professional doctorates – what are they good for?

People often ask me about the professional doctorate, what it’s about and whether it’s worth doing.  Here’s the beginning of an answer to that very big question…

I need to come clean about my own prejudice about professional doctorates first of all. I think they are A Good Thing. You may have thought that I was about to say that the prof doc is an inferior and substandard doctorate. But I don’t think that at all. The first academic job I had was to design a professional doctorate in education, and convince a number of my former professional colleagues they’d like to do it.

But some of the early differences between the professional doctorate and the PhD are disappearing. The professional doctorate offers a structured and supported approach to developing a research project – modules covering working with the literature, understanding research methodology and methods and designing a research project. That kind of support is however now increasingly the stuff of training courses and cohort based PhDs, where people do work together and benefit from peer support. The professional doctorate has also often supported different kinds of theses – portfolios, sets of papers, artefacts, multi-media texts, arts based work – but these too are increasingly able to be presented through the PhD.

So given these convergences, what is it about the professional doctorate that is particularly unique?

The answer to this important question lies in the way that the professional doctorate both draws on and contributes to professional knowledges and practices. Those doing a professional doctorate are encouraged to look at their own practice and context and to draw their research question from it. They are expected to articulate and critically interrogate their own professional knowledges.  This is not the sole source of knowledge they work with of course, as they also draw on relevant scholarly literatures.

The research that is done in a professional doctorate is intended to be relevant and of interest and use to other professionals and therefore to advance professional practice and its knowledge base. Through bringing professional problems, knowledge and insider informed research into conversation with scholarly knowledge, a contribution to scholarly knowledge is also made.  But, this can happen in the PhD too.

And there’s lot of slippery ideas in what I’ve just written, not least of which is how to define a profession. The major question around the professional doctorate of course is whether it is at all possible to separate out scholarly knowledge and professional knowledge as two – perhaps overlapping but different – spheres. This position is argued – see for instance the theorisation of Mode 1 and 2 knowledges. And you may agree with some degree of distinction, as I do. At a more everyday level, it is perhaps not so tricky to understand that if you work in a particular place, occupation and setting, then there are particular things that you know as a lived practice which may not be so obvious to people who work elsewhere. Some of these things are a kind of ‘craft ‘knowledge – tacit, taken for granted, and not pulled together into any kind of order of importance. In the prof doc these are explicitly on the table and part of ‘the work’.

But if there isn’t a clear cut difference between the two awards, why do a professional doctorate? Why not a PhD?

Perhaps most important distinction between the two doctorates is the fact that most prof docs are part time, and are organised around the schedules and needs of people who work. So peers that are in the prof doc are generally all working.  They share a strong sense of being a professional. They have in common the struggle to fit study together with research, the experience of returning to study after a long time away, the desire to do research that will have an effect in a work setting. A strong camaraderie and mutual support can develop in these situations. Even though part timers do PhDs too, the initial cohort of the prof doc may be a more supportive environment and experience. Given how difficult a doctorate can be, this is an important factor and may even be the most significant in a decision about which doctoral path to take.

But I do have to come clean. The problem that I see with and for the professional doctorate is that there is not really an agreed institutional response to them. Across universities, prof docs seem to have wildly different rules and expectations; these range from the length of the final thesis to the degree to which the candidate is expected to theorise their research results.

And some people DO see them as a second rate PhD. Many universities will not employ people with a prof doc, arguing that as it is meant to be a contribution to professional practice, that is where the person with the prof doc should be situated.  The prof doc’s job is to support the production of advanced knowledge in professional settings. And some universities are happy to employ prof docs in applied areas like teacher education, but then do not give their holders time to research, or promotion opportunities.

This institutional variability isn’t new. But it still needs consideration and perhaps further policy attention within and without universities – the professions too have a stake in the question of whether the prof doc as it stands is living up to its expectations and promises.

On balance I think the prof doc is a good option, but you do need to choose your institution carefully IMHO, selecting one where it is a pathway that is demonstrably valued.


Posted in 'mature' doctoral researcher, part time PhD, professional doctorate, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Negotiating the associate researcher role 


Sharon McCulloch is (among other things) a teaching fellow at the University of Bath, a postgraduate tutor at University College London, and an associate lecturer at Lancaster University. Her research interests are in literacy practices, as they pertain to both students and professional writers in higher education. She is particularly interested in the relationship between academic reading and writing, and in how they relate to knowledge production.

Working as a researcher on someone else’s project raises a number of issues around job security, autonomy, and academic identity, but there is a relative dearth of advice or discussion on how one might negotiate this rather precarious academic position. Having just finished a two-year contract as a research associate on an ESRC-funded project, this is my tuppenceworth on what I learned from the experience.

I should start by saying that the two years I worked on the project were some of the best in my life. I learned a huge amount, got to travel all over the world, was invited to speak at international events, and meet interesting, knowledgeable people. However, the main factor in making the experience so enjoyable was the team I worked with, and my PI (primary investigator) in particular.

The team consisted of the PI, two semi-retired co-investigators who worked one day a week on the project, and two research associates (me and my colleague). Two of the team were from one discipline and three were from another. In the first year of the project, we held regular reading groups, where we took turns to select a text and lead a discussion on its relevance to the project. This was an excellent way of getting to grips with new disciplinary areas, but it also enabled us to get to know each other better and get on the same page in terms of our understanding of the key concepts.

We also had fortnightly project meetings to allocate work and discuss progress, but aside from this, our PI largely left us to our own devices. Some researchers on other people’s projects feel that they get stuck with ‘dogsbody’ work, or are micro-managed to the point of feeling stripped of autonomy, but this was not my experience. I was made responsible for certain research sites and was given free reign to recruit participants, arrange interviews and manage the data where and when I wanted as long as things got done. Most of the time, I worked independently and kept track of my progress on a shared spreadsheet (which I suspect no-one but me ever looked at).

I was extremely grateful for the trust and freedom afforded me, but I think my PI did things this way as much out of necessity as anything else; she was far too busy to micro-manage us. Although I appreciated this hands-off approach, it could easily go wrong. On funded projects, time is limited and a team member who doesn’t pull their weight can have a serious impact on the project, yet there simply isn’t time to go through the usual steps for managing underperformance. A colleague who manages a project told me that, as a result of previous bad experience, she now asked her researchers for weekly reports on what they’d been doing and a forward plan for each week ahead. I would have hated to work like this, but I understand why it happens.

Some may worry that, as a researcher on someone else’s project, they won’t be able to pursue their own research agenda. This is up for negotiation, however. Our PI included the target to ‘become a REF-able academic’ in our annual professional development plans. My fellow research associate and I interpreted this in different ways. He presented in his own right and worked on his monograph throughout the project. I tended to prioritize project work and submitted just one paper based on my PhD. When it was rejected, I didn’t have time to rework it, so published nothing of my own during the two-year period.

My colleague and I also interpreted our remit as research associates rather differently. Strictly speaking, our job was to do research for the project and didn’t require any teaching or ‘service’. But with the TEF looming, I didn’t want to have a gap without teaching on my CV, so I took on unpaid teaching, supervision of MA students and examining of PhD theses. I also did a course leading to HEA fellowship. I organised research seminars and co-convened a research group in the department. My colleague, in contrast, focused on his own research as well as project work and didn’t take on any extra duties.

Which approach is best? Well, at the end of the project, my colleague had a monograph under his belt and walked straight into a permanent lectureship. I walked into three temporary posts scattered around the country. Do I have any regrets? Not really. I could have been more strategic, but it was important to me to be seen as a team player, as someone hard working and reliable. More importantly, I got a well-rounded apprenticeship into academia. The accreditation and supervisory experience I gained is probably helpful when job hunting, albeit not as helpful as a long list of publications.

Speaking of publications, don’t expect to have these in hand by the time you finish a two-year contract. Our data collection took longer than planned, delaying the analysis and our readiness to reach conclusions. By all accounts, this is the norm rather than the exception. Although the project has now finished and the pay checks have stopped coming in, writing is still being done. If I want the publications, I need to do them in my free time (assuming that I have some free time in between my three jobs). Aside from the issue of working for nothing, this has implications in terms of access to data, equipment, software, IT support, office space and shared drives. If you’re no longer employed by an institution, you generally lose this access, even though it is widely acknowledged that work on research outputs needs to continue.

I loved working on a joint endeavour with more experienced people and having the freedom to organise my own time. I found the work intellectually stimulating and would happily do it all again.








Posted in early career researchers, research fellow, researcher, Sharon McCulloch, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Cultivating individuality as a post-doc research assistant

thumbnail_ESD head.jpg

This is the second post on researching on other people’s projects. Emily St.Denny is a research assistant at the Public Policy Institute for Wales, based at Cardiff University, where she studies the powers and policy levers Welsh Ministers can use to make and deliver their policy goals. She recently completed a PhD in French and Public Policy at Nottingham Trent University. Her thesis looked at how and why prostitution policy in France has changed the way it has since 1946.

There are as many versions of life after the PhD as there are newly-minted doctors. For some, like those who leave academia to pursue opportunities in other fields, work and research may be very different from what they experienced while writing their thesis. For others who seek to build a career in research and higher education, the contrast will likely be more nuanced.

In many cases, a post-doc’s first job will be as a research assistant. On the one hand, this means employing and honing many of the same skills developed throughout the PhD. On the other, it also often means putting these skills to the service of a project you have not been involved in planning or shaping, and which may not be directly related to your thesis topic.

One of the challenges this throws up therefore concerns how post-doc RAs, who have just spent years crafting their own research ‘voice’ and carving out a space for themselves in an often-crowded field, can continue to grow as individual researchers while working to support somebody else’s research agenda.

Having worked as an RA for four years, both during and after my PhD, I’ve been working (struggling?) to retain and craft my ‘voice’ as an early career researcher throughout the whole process.

My PhD was in French and public policy, it explored the evolution of contemporary prostitution/sex work policies in France from 1946 onwards. At the same time as writing my thesis, I also worked as a research assistant on medium to large research projects, studying policy-making and the policy process in the devolved UK. I now look at minimum unit pricing of alcohol policy in Wales.

I have enjoyed working on all these projects, and continue to do so. They’ve allowed me to continue improving my understanding and manipulation of public policy theory – which is where my heart lies. Gone, however, is the focus on gender and the study of French politics, both of which still greatly interest me.

The way I see it, with my disparate interests and expertise, there are three broad options available to me at this point in my career. Option one: I take a bow and draw the curtains on my plans to be a scholar of French gender politics, and focus exclusively on studying and commenting on public policy in the UK for the foreseeable future. Option two: I slowly try to redirect my career towards studying policymaking in France exclusively. Or, option three: I decide to have my cake and eat it too and, at the risk of finding it too rich to stomach, I try to carve out a space for myself in both areas.

Call me a dreamer, but I’m currently pursuing option three. I love studying public policy, gender, France, Scotland, Wales, and devolution, and I’ll be damned if I give any of them up without a fight. So, how am I going to do it? Why, with the help of my ‘3 T’ strategy (patent not pending):

1. Transferability: If there is one thing that PhD students are near-universally equipped to do, it’s finding ways to make the most out of limited resources (ramen for breakfast anyone?). We are excellent at using our skills and knowledge in a range of different ways. Heck, that’s often one of the primary reasons we get hired as RAs. So, while I might be working on a project that’s very different from my thesis, I know that there are plenty of opportunities for transferring what I’m learning. No matter what I’m working on, it’s crucial I keep improving my capacity to engage with scholarship, employ different data collection methods, analyse and report information in different ways, and engage with stakeholders about why this research matters.

2. Time: Jane Austen once said that “It is a truth universally acknowledged that an early career research in possession of an RA position must be in want of four extra hours in the day, if not an extra day in the week”. Well, she didn’t exactly say that, but the point still holds. There will be times when maintaining my relevance across multiple areas of interest, in addition to those associated with your post-doc, require extra efforts. Most of what I do at work is relevant to my professional development as a research, but it is still up to me to cultivate my position as an authority on French prostitution policy while working on alcohol policy-making in Wales. I’ve therefore always found it worth discussing and negotiating opportunities to help me develop my own research (eg. time to write your book proposal, attend conferences, or blog) very early on in a hiring process or post.

3. Training: Ultimately, I’ve always been given the opportunity to work on my own interests at the margins of the research projects I’ve assisted on. This is partly because I’ve had the great fortune of working with very supportive senior colleagues, and partly because RA posts increasingly require primary investigators to help you develop your professional and research skills. This year, for example, I’ve been focusing on becoming a more engaging researcher – this means improving my ability to plan and organise opportunities for different publics to discover what I do and why it matters. My boss grants me time off to attend training workshops and, as a result, I’m planning engagement activities that will benefit project I assist on, while also planning an exhibition on contemporary history of prostitution/sex work in France which I will seek funding for in the future.

Overall, there are many challenges involved in becoming a post-doc RA. Some are linked to a perceived change in status – you go from expert on your thesis topic to assistant on somebody else’s project – others involve a perceived loss of autonomy – you must temporarily shelve your grand research plans while you investigate something very different. That having been said, I’ve found it possible to be an RA with ‘purpose’: one which seeks to make the day-job work for me, as much as for the PI. The key, I find, is to keep learning. Consequently, I’d be very interested to learn about how others have navigated the experience of being a post-doctoral research assistant.

Posted in Emily St Denny, postdoc, researcher | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

not just a foot soldier – a researcher on someone else’s project

This week there are five posts on researching on other people’s projects.

soJeX6up.jpgThe first  is from Dr Daniel Sawyer. Daniel  is a postdoc in Oxford’s English Faculty, where he is editing a portion of the first English translation of the Bible as part of the AHRC-funded ‘Towards a New Edition of the Wycliffite Bible’ project. Daniel is interested in the history of reading, in textual criticism, and in ways in which quantitative and qualitative codicology might fruitfully be used together. He can be found on Twitter and at his website.

Hello! I’m the junior member of the team working on the ‘Towards a New Edition of the Wycliffite Bible’ project, based in the English Faculty at Oxford. We’re beginning a new edition of the first full English translation of the Bible—but, for this post’s purposes, the key thing is that I’m a researcher employed on someone else’s research project, and moreover I’m an example from a discipline in which this is a rare position. Although I think this is changing over time, in English multi-year non-PI research roles on others’ projects are relatively rare: for us the standard postdoc remains a single academic with a project which might be small but is very much their own individual creation. So sometimes when meeting people at conferences I feel like a bizarre oddity, an academic cryptid—‘Some report seeing a non-PI postdoc in English, but we’ve yet to confirm its existence’.

As Pat outlined in her invitation for guest posts from people like me, being employed on someone else’s project can be an odd place in which to find yourself just after being formally welcomed into a community of practice at your doctoral viva. This is even more the case when it’s not the norm in your field. Without pretending to know all the answers, I’ve done my best to think up a few tips for those in a similar position, or those considering applying for similar jobs.

Counting your blessings is a fine place to start. Or, in other words, I think that alongside some problems there are unique advantages to this kind of ECR job. The reward for giving up some initiative is involvement in research on a scale I wouldn’t otherwise be able to touch: much to the amusement of my friends in STEM disciplines, three people is considered quite a large team in English, and so this job is a chance to see the inside workings of a large-scale grant. In the past month alone I’ve been learning how the back-end of a digital edition is designed, and how a digital project’s interface is prototyped. In the same month, my job also sent me to Dublin to consult some unique medieval manuscripts held there. The texts I work on are about six hundred years old but the research project is a new chapter in an editorial tradition which is itself about two hundred years old. I regard being involved in this in my twenties as a bit of a privilege!

Work as a non-PI postdoc can sometimes offer an extra layer of support and backup, though from what I hear this is far from universal. I’ve been lucky: my colleagues are brilliant in their own work, very encouraging, and determined that their postdoc should get something out of his job. But even less committed co-workers still represent something better than a hard cliff-edge drop away from close work with a supervisor during the PhD.

So I think there’s value in looking for the unique opportunities and benefits we have. However, though these positive sides might be all very well, even the nicest ‘hired gun’ researcher job will have its challenges. What else might you want to do?

Where possible, it’s good to assume full responsibility for some specific facet of the larger project, and (from what I’ve seen, at least) a lot of grant proposals now have this role for the postdoc(s) explicitly included. So, as part of our research, I’m writing a single-author article about the specific part of the Wycliffite Bible which I’ve been editing. My PI and I have also successfully collaborated to bid for some additional funding which will bring on one more staff member for one year, and I count as a co-investigator on that subordinate project. Working out spaces within which you can exercise more initiative like this must be a matter for negotiation with your PI, and what’s possible must vary considerably from project to project, but it’s something worth raising and discussing.

I think it’s entirely legitimate to have side projects: your salary might buy the lion’s share of your time but it doesn’t buy your every waking moment. If your research doesn’t require expensive equipment access you can, without cheating your employer, carve out an hour here or there in which to work on something—perhaps articles which will spool up your own research project applications after your current job.

It’s also wise to maintain links outside your project and its topic. The English Faculty here requires postdocs to have a formal mentor other than their line manager, but you can seek out sympathetic external ears informally too. Additionally, while it’s great to know more senior people who can offer advice, I’ve found getting to know other postdocs helpful. Peers can be a great source of practical tips (especially if you’ve moved institutions for your new role) and if like me you don’t know many others like yourself within your own discipline, it’s interesting to compare notes with people from team projects elsewhere in the university.

Finally, on the topic of academic identity, I think it’s worth maintaining some perspective. It’s quite true that after the triumphant feeling of a finished doctorate it can feel strange to find yourself furthering someone else’s grand design. But we non-PI researchers aren’t footsoldiers, we’re specialists. We’ve convinced other, more experienced scholars to pay us for our skills and that is, I think, not a meaningless or worthless achievement. I remind myself, too, that no research emerges from a vacuum: even the most original and surprising solo scholarship rises out of a web of suggestions from colleagues, demands from reviewers and past years of training with others.

I’ve been in this job for less than a year, so I’m still learning a lot of postdoc survival techniques myself. I’m conscious, too, that alongside to many jobs out there my own is still relatively stable and high-profile. I’d also be interested to hear from the comments how all this works in other fields where people like me are more common!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

academic sentences -#wakeupreader

Academic sentences are often lengthy. They make a point and then add multiple caveats and embellishments.

Some people think there is an ideal sentence length. I have read for instance that the ideal newspaper sentence is somewhere around twenty words. Perhaps a little more, perhaps a little less. But around the twenty word mark.

I’ve also read that many academic sentences surpass this target by rather a lot. The academic sentence can go up to sixty, even seventy words without flinching. Believe it. Just try this one on for size.

While ghosts appear to wield considerable power – including in Derrida’s (1994) account, which ascribes to them the intimidating visor effect (the ability to see without being seen) as well as the ability to put time out of joint and hand down injunctions – their dependency on being acknowledged by the living ensures that they are never all powerful.

That’s 56 words excluding date.

But when you read this sentence it’s not impossible to understand. It’s a bit clumsy, yes, but you can probably see what it’s getting at. Its length doesn’t even seem particularly excessive. Our lack of surprise at the sentence length is probably a sign that we academics are VERY used to reading long.

But don’t imagine that it’s just the social sciences that use lots of words per sentence.

Psychotherapy researchers who realise that the effect of the therapy to which they are allied is less beneficial than another therapy cannot easily switch their research programme to another therapy (since they have often been trained in that therapy for many years), in contrast with a researcher addressing pharmacotherapy who can more easily change his or her research agenda to another drug if a drug proves to be less effective than previously thought.

There are 73 medical words here. And it too is comprehensible- although only just IMHO.

Very long sentences can be quite tricky for readers – even long-sentence-innoculated academic readers – to navigate. Too many additional thoughts all at once and the reader loses the will to go on. They get confused and can’t remember the main point they are meant to be following.

This is not a reason to write nothing but short sentences. Academic writers can reasonably expect colleagues, other academic readers, to stay upright at the occasional encounter with a lengthy bit of syntax. They/we won’t rub their/our eyes and nod off at their desks, even though they/we might sigh a bit if the sentence is really, well, too long.

The reader-asleep problem really arises when the text is nothing but long sentences, Seventy words followed by another seventy words, followed by…  Long sentences, one after another, like a never-ending series of canal step locks. Hello Caen Hill. Half way through and it’s time for a cup of tea.


But actually, long sentences are not the only source of reader enervation. Too many short sentences have exactly the same zzzz-inducing effect. Miles of short sentences feel as if you’re reading a particularly shoddy newspaper or a primary school essay, not a serious scholarly work. Equally tiring and tiresome.

So if length per se is not the problem, what is? Well dear reader, it’s repetition, the lack of variation.

To keep readers awake you need to not only vary your sentence structure, but also your sentence length. Some long sentences, some medium, some short – the Goldilocks principle. It’s not so hard to do. Here’s an example of sentence variation where the long and short are used to good effect.

Communication between doctors and patients is a core component of patient experience. Patients’ evaluations of doctors’ interpersonal skills are widely used in assessments of the quality of care, with an increasing focus on the public reporting of patient feedback. In the USA and the UK, certain minority ethnic groups report lower patient experience scores compared to the majority population. For example, analysis of the English General Practice Patient Survey found that South Asian groups report particularly low scores compared to the White British majority, with Bangladeshi and Pakistani groups providing the lowest scores. Around half of the difference in these scores is explained by the concentration of South Asian patients in low-scoring primary care practices. The remaining difference currently remains unexplained.

The first sentence is 12 words – it’s quite short and its job is to state what is coming up in the  paragraph. The second is 27 words and establishes two connected points about the topic of the paragraph – patient evaluation and public reporting. A key factual focussing point then takes only 21 words. The fourth sentence is 34 words long and adds important evidential detail to the paragraph topic. The fifth and penultimate sentence is 22 words long and adds one more key additional point. The final sentence, which is actually the warrant for the particular study being reported, is a mere snippet at six assertive words.

You can see in this paragraph the varation in sentence length, as well as the reasons for the syntactical length choices made. Long sentences can provide evidence, qualifying information and nuance. Short sentences offer the opportunity to emphasise a particular point  – the crunch. They provide a concise summary of what is to come. They can also – although not apparent in the example above  – pile up point after point before the writer moves onto a summary.

As readers, we are often not aware of differences in sentence length. But we certainly feel the lack of variety. If all that the writer offers is a steady diet of similarly worded sentences, we experience the reading as being ‘hard going’. As a result, we may just give up, at least for a bit.

Sentences that don’t do their job as well as they might  are sentences that communicate their information poorly. The result is that the overall sense, the writer’s argument, doesn’t work as well as it might. Poorly structured and repetitive sentences can leave  a reader incredulous and unconvinced as well as unable to keep track.  Form and function are one when it comes to academic writing (well, in any writing to be fair).

We usually describe the ways in which sentence length is handled as rhythm. The term rhythm draws attention to the soporific nature of monotony, the counting sheep effect of similar length sentences one after another. But this is not all that is involved in repetitive writing. It is important not to lose sight of the ways in which the points we are making – the function of each and every sentence – are linked to their length. We don’t just vary sentences any-old-how. We choose different sentence lengths to do different kinds of work. Our sentence word budget fits the job it has to do.

Keeping readers awake means that we have to pay attention to the structure, meaning and rhythm of the writing. To keep readers awake we need to vary the number of words we use, and how we use them, in keeping with the work being done in the sentence and in the overall sequence.

And there’s more about sequencing and the paragraph coming up soon in my #wakerupreader posts.




Posted in #wakeupreader, rhythm, sentence length, syntax, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

a ‘good academic day’

What is a good academic day? What happens to make you go home/leave the office and say to your partner or cat/dog/budgie – I had such a good day today.

I’ve come to the rather obvious conclusion that my good academic day is one where I actually get to do “proper scholarship”.

My good day is one where

  •  my co-researchers in Tate school and teachers team and I have an extended, and challenging conversation 
  • doctoral researchers tell me about their discovery of a really exciting new angle on their work
  • a class discussion goes somewhere, participants really push at ideas in depth
  • some sustained reading leads to a fresh perspective, a new set of intellectual resources
  • some of my own writing genuinely excites me because it is creative, it plays with ideas in different ways
  •  I experience the doing-observing-feeling-thinking that is immersive ethnography.

All of these good days have something in common – a sustained flowing, thinking and writing/talking over time … which also pushes me somewhere I haven’t been before. As an educator, I would of course call this learning, learning at the edge of what I already know.

2015-07-25 12.12.13.jpg

over-excited live ethnographic play

Scholarly thinking/writing/talking always involves some of what I already ‘know’, either from prior experience, or from reading, or both. But the something already known can be put together in a new way and/or with something new/different/unexpected. As in …I didn’t start out to end up here, but here I am and… and it is good.

Stitching the old and new together can be a lively, energetic process, exciting and active, engaging body, emotions and mind. Playful. Experimental.

The spoken/unspoken “oh and what about… yes but this instead…” is often also interspersed with periods of deep reflection, and moments of intense not-knowing. These are the instances/instants when what you think you think tangibly shifts.

At such times, notions of impact, evidence, audit and citation scores are completely irrelevant. Nowhere. Not a consideration, not a momentary thought.

For me, these are the scholarly moments to be treasured. These are the good academic days to be fought for in between the everyday of meetings, feedback, marking, reviewing, filing, noting and emailing. Perhaps their very scarcity makes them more precious.

They are certainly what keeps me going.

But, how does this compare to my colleagues I wonder. What’s a ‘good academic day’ for others, a good academic day for you?



Posted in academic day, academic life | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

a researcher on someone else’s project?

I completed my PhD after a pretty substantial professional career. Then, I went into an academic job and jumped straight into my own small research projects. Now, somewhat later,  I direct larger and longer research projects, often with a colleague and a small research team. This team almost always includes a new PhD, an early career researcher – and their job as research ‘fellow’ is often a crucial toehold on the academic ladder.

This kind of ‘mixed’ research team is common-place. If they are not a ‘teaching only academic’, many newly minted PhDs find themselves working as researchers for other people. They may even work as a part-time researcher on several research projects at once, all run by different PIs.

This is a tricky situation. Having done their own independent piece of research, supported by a supervisor, they then find themselves generating most of the data on some-else’s project, doing first-cut analysis and drafting texts, working to someone else’s research design and some-one else’s research practices. It’s as if they ‘d had L plates on for a long time, briefly took them off and then had to put them right back on again.


Moving from PhD to research fellow is an identity shift, and not always an entirely easy or welcome one. From  assuming the identity of expert researcher (necessary to get through the viva/defence), the Dr. then suddenly finds themselves unable to pursue their own agenda. Their capacity to assume the identity and practices of a fully fledged researcher are abruptly curtailed.

And issues about being a ‘research fellow’ don’t stop there. The project the Dr. is working on may be high stakes and subject to a range of political and contractual issues that are unfamiliar, and also not always logical. Busy PIs may assume that the Dr. knows much more about these things that they have had the opportunity to learn, and may only do the required explanations at the point of decision-making. They may also assume that the researcher will automatically make the same kinds of decisions that they do. In these situations the researcher is expected to act as an extension of the PI in ways that they may not find comfortable, or even acceptable.

And there are significant ethical and practical problems associated with being a researcher on someone else’s project. Co-writing. Credit for authoring.  Attending and presenting at  conferences. But there are other more granular issues too, often related to boundaries – what can the researcher decide and what do they have to refer to the PI? And of course the VERY big one – how can a ‘research fellow’ position play out into a real permanent job?

When I look at the kinds of career advice and support offered by universities – and online – to PhDs and to ECRs, I see a lot of ‘stuff’ about ‘employability’ and an increasing emphasis on discussion about knowledge work undertaken in places other than universities, including self-employment and entrepreneurial activities. Some of this is helpful, some not so much. I also see some support for orienting new researchers to teaching, although scarcely enough.

I see very little discussion about being a researcher on other people’s projects. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of ongoing support for people who are working as jobbing researchers – there is some of course, and some institutions do much better at this than others. But I can’t see a lot of research into the ways in which this avenue of academic identity formation, choice-making and academic career building, including promotion, actually happens. And if ever there was an area ripe for concerted academic self-help online then this is it.

Perhaps I’ve missed all the discussion. I found some scattered bits and pieces when I searched. But perhaps I’m right – being someone else’s researcher is still something that isn’t talked about enough. That’s surprising/distressing/alarming at a time when large numbers of new Dr.s find themselves working on other people’s projects – often for a very long time indeed.

Perhaps some of you Dr. researchers working on other people’s projects would secretly like to contribute some constructive posts about the key issues and strategies for managing and getting on …? I can’t really write them myself as I’m neither in this position nor have I ever been. But…

I’m very keen to have a few offers of, and publish, posts about what it is to be a research fellow on someone else’s project and how to manage. Please contact me if you’d like to contribute. 


Posted in career, early career researchers, researcher, researcher identity, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments