Life as a writer outside the boundaries of academia

Alex Goldberg is a scientific writer and social media manager for GA International.

He has a PhD in biology and previously worked as a postdoc in toxicology and medicine, having studied chronological lifespan in yeast, anti-neoplastic small molecules, and the biology of lymphangioleiomyomatosis

You can find Alex on LinkedIn.

 


Photo by Filip Kominik | unsplash.com

Photo by Filip Kominik | unsplash.com

No one who aspires to a fancy job as a tenured research professor in the life sciences should read this article.

For those who wish to follow this career path, I can give only one piece of advice: make sure it’s EXACTLY what you want out of life.

Life as an Academic

I started out relatively modestly as a graduate student in the fall of 2004. I wasn’t sure if I wanted a career in film production or biology, and because going into film meant repeating classes and working at Starbucks simultaneously, I opted into a Master’s degree, which paid a bit of money and allowed me some flexibility to learn about something I loved and to figure out the rest of my career later on.

My project was fresh and interesting, and I was given every opportunity to make my own way, reaching out to collaborators and carving out a small niche for myself in neuroscience and cancer. I was supported immensely by my Principal Investigator, who encouraged me to do my own thing and publish what I was interested in.

After seven years of grad studies, I was sure that I wanted to become a professor like my Principal Investigator. There were things I wanted to do differently, topics I didn’t have funding for that I wanted to get into. I even had my choice of postdoctoral positions lined up for me when I graduated, and I took the job where I’d get the most flexibility to create new projects for myself. I built up a smorgasbord of results, characterized around fifteen different compounds, published in some respectable journals, then figured I’d go and apply for professor positions by the end of my second year.

Up until then, I was enthusiastic about staying in academia. I was sure someone would notice my work and get back to me, if only for an interview. Read more of this post

Romance your writing

James Burford is a Lecturer in Research Education and Development at La Trobe University.

He researches too many things. 

Recent preoccupations include: academic conferences, academic mobility, gender and sexuality in education and the felt experience of doctoral education.

Tweet him @jiaburford and find his writing at the blog he co-edits with Emily Henderson, Conference Inference. His ORCID is 0000-0002-0707-7401.


Photo by Element5 Digital | unsplash.com

Recently, I found myself sitting on a panel offering advice to graduate researchers who are trying to finish their theses. Even though I wrote my own PhD about the feelings involved in writing a PhD, it is easy to feel inadequate to the task of advice-giving.

Theses are so intricate, so specific, so personally transformative, that you are never entirely sure if you and another becoming-doctor are even talking about the same kind of thing! (See my thesis here, and a blog post about it here)

Sitting on this panel, I decided to be as honest as I could about the lumpy rhythm of my own doctoral experience.

My doctoral life involved multiple moves of house, city and country. It was punctuated by a relationship break-up and new love, part-time then full-time work at universities, and intense care work for a sick relative, which resulted in changes to my candidature (see more on this here – subscription required). My doctoral research was also intellectually challenging in ways I never really anticipated, leaving my brain bent into new shapes and leading me to question beliefs I’d long attached myself to. It is, as many doctoral education researchers have written, as if an important threshold (subscription required) has been crossed. There is no going back to pre-PhD me. Read more of this post

Getting realistic about your endless list of writing projects

Aila Hoss is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.

Her research explores topics in public health law, health policy development, and the impact of federal Indian law and Tribal law on health outcomes. Her recent projects study law and policy interventions to respond to the opioid crisis. Prior to joining the faculty at IU, Aila served as a staff attorney for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Law Program (PHLP), where she worked to improve public health through the development of legal tools and the provision of legal technical assistance to state, Tribal, local, and territorial governments.

Aila completed her Bachelor of Arts at Emory University and her Juris Doctor at the University of Oregon. She is an active member of the Indiana bar. She tweets from @ailahoss.


Photo by J.J. Ying | unsplash.com

The entirety of my career in public health law has included some component of research and publishing.

This year, I hit an unfortunate milestone: my writing project list had ballooned to nearly 70 entries.

These projects ranged from articles accepted for publication and undergoing the final editing process to random ideas collected over the course of a decade. The volume of unfinished projects left me completely unable to prioritize how I should devote my writing time.

This week, I finally decided it was time to get realistic and trim the list.

Over the course of four hours, I went through each item and evaluated how much research I had conducted on the project and how much writing I had completed. I compared this investment against my research priorities and then deleted; consolidated; and prioritized them.

Here’s what I learned.

Delete What’s Not on Your Research Arc

I am doing a Visiting Assistant Professorship (VAP) and about to go on the tenure-track job market. My public health law practice, although it had a clear thread, included a hodge-podge of public health research projects because I was working at busy public health agency. Now that I am on the academic path and have a foundation of research interest and expertise, I don’t have to work on every interesting issue that comes through the door. So, I cut out ideas that weren’t on my research arc and that I hadn’t started any meaningful work on. It’s not my job to research every important issue that comes along. Read more of this post

Learning to be a co-author

Dr Katherine Firth is a Lecturer at La Trobe University. Her PhD was on collaboration in writing.

Her recent book How to Fix your Academic Writing Trouble was co-authored with Inger Mewburn and Shaun Lehmann. She has collaborated on academic books and journal articles, and is currently working on three book projects with three different teams.

Katherine manages the blog Research Degree Insiders and tweets from @katrinafee.


Co-authoring can be very different for researchers from different disciplines.

In the social sciences and the sciences, for example, co-authored articles have become the norm over the last few decades. My academic background is in English Literature, where we do not usually write collaboratively (Leane, Fletcher and Garg, 2019, Nyhan and Duke-Williams, 2014). Publishing a collaborative article or book can still be a career limiting move in the Humanities where single authorship is the norm.

Co-authoring can lead to additional disadvantage for women (in both STEM and HASS fields), for junior researchers, and researchers from developing countries, who are more likely to find that their contributions are under-recognised or devalued.

Photo by John Schnobrich | unsplash.com

As an early career researcher, I tried to keep publishing in the traditional ways, what is sometimes called ‘lone wolf’ scholarship (as in this previous Research Whisperer post ). It is pretty tough and solitary out there. You travel to the library or archives on your own, you read alone, you write alone, you edit alone. You might eventually get to work with a Research Assistant, but their intellectual contribution to the work is typically small: transcribing, fixing references, fact checking, copy editing (in other words, work that doesn’t merit co-authorship). You might go to conferences and present a paper on your work to build an audience and get feedback, but there’s a still a gap between what you present at a conference, and whether anyone actually wants to publish the finished article. Often, the only feedback you get is from peer reviewers. Read more of this post

The care and feeding of critical friends

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 14 December 2018 and is reproduced with permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


Photo by Glen Carrie | unsplash.com

Photo by Glen Carrie | unsplash.com

Getting critical feedback on your work is one of the most difficult things to negotiate, whether you’re just starting out as a scholar or have published and been applying for grants for years.

We know that academia requires us to jump through hoop after hoop, so finding good ways to deal with this process of receiving feedback and constructively moving onto the next stage can make life a lot easier.

Often, the feedback you receive on your work will be from gate-keepers and assessor types or senior researchers in your area, possibly even your direct manager. These are often authority figures from whom you need ticks of approval, and they may not be of your choosing.

The value of a critical friend

To make research life and your academic career easier, I’d recommend finding – and keeping! – good critical friends. The idea of critical friends is extremely well established in education circles, and most academics have them even if they may not call them that.

As researchers, we need critical friends at all stages, and for many aspects, of our careers. Chief Executives of organisations often need them, and some universities even ‘out source’ critical friends for you.

Critical friends are colleagues whom you trust to read your work (whether that work is a grant application, journal paper, promotion document or research report) and give you rigorous, constructive feedback. They are supportive and invested in helping you develop your track-record. Read more of this post

Five benefits of a writing ‘system’

Chris Smith is co-founder of Prolifiko and interested in using behavioural science, neuroscience and positive persuasive technology to unlock human potential.

He’s also a consultant to academic publishers and higher education advising on marketing and digital strategy, design thinking and the future of edtech.

Chris is a former founder of Swarm, a content and digital marketing agency, and a former lecturer in social psychology, continental philosophy and aesthetics.

Prolifiko tweets from @beprolifiko.


Working hands (photo by madamepsychosis on flickr) | www.flickr.com/photos/belljar

Working hands (photo by madamepsychosis on flickr) | http://www.flickr.com/photos/belljar

In July, I wrote about Prolifiko’s survey of scholarly writing practice, and our early objectives for that study. We teamed up with two academics and a data insight expert to design a large-scale study into academic writing practice.

So far, the study has gathered responses from 510 academics from over 40 countries and the interim findings build an intriguing picture of how academics write.

The data reveals the highs and lows of the scholarly writing process across a career: when satisfaction (and dissatisfaction) is at its highest, where the blocks come and when external pressure is experienced most acutely.

So far, the role of writing systems seems key.

According to the interim findings, the academics who have developed some kind of ‘system’ to help them write and publish seem far happier and more productive than those who have not. But what is it about having a ‘system’ that helps you get down to work and keep publishing – and how can you develop one of your own? Read more of this post

Saving space

References, listed without any gaps between them.

My least favourite way to save space – turn the reference list into a solid block of text.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you had all the space that you needed to explain your research carefully and completely to the funding agency?

Wouldn’t it be lovely if there was space for nuance and complexity?

Wouldn’t it be terrific if your application fitted within the stupid page limit and you didn’t have to delete another half a page…it’s already midnight and you just want to go to bed.

Much as I feel for your sleep-deprived editing self, it wouldn’t actually be very pretty at all. I’ve seen people provide thirty pages when they were asked for two. I’ve had researchers complain that they can’t attach their 50-page CV to an application. I know what it is like to have 130 pages of application to review and comment on, with just a couple of hours to do it. I know that there is never enough space to write what you want, in the way that you want.

I also know that there is never enough time to read what is submitted, with the attention that it deserves. Read more of this post