Whether you are actively hunting a job, or thinking about advancement in your current one, research planning can be a tricky skill to master. There are so many factors to consider, whether it is the demands of the REF (whatever form it takes), the state of your subject area and life outside academia. However, most institutions are now engaging in strategic long-term planning of research activities so you will often be asked to know what you’ll be writing on years from now, even if the thought of 2026 fills you with thoughts of robot monkeys and package holidays to Jupiter.
When you’re completing a PhD, if you’re well-supervised, you will have someone to help steer your course who can help you work out what is feasible in the time you have. Out in the big bad world, it can be harder when you have to work on your own steam but it can also be liberating to know that you can find interesting topics and put your stamp on them. Full disclosure: I have a truly excellent and supportive research mentor who listens to my blether and a former PhD supervisor who is tremendous but I still find beginning new things intimidating.
I asked the academics of Twitter how they go about starting a new project and was met with an impressive variety of results: http://sfy.co/b0dEg (Tweet yours @ me and I’ll update the list). Some of these were discipline specific: some historians seemed to focus more on archival research to consolidate their future plans but those more engaged with critical theory required thinking and freestyle writing time.
No matter what your approach, though, here are a few things that have worked for me in framing my research for job interviews of the past and research exercises of the future:
Talk to Trusted Friends: New research ideas can often emerge into the sunlit in a vulnerable Bambi-ish state, tottering and uncertain. This is not the time to go before your arch-theorist frenemy, this is the time to find someone you trust and respect. Buy them some pie, warn them that you’ll bend their ear but promise that you’ll do the same for them. Even if they aren’t in your exact discipline, saying the words out loud can help you work out what’s achievable.
Teach It: Top Tip from Tim (see Storify above). Try to incorporate some of your material into your curriculum. This will help you break it down and help you work out whether you can live with the idea, period or text. Your students’ reactions and debate will help you defend the topic, and thanking them in acknowledgements is always classy.
Not Today, Satan: You don’t have to write a three volume autobiography today, or tomorrow, or the next day. Work it down into achievable chunks, reward yourself. Always be prepared for things to change, for your focus to shift. You might think it’s a book but it’s actually three journal articles or vice versa.
Test Balloons: Once you’ve focused a little and begun the process, try your fledgling idea out as a conference paper or journal article. No matter what, the feedback will be useful in really working out what your idea is about. Ideally, find a friendly audience, such as a departmental research seminar or an event where at least one person in the audience is willing you on. If it’s a really new direction for you, try a journal you don’t normally publish in.
Oh, and I also raided the stationary shop this morning for several notebooks for my handbag and bedside.
C’mon over to Twitter and share: what do you do to frame new ideas post-PhD?