What to pack for an academic research career
Today’s aspiring researcher needs a sharp mind and keen analytic skills. The ability to read, write and do basic maths will also help enormously. But what else? What should the hopeful researcher be loading into their backpack for the research journey? Here, I propose 10 items.
1 & 2. Persistence and resilience
History is written by the winners, and those winners typically grasp the opportunity to make it all seem as easy and natural as possible. They want the power of their ideas to shine so they let you believe that trifles such as funding, gruelling exploration and the final dazzling outcome all fell together naturally.
Normally it never works like that. Usually the reality involves toil, sweat and persistence in the face of rejection. And, even more commendably, it requires the resilience to pick oneself up and carry on. If you believe that your thing is worth doing, you must hold onto that and not be dissuaded by the mean, jealous or small-minded.
3. A nice website
If history is written by the winners, that only happens after they’ve won. In the meantime, they should take care to have a nice website, full of interesting stuff. How does anybody in the world know who you are? By stumbling across you in person or happening to see one of your journal articles? No, you need a website heaving with valuable delights.
Then you need to get people to look at it. This will almost certainly involve pointing to it as part of your useful existence on social media. There you will provide interesting comments, pointers and insight, rather than plastering it with adverts for your website. If people like your commentary, some of them will look you up.
4. Lemon drizzle cake
Research is about collaboration. It’s not especially likely that all the greatest ever ideas reside in your own head, so combining your own skills and insights with those of others is likely to pay off. Even if you’re the world’s biggest brainbox, you are probably lacking in some other department. Therefore, you’ve got to get along with others. How? Cake.
I suggest lemon drizzle cake. Everybody likes that and M&S do a good one that is probably cheaper than the one-person latte you just enjoyed.
5. A flagon of reputation
Reputation goes up when you have made some valuable research contributions to your field. That’s straightforward. So does reputation go down when you haven’t? No. It merely remains the same. Reputation goes down when you are known to be someone who cancels things, hates students, or networks only for selfish purposes.
So the variables that actively drive your reputation upwards or downwards are not the same. Of course, you want to be doing the good stuff that makes it go up, but also make sure that you don’t do the bad stuff that makes it go down. Am I saying you’ve got to do academic work of the highest quality and be nice? Yes.
6. Thomas Kuhn’s, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
In which we discover that the reason nobody likes your work is because you are incredibly cutting-edge and therefore a painful thorn to the status quo. You’re pushing the paradigms to breaking point. Good news for patient practitioners: everybody hates you now, but in three short decades you’ll have the last laugh.
7. Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery
Usually considered the opposite of Kuhn, because people think Popper said that scientists just find out facts and write them down. But he didn’t say that at all. We keep Popper in our backpack to remind ourselves that we don’t actually have to get stuff right—we only need to be making testable propositions. This can sometimes be comforting.
8 & 9. Thesaurus and phone
You need a thesaurus so you can fill your work with really hard words that nobody can understand, in order to demonstrate your commitment to academia, right? Wrong. Precisely the opposite. Clarity of communication, so that non-specialists can understand what you are talking about, is absolutely essential.
Even within your field, things that are nice to read are always going to make people happier than things that are horrible to read. This can hardly be a surprise. The clues are in the adjectives. If clear writing does not come naturally to you, use a thesaurus to turn the long and weird words in your writing into more normal ones. Then use the phone to call your friendliest non-academic relative and see how much of your prose you can read to them before they hang up.
Because there will be headaches, I promise you.
This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact firstname.lastname@example.org