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Career Advice

Starting again after a research stall

Feels like a research slowdown has turned into a full stop? There are some strategies to help rekindle the excitement for your scholarship.

BY TIM KENYON | FEB 23 2021

In my previous two articles, I outlined some difficulties that mid-career faculty members may experience as part of a real or perceived research slowdown. I also proposed some strategies and tips that might help one avoid or quickly reverse such a slump. What can be done, though, when a research slowdown has progressed beyond that point – when a researcher worries that there is a glaring gap in their CV, or that they have fallen far out of contact with the state of research in their field?

Some of the strategies already canvassed can be ways of backfilling CV gaps. What does this mean? It means adding information to your CV about the research success of students, for example. It means ensuring that your many forms of engagement with research are appropriately noted, including refereeing for journals and manuscripts, reviews for tenure/promotion dossiers, or commentaries on papers at conferences – so much labour at the time, but so easy to forget after they are submitted! You should also take a hard look at other things you may have been doing, including public activism, media outreach, or voluntarism, and ask to what extent those activities comprise forms of applied scholarship or knowledge mobilization. Even if you mentor others in pluralism regarding manifestations of scholarship, it’s tempting to craft your own CV worried about how an uncharitable or parochial reader will view it. The existence of some such readers in the academy is a reality, but let’s not entirely defer to them.

There are also some active strategies for reactivating your research and gaining momentum.

  • Attend a research conference where you are not presenting a paper. The first time I did this, I felt almost like I was getting away with something. Going to talks for the sheer interest of it? Not dealing with stress before giving my own talk, or with exhaustion and relief after? Magic! Attend talks, ask questions and make comments. Research is fun. Hearing about it is inspiring.
  • Make other opportunities to talk to colleagues about their work. You don’t need to have a lot of your own work in the pipeline already in order to be stimulated and build research connections by hearing about what other people are doing. It’s also a great way of making friends and building a research network, because virtually everyone likes having someone else show an interest in their work.
  • Ask a trusted colleague whether they would be interested in putting together a research plan of their own, and then meet for a coffee to compare notes and talk through the plans.
  • Write or present some modest pieces of public scholarship. It takes some effort to learn the style and standards appropriate to writing for a newspaper or speaking on the radio; but the timelines and certainties of publication as well as impact are much better for these kinds of activities than publishing even something like a book review in an academic journal. (If my experience with University Affairs is any indication, turnaround times are fast and editors are active and helpful.) It can also be an important form of research impact in its own right.
  • Become a member of a research centre or institute (at your institution or another) and help organize and participate in their events. Or at least get on their events mailing list and go to some events. Hang out with people talking about research.
  • Contact an academic society to volunteer to referee conference papers. Even if it counts as academic service under the terms of your job, it plugs you into contemporary research.
  • Volunteer to be a session chair at a conference that interests you. This puts you in a session, puts your name on the program to help build scholarly connections, and is a kind of research leadership and facilitation.
  • Apply for bite-sized grants, including:
    • Smaller, internal grants
    • External funding agency grants for smaller projects (they often have higher success rates than for larger grants); and
    • sponsored research through business partners, not-for-profits, and community groups – sometimes these groups want help with a very specific consulting, reporting, or analytical problem, and find it difficult to get interest because researchers are naturally more focused on their own projects.
  • Make effective use of the resources you already have available. This includes:
    • Professional expense funds, faculty funding programs, or special departmental funding, if available;
    • Collaboration with colleagues whose programs or labs are up and running, and who may be able to share instrument time, research personnel, or access to data, to support a smaller project or a pilot you could run.
  • Start with small contributions, in a similar vein to the strategies list in my previous article: submit conference papers, discussion notes, short interventions, book reviews; volunteer to participate in and contribute expertise to colleagues’ work.
  • Participate in research mentorship in whatever capacity is available: you don’t need to be a thesis supervisor to be on a thesis committee, which keeps you immersed in new research, and counts as training activity for “HQP,” or highly qualified personnel, for grant application purposes.
  • Remember (and keep reminding yourself), that the university’s research support infrastructure exists for you to use, to benefit from, to rely on. It’s not only – it’s not even primarily – for “high fliers”; it’s there to enable everyone to be research-active. These expert staff are typically ready to accommodate a broader notion of research activity than you might have expected.

This is of course not a complete list of strategies for restarting a quiescent research life and enhancing your sense of engagement with research. I’ve surely missed some important things, and there are probably more helpful spins to put on the tips that I have included. Not all of these strategies will apply equally to every discipline and all types of research, scholarship, and creative activity, moreover. Still, some of these approaches and activities will be helpful to faculty members from most disciplines who experience or worry about a mid-career slump.

The long-term structure of a tenure-stream life cycle imposes barriers and constraints that few of us are formally taught to anticipate in our graduate training and junior faculty professionalization. These barriers are more manageable through strategies that reflect a few basic principles. Follow your interests as they are, not as they used to be. Recognize, record, and build on activities that manifest your research skills and expertise, whether or not these activities were recognized and valorized back when you first trained as a researcher. Find projects and problems that relate to what you actually do, in all aspects of your current interaction with your work, and in your current way of life. Make use of the collegial and institutional supports at all levels that exist to support and promote research. And don’t despair! The creativity, insight, and curiosity of a scholar is part of who you are. Finding ways to put these traits in touch with what you do is a more tractable project that it might at first seem.

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

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