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Career Advice

How to emerge from a research slowdown

Take the opportunity to try different publishing avenues, change the course of your research or recognize that all scholars run into a slowdown at some point in their career – this does not make you a failure.

BY TIM KENYON | DEC 28 2020

In my previous article, I reviewed some of the factors that can lead to a mid-career research slowdown for tenure-stream faculty. It is not uncommon for faculty members to experience a slump or two in their research careers, as the nature of the job, and of life itself, changes over time. Professors are people who love research, and to some extent may define their professional identity in terms of their research interests and aspirations. This sort of change can be a disconcerting or demoralizing experience. What can be done to forestall, mitigate and emerge from such a slowdown?

First, the answer isn’t always to speed up. While some of these strategies are intended to help accelerate a quiescent research program, others aim at mitigating an overdeveloped sense that one’s research program must forever be accelerated, no matter how active. It is important to recognize the value of patience and of letting research unfold in its own time, at a pace sustainable by the researcher. This point is made in detail by many people who research academic careers and the research process itself, including Barbara Seeber and Maggie Berg in their book The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (University of Toronto Press, 2016).

I will note that these suggestions are intended to be sensitive to situations. Different disciplines, departments, department chairs, faculties and faculty deans (and more generally, different universities, collective agreements and local received practices) will make for variations in how these strategies are best taken up. Therefore, take these approaches as items to consider and not as absolute endorsements. This is meant as a kind of brainstorming, a license to pick one or more strategies that seem workable, and try them to some degree or other.

I begin with some general thoughts or principles:

  1. Don’t be afraid to change course on your research. Rather than plowing through or trying to reengage with research ideas that have come to feel stale or inaccessible, you can jump into something that engages you now. Your tenure is a kind of freedom to research what stirs you today. It is not a trap compelling you to do what you’ve always done. I feel so strongly about this that I’m going to bold-face some text here: It’s not cheating to work on something that interests you!
  2. Build research activity and aspiration into other things you do, other things you encounter. Your gifts as a researcher include far more than just the specific topics you’ve worked on in the past. They also include the way your creativity and your expertise inform your interpretation of other things, even things that perhaps seem only distantly related. And they include your proven capacity to develop new expertise. Something that piques your interest at the supermarket, on the train, at a soccer game, around the university, can all be fodder for a research contribution.
  3. Let your teaching and student supervision inform and motivate your research. You got into this gig because the field interests you. Teaching familiar material, whether at the graduate or undergraduate level, can launch that interest in new directions, or inspire continued work that had started to slow down.
  4. Confront and reject the feeling that you have to be doing something big to be doing anything at all. A gap on your CV can be part of an escalating spiral of “Now I have to do something really big to make up for it! …but I really don’t have time…”. That’s wrong, and it can be a trap.
  5. Recognize that most scholars slow down, at least from time to time, relative to the earliest stages of a research career. This is to be expected in an academic career trajectory. It can even be an important reflective stage of developing scholarly depth and perspective. Many extraordinary researchers in every discipline have published (or created, performed, or patented) things slowly over their lives and careers, or went through prolonged periods of reflection between bouts of great activity.
  6. Inquire about and make use of the resources offered through your Faculty’s or University’s research offices. You might be surprised by what is available. Other supports are informal and institutionally “local” – colleagues and administrators in your program or faculty who have an open door, a ready ear and experience to share.

Now let’s consider some strategies that get a bit more into the nuts and bolts, beginning with those more suited to forestalling a mid-career slowdown, or mitigating it once it has started. (These strategies will apply to all cases to some extent.) Most of them are instances of a pretty general type of advice: Do something research-related now, however small and self-contained, feel good about having done it and build on it.

  • Submit an abstract to a conference that reviews abstracts. If accepted, the presentation counts as a peer-reviewed activity. But writing an abstract isn’t a large front-loaded commitment. Fully writing or preparing the actual presentation can wait until you have the certainty (and motivation) of acceptance in hand. And if it’s not accepted, well, that’s not a major loss or disappointment.
  • Build research outcomes into your personal teaching goals. For example, you can make it an intended outcome of a graduate or senior undergraduate seminar that you will submit a conference paper or a journal article. Include a draft or two of this paper in the course reading list, even. From a student’s perspective, part of taking a course with a professor can be learning about their own research on the topic, including their work in progress. Students might really enjoy and benefit from seeing the drafting and revision process up close, too.
  • Write a response letter to an article, a book review, critical notice, or other short discussion notes for publication, including in venues that publish only book reviews or short pieces. Contact such journals or review sites and offer to contribute a review or discussion note. Some such interventions are only a paragraph or two in length. They don’t always require massive feats of new scholarship to conduct, but they can be significant contributions on matters of fact or methodology, and even be highly cited in their own right. Discussion notes and letters to the editor on scientific and medical articles can be valuable contributions, falling into categories like “Matters Arising” in Nature or “Technical Comments” in Science.
  • Write a commentary or perspective piece suited to an academic journal. Many journals accept unsolicited pieces reflecting on matters of academic or professional interest to their readership. These pieces can draw on your experience and insights rather than reflecting specific recent inquiry you’ve completed.
  • All disciplines have journals that are academically credible and procedurally sound, disseminating valuable scholarship despite being less well-known or publishing a somewhat higher proportion of submitted work. Getting work published, whether or not it’s in a highly prestigious journal, affects the way you and others alike think about your research profile. Don’t imagine that you need an unbroken string of only glorious successes on your CV. Some quick wins and modest signs of activity are really valuable ways of keeping in touch with the discipline, and with your research aspirations.
  • Participate in grants as a collaborator, even if you are added after the fact (e.g., through a research centre or institute). You needn’t be the principal investigator for your interests and scholarship to have a meaningful effect on its activities, or for your students to benefit from your participation.
  • Volunteer to comment on papers or presentations at conferences that have this component. Often conference organizers are very happy to have someone commenting who is not already giving a paper at an event. This puts you in touch with new scholarship and builds research connections as well.
  • Apply for research grants. Little ones or big ones, internal or external; something is better than nothing. Don’t worry about whether your CV is starting to show a slowdown – you may be far more focused on that appearance than your reviewers are. Having a good research idea can make a big difference to an application’s chances of success even when your CV is gappy. Remember, you don’t know with certainty – really, nobody does – how the moderately random processes of a grant evaluation will turn out.
  • Brainstorm a medium- or long-term career plan that has feasible research ambitions, perhaps of quite small scale, for every year. The approach of only vaguely hoping to have more time or more opportunity for a major project (a book; a multi-site study; a major equipment grant) in the future can turn into disappointment and alienation as the opportunities fail to appear. It is more realistic to specifically plan a tractable project year by year (a chapter draft; a pilot study; getting research time on specialized equipment for some results that will enable further work) that takes into account the demands on your time and attention. More limited projects or activities tend to lead to bigger things over time. Even if the plan doesn’t pan out completely, it can still structure your aspirations, and help you reserve time and attention for research purposes.
  • Remain involved in research mentorship of all kinds – teaching and training undergraduates, graduates and postdoctoral researchers. Keep track of the research-relevant success of students, even after they are no longer your supervisees – things like whether they went onto other academic programs, published papers, registered any IP, etc. This information is important evidence of your mentorship and can be a really big help in getting grants (as well as tenure, promotion, and academic awards). But it also helps you remind yourself and others that the effects of your research and mentorship continue to propagate even when you are not, for a time, directly engaged in it.

But what if you worry that your research has not slowed, but stopped? When forestalling and mitigating are ships that have sailed, when it feels like your CV isn’t just gappy, but has gradually become mostly gap? Many of us have experienced that worry. In the next installment, I will consider some strategies suited to addressing these cases too.

Tim Kenyon is vice-president, research at Brock University.

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