Thursday, 11 July 2013

The blunt end

Posted by Jean Adams

Since I’ve started this gig I’ve been responsible for my own research. By which I mean, I have (mostly and probably less than I would like to think) been the one who writes the protocol, analyses the data, writes the draft, stands up in front of people to deliver the conference presentation. I guess I’ve also had varying degrees of responsibility for having ideas, collecting data, keeping control of the budget. All research is collaborative so I’ve rarely been totally on my own. But it felt very ‘sharp end’.

Or at least, looking back it now feels that it was very sharp end. Probably at the time it just felt like what I did.
Now I increasingly manage other people who do research. This is a whole different type of responsibility. Until recently, I hadn’t realised how different having another person between me and the ‘sharp end’ of data analysis, writing and presentation can make the research experience.

I get a bit nervous before I give a research presentation at a conference. I know this and I have worked out ways to manage it pretty well. I make sure I’m well prepared. I don’t let myself think about it at all in the few hours before delivery. I check all the IT stuff in the venue works to my liking as soon as I can. If someone else is presenting the work, my normal strategies seem a bit pointless. A few times recently, I’ve found myself nervous on behalf of someone else who is presenting ‘my’ data. Obviously we can chat through what would be good to include in the presentation, and do a run through beforehand. But I can’t control everything and I certainly don’t want to fluster around someone else making sure they’re okay, when what I’m trying to do is ensure that I’m okay. I think that it’s this lack of control that makes me nervous. I hadn’t ever thought of myself as a control-freak before, but maybe I am.

Research is something that takes time and effort (and blood, sweat and tears). It’s hard not to get pretty wrapped up your research, to become attached to it. When you write about it or present it you lay out your baby in front of someone else for them to do what they will with it. It’s pretty scary at the best of times. Somehow I’m finding it a whole lot harder doing it via the medium of someone else.

Moving on from the sharp end isn’t just about shifting my responsibility from doing research to managing other people to do research though. I am also becoming responsible for other’s people careers and futures and progression. I wouldn’t want to overplay this. Genuinely, I think you’ve got to take responsibility for your own career. Other people can help you (and hinder you), but you’re the one in charge.

Given that I can now do a bit of helping (or hindering) I find myself not just being protective of my research babies, but also of my people. I spent quite a lot of time last autumn helping someone put together a studentship application. Like everything else it was a big team effort: we worked out the ideas together with some other colleagues; got lots of peer review; and did mock interviews with colleagues on the funding committee. I didn’t get obsessed with it like I do with ‘my’ grants. But it felt much more important than lots of the other co-applicant grants I’ve been involved with.

When we heard the studentship wasn’t funded, I was way more disappointed than I thought I’d be. Disappointed of course that all that good work had been for nothing. But disappointed that somehow I hadn’t been able to deliver for the would-be student. Disappointed that I’d let them down. I feel responsible.

I sometimes miss the sharp end. Over the summer I have carved out a whole bunch of time (well, maybe two weeks max) during which I will stay home, analyse data and write a paper from start to finish. In some ways it feels somehow selfish cutting myself off like that to do some research. But I promise it is definitely necessary for the wider project it is part of. The blunt end is going to take some getting used to. Maybe I’ll always need some sharp end breaks.

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