Tag Archives: Contract Research

Shooters and Cobblers

I’m thinking about different writing experiences at the moment, and I think they can be often be broken down into either ‘shooters’ or ‘cobblers’. I’m drawing my metaphors here from the several years I spent working behind bars before I went back to school. One job that sticks in my mind was working in a vodka bar, which had a basement bar and an upstairs lounge. The two bars seemed to mostly divide these two types of drinkers – shooters looking to get a quick fix in the basement bar, and cobblers taking their time in the lounge.

Incidentally, in drawing this analogy between drinking and academic writing I’m not suggesting you mix the two, the results generally end up on the cutting room floor. However, one of the things that prompted me into thinking about it was a colleague telling me recently that they found critical reading really difficult without wine – apparently after a couple of glasses they could find the fault in the tightest argument…I can’t vouch for this advice, and there’s a part of me which doesn’t much like the idea of peer review being fuelled by grape and grain, but anyway, I digress.

In the past few months I’ve been required to be both a shooter and a cobbler at different times and for different writing tasks, and it has got me thinking about the many different forms of task that can come under the description of ‘academic writing’ and therefore the many different practices, strategies and skills which we might bring to them.

The shooter, as you will probably know, is a cocktail usually made from 2 or 3 shots of spirits in a small glass, generally disposed of in a single blow. In contrast the cobbler is a long drink served over lots of crushed ice and fresh fruit. It’s a sipper.

I think my default or preferred writing state is cobbling. I think back to my PhD and the way I approached the writing of it, I would have a daily target and the whole day to achieve it, and I would try and stick to particular routines of time and place in achieving it. The relative novelty that writing still represented to me, along with the fact that I didn’t have a clear idea of exactly what I wanted to write before I started, meant that I required such an approach. I needed to sit for long periods of time and really think – agonise even – over what I was writing, and allow it to slowly emerge via many tensions and iterations. It turned out to be an immensely satisfying experience.

However, when writing becomes just one of the things that you have to accomplish in a working day, then cobbling can become a bit of a luxury.

So, shooting, the skill I have had to acquire in the last few months, as I was attempting to publish my thesis as a book. This was an activity which was separate to my day job, and therefore one that had to be fitted in here and there, wherever possible. No longer was it possible for me to sit and hunt the words, I had to learn to sit down knowing that I only had a fixed time to accomplish a particular number of words. Again, I tried to build some routine into this: I would come into the office in the morning and for the first hour would simply open my laptop and start writing. I wouldn’t do any of those other ‘normal’ come into the office activities – wouldn’t turn on my desktop and email, wouldn’t check my messages, wouldn’t even make myself breakfast or coffee (those that know me might understand the kind of stern self regulation this represented). I became pretty adept at it, and in fact, once I had acquired the knack of this kind of ‘plug and play’ approach, I was able to break various bonds of routine times and places and write pretty much anywhere – I started mapping out my day according to where I would be and where best I could find half an hour to get some writing done. This meant that even though I was at that time still quite heavily involved in fieldwork for my day job – unpredictable, demanding, transient, and travel oriented experience that fieldwork generally is – I was still usually able to hit my daily targets. The train became a fantastic ally – as did cafes at train stations – Pret a Manger at Manchester Piccadilly became a second office.

I got so into this rhythm that I was not only able to get the book in on time, but I also managed to submit two papers that had been sitting around waiting for me to submit, or re-submit, for months, but I had just never found the time/place – now these times/places existed everywhere and I just had to be ready to take advantage of them.

Now, I’m back in the offce. I’m writing the research report. It’s odd, but cobbling now seems oddly static. I still find a bit of the shooter in me, that just wants to get as much down as quickly as possible. Then I find I have the rest of the day to try and fill. The challenge is now spreading this energy back out over the day, and breaking it up with other activities, which are productive but which give the writing mind a bit of time to recover and ‘unthink’ – the importance of this is really nicely discussed by Pat Thomson in her blog this week.

I’m not quite there yet at themoment and it’s really frustrating. I’m writing about 1000 words a day, which firstly is not enough for my deadline, and secondly is about what I was writing in an hour or so of shooting before.

Perhaps I should stop writing this blog and get back to the…bar?



Dude, where’s my pen?

I’ve lost my pen.

This might not seem like a disastrous situation to many. After all, while I’m a writer, surely I don’t write everything out with pen and paper. I mean, what century are we in??

Well, it is a big deal. It is my favourite pen. It was a present from my late grandmother, so it has sentimental value. I have appalling handwriting, and there are many pens I just cannot write legibly with, but I have used this one for a long time, so we are as comfortable together as a pair of old shoes. We have also been through a lot together. It accompanied me the whole way through my PhD, underlining key phrases, scribbling fieldnotes, writing notes at conferences, jotting down eureka moments on the move, or at 4am, whenever they struck. It has survived so many demanding research encounters, from infant classrooms to dementia care wards, that now to lose it in my house somewhere is infuriatingly mundane.

The long and the short of it is that I will either need to turn my house upside down in order to find it. Not appealing. Or I will have to go out and find a new pen. Heart wrenching.

There is a point lurking somewhere in this personal tale of woe. I’ve been fairly unsettled by this seemingly slight turn of events, now that might appear silly to some, but the fact is that it’s broken my stride a bit. It’s a little niggling thing that I notice whenever I reach for my pen and it’s not there. It’s like a little scratch that I can’t leave alone so it doesn’t heal. I think it is a part of a delicate thing that we all construct to help us administer our lives, which is routine.

Whether or not we realise it we all have our routines. Little things which we do in the same or similar way, or at the same time, on a regular basis. I would think the majority of people are aware of many of their own little routines – getting up at the same time, to go to work at the same time and place, where we all start the day in the same way, by turning on our computer, hanging up our coat and making ourselves a cup of coffee in our usual mug. Ok, this is a little glib, but you get the idea. But then I think even for those of us who are well aware of our routines, there are still more that lurk somewhere beneath consciousness, things that we are not really aware that we do in a patterned and predictable manner.

I also think we sometimes don’t understand the power of a routine, until we find it is not there anymore.

Routines are immensely powerful little strategies. They enable us to be the productive little nodes that we all can be. And taking them away can bring you to the edge of abyss. They are the rhythms through which we experience our lives, our selves.

I’ve written a fair bit about routine. When I first went into working in infant classrooms for my PhD research, routine was one of the ways I started to make sense of life in the classroom. And that is exactly what they do. They organise, they make sense, they rationalise. Thus the argument that I began to develop was that the manner in which the school child had their day organised for them – the time/space regularities of the school day, the uniform, the rules of interaction, the behaviour codes, etc., were all designed to internalise a sense of the right way to do school, the right way to be. Once there is a clear sense of what is right then those who don’t ‘fit’ are made clearly visible. Thus, routine is a fundamental principle of inclusion and exclusion. If you want to read the full version of this argument you can do so here or there is an older, not as good, but free, version here.

My scholarly interest in routines has also driven a personal love/hate affair with them. While I recognise the productive potential of a routine, and I have many of my own, I am still bothered by the somewhat disembodied nature of the routine. It feels like they require us to place a little bit of control for ourselves, a little bit of our personal sense of agency, into something impersonal, outside ourselves. I worry that we can become overly dependant on these little objectified parts of ourselves. I worry that the web they construct can become a very significant in providing us with an everyday sense of security, a sense of ourselves.

Then there are all the implications of the argument about the routine being a means of inclusion or exclusion. I worry about the manner in which I make myself visible via the routines that I either subconsciously accept or reject. Consumer behaviour makes an obvious example. To what extent can some clever marketer come along and simply map me around a supermarket? Or those ‘reccomendation’ pages that you get on places like Amazon. They bug me.

If routines are essentially about rhythm, then think about the power of the algorithm. Amazon and Last FM might be among the most benign uses of these – what about insurance companies?

Now, it is not my intention to instil a debilitating sense of paranoia in anybody. But, I’ve always thought that paranoia becomes a lot less irrational when we think about the forces well beyond our control or comprehension that we are subject to. So, a productive skepticism about routines, I think, reflects a healthy sense of paranoia.

I still use them of course, but they can be a bit like rights, they can clash.

I know the best times of day for me to write is between about 6am and 10am and the best places to do so is at home. However, I also know that being in the office from 9-5 is the best means of ensuring I’m up to speed with work. And there’s the clash, and one of my fundamental sources of Doctoral Nostalgia – writing gets squeezed out by the day job. True, I could get up at 5am, do three hours writing then get on the train to work and be there by about 9.30. But then I would have to go to bed at about 9pm, and that clashes with my swimming routine, and if I don’t do any exercise I become far too apathetical to even consider 5am a reasonable time to get up in the morning.

Routines can take you beyond yourself. How many clashes does it take before you reach your elastic limit?

Nevertheless, they can be handy little designs for life.

I know that if I read some fiction everyday then I will read more, not less, academic literature as well.

I know that if I do some form of exercise everyday then I will be happier.

I know that my coffee tastes better from my favourite mug.

I know that losing my favourite pen leaves me with a deeply unsettling sense of ontological insecurity.

Odd sort aren’t we?

The Big ‘C’ of Contract Research

I have loads of many more apparently interesting topics to blog about at the moment, but I am simply too busy for words. So I’ve got a short piece to write about a topic which is unusually of great interest to me at the moment, and that’s the ‘contract’ bit of contract research. Why is this unusually interesting to me at the moment? Because mine is about to be terminated.

So. This is the sharp end. The reality of all contracts. They end. The end of a contract, like the end of a life is very much a part of that life, it infuses it through and through, to paraphrase the sublime Yukio Mishima, it is almost like the end is the only reality of a contract’s life, who’s true meaning is tending to that end.

But, enough lyricism. I have come to learn a little bit about tending to the very end. Mostly through mistakes, but this is a pretty good way to learn. My situation at the moment is a slightly complex one, but certainly not unusual, so I’ll tell you my predicament and maybe I’ll have a few pointers to offer at the end.

My contract is due to expire at the end of December this year. My boss very much wants to keep me on, and we have been having discussions in the last few weeks and months about how this might be secured. As there is no major project funding in the pipeline it is going to be a case of trying to piece together an extension, possibly from a few different funding sources. As a team we were approached by one of our current research partners, asking us to do some consultation work, and we have since sent back a proposal which would give me six months full time salary. This was certainly very fortunate, but I’m not quite ready to sit back on my laurels, because we do not have anything formally agreed yet, and we are now getting very close to the time when my official termaination of contract will be issued, which is usually 3 months before the end of contract.

I’m not too worred though. And there are a few reasons for this. Firstly, being issued with notice of termination of contract is not the same as having one’s contract terminated. There is three months between the two and if anything can be formally agreed in the meantime then the termination will be withdrawn. This gives us three months to badger our research partner for some formal sign off, if this looks like not coming through (and it really needs to soon for me to be happy) then my boss reckons he can get hold of about three month’s salary for me, and it also gives me three months on the redeployment register, so if both the first two options falls through.

Being on the redeployment register means that I will be given the opportunity to apply for jobs I am qualified for before they are advertised externally. If I apply for a job and I meet the essential criteria then I am guaranteed shortlisting for interview. It’s a pretty good system, but does have its flaws. There is no guarantee for example that I would stay at the same level of responsibility and salary than I am now. There are also some organisational politics often at work, where such and such in the sociology department doesn’t want to employ the internal candidate from the business school, but rather wants an external sociology candidate, and writes the job description accordingly.

The other fact is I don’t particularly want to move away from my current team. I like it. Sure I don’t want to stay in the business school for ever, but if I could stay on for 3 – 6 months and write a load of papers out of my current work and perhaps collaborate with them in a major funding bid then those would be significant feathers in my cap, and would give me intellectual closure on the project – which is going to overrun whether I am still employed on it or not.

The other reason I am not *too* stressed out (and I place those aserisks there to tell you that this is still a rather nasty situation to be in) is that I have been having these conversations with my line manager for some time. I have made sure, despite all our busy schedules, that he is behind me, that he knows what he is required to do in terms of the official procedure, and that he is doing it. I guess I really am getting used to the whole ‘managing up’ thing. But seriously, when it comes to termaination of contract, you need to make sure you are receving this support, because the great big organisational wheels turn slowly and without a senior member of staff helping to push them along for you, they will grind to a halt.

The very most important thing I have learnt from experience though is make sure that you own this procedure yourself. Make sure you know all your rights. Make sure you are in conversation with HR if you have any issues, and even get an employment rep in if you don’t feel like you are getting the kind of support from management or from the wider organisation that you require.

I have not owned this process in the past. I’ve been guilty of denial with contractural processes and allowed the wheels to turn all by themselves and it has worked out badly for me. One time I had been working on a project, which had been extended, and then we had been given a bit of extra work by the PI from their own personal research account. However, I made the mistake of not ensuring I was given an extension of contract, but rather a new contract was made and so officially I had my contract terminated – even though I started a new one the same day. As far as the organisation was concerned I was then a new member of staff, not an existing member with 18 months service.  Most universities allow for temporary contracts to become permanent after 4 years service – so that’s pretty much your pot of gold as a contract researcher –  and so not taking ownership of this process put me back to the beginning of that chase.

You are always aware that a contract is going to end. Do not let this draw you into fatalism or denial. Make sure you have a plan of action and that you have the right people behind you to make it happen.