Establishing yourself as a researcher: A post-pilot reflection
On the way home from the #vitae14 (@Vitae_news) conference to Cardiff and as much as I wanted to enjoy the Midland’s countryside I also felt the urge to write about a recent researcher development event that myself and a colleague Researcher Developer from UWE facilitated on September 1st . This was a collaborative effort between the University of Bristol and University of West England to organize an event on Researcher Productivity under the guidance of the SWW Vitae hub manager Anne Goodman (@VitaeSWWHub).
If you are an early career researcher who moved to a new post or a more experienced one in your position for a while you often find yourself concerned with how to improve your productivity. Two factors that relate to a researchers’ productivity are time-management and the ability to communicate with people effectively. As the researchers participants in our workshop realised their roles are complicated and they encompass several obligations that often cause them feel overworked and to doubt whether they enjoy their job. In addition, researchers interact with a range of individuals including PIs, supervisors, UG, PG students, different stakeholders, and other colleague researchers. All of these individuals have different preferences in approaching and completing their work and different preferences in communicating information and arguments. In order to become productive and fulfill your career goals as a researcher time management and effective communication are among the core skills you will need to cultivate.
Become productive: Prioritise your tasks
Have you ever thought who dictates your to do list? Do you create the list based on your current role in the team? Or based on what you feel pressured to do by your supervisor or colleagues? Maybe also based on your expectations for work-life balance? Are there items that you would like to add on your to do list that you never manage to target? Rather than feeling powerless and overwhelmed about the items on your list you could use a planning tool to help you prioritise the tasks you need to complete based on their importance and urgency.
The Convey model (Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people. Free Press: New York) for prioritising tasks (see below) shows how you can allocate the tasks you need to complete in a day or week. Ideally a researcher would want to be at a state where the tasks s/he deals with are important but not so urgent that cause panic and anxiety. Equally important is for researchers to negotiate and delegate tasks that are not that important to them but they are on someone else’s agenda.
Finally, for those tasks that become frogs that no one wants to deal with them, figure out why you are procrastinating or abandon them if you don’t have to do them. You can use the Covey’s model diagram to help you organise and prioritise your tasks, or you can create a spreadsheet with the four categories or even organise your to do lists based on the tasks you have to completed under the four categories.
In the Establish yourself as a researcher workshop we had the researchers think of all the tasks they needed to complete within one week and prioritise them using Covey’s model. Their obligations ranged from answering emails to meetings to finishing a report. This task helped the participants become more aware of how they need to accommodate for different responsibilities and think which are more important for their work and the people they are accountable to.
Become productive: Communicate effectively with people
Have you ever thought that if you were the only one responsible for a project you could finish it so much sooner? Or if people could just understand the ideas you were trying to communicate on a project or interpret accurately the feedback you provided them? These are the challenges embedded in a researchers work because people have different preferences when approaching a task and when trying to communicate information. Some of us feel more organised and efficient when they have an action plan with specific things they need to complete to reach a goal and finish the project (structured preference) several days ahead. Others like to spend a relatively long time at the beginning to brainstorm ideas, investigate the potential of ideas, research for more resources, then leaving the project aside for a while and working on it again when the deadline approaches (flexible approach). One of the groups in our vitae Establish your-self as a researcher event very effectively depicted the path that researchers with these two different preferences follow (see below) when they have to complete a task.
A researcher who prefers a structure approach to her/his work would begin planning and working early on breaking the task down to important milestones and methodically reaching each one and completing the project on time to receive feedback and revise. On, the other hand a researcher with a flexible approach would plan and investigate a little bit when the project begins, then randomly some more but picking up most of the work towards the deadline by devoting a lot of the time at the end to just work on the specific project.
Becoming aware of your preference for approaching your work and realising that others may take a different direction allows you to be more tolerant with other people’s working styles. At the same type depending on the type of project, its purpose and your collaborators you may need to rethink which approach would be most effective and maybe compromise to some degree.
For most of the research projects you work on, you often have to be able to communicate information, feedback about the actions taken and also communicate arguments effectively. When people receive or communicate information they prefer to either do it by focusing on the “Big Idea” or by attending to the details. If you have ever been asked to just get to the point (typical for “Detailed” people) or asked to provide more information about what you mean (typical for “Big Idea” people) then you realise that you may be trying to communicate information that your audience prefers to receive in a different way. This has implications on several aspects of your work: the way you review a research paper, the manner you provide feedback to other members of the team, the approach you take to present your research, the way you respond to emails.
Here are some things you can try to communicate effectively to people with different preferences:
- Think of the overview you want to give and how much details you want to provide.
- Differentiate your approach depending on your audience, their level of expertise, and the purpose of communication.
- Always consider the outcome of each communication instance (e.g., email, meeting, phone call, report, presentation), how you can contribute in achieving that and how you will facilitate others to contribute.
- Give opportunity to people during communications to confirm that they leave with a common understanding about what needs to be done.
As a researcher you most probably enjoy the flexibility your work allows you, the freedom to choose your own path, the ever changing nature of your job, the satisfaction you get from being independent, and being able to come up with solutions to problems. However, managing multiple obligations but also various and sometimes conflicting demands and expectations, and dealing with uncertainty in your career requires researchers to become effective in managing responsibilities and in communicating with people so that they can become more productive and work in a state of mind that allows them to be creative and truly enjoy what they do rather than feeling pressured to do it.