by Camille Kandiko Howson
This is a long overdue blog on my keynote Higher Education Research: A Personal Reflection on Policy and Practice at the 2017 SRHE Newer Researchers Conference (available on the SRHE website as well as a post-Keynote interview). In my defence, I was 8 months pregnant at the time and am starting a new job at Imperial College London. Which means that I have been reflecting on these insights myself, and in relation to colleagues (including those newer and emerging in their higher education careers as well as some very well-established).
Develop skill sets
Personal skills: A research career always starts with your personal skills. Through hundreds of interviews with academics and professional leaders, I have learned that research careers are hard work. A journal publication is akin to the tip of an iceberg of activity. Research requires tenacity, perseverance and loads of patience (from delayed trains to waiting for reviews to come back). Good public speaking requires a lot of practice (and do not read from your slides).
Collaboration skills: Find ways to work with those within your institution. This may be on projects related to your job or be more practical in nature. To progress you will need to work across institutions. This may be strategically for multi-institutional projects or to leverage resources. International collaborations are vital for niche expertise and comparative research. As you narrow your research specialism you will find there are usually a handful of people exploring similar topics. And working internationally does not need to entail a massive budget—I have long-term collaborators I have only met via Skype. Tip: this is a great website to find time zones to connect.
Methodological skills: Develop your methodological toolkit. This means going beyond a simplistic quantitative/qualitative divide. The methods should follow from the research questions and the best way to address them. I use various quantitative and qualitative analyses as appropriate, as well as concept mapping (and developed concept-map mediated interviewing), cognitive interviewing techniques, focus groups (I am a fan of 4-6 people, more than that and voices get lost) as well as interviews. Even more creative methods are being used – from photo elicitation to dance and Lego (which I personally get enough of at home). Tip: distinctive methods can go a long way in selling a research bid.
Writing skills for different audiences: There is no point in doing research if you cannot communicate the findings. There are very different writing styles for different audiences. Academic writing can be heavily referenced and jargon-heavy. The practitioner audience wants to hear the ‘so what’ answered. Writing for policymakers is tough, but at least is always brief. The public is a whole other beast – if your work has public interest I recommend professional media training, it really helped me with live radio broadcasts when you get five minutes to prepare. And when writing for students, it helps to “show your work”, not just the conclusion. I am still working on the skill of taking one piece of research and ‘translating’ it for different audiences (hence a massive pile of rejected journal articles from policy-oriented research projects).
Building a career
Be strategic: Be creative in approaches to roles and responsibilities to build longer term success. Can you turn an internal project evaluation into a research project? Can you repeat a pedagogical intervention each term to build up a longitudinal dataset? Or have a colleague to the same and work together?
Be green: Re-use resources and recycle your data. Within ethical boundaries, you can continually mine your own data. I managed to draw out the theme of ‘creativity’ for a journal special issue from a large dataset on leadership.
Be free: You do not need external funding to do HE research (although it helps!). If you do not have, or are in between, funded projects, carry on small bits of longitudinal research or pet projects. I have seen full professors present on research they did ‘on the side’ over 5-10 years.
Be you: Develop your own strand or niche within a larger project. This may be within a professional position or a funded research project. You will always be assigned some roles, but seek out related activities that allow you some freedom to pursue your own interests.
Be savvy: This is not for novices, but if you start early it is a lot easier. Conducting a meta-analysis across projects and strands of research allows you to inform policy and have high impact. This can start with high-quality literature reviews or cataloguing studies in your research area.
It used to be ‘publish or perish’. For better or worse, impact is the new name of the game now. Think of multiple audiences and what aspects of your research they may be interested in – this may differ for students, academics, institutions, government policy and the wider public. A straightforward way to have research impact is to bid for commissioned research projects: an eager audience already awaits.
Impact means getting your boots dirty – hit the rails, the road, the sky. You need to get your message out there. A tip for research bids – set aside plenty of funding to support dissemination. In addition to the SRHE blog, use Twitter to get your findings out, Wonkhe is great for policy, Times Higher Education has a wide readership and University World News has international reach.
Forging your own path
In the absence of large student cohorts, there are very few ‘traditional’ academic jobs in higher education studies; exceptions are the Master’s in Higher Education courses in the US or a few large-scale doctoral programmes. That means most higher education researchers have their own unique career path, often in hybrid roles with a mix of academic, professional services and managerial responsibilities.
To keep moving ahead in your career, build research networks across institutions and countries. If you do not know where to start, ask questions about someone’s research. Develop broad networks, including for professional work, research, across the sector, as well as policy influencers.
Get off your phone and email and be present and active at conferences; develop a public profile; request coffee chats with those whose work you like. Draw others in to your area of interest. I suggest informal mentors and champions as I have never found a formal scheme that seemed to work out. Find commonalities with others in related and semi-related areas (methods is always a good start). Tip: Write half an article then ask for collaborators rather than starting from scratch.
Challenges and opportunities
Sustaining a research career is not easy. You may encounter research and policy fads. There are endless calls for accountability and the resulting need to translate outputs to meet targets for your institution, REF and impact. It is also a lot easier to publish some kinds of research than others. Building networks can be daunting, and you will encounter tribes and territories and the intimidating disciplinary ‘old guard’ or ‘Mean Girls’-style cliques.
I know several colleagues who have built up professional and research expertise in a niche area or in a specific institutional context, and then feel stuck or are afraid to let go of what they have achieved to move on.
There is also the challenge of positional power in higher education. You might know more than your VC about access, but best not tell her that. Expertise and knowledge can be threatening to those above and around you – academia is not immune to the cry of “enough of experts”. Your research will always be more respected outside your institution.
However, chin up, as they say. Keep the big picture in mind and play the long game. Keep multiple strands of work going. Build supportive networks. Play to your strengths and build on your weaknesses. I need to force myself to stop and write instead of chasing the next grant sometimes. When tensions get tight, speak to facts. And be humble (at least on the outside).
Final points of wisdom
Your specialism will only ever be part of what your day job is; every HE role has its “bread and butter” elements (what pays your salary). Keep your career goals in mind (do you want to be a REF star? Do you want to have policy impact? Or institutional impact? Do you love teaching?
Don’t pull up the ladder behind you, build new ones to drop down. Provide and pass on opportunities to others. Some activities pay your salary, some offer generous or pitiful compensation, others offer prestige, networking, goodwill or, if lucky, a cup of tea and some biscuits. And a random one to finish, never put a country name or a discipline in a title (it is a turn-off to everyone else).
SRHE member Camille Kandiko Howson is Associate Professor of Education in the Centre for Higher Education Research & Scholarship at Imperial College London. Camille is also a member of the SRHE Research & Development Committee