic to someone who had never had any experience of studying or working in a university.

Let’s call him Bob.

The conversation went something like this:

Bob: “So you teach at a university then?”
Me: “Yeah. I’m a research fellow. I only teach sometimes. Mostly I blog.”
Bob: “I don’t understand – they pay you to write a blog?”
Me: “Oh no, that’s not all I do. I’m kind of an academic odd job man. They call you a Fellow when they want someone who can research, write papers, provide advice. You know – think about stuff, come up with ideas, that sort of thing.”
Bob: “That sounds pretty good! I wish I had that much freedom in my job.”
Me: “Well I’m not all that free….Once a year I talk to my boss about the plan for our unit  and we make an agreement in writing which projects I will do; it’s called a workplan.”
Bob (looking confused): So that sets out a set of key performance indicators and stuff?”
Me: “Well, I suppose so. But mostly I decide what the KPIs are and how they will be measured.”
Bob (looking incredulous): “Sounds like heaven to me!”

When I tried to explain the academic work planning process at RMIT to Bob it certainly sounded like I have a large degree of autonomy, yet it is clear to me that I have very little. I am a professional researcher and my work is not driven by my passion for the topic, however much I might enjoy it. All my research has a clearly defined purpose: to reduce student attrition and enhance student experience of doctoral study at RMIT.

What purpose drives your research?

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