Monthly Archives: August 2012

Spread Thin

“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread” (J.R.R. Tolkein)

So said Bilbo Baggins having carried around the ring which kept him alive for 125 years. I haven’t been in the academy quite that long, but it’s still a very evocative metaphor. It’s another one of my itches about contract research, that in a quest for employment, we risk sacrificing that which we fought so hard to attain through a PhD – a thick spread of specialism on a single slice of scholarly bread.

This was something that always concerned me, because I hoped that contract research would be a bridge to something else, something more permanent. And in some ways I’ve been pretty successful at keeping some focus in my contracts. They have all been in the broad area of medical sociology, they have all been applied health research projects, with policy relevance, they have mostly used ethnographic methods, have mostly worked with stigmatised social groups, and have mostly adopted a critical orientation, perhaps contained at least an underlying social justice agenda, or at least had some concern with the abiding sociological themes of power and identity.

However, four years of contracts have taken me from dementia care to stigma to stroke recovery to diabetes to implementation science to managerial knowledge work. Pretty diverse areas. Then consider that each project came with its own conceptual and methodological framework, and each was based in a different school, with different orientations, objectives and audiences. So, now I could probably tell you a little about each of these areas, but I certainly wouldn’t call myself an expert in any of them.

The problem is not simply the large amount of reading you have to get through in a short time. It is all the meta stuff that goes along with academic reading and writing. Writing for an audience involves identifying and joining particular conversations or communities. And there is little space in this world for the social butterfly who flits from conversation to conversation, picking up bits and pieces from each. The point is that when you have a good knowledge not just of individual pieces of literature, but of where those pieces fit in a greater scheme, then you are more able to identify gaps, find your own space, and make your contribution. Without this space, publications might be interesting, informative, even well informed, but they won’t satisfy that fundamental requirement of contributing to knowledge.

What I really fear is becoming the academic Jack of all trades – the complete anti-thesis – master of nothing. I guess you might still be able to make career out of this, a career contractor, like a scholarly serial monogamist. But after four years of doing this I’m feeling some fairly acute existential angst. I feel like I need to find a branch and stick with it. Yet I know that the academic job market does not necessarily permit this freedom to pick and choose, it’s more a case of taking whatever you can get and hoping that you can continue pulling something out of each one that contributes to a greater whole.

There are some things that I have attempted to do in order to try and build my own narrative out of this monkey-like swoop from branch to branch. As I said above, I have managed to keep at least some consistency in theory and methods as well as remaining in the same broad (very broad) area. I guess I have a few more strategies which I have tried to use to continue building my own picture:

Through all my reading, my own broader critical orientation is always evolving. In some ways it can be seen as a strength to have dived into several different areas, if you make sure that you pay attention to common themes which literature in these different areas might be speaking to.

For example, I am very interested in the work of Michel Foucault, so I make a bee line for any Foucault-inspired writing in whichever area I am working in. This accomplishes a couple of things:

Firstly, it offers me a great variety of ways of ‘doing’ Foucault, of conceptualising his work in theoretical terms, and of breaking those ideas down to concrete frameworks, questions and methods.

Secondly, it gives me a way in to the critical conversations about my topic. As long as I pay particular attention to the first few pages of each paper I read – where the author situates their own work among others – then I should pick up a few other members of the conversation, as well as start to develop a picture of how this critical body situates itself in relation to what it sees as the conventional, mainstream or traditional approaches to a particular area.

This is starting to accomplish some of that meta work. Obviously decent reviews can be a particularly nourishing resource for this kind of work, also of great help are online databases which offer links to references cited and to more recent work which has cited a particular paper. Endnote or similar bibliographic software is also a fantastic resource for organising literature, I use keywords extensively, they allow you to go through pages and pages of abstracts pulling out a couple of keywords for each, then as long as you have a system of keywords that makes sense to you, and you remember to link the full text, then you know you will always be able to find a range of papers on a given topic when you come to write those papers.

Writing is the other essential thing. It is reasonable to expect that you will get to lead author at least one journal paper per contract. However, depending on the diversity of your different projects, this can lead to a pretty dislocated looking publication list, so it is really important to try and follow your own interests as well – using the data from whatever project you are working on to inform your own work. The issue here of course is time. But even if you don’t manage a peer reviewed publication, you ought to be able to put out a couple of conference papers a year, in the areas that interest you. This also gives you all the lovely conversation/community stuff that comes with attending conferences – check my previous post on the importance of these.

Make as much use as you can of your senior colleagues. They have the meta knowledge in their own area, they are also likely to be on a couple of journal boards, so should be able to give you some insight on some ways into the conversation. You can augment this by signing up to do reviews on relevant journals yourself. I’m a reviewer for about six different journals – each reflecting my own interests – and I probably do about one review a week. This not only gives you up to date accounts of the literatures in each area, but forces you into continually doing that meta analysis yourself, asking where each paper fits in the overall conversation, and what each one adds.

I suppose the last thing is to try and take heart from the extended temporal organisation of academic research. I’m still publishing out of my PhD, which I finished four years ago, I’m still in touch with most of the people I worked on the dementia project with, and I am involved in the very exciting follow up project to it – even though the original project report was all tied up three years ago. Ideas never die. I’m currently turning a six year old conference paper into a journal article. If I can carry on doing what I’m doing then there is an optimist deep down in me that says, at some point that bridging contract will come along, where I solidify my own place in a particular area, or I find myself in a research centre with rolling funding streams and succession plans.

Till that moment comes along I guess I have to try and make sure that I am best placed to take advantage of it when it does. And through this post I have a new mantra for success in my scholarly endeavours.

Stay thick!

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Managing Up

This is a relatively new concept to me, managing up. I hadn’t ever come across it in research before and hadn’t really experienced it myself – I mean of course I’ve had bosses, and there is always some relational work to do with getting to know their way of doing things, but nothing I would describe as ‘managing up’. Then in the last couple of years I have encountered it in research, through my current project on NHS managers and through my own experiences with my more senior colleagues on this project.

I’ve found it to be quite a tricky business, and it is fast becoming another of those odd tensions about contract research that I’ve written a little about recently.

Today provided a great example of this. I went into work specifically for a meeting with the principle investigator on my project. He is also my line manager and we have a nice easy comfortable working relationship. There are three other people on the project as well, and I get on very well with all of them. So far so good. Except today, having made the 60 min drive into work, I went to meet him and he hadn’t managed to do the preparation he needed to ahead of the meeting so he asked if we could postpone it by 24 hours.

This was really annoying. If he had told me, even by 8.30 this morning then I wouldn’t have had to go into the office, and could have stayed at home attending to the much more pressing needs of the conference paper I need to finish by next week. It also means I have to go back in tomorrow when we have re-arranged the meeting – so, again, a day when I would be writing at home is going to be half gone with trecking into work and back.

But, what can I do? He’s my boss, it’s not like I can have a flap or tell him to get in line. No, of course I couldn’t. I just smiled and said no problem and left the office, and now I’m back home blogging over lunch with the conference paper scheduled for this afternoon.

The thing is though that this particular experience draws out a few more general aches I have about this project, which I’m beginning to feel more and more nervous about. My boss is scheduled to give 20% of his time to this project. This was something he decided when writing the protocol around 2 years ago. Things change though. He was recently made divisional director within the school. It wasn’t something he wanted to do, but he was basically cajoled into it, it is a deeply unpopular administrative function which puts pressure on all other aspects of his work. In the last month or so I have had to wait days and weeks for email replies from him, have had to all but cut him out of the interviewing schedule, and on days like today, have had my own time wasted by his inability to put in the hours on the project. Today’s meeting required him to read and code a single transcript. Perhaps 2 hours work, which he has had an entire week to do.

We have applied for an unpaid extension to the project for a number of reasons, and this was one of the reasons he wrote to the funders about. Of the four reasons we put down only two were accepted as valid reasons, and this wasn’t one of them. This seems crazy to me. He couldn’t possibly have predicted the changes that have happened in department that would force this situation, and even if he could, is that really the sort of thing you can write into research bids? If you did then I think you would not be satisfying the requirements of your research quota, and it would be performance management time.

So, it looks like we should get a couple of months, unpaid, on the end of this project to finish things off. This is ok, but obviously it is much more difficult for me to work out because I’m on a contract rather than a salaried position. My colleagues will have to shuffle things around a bit to fit this extra work in for a couple of months next year, but they will still be getting paid. This is something that people with permanent secure positions in the university can forget from time to time. To be fair to my boss, he hasn’t forgotten things and is looking at possible ways round it. It’s not going to be a particularly fun time though, on top of the pay thing there is the actual work to be done – if I can’t get his attention now, for something he is contracted to do, then what chance will I have when we are past the planned end point of this project and he will no doubt have other demands to replace it?

It goes on. If we are late with the funders report – the main priority – then things like getting papers written will get pushed even further back – certainly beyond the extra couple of months or so that I might get paid for. As soon as I move on from this project, if I move to a different team, even within the same department, then keeping the regular contact that you need to produce properly collaborative articles will become that much more difficult – I’ll have a new project, a new full time commitment, possibly a new team, new department or new university. The further away I get, the more difficult it will be for me to have real input into those papers. That matters a lot to me, not simply because I need publications just like everyone else does, but because I have as much ownership of that data and that project as any of them. In fact I am the only one in the project who has been present at every single interview, and I am the only one on the team who will have to read and analyse every single transcript.

I expect to get at least one paper as first author, and would like to see each of my colleagues lead on one also – four or five publications out of a project this size is realistic. But the further away from it I get the harder it will be for me to be that person managing all my colleagues time, sending them reminders, sending them data and lit reviews, or at least navigating them round the data and reference managing software so they can do it themselves. I have never had the level of day to day project management and administration to do as I have on this project, but, without wanting to blow my own trumpet, I have done them, and done them well. We will have a fantastic set of data, beautifully organised, as well as a huge reference library already organised into headings for a lit review. We even have a research log with every single piece of detail about data collection there in front of you, so that when the health research journals want every last detail about access and ethics, it will all just be there. You could write a couple of books and a whole host of papers out of this data. You could link up with other similar projects and write a special journal issue or write an edited book. Yet I know that none of this stuff is likely to happen, because I am the only one who pushes things forward in this project, and I will only be there as long as I have a contract.

You can see why people get so frustrated at the amount of data there is out there that is never used, shared or done anything with. More and more primary research gets funded year on year, but there is so much to be done with existing data sets that keep slipping to the bottom of time-pressured to do lists and eventually get forgotten. You can also see how junior research colleagues find themselves in the nightmare scenarios of putting in all the donkey work on a project and then not even appearing on any publications. Sometimes this might be down to underhand senior colleagues. I bet that a lot of the time it is simply because there is never enough funding to cover writing, and so these things drag on and on, temporary staff move on, communications become less frequent, and names get left off.

So. Managing up. Prepare yourself for it. You will need to become pushy and cajoling with your senior colleagues, because they are not going to come to you and say, ‘right, I’m here for my 20% fte this week, what would you like me to do’. You will probably also need to prepare everything for them, such as nicely organised datasets, and you will likely become an honorary Nvivo/Endnote/SPSS/any other software consultant with the amount of hand holding you need to do for senior colleagues who are still in the days of pen and paper. Bless. Add this to the amount of admin that now gets piled onto research associates and fellows because there is less and less budget available for admin staff, and you will find yourself skilling in all sorts of new ways. At least this is what I try and tell myself.

A wasted morning is sometimes more than just a wasted morning. Sometimes it is a symptom of a great deal more.


Whose line is it anyway?

Research interviews are a strange world in my experience. It was quite a long time before I had any faith in them at all as research methods, and longer still until I gained any comfort in the role of interviewer. I’m getting there on both counts.

The current project I”m working on is almost entirely based on interviews, around 100 of them in total, each lasting around 90 minutes. That’s going to be a hell of a lot of words. But what do they actually mean? Each piece of data is really just an improvised statement, prompted by a question which the respondent may never have given any thought to previously, all contained in a completely manufactured situation – the interview – which might appear contained, in a room, on a tape, but in fact is very much part of the fabric of the world that it enters, it’s just getting a handle on all the different meanings of the varying performances one encounters in the interview situation which can make your head spin. An enigma machine might be handy.

Is this how Clive Anderson felt after each sweaty, incomprehensible, possibly brilliant performance from Tony Slattery? His response seemed, generally, to give the points to Ryan Stiles.

I think performance is a good way to begin to try and understand the things said and done in interviews though. It’s a metaphor which has found its way across the arts and social sciences with a variety of uses, though all linked – from the conventional notion of actors on a stage with a script, to the regulative performances of teachers when Ofsted are in town, to the (sub, semi, un?) conscious performance of different identities shaped by different social situations. With interviews, we’re looking at elements of all three of these.

One of my current projects is an interview based study exploring the knowledge and identities of managers in the NHS. Not the most popular group of people in the world, which is one of the things that makes them interesting to conduct research with.

My most recent interview was with a woman in her 40s, for the sake of a handle we’ll call her P, who had climbed the ranks of her chosen occupation very successfully, was very friendly, confident, candid, and generous with her time. Sounds like the perfect interview right? Well, it was a very interesting interview, however, I have never felt so policed by an interviewee before. P spoke about the things she wanted to speak about. If a question interested her – or she could move it on to territory that did interest her then she gave some great responses. If the question didn’t interest her or moved outside her comfort/interest zone she simply blanked them, moved the conversation on to something else, or on more than one occasion treated them not as questions but as statements – she just nodded, smiled, maybe just turned up the corner of her mouth or shifted her eyebrow slightly, and I was forced to move on. Given her seniority in the organisation, I am not at all surprised that she is able manipulate a situation to her advantage – I probably gave her very little challenge in this regard.

The tricky question is how to make sense of all this context when looking at the interview later as a piece of data, to be compared, contrasted and categorised with 90 others.

My interview style tends towards allowing the interviewee to follow their own nose as much as possible. Obviously sometimes you need to try and pull things back to your own research interests, otherwise you can be left with a very interesting but completely unwieldy set of data which won’t lend itself to any kind of meaningful system of analysis. There is a sense in which this interview drifted much further from the schedule than I should have allowed. However, I think the responses were heartfelt and honest – which can be two of the greatest unknowns in the interview situation. I found this viewpoint strengthened when P commented, after I had switched the tape recorder off, that she was glad that this would all be anonymised, because she had felt comfortable speaking honestly and openly. If I had stuck more rigidly to the schedule I think I would have got a series of fairly brief, disengaged responses, and actually I think she would have become bored and made moves to terminate the interview earlier. As it was I heard a storm of opinions about P’s everyday work, the decisions she had made in getting to the position she was in, the styles of management and leadership she found inspiring and the things she tried to do to be a role model to others, there was also some very critical opinions about the organisation she was working in and the system of healthcare as a whole. And despite the fact that, like almost everyone I have interviewed for this project, she complained about the lack of hours in the day, she gave me almost 2 hours of her time and seemed not to tire or resent this at any point.

All this stuff was going round my head on my train back home after the interview. I had felt utterly stunned on coming out of the interview, it had been an assault on the senses. In some ways it had been a challenge to my own sense of authority as the interviewer – a role which implies, according to conventional accounts of research, that the interviewer does the steering, and takes control. While I think this conventional account is fundamentally flawed, I think there are still expectations hanging in this kind of situation, that an interviewer is going to come in and ask questions and the interviewee is going to answer them. This can make interviewees very nervous – props like a tape recorder often don’t help, they are all part of the performance, which comes with a set of inherited meanings – being on stage, being watched, judged, making mistakes, forgetting your lines. Sometimes you can work and work at getting what you think might be an unconsidered response – not in the sense that you want someone to be careless, but in the sense that you want someone to not over construct their performance, systematically censoring out anything they don’t want seen. None of this was the case with P. She said exactly what she wanted, sometimes considered, sometimes completely off the cuff, sometimes she would even ironically apologise for an opinion – it all seemed to suggest that she understood the rules, and was happily playing with them in whatever way she wanted.

So, I’m thinking maybe becoming the audience in this particular performance might not have been a bad thing. But every different stage seems to demand a different performance, and still i’m plagued by the eternal, cliched, questions.

What does it all mean?