A valuable lesson in research productivity

Travelling so much this year, and spending so much time away, alone, working on research projects has given me a lot of time to reflect upon how I manage my time, and how I have changed as an academic over the years. I have had some valuable mentors over the years, mostly informal, who have really helped me think about what I am doing, and whether my day to day activities match my goals. Perhaps the most valuable advice given to me when I first started my academic career, following on from my postdoc, was to apply for promotion at an early stage. I did this, not really knowing why at the time, but going through the process was an eye opener for me, and helped me develop some key strategies for managing my time as an educator and researcher.

Applying for promotion at my institution involves gathering masses of evidence: getting together your publication list, your list of funding, a CV with all of your academic and community participation etc, a teaching portfolio, and to tie it all together a brief personal statement where you thread your strategy and philosophy as an academic through a description of your key contributions and your future goals. Of course, this is not exactly as it is written in the application form, but it is (roughly) as my mentors at the time described it – and a much more useful interpretation  for me at the time.

Applying for promotion so early really helped me see where the gaps were. Not so much in terms of career progression – that has never really been what I am interested in, but in terms of whether what I was doing on a day to day basis was going to help me achieve my goals. Did I even have goals at that time? And to be honest, when I first started, I didn’t. Well, not clearly defined, and certainly not across all of my activities as an academic. By the time I finished my promotion application I knew that it would not be successful (and it wasn’t) but I was left with feelings of motivation and excitement, as I felt that I had a much clearer direction to follow.

That process also helped me to identify barriers that I was placing on myself that were stopping me from making progress in my research, and over the years since I have been able to remove some of those and become more productive. One key barrier that I had is one that I also often see now in early career researchers – waiting for validation for your research direction before embracing it. For me this was anchored around publication. When I would submit a paper, I would then obsess over it, and would not let myself continue on with the research direction until I had had the paper accepted.  Of course, I would try to continue working, but I found it very difficult to get past that mental block. The result was that I was really working from paper notification to paper notification, rather than working on the research as ideas developed.  These days I am much clearer in my research goals, and therefore how each publication that I write is just one piece in a larger jigsaw puzzle.

I think all of my pieces had straight edges…

So how do I keep this clarity going amidst teaching and everything else? I can’t say that I have the best solutions, but I am fairly happy with the ones that I am using at the moment. I have two whiteboards in my office that are dedicated to research strategy – these are always visible to me when I am in my office. This is crucial.

One of the whiteboards is for mind mapping: I regularly map out the different sub-projects and publication topics for a research area, adding links to colleagues and students as we start allocating work out, and adding links to publication venues and deadlines as needed. I take photos of these to keep them on record later, as I move on to a new mind map or new topic.

The other whiteboard is an 18-month map of deadlines. Basically I have a simple timeline sketched across the whiteboard, in 6-month blocks, and I use post-it notes to let me keep track of a range of research related deadlines: publication submission dates, grant report deadlines, industry presentations, publication submissions, staff availability, conference attendances, etc. This helps me keep track of what I am meant to be working on, makes sure I don’t overcommit myself or others, and I know what my students etc would be working on at any point. But more importantly, when I get those valuable days to work on research, I can immediately look at these boards and see what my next project should be.

This second board also helps me deal with that blocking issue I mentioned. I’m now ruthless with paper submission – as soon as the paper is in, I put the post-it notes onto the board for notification, final paper deadlines etc, and then I look to see what is next on the board. Done. No more to think about 🙂

It’s a very simple approach, and I know there are tools and better techniques that suit other people. But this really works for me – I think it is the visibility. Seeing it everyday as I walk in and out of my office reminds me of my research everyday, so that I am always adding things to the mind map as new ideas occur. And it is then much harder to ignore those projects when I have some free time and have to pick something to do…

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