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Am I in the right career?

(8 Posts)
thriftyblue2 Wed 06-Jul-16 15:55:56

Hello everybody. I am so excited to have been pointed here, I had no idea this existed! I posted this in work issues, but I am going to try again here. I did say over there, this is a very self-absorbed post so apologise in advance for that.

Anyway, I am an academic, in social sciences, and for the most part I love my job and feel privileged to do it. The trouble is, my publication record is pretty rubbish. What I do have is OK quality, eg mostly in top ranked journals, but my strike rate is very low and it takes me forever to get anything out. This is partly because I have prioritised a lot of impact stuff, which means I have a fairly strong external profile with practitioners/policy people, but have had less time to write journal papers. That will change.

But it's also because I just find it really HARD to write good papers (which may also be why I've prioritised the impact side)! Most of all, I just don't seem to have the ability to frame a paper to make the theoretical contribution reviewers want. I am having a total crisis of confidence. Is this a knack, can I eventually learn this? Does everybody struggle? I often read and re-read other papers to try to understand what other people are doing but sometimes end up feeling that they have said not very much in very many words and in unnecessarily complicated language.

But then I think that suggests that I am must be a phoney. Has anyone else been here? What did you do? I really want to do this job and be good at it, but my fear is I need to accept that I am just not quite clever enough - or risk spending my working life feeling hopelessly inadequate.

I told you, self-absorbed, but I would love to hear from other academics.

MaverickSnoopy Wed 06-Jul-16 16:33:43

I'm not an academic but I work in academic HR and so whilst I can't tell you whether you're in the right job, I can tell you what I would say to a colleague coming to me for advise. I would ask if they were working with other academics on their papers in order to gain experience. It is surprising how many I have seen who want to write on their own but good papers seem to stem from soaking up experience and guidance from others, usually, but not always, at the level above themselves. We also organise career events for early career academics who want to talk to others in the same boat, it helps them to build connections and get support. These are attended by PhD students, postdocs, research fellows and early career lecturers. With such an overlap in experience and knowledge people find them really beneficial. Perhaps find out if such a thing exists in your institution and if it doesn't your Administrator may express an interest in setting this up. We tend to hold them termly and they're very informal and easy to organise. We also organise mentors for our early career staff (and some more established) as someone they can go to for guidance; this is always someone with the same discipline. Again, if this is not something that exists perhaps speak to your Administrator.

In my experience there is a lot of support out there for people to help them with the areas that don't come so naturally to them. However available information is usually hard to find. Our institution offers workshops on writing better papers etc; courses are advertised on a training website (which I cover at induction) but unless you know it's there then you might not look. I suggest asking HR if they know of any courses.

Of course my advice is all very practical and the practicalities may not be where your problem lies. Do you apply for funding? Do you think a grant would motivate you, or is it not motivation that's so much the problem? I once went to a workshop for academics about creating an online presence. It was very useful for promotion of papers. Although I realise this is not your problem, would the "excitement" of such a course help to motivate you?

I think ultimately in life if your heart isn't in something then it's probably not meant to be. Do bear in mind that there are other areas of academia, for example some of our postdocs don't want to progress to lecturerships and instead work on a more consultancy basis, although I appreciate this is a bit different in the social sciences. Good luck, I hope you get some academic feedback.

MedSchoolRat Wed 06-Jul-16 17:22:31

How much is your job under threat if you don't increase your publication output? How much do you care about "career progression"?

thriftyblue2 Fri 08-Jul-16 10:07:03

Hi both, thanks so much for answering. Really helpful tips maverick. The things is, I know what I need to do, I just don't seem to be able quite to do it - and I can't call myself an ECR anymore, been in it too long. I am though now developing writing relationships with some senior professors so I am really hoping that might help. One trouble with that though is that everybody I work with tells me to take papers in different directions, and it's so hard to know precisely what to do.

Medschool, I won't progress until I publish more and I am currently languishing as a lecturer, where I've been for ages. I have as I said got a pretty strong focus on impact. I've written reports for the government for example, which have got wide coverage. So I go on the radio and telly sometimes! Within my area I am pretty well known by practitioners and policy makers, and I do a lot of public speaking and other engagement activities that take up a lot of time. I need to set better boundaries around that, because I definitely DO want to progress my career, and that relies on academic papers.

In the meantime I have such an inferiority complex, I often feel like I'm walking around with a sign above my head saying "crappy publisher/academic." I just can't do the policy and impact stuff, the teaching, the writing of the research grants, and pump out loads of papers, and have anything resembling a life, and the latter is important to me as I already feel I am not seeing enough of my kids.

I don't know how other people do it. Aaaaaargh. Moan. Thanks for replying.

MedSchoolRat Fri 08-Jul-16 20:44:15

In REF you get to make impact statement on all that public speaking stuff, right? How many others in your dept get to do that?

TheWindInThePillows Thu 14-Jul-16 15:03:49

I have a few thoughts in relation to this- one is that not everyone is equally good at everything. In our department, which is also social sciences, there are some people who I would identify as the 4* paper writers, but there are very few of them, the rest of us do work of varying quality. Impact is incredibly important now, so your role as an impact case study lead (or perhaps more than one) will be vital to the department, so you don't need to devalue yourself in the eyes of your colleagues, and the type of grants you can get if you do lots of impact/engagement is also good. This isn't just trying to boost your confidence. In the new REF, your department will only be able to submit papers if you have a certain amount of case studies (I can't remember the ratio), so the impact case studies are even more important.

I would also say that unless you are superwoman (or are a man with a woman doing absolutely everything at home, like some of my colleagues or have a live in cleaner) then you will not be able to perform to the max in every area every year. Reading between the lines, it sounds to me like you've had a few years of building great external relationships, doing impact and engagement stuff, perhaps getting grants- but you have let the writing side lapse a bit. The only way around this is through! In other words, you just have to start writing papers again, all the time, this summer, during term-time and so forth to break the dry spell. I wouldn't worry so much about the quality at this stage, because a medium quality paper is better than a non-written 4* paper you never did because you were psyching yourself out of writing it. You are becoming like those students who are so perfectionist, they end up not submitting the essay at all, I have the same problem as well, and there really is only one cure, and that's to do it anyway, even if when you are writing you are worried about what journal this will go in, if it has a strong narrative etc.

I'm not saying that your journal writing couldn't be improved, I'm sure there are courses you can go on, or perhaps some collaborators who might like to write with you (although my experience of working with professors is they expect you to write the paper and them to tweak the stuff). You can make an effort to put more theoretical content into the paper, or even stretch yourself and write a position/theory paper.

If you look what very successful academics have in common though, it's not that every work they write is a work of brilliance, it's that they write a lot, sometimes with variable quality, and every now and again they hit a nugget of brilliance. They don't wait to see if they found it before starting writing.

I hope that helps, I feel like I'm talking to myself as well as you, but I thought my thinking on it might resonate!

TheWindInThePillows Thu 14-Jul-16 15:07:39

As for juggling work and home, it is super hard in this job, so what I've done is focus on one area each year or 18 months- so grant writing in the last 18 months, now writing for a year (while doing everything else as well) as the main focus. I accept I will be going slower than say my colleague who hasn't got children or much of a social life and comes in at 6am, but she is not a realistic comparator. You can still get promoted, still do great interesting projects going a bit slower, if you attend to the grant/writing cycle one thing at a time. It's headless chicken syndrome which slows you downsmile

OldLagNewName Thu 21-Jul-16 16:27:30

Some very wise words here - thanks from me! And complete empathy on the struggling to publish thing. My publication record is crap (but I still got promoted last year).

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