What will your future-self thank you for?
Image attribution. Cathy Gibbons. Quirkos.com
I've been reading a friend's motivational posts and she asks the question, “What will your future-self thank you for?” So that made me wonder, as a researcher, what kinds of things will your future-self thank you for?
I have compiled a list of suggestions that can lead to better research management, relationships with colleagues and help with time management and work/life balance.
1. Plan your time
This seems rather obvious, but in a series of career coaching sessions with research fellows, it was clear that planning skills were weak. They were all very experienced, and looking to become PIs on their first large-scale projects. These brilliant people were relying on carrying their career plans in their head, and squeezing necessary actions in when they had a moment, pulling an “all-nighter”, or taking a block of time and excluding all other activity. They were only slightly less organised when planning research, relying on the structured flow of the normal progress of a single project to carry them forward. They made little to no allowance for interruptions from other projects, other people’s or organisations’ priorities, or life in general. These research fellows told me that while these methods had worked in the past, now they had more responsibilities, it was becoming damaging to their career, health and home life.
Planning will not solve all of your difficulties and responsibilities (whether at work or home), but it makes things a lot easier to manage. If you have access to training courses on planning or time management, use them. And if not, then there is a lot of advice out there, most of which can be adapted to research. I find the leadership and business magazine Forbes to be particularly helpful, and their advice is usually based on sound research findings. (See the resources below).
2. Communicate your plans – they’re not secret, are they?
There are times when you will want to be a little discreet, but there are two very good reasons why you should communicate your plans:
· so that you know what you are doing
· so that others know what you are doing
I don’t mean to suggest that you don’t know what you are doing, but having a clear plan to communicate to others means you will have a much clearer sense of what you have prioritised; why you have decided to do something (and not something else); when you will do the things you need to do; who else needs to be involved; and perhaps even a sense of how you are going to do things. If you have a clear plan then you have a strong foundation for effective communication.
We’ve all experienced moments when someone else’s plans, usually someone we felt we could not say ‘no’ to, impinged on or ruined our plans, and these are most infuriating or frustrating when they happen at the last minute. The research fellows I mentioned were finding that this was happening more and more, and to their horror, they told me that they were having to do it to their colleagues and juniors too. Even the researcher who had excellent planning skills was finding this. Their carefully laid plans were being disrupted and it was frustrating them massively and causing arguments.
After some discussion they realised that their communication of their plans was limited: it consisted mostly of ‘telling’ others what plans consisted off, with little detail beyond the immediate week or two. It rarely included why, nor did it really involve listening to others’ plans so that appropriate actions could be negotiated, accommodated and work-loads fairly managed; this extended beyond the workplace to home life, including house-hold chores.
Communicating upwards to line-management in the workplace consisted of long-term goals, and never any detail of when work-loads would be particularly heavy for either party. Everything just had to ‘fit-in’ around everything else, instead of being managed. If you have a proper plan to communicate, then discussions and negotiations around work-load, perceived rewarding activity (some people like more teaching, some want less for example), and contributions to team and individual goals are more rational; your justifications are better understood. Agreement is not guaranteed, but its likelihood is increased.
Telling others your plans can also represent a psychological commitment (perhaps why we don’t verbalise them). But in not telling others, we are less likely to commit to planned actions, and just as importantly, we are missing out on good advice and support. Again, perhaps this is why we don’t verbalise them; the things that other people say can be off-putting. I don’t know about you, but I often feel a bit embarrassed about sharing my long-term ambitions or plans. I don’t want to scoffed at, or to be thought of as ‘thinking too much of myself’. But I have come to realise that having goals, even ambitious ones, is not immodest. And far from scoffing, there are a lot of people who want to see you be successful and who are prepared to help, or at least accommodate. You don’t have to broadcast your plans to the world, but letting it be known to enablers that you’d love to work on x, or would be open to an invitation to collaborate on y, means that others will think of you when those opportunities arise. Your future-self can thank these ‘enabler’ people when you get tipped-off about your dream job, but your future-self can thank your past-self for communicating in the first place.
3. Outline your research process
Doctoral annual reviews or upgrades often request introductions, outlines or tables of contents or other ‘at a glance’ material. Whilst doctoral reviews and upgrades often look at what you plan to do in future, they also review what you have done. With an outline of what you have done your advisors or examiners can see at glance what you might have forgotten, get a quick sense of the mechanics of your project, and of course, assess your understanding of the research process. When I did my PhD years ago, my assessors wanted to see the outlines in preference to the detail in the early days, and became more keen on detail, such as ethical arguments, comparisons of literature as the project progressed. But they always wanted outlines and overviews of the process, as did steering groups in later projects. Outlines of things that actually happened are a better reference point than plans of things that may or may not have happened, as we'll see.
An outline is just that; a couple of pages that points to the detail of what you did, but not necessarily why, (which is detail). It can be narrative (like the abstract to a paper) or bullet points or even a diagram of some sort.
But these simple documents are not just to help others. They can help you too. With each new project, having a grasp of the steps of the research and who needs to do what to ensure timely completion gets easier, until it can feel like second nature. But if there is a long-gap between new projects (parental leave, extended illness, sabbatical, change in role, a long project) and your first task is to create a project plan, say for a funding proposal, or with an inexperienced team, you may find your-self feeling a little rusty.
Having a simple example to work from can get you off to a quick start. It’s not to slavishly copy from; it’s an aide memoire. You may even find yourself thinking that your old outline was rubbish because it didn’t mention a risk assessment; advertising to recruit from different sectors etc. But hey, it got it you on track and saved you some cognitive labour or even some worry, and you’ll be thanking your past-self for doing that outline.
4. Create a code-book
Finally, we get to something qualitative! Daniel and I clearly have similar pre-occupations as he wrote a whole post on code-books recently. And he even talks about their value to your future self. So, over to Daniel…
“A code book is also useful for communicating with your future-self – the poor person who actually has to write up the data, describe how it was analysed, and possibly debate the coding with supervisors or journal reviewers. If your codebook contains a history of how codes evolved, guidelines for what to code into them, and detailed descriptions of what they mean, it makes the writing up process a lot easier.”
…. even if you are the one doing the code book and the writing up.
5. Keep records, and keep them up to date
Code-books are only one kind of record. And you might consider that a research outline is another form of record. The larger the project, the more people involved, and the input of someone else’s money will all necessitate keeping formal records, with data-security and legal implications. But it is additionally useful to keep certain up-to-date personal records. I can’t give you a definitive list, but I’ll give some two key areas that I see as relevant are records for your career and your research project.
For your career the most obvious ‘record’ is your CV (curriculum vitae, or resume). If you find yourself on six monthly contracts then you will be creating and updating your CV often. But in a long-term contract you may forget to update it, and when you are facing the end of a large project and simultaneously having to apply for new jobs, the last thing you want to do is troll through updating your CV. That’s when your future-self will thank you for having updated it every year. If you like making lists, go ahead and make those lists of papers contributed to, discussion groups contributed to, committees that you’ve served, working groups that you’ve been part of, training that you’ve attended etc. It will make it easier to update or tailor a CV or biography, and provide that all-important evidence when trying persuade people that you’re the person to employ, give funding to, or collaborate with.
For your research project, do keep records of the major documentation, e.g. ethics applications, templates for consent or project information. It is tempting to walk away and leave everything from old projects behind, or to keep everything in case it is useful in the future. Neither extreme is that helpful. Keeping records requires you to store and organise things somehow, and keeping them up to date requires you to keep only what is necessary and ditch (or archive) that no longer required. Your future self will not thank you for having to wade through files of every Zoom call you ever made.
6. Reflect actively – your future-self depends on it
Active reflection (reflexivity) involves examining a position/an idea/feeling/an experience from different perspectives. It helps us to grasp 'what's the difference that makes a difference?' (Bateson, 1972) and create learning. Just describing past actions doesn't necessarily produce learning. Let's use the outline of your research process as an example of a tool to help you be more reflexive. To produce the outline you could simply ask yourself what 'did I actually do?' A useful question to produce a handy reference point for the future. Great. But to get to fruitful insight and learning (What is the difference that made a difference?), we need to ask questions and make comparisons to help us to see things from different perspective. Time is often used to create perspective. Hence, the question that is common in experiential learning scenarios, 'If you were to do that again, what would you do differently?' To answer that question thoroughly involves referring to what you thought the nature of the scenario or problem was, your plan for action, and a description of what actually happened, before you can usefully refer to what could or should be done differently in an imagined future to make a difference. Having tools to answer those questions can be enormously helpful and form part of the integrity of qualitative research.
The most tool common in qualitative research is a reflexive journal. It is the place to ask yourself helpful questions about your research and professional development, as well as the place to record your thoughts, feelings and decision-making processes (y'know the messy stuff that you may talk about in meetings but isn't usually formally written about for publication). But other records are tools that can help you be reflexive. Your Research Process outline can be compared with your original planning to highlight the differences, and help you create more questions to generate insight, starting with 'What's the difference, and how did that make a difference?' The questions are without limit, and any that draw attention to difference in perspective and purpose are appropriate. This approach with your reflexive journals also means that you'll be ready to defend your thesis or research, with well thought-out, reasoned responses to questions around design or process, especially where you could approach a situation in many different ways.
Daniel wrote a blog on this topic in 2020. (I told you that Daniel and I share the same preoccupations). He doesn’t mention ‘your future-self’, but he does mention features in Quirkos that can help you with reflexive journaling. https://www.quirkos.com/blog/post/reflexive-journals-in-qualitative-research/
7. Understand your environment
I have been lucky enough to convene development sessions for research supervisors; not just to develop their skills as supervisors, but also to develop their academic careers. Senior colleagues’ advice on career development had a focus on understanding the broader landscape of research. Understand where the money is coming from, what the public is interested in, how your organisation functions, ‘horizon scan’ for changes in trends. In order to do this, they recommended reading and writing; not just within your discipline, but generally about research (like you are doing now!). For one UK-based academic this meant reading THES (Times Higher Education Supplement) weekly, for another it meant writing blogs and tweets to engage others in discussion on general trends in HE. Whatever your preference, take the time to pay attention to how academia works. Your future self will thank you, and I think academia will too.
· Pam Burrows, People Booster. https://www.pamburrows.com/
· Lots of tools and apps exist and they are growing all the time. You’ll have to try what works for you. A good training course will help you understand the process of planning and the major functions of planning tools. Business Balls provide lots of free tools for use in leadership and management. https://www.businessballs.com/about/
· Daniel and I use Trello to help us manage and communicate our planning. It’s simple and whilst it doesn’t have all the functions I would like in the free version, it has enough and is easy to use. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVooja0Ta5I
· What’s the difference that makes a difference? Bateson, and Systemic Theory and Cybernetics generally. Gregory Bateson. (1972) Steps to an ecology of mind. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago. London. (2000). https://www.arc52.com/qualitative-reseach-arc
· THES (Times Higher Education Supplement) https://www.timeshighereducation.com/
This article first appeared on the blog for Quirkos.com 22 September 2021. It is reproduced here with the removal of reference to future post, and with the kind permission of Daniel Turner. Director of Quirkos.