A few things happened last week that made this post both easier and harder to write.
What made it easier was that I had done a quick canvas of my colleagues about topics they’d like to see addressed on Research Whisperer. Susan Leong (@susanmeeleong), a member of my research network, wrote:
“Not sure if this has been addressed but I often have to remind myself why research matters beyond the Excellence for Research in Australia (ERA) rankings.
That it is worthwhile choosing the not-so-sexy trending areas to study.
Because once we enter into the borg of academia, it seems that is all it counts for, that and tarting ideas up for funding.”
Right, I thought. That’s not hard. Writing about why we have a passion for research will be easy.
So, I planned a post on why the research caper can be so rewarding, despite the constant institutional pressures and uncertainties. How you can lose track of time in the excitement of delving into a subject, and finding and collaborating with smart colleagues. The thrill of road-testing ideas and new topics at conferences, and weaving the feedback into future papers. The luxury of being paid for your intellectual work and its whims.
There was even a post recently by E. J. Milner-Gulland (@EJMilnerGulland) on why she loves her job in academia at the Imperial College Conservation Science group’s blog. She described why she appreciated the academic environment this way:
“It’s exciting to collaborate with people who I admire, developing new ways of thinking, particularly interdisciplinary projects when I can be stretched by understanding their perspectives and analytical tools. I also think I’m well paid, well supported and that universities try hard to recognise the constraints of childcare and other barriers to success.”
I also had an anecdote lined up about how ‘un-sexy’ topics can become government priorities and suddenly have a lot of grant money thrown at them.
Then I had a long phone call with one of my closest academic colleagues that derailed my neatly planned post.
We talked about a whole bunch of things: projects we’d worked on, our publications together, the doings of colleagues we had in common, events coming up, our families.
In the days since that call, I’ve been in a bit of a funk. I enjoyed the call. A lot. Too much.
I’m no longer in a position where I am expected (or supported) to do academic research. I have made a choice to work 9-to-5 so my time on the domestic front is consistent and maximised. I like my job; it’s continuing. I have two young kids and I live with a work/life balance that I find almost perfect.
But what I have realised over time, and that has been brought into sharp relief recently, is what the price of shutting down my research side is. I knew it would happen, but I didn’t realise how it would feel to lose expertise, connections, and most of the opportunities to pursue intellectual passions. Initially, I had thought that I would keep up my research – albeit at a slower pace. This hasn’t happened, and most of that has also been an active choice.
It was naive, perhaps, to think that consciously letting go of something I’d invested myself in for almost twenty years would be painless. I had been ambivalent about academia for a long time, and this led me to assume that I didn’t identify strongly as an academic.
In the thick of the endless hoop-jumping that was my experience of being a research fellow, I had forgotten what the particular satisfactions of research were. With an eye on the next project and how it might appear in the continuum of a CV (as I had changed disciplines), I hadn’t spent much time thinking about what it would mean to not be an active researcher.
Now, research is an inherent part of my job. I look out for funding and advise/ review/ edit grant applications (for other people’s research). The job still engages aspects of my research self, which is what makes it enjoyable and fulfilling.
But I’d be lying if I said that leaving behind my own research and the depth of its attendant social and intellectual connections has been easy. The pressure to produce research in academia can be stressful, and lead to all manner of self-questioning. It is, however, often what academics are defined by, and ‘in the game’ for. It’s only now that I’ve stepped away from the personal angst about my research – and the perpetual anxiety about whether it’s good enough, prolific enough, or collaborative enough – that I remember and appreciate its intoxicating aspects: the incomparable anticipation attached to fresh work and peak discipline events; and the highs and lows of creating and communicating new knowledge.
Ultimately, the thing I miss the most is the communal feeling of working with (and within) my research network to make a difference in the world. I’m only realising how rare this kind of close intellectual and political companionship is now that it’s shifting away from me.
Academia has many things that can be improved, and the whole idea of ‘measuring’ research is definitely one of these. In the midst of the arguments, however, let’s not forget that the imperative and passion for academics to do research as they see fit is worth fighting for. Academics are not only about their passion for research, but what are they without it?