Half way through… What are my grand challenges?

Today marks the halfway point for my year of study leave. Nearing today, my thoughts were filled with questions: have I achieved enough? Have I published enough papers? What are my plans for the next six months? Am I creating a sufficient basis for the next 2-3 years of my research?

Study leave has proved to not be as restful or as open as I had expected. My weeks are still punctuated by meetings, and discussions over administrative issues – but these days, primarily to do with my research and research contracts. I had expected more time to just think. To appreciate a depth of thought and analysis, and the ability to research new areas. I have certainly done some of this, and I am not complaining, but it has prompted me to think about the changing nature of study leave in an academic world with greater pressure and expectation.

At the core of this is whether we should even ask the question, have I achieved enough? What are my targets, and have I met them? Study leave, in my opinion, and I am sure that opinions will vary, is a time designed for academics to refresh themselves, to plunge themselves into their research in a way that enables them to achieve the critical mass of thought, analysis and exposure to make greater contributions. And, of course, to set themselves up, with increased motivation and founded ideas, for the 2-3 years following study leave when they will be too tempted to bury themselves in teaching and admin, with their more pressing deadlines.

However, this time I have taken study leave, I am much more aware of a culture of measurement. It is not sufficient for me to be happy in the knowledge that I have developed, but I must publish a certain number of papers from this research. My visits to other Universities must be aligned with strategic collaboration development and publication, rather than the production of knowledge.

I am certainly not saying that research should not have outcomes, but it is an issue of perspective. If you view the outcomes as being the most important thing then you are in danger of ignoring the more difficult research questions, or not taking advantage of opportunities where the outcomes are questionable or unknown in preference to those that are safer, with clearer benefits. This is not the way that I think universities should do research – there needs to be a degree of openness to explore avenues of research that may not produce anything that is publishable, that simply extend our knowledge of an area.

Approaching these second half of my study leave, I think I am going to take a step backwards and think more about the kind of research that I want to do, and that I want my research groups to be undertaking over the next few years. Perhaps it is a matter of raising my head above the sea of paper deadlines and grant applications and trying to come up with my own set of “grand challenges” – those questions that I want to push towards over the next 2-3, or perhaps 5-6 years.

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