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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