The Knife of Never Letting Go

Dr Helen KaraDr Helen Kara has been an independent social researcher in social care and health since 1999, and is also Associate Research Fellow at the Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham. 

She is on the Board of the UK’s Social Research Association, with lead responsibility for research ethics.  She teaches research methods to practitioners and students, writes on research methods, and is author of the best-selling Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners (Policy Press 2012). 

Her next book, Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences, is due for publication in April 2015. 

You can find her on Twitter at @DrHelenKaraHer blogpost title owes thanks to Patrick Ness.


I finished writing my latest book last month.

...and in last place (Photo by Tim Norris | www.flickr.com/photos/tim_norris)

…and in last place (Photo by Tim Norris | http://www.flickr.com/photos/tim_norris)

Two or three weeks before I actually finished, I realised I was dawdling.

I usually speed up towards the end of a writing project in a one-woman race for the finish line. Not this time. I was fiddling and faffing, not quite procrastinating, but taking ages to think about minor points where I’d usually make quick decisions. What was going on? I did my Belbin Team Inventory years ago and I know I’m a ‘completer finisher’, i.e. someone who likes to get things done, dusted, ticked off the list. So, why was I finding it hard to let go now?

That was the problem. I’ve written a number of non-fiction and fiction books (some have even been published) and numerous articles and short stories. I’ve never had trouble letting go of a writing project, but this time I did. I didn’t want to part with my precious typescript. I wanted to go on fiddling and faffing forever.

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Beyond a life in the lab


Regan ForrestRegan Forrest
works with museums and other cultural organisations to help them understand their audiences better.

She is at the end of her doctoral studies through the University of Queensland’s Business School, with her thesis “Design Factors in the Museum Visitor Experience” due to be submitted for examination at the end of September.

Among the many hats she wears is being the Director of interactivate (interactivate.com.au), a research and creative consultancy committed to helping museums make the world a better place through quality visitor experiences. Years before she founded the business, she snapped up @interactivate as her twitter handle.

We invited Regan to write for us because of her approach to finding a career space. PhD researchers and ECRs often feel that a linear trajectory is what’s required and valued. Regan’s story shows that taking a risk can lead to unexpected, very satisfying job opportunities and career paths.


[Original photo by @kimtairi on flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/angels_have_the_phone_box)

[Original photo by @kimtairi on flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/angels_have_the_phone_box)

Once I turned down a PhD scholarship, only to accept another, 15 years later, in a completely different field.

After finishing Honours in Biochemistry at the University of Adelaide, I opted not to do a PhD straight away. That would have been the path of least resistance, but I thought some experience in other labs would make me a more rounded researcher in the long run. I decided to take a gap year (or two) to work as a Research Assistant instead.

About halfway through my first year as an RA, I started to feel frustrated and miscast. I wasn’t sure if the lab life was for me after all. But what else was I going to do with a science degree?

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Changing disciplinary horses

Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been mired in active discussions around who I am as a scholar.

Luckily for the world at large, these discussions exist mostly in my head, and only occasionally weigh upon the ears of close colleagues and my lucky, lucky partner.

The reason for these internal discussions is that I’ve started an academic job in a field that’s unrelated to my previous disciplines.

As a PhD student and then a research fellow, I have meandered through literary studies, cultural studies, heritage and museum research, touched on sociological work, and wished repeatedly that I’d built my expertise in science fiction and horror screen cultures.

The hinge that my scholarly work depends on is critical race studies, and the sub-field of diasporic Asian studies.

I have a shelf in my study that carries books and special issue journals that I’ve written and edited. It is my (occasionally successful) talisman against imposter syndrome. However, none of the publications I’ve had or journals I’ve published in overlap with the field Education Studies, part and parcel of the new role I’ve taken up.

Many times recently, I’ve moseyed through the literature around diversity and leadership in the academy (new field), and found a mini-Ygritte on my shoulder intoning, “You know nothing, Tseen Khoo.” And mini-Ygritte is right.

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Is growing your own researchers a luxury?

catapult (Artwork/image by Tony Dowler: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tonydowler)

catapult (Artwork/image by Tony Dowler: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tonydowler)

Is a university that provides internal funds to its researchers being indulgent?

After my post about the dangers of internal funding was published, Stephen Matchett picked up on part of it in this issue of Campus Morning Mail.

Matchett wondered whether internal funding would be a luxury that our brave new world of deregulated universities could not offer:

the days when universities can afford such relatively low impact schemes may end once deregulation kicks in – it will be harder to fund lab time or a travel grant from undergraduate fees if they are set in a competitive market.

This got me thinking about the consequences of deleting the capacity-building potential of internal funding for researchers or research projects.

What would happen if this development did not happen at this level? Is helping to build your own institution’s research capacity and experience a ‘luxury’ that universities today can’t afford? Is growing your own fabulous researchers an impossible aim?

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Dangers of internal funding

Photo by Vadim Sherbakov (http://madebyvadim.com), sourced from unsplash (http://unsplash.com).

Photo by Vadim Sherbakov (http://madebyvadim.com), sourced from unsplash (http://unsplash.com).

I’ve benefited from different types of internal university funding for my research over the years.

The schemes I’ve accessed range from conference money to pilot project grants and new staff grants. They’ve offered the stepping-stones I needed to get projects going and build momentum.

This post talks about the dangers and opportunities presented by internal research funding, and flags the Top 3 types of internal funds that I’ve found most useful.

It’s important to plans ways to do research, even without a fat grant.

One of the internal grants I secured was specifically for developing and writing up a major grant proposal. It paid off a couple of years later when our team got that ARC Discovery project. Being able to get together for concentrated periods of time to nut out the grant application saved us heaps of time and focused our energies. It really worked well.

Most institutions have some form of internal funding for their researchers. Some have more than others. Some barely cover their researchers’ conference travel, others offer plush suites of articulated funding for just about every segment of the research cycle.

Internal funding is a good thing. It can boost project competitiveness and track-record before a go at a bigger external grant. It can certainly boost the confidence of researchers trying to get their work off the blocks, or build their CV in the early days of their research career. It can bridge external grant gaps and allow researchers to stay on the radar.

Internal funding can be a bad thing, however, when you have too much of it and no consequent profile in securing external funds.

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