This week, I was asked to say a few words at the opening of a Higher Degrees by Research (HDR) festival, at the Bendigo campus of La Trobe University, where I am the Head of the Rural Health School.
This gave me pause for thought about why some people are happy, productive and "successful" in the research space, and others are not.
Here's a few pearls I've gleaned along the way in my own research career, which started relatively late, as I spent some 13 years in clinical practice before returning to study and completing a PhD. As an aside, I don't regret one of those years in clinical practice - they provided rich, complex experience and gifted me some precious and enduring friendships.
So, what I have learned along the way?
- After you've carefully selected your PhD supervisors (that's another blog-post in itself), make it your business to soak up all the mentoring and support they can offer. You'll never again be on the nursery slopes, so submit to the ignorance and naiveté and drink from the font of your supervisors' wisdom. Listen carefully. It's fine to make some mistakes along the way, but you don't have to make all of them.
- Your research supervisors are a bit like your parents - they are expected to literally "supervise" you, to give you feedback (positive and negative), to set boundaries (you can't answer every known question on your topic) and to set timelines (it's not OK to roll your candidature over year after year like your car registration). You don't have to like your supervisors and you don't have to be their friends. (That said, I count myself as very fortunate to still on very good terms with both of my PhD supervisors and I still publish with them both from time-to-time). As with the parent-child relationship, you are expected to develop increasing independence over time.
- Your PhD probably won't change the world. It's actually an apprenticeship in which you're meant to be learning stuff. A lot of what you learn goes under the heading of "hidden curriculum" - how the publishing game works, how the hallowed halls of academia function, which stats program is easiest to use, and where to buy the best coffee on campus.
- Find out what matters in academia and do more of it. People who get ahead typically have a clear program of research, and say no to temptations to stray too far from it. They also work incredibly hard, invariably in what might otherwise be seen as their own time: evenings and weekends. "But that's bad for work-life balance" I hear you say. Well maybe it is and maybe it isn't. You'll need to decide at different points in your career how this plays out, but you need to understand that those with whom you're competing for research funds and academic posts are almost certainly working many more hours than those for which they are paid. Someone had to say it.
- Publishing matters, so if you're not a strong writer, you need to develop your skills, or prepare to be lost in the publication crowd.
- Don't be too distracted by presenting at conferences. Don't get me wrong - conferences are important for sharing data, receiving feedback, and networking with colleagues. But a conference presentation doesn't carry the same weight on your CV as a peer-reviewed publication. If you're wanting an academic career, it's the latter that is important.
- Think about where you're going to publish. This means considering journal Impact Factors, target audience, and the actual quality of your manuscript. Be strategic (and realistic) about the match between the size and rigour of your study and the likelihood that the Editor of Nature/The Lancet/BMJ etc will be sitting by the phone waiting to hear from you.
- Learn about metrics such as h-Indices. Sure, they are highly reductionist and potentially even flawed. If you have an h-Index of 10, you're hardly getting credit for that amazing Cochrane Review that has been cited 280 times, as it has to just sit alongside the other nine papers that have been cited 10 times. Remember too, that your work might be oft-cited because people think it's a good example of a poor methodology or shoddy practice. I wonder how many times the (subsequently retracted) Andrew Wakefield autism-MMR study was cited? Learn to love all your h-Indices equally, whether the "official" offering from Scopus, or the always higher version offered by Google Scholar (because it picks up a lot of grey literature not included by Scopus).
- Don't be afraid to change tack in your research career. I started off studying communication impairment and psychosocial outcome after traumatic brain injury and now have a focus on two key areas: language skills of young offenders and literacy education (as many of you would realize, there's a sad link between the two). I do some related work on young people in the state care system, but try to be careful to always be able to articulate clear links between my research interests.
- Make sure you can answer the "so what?" question about your research. If you're going to spend a good part of your work (and non-work) time consumed with a particular issue, you need to be able to explain to funding bodies why it matters. Your research should also, therefore, pass the pub test (or failing that, the grandmother test) - it needs to be able to be packaged to make sense to the tax-payer who may well be asked to fund it.
- Related to the "so what" question is the notion of translational impact. What are your findings going to translate into and how? Your answers to these questions should drive your dissemination strategy, covering peer-reviewed journals, reports, conference presentations, and the use of social media.
- Collaborate. It's been said that if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. To be honest, I think you can only go fast on your own to a point. You can sometimes quickly get certain specific tasks done on your own, but if you want to achieve significant outcomes in the research space, you need to form collaborations with others who share your focus and interest. But you don't all have to fall into the photocopier. It can be tremendously beneficial to have different paradigms, disciplines, and methodologies represented in your team - provided there are good reasons that are driven by the research agenda, not by misguided charity about finding a role for a drifter who has lost their way research-wise. Remember too, that funding bodies look at the quality and make-up of teams and this assessment can be weighted quite heavily in the overall rating of your project.
- Kiss a few frogs. By that, I mean cold-call people interstate and overseas whose work is cognate to yours, and share your most recent publication (in which you have hopefully cited their work). Most researchers are delighted to hear that someone far away is aware of their work and has taken the trouble to get in touch. I've formed a number of enduring international collaborations in this way and have published with at least two of them. Sometimes you won't get a response, and sometimes it will be like a luke-warm bath. That's OK, and it may not be about you - it may be because their life is complicated at the moment and your timing was unfortunate.
- Expect set-backs. They will probably be many and at times, quite painful. I read a wonderful article via Twitter recently, called Me and My Shadow CV. Read it. It's a great reminder that we don't see the rejected manuscripts and grants, or the unsuccessful job applications when we look at the profile of someone we see as an academic star. However it's the entries on this ghost-document that provide us with valuable learnings, not to mention an extra layer or two on the rhino hide we call academic resilience.
- Speaking of Twitter, if you're not using this incredibly valuable platform, you almost certainly should be. I have discovered whole new professional global networks of people who are interested in things I'm interested in. Invariably these days if I come across something new and interesting, it's via Twitter. Try to follow a few people whose views you don't necessarily share too - it's good to have your assumptions nudged from time-to-time, and to know how others think on your topic of interest (even if you're pretty positive that they're wrong).
- Be reliable. Successful researchers can't tolerate unnecessary weights in their saddle bags. Be known for being the person who states what they will do, commits to delivering in a timely and thorough manner, and then does so.
- Enjoy the ride. For all the lows and frustrations, the life of a researcher is deeply satisfying. There is great personal satisfaction in having a paper published after the long haul of funding, ethics approval, data collection and delays, multiple manuscript drafts, late-night data-wrangling, responding to appallingly misguided reviewer comments, and other set-backs of various forms. I am reminded of this when, from time-to-time, I receive an email out of the blue from a total stranger, telling me how they have used such-and-such a paper to change their practice or influence a policy maker. H-Indices are all well and good, but it doesn't get much better than knowing that somewhere, you've made a small difference on the ground.