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.



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.


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.


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?