As a university academic, do you often ask yourself one or more of the following questions?
Why do I keep putting off doing research?
How am I going to meet my appraisal/annual review target to write a 3* research paper?
Why can’t I settle to writing when I do have a little time?
The good news is that you are not alone!
The less good news is that that if doing research is part of your role, you may struggle to get promoted and certainly you are likely to struggle to be included in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) or its future iteration.
What might we do to address this?
Perhaps the first step is to understand how you actually spend your time. No doubt you have teaching responsibilities, students to see, and administrative duties alongside research. Researchers I work with often say that their days (and often their evenings and weekends) are full with these tasks as well as responsibilities such as caring for children or older relatives.
For some reason, research seems to get squeezed out – why?
What is about research that makes us squeeze it out?
There are several possible reasons for this.
Most of our non-research responsibilities are either in our calendar (lectures, meetings are so on) or we receive ‘urgent’ requests from colleagues that something is done by a tight deadline. In contrast, we need to be proactive and highly self-motivated to get on with research.
We have a deep sense of responsibility to our students. This may mean that we aim to respond to students requests as soon as possible, even when it is not necessary to do so.
We may have an ingrained belief that we should always do our best. While this is a worthy aspiration, it may not be realistic. The concept of ‘good enough’ may be worth embedding among our personal values. This approach can release a little time for other tasks.
As academics, we often feel that research is ‘part of us’ or that we are defined by our research. We enjoy doing research which means that we may feel guilty or selfish spending time on it when there is so much else to do. One possible way of dealing with this sense of guilt is to think about people who will (or have the potential to) benefit from our research. This can provide us with a stronger sense of purpose.
Writing a research grant or research output may take us weeks. In contrast, responding to another email takes very little time but allows us to cross off something on our to-do list, giving us a sense of gratification. But there are many tasks to be completed when writing a research grant or output. These might be reading papers for the introduction, collecting and analysing data, considering the aims, goals or key points of the grant or output, formatting references and so on. By breaking down large tasks into much smaller ones and setting small but achievable goals, we may be able to get that sense of gratification by doing research.
How do we organise our time?
It should be possible to work out how much time we have for research in our workload and/or scholarly activity time. Once we know how much this is in terms of weeks or days or hours per year, we might think about what we want to use it for as well as when we want to use it.
The reality is that during teaching terms or semesters we will have less time for research compared to other times. But that may well be fine, providing that we can carve out at least a tiny amount of research time each week, just to keep our research ‘alive’ for us. Perhaps one hour each week is possible?
What can we usefully achieve in an hour if we are trying to write a paper or chapter? I would suggest that writing in complete sentences may not be the task to focus on. Instead, perhaps read and make notes on a paper you plan to cite in your introduction or draft out the main points for your summary.
When it comes to times between terms or semesters, we may be able to set aside whole days or even a week to do the real research writing.
A personal approach to managing time
It can help enormously to understand how we, as individuals, work best when it comes to research. This includes when we are at our sharpest. Writing complete sentences suitable for publication generally needs ‘deep thinking’ in a quiet space with no interruptions or distractions. You may know that you do your best work very early in the morning, or late at night. While I would never encourage people to work all day, all evening and at the weekend, only you know the times when you work best.
Many of us have got into the habit of frequently checking our email or social media – but this doesn’t usually help when we are writing. You might try turning off these apps as well as your phone. After all, you wouldn’t be accessible if you were lecturing.
If you can make useful progress with your research in a 20-30 minute slot, you may find the Pomodoro Technique useful. But this method doesn’t suit everyone.
Some people do need half a day or a couple of full days in a row to make good progress with writing – and that’s fine. Sometimes people like embarking on these longer slots with a writing buddy or on a writing retreat.
It’s worth thinking about putting our research slots in our calendar as a reminder and to make clear that we are not available for anything else.
Whatever works for you is the way for you to do your research.
Related posts by Jenny Ames:
During a 35 year career in higher education, Jenny Ames led a productive research group, worked with people from a wide range of subject areas and countries and collaborated with organisations from various sectors. She held the title of Professor at 6 universities, graduated ~25 PhD students and mentored ~25 contract researchers. Jenny was also a senior manager for 8 years. As Associate Dean and Assistant Pro Vice Chancellor, Jenny led on Research Impact at University level. In 2017 was she was made Founding Research Impact Lead for University Alliance.
Since 2017, Jenny has been Director of Jenny Ames Consulting Ltd. Jenny’s coaching practice focuses on university researchers and people in career transition. She also delivers training for groups. Her clients are both universities and researchers on a private basis. Jenny holds a Postgraduate Certificate in Coaching and Mentoring Practice from Oxford Brookes University. She is also a Member of the Association for Coaching (MAC). Jenny has been a role model for the Aurora Leadership Development Programme for women run by Advance HE. She was also a facilitator on ‘Entrepreneurial Leaders’, a programme for senior university leaders run by the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE).