finding and defining your research agenda

I have what could be seen as a pretty messy cv. This is not because I’ve switched from schools to universities but rather that the research and writing that I’ve done seems to cover pretty disparate areas. If you just looked at a list of my projects and publications, it might be read as a dog’s dinner ( and I dare say it often is).

I’m not the only person to have the messy cv problem and it actually doesn’t matter to me most of the time. However, early career researchers who have moved around from one short term post to another short term post can find themselves faced with trying to find some coherence in their cvs. This is often crucial; it can be the difference between some funding or another job or nothing. And even for weary old profs like me, there is still the odd time when you don’t want someone to simply read off a list of activities and writing and make their own interpretation. You want to tell them how to read things.

I generally suggest to people with cvs like mine that they could start by thinking of each different piece of work as a ‘case’, and then look for the commonality amongst the apparently disconnected bits. What are they all ‘cases’ of? Maybe there are one or two MUCH bigger questions that underpin what might on the surface seem to be unrelated activities.

Howard Becker has a neat strategy to do just this, how to get at the ‘cases’ question. He suggests that you strip out the detail from your projects and look for the bigger themes. What do they share?You then ask what might connect these apparently diverse projects and writings. You ask what they have in common.

Becker would tell me, for example, to eliminate the detailed content from my work – strip out ‘headteachers and schools’, ‘learning and museums and community arts’, ‘doctoral researchers and writing’ – and then look for what sits behind them. What might make these different things hang together? What bigger question(s) am I pursuing?

If I answer according to Becker’s advice, then I can see that pretty well all of my work explores the connections between everyday learning, institutional/organisational contexts and wider social/political/cultural concerns. Questions of text, place and identity are central to this ongoing interest. But I don’t have a dispassionate interest in this broader question. I’m actually concerned with change. I want learning and institutional contexts to become more socially just, as well as more interesting and enjoyable for all concerned. I want learners to be successful, so I also want to change the game that they’re in.

I’ve been following this agenda with different and changing foci over the years. Sometimes I work on different areas at the same time – well in truth, I do more than one thing most of the time. But I can, when I need to, spell out the things that I’ve learnt about this bigger agenda from all of these different projects over a long time.

And this is exactly what the early career researcher needs to do too. They might have a PhD in one area but then find one, two, three or more jobs working on different projects that have apparently little connection with their original doctoral project. The trick is to find a line through them, something that sits behind them, the thing that has actually allowed the ECR to do the work. What is being carried on from one project to the other? Maybe this is methodological, or theoretical. Maybe it might link to a bigger agenda.

This an exercise worth doing.

As an added bonus, Becker’s strategy not only allows a coherent story to be told through a cv and publications list, but also delineates a broad contribution via an ‘oevre’, a body of work in progress. And that’s certainly something a doctoral researcher and an ECR should be thinking about. What bigger programme of research are you laying the foundations for in your early work? How can you explain that to others through your current cv? (You’ll have to reformat it in line with the agenda)

What’s your research agenda?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in cv, early career researchers, Howard Becker, research agenda and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to finding and defining your research agenda

  1. Ed says:

    How does this help when the cv is still the same messy cv, and this is the thing people/funding agencies look at?


    • pat thomson says:

      You have to re format the cv, use a narrative or the big question to frame it, and then group publications and projects to show the ‘answers’. I’ve now added a note in to that effect. Helpful question, thanx. Might do a separate post on different ways to present cvs.


  2. Very helpful indeed, thank you! @karenmca has shared with research community @rcstweets


  3. Hi Pat,
    thank you for this post. I believe this is a really important issue and something that I have been struggling with for some time. What has helped me is putting all the ‘bits’ I have done onto post-its (other sticky notes are available) and ordering them not in the chronologial fashion of the CV, but according to what is related to what. And with enough access to post-its, you can also do some helpful colour coding.
    This has really helped me identify what work I have done, how it relates to different strands of my interest and practice, and where to go next, what to explore, etc.
    I’m blogging about this on my blog, starting with and the progress with ‘quilt’ tagged/categorised posts, if you are interested.
    Best, Alke @alkegw


  4. jeninebeek says:

    great post. This is me 🙂 I agree about identifying those generic skills, and core interests. I think it shows strength being able to work across different areas rather than the opposite.


  5. Pingback: Finding and defining your research agenda | Lif...

  6. Amy D says:

    Thanks for the post! Can you specify in which Becker book/chapter he goes through this process? Thanks –


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