Thursday, 7 July 2016

Your research: being necessary & useful

Dr Steve Joy

At this time of year, many early career researchers are preparing job documents for academic applications. Lots of PhD students are in the throes of finishing up & preparing to move on; the competitions for Junior Research Fellowships are just around the corner; the US job market is about to go into full swing; and looking towards the autumn, which isn’t as far off as it might seem, there will be a spate of other deadlines. For all of these applications, you will need a persuasive, tautly worded pitch to describe your research. And this is the first place where most people go wrong.

In my experience, there is a stunning consistency to the way early career researchers write about their research, and in the process they mark themselves out as inexperienced and lacking confidence. Here’s an example of the type, borrowing from my own half-forgotten research but modelled almost verbatim on a handful of real job documents from the past month:

My research studies modernist literature and aesthetics, particularly Thomas Mann and Arthur Schnitzler, and the history of technology and medico-scientific writing. My first monograph, currently being reviewed by a major university press, takes as its focus Mann’s interest in, and explorations of, sensory experience in his fiction. Offering an account of commonly overlooked moments of ‘sensationality’, I suggest that Mann relishes varied sensory experiences, often using such fictional moments to explore ideas about the technification of embodiment resulting from inventions like the radio, gramophone, cinema, and so on. Results of this work have been published in Modern Language Review and German Quarterly. Related research on Mann’s theories of composition appeared in German Life and Letters.

There’s a lot that’s wrong here.* Yet a couple of interrelated problems stand out above all of the others.

First, the paragraph is written from within a bizarre scholarship vacuum. Even the phrase ‘commonly overlooked’ does little to address this concern; after all, it could be the characters in the novels themselves who overlook these moments of sensationality. Don’t forget: when writing about your research, nothing is self-evident.

You simply cannot risk writing for an exclusive audience of presumed experts, whom you require to be au courant with the research on your topic. (There’s a strong tendency amongst inexperienced candidates to assume that their applications will receive expert review. That might be true if you’re applying to be a research associate working under a PI, where the PI likely knows a great deal about your niche topic. But for fellowships and lectureships, you’re much more likely to get a mixed readership of knowledgeable non-experts and complete non-specialists. After all, most departments don’t want two versions of the same scholar.)

It’s your job to tell your readers, in simple terms, where you fit in relation to other scholars in your field. Do you agree or disagree with prevailing opinion? Do you ask different questions? Use different methodologies? Draw on previously unseen archives? Do you, in other words, have a clear idea of how you connect to the academic world around you? It’s not up to the employer(s) to give you the benefit of the doubt and merely trust that your work takes all of these things into account.

The question of how you connect to other scholarship in your field leads straight to the second problem: the above paragraph offers a very limited description of what specific contribution this person is making. I mean this primarily in an intellectual sense. Suggesting that Mann relishes various sensory experiences is a pretty flaccid conclusion to a piece of supposedly high-level scholarship, because it doesn’t say who cares, or why they should. What are you offering that is of benefit to other scholars? Pay particular attention to the difference between work that is ‘novel’ and work that is useful, because the latter does not follow automatically from the former. Who are you hoping to influence with your work?

Instead of answering this question head on, far too many people simply tack on a couple of lazy sentences to say that their work has been published. Look at the example above: there’s not even a word about what these articles have argued. Tokenistic name-dropping of journal titles – information that is already contained in your CV, let’s not forget – does not cut it as a proxy for impact or esteem. You need to say what your work has found, and how those findings are (or should be) affecting what other scholars in your field are doing.

Research that is properly engaged with what else is happening in your field is the sine qua non of academic career advancement, whether you’re looking for a fellowship or a lectureship, or aiming to mark yourself out as ‘tenurable’. So, when writing about your own research, try the following exercises:

Your influence map
  • Write down the names of four researchers (outside your group/department) who you want to read your work – your next article, next book, whatever is on your mind at the moment. 
  • For each of the four researchers, write down the key point which you want them to know about your work. It could be different in each case; it could be the same. 
  • Next, write down for each person why they should be interested in the key point you’ve chosen for them. Not why you want to tell them (e.g. I want Prof X to know my name), but specifically what’s in it for them. How will it help them with their work?
  • Then, lastly, write down what you want your four researchers to do differently once they’ve read your work? Cite you when they’re next publishing, perhaps – but what else? Change their method? Ask a different question? Acknowledge a new point of view?
This isn’t easy, so you’re unlikely to rattle off these answers in one quick sitting. Take your time, talk it through with peers and mentors, and iterate towards convincing answers. It’s the thought-process that counts here.

And now try the whole exercise again with four people who are not academics…


1. What is your research Question?
2. Why do we Need an answer to that question?
3. What Approach are you taking?
4. What have you Concluded? What do you expect you might Conclude?
5. What is the Benefit to others?

Repeat with each research question, as appropriate.

* UPDATE: I've been asked what the other mistakes are! Here, then, is a quick list:

"My research studies modernist literature and aesthetics" - could this be any broader? 
"particularly Thomas Mann and Arthur Schnitzler" - the latter, you will note, disappears entirely in what follows, which is just sloppy editing
"and the history of technology and medico-scientific writing" - is it really clear what genre of writing this really is?
"My first monograph, currently being reviewed by a major university press" - don't be so pretentiously coy - you do have to say which press 
"takes as its focus" - very poor phrase because it's vague & needlessly wordy
"Mann’s interest in, and explorations of, sensory experience in his fiction" - again, this is vague. What does 'interest' mean in this context? Without the background on existing scholarship, it's impossible to decide whether this is in any way significant.
"Offering an account of commonly overlooked moments of ‘sensationality’" - as above, avoid ambiguous passive locutions like 'commonly overlooked'. Overlooked by whom? And in any case, these moments might have been overlooked because they're of no importance.
"I suggest that Mann relishes varied sensory experiences" - first, 'relish' is the most hideously overused verb in all job documents - delete it immediately; and secondly, this is so imprecise. Does a non-expert (defined here, rather crucially, as someone who does not remember precisely what's in your author's texts) have any idea what these sensory experiences are? Examples needed.  
"often using such fictional moments to explore ideas about the technification of embodiment resulting from inventions like the radio, gramophone, cinema, and so on" - this is classic academic writing, viz. a long phrase lacking in an agent or an active verb. Why does that matter? Because it's so hard for a non-expert to grasp, in clear & concrete terms, what any of this amounts to or why anybody should care.
"Results of this work have been published in Modern Language Review and German Quarterly. Related research on Mann’s theories of composition appeared in German Life and Letters." - see above.

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