On research identity, meaningful work and funding (solo)

Triggered by a comment from Katta Spiel in an earlier podcast, in this solo episode I explore the tensions between the autonomy and freedom we have to shape our research identities and do meaningful work, and the systemic constraints from funding and promotion opportunities. The tensions particularly arise when research interests don’t align well with institutional expectations or funding trends. I explore various ways to navigate these tensions, such as, adjusting research focus to align with strategic priorities, reframing research proposals while keeping the core agenda unchanged, or continuing passion projects outside of formal funded frameworks. I also reflect on potential trade-offs and the importance of maintaining personal connection and motivation in our research work. At the end I suggest some strategies for self-reflection and staying in tune with what ‘lights you up’ as a researcher. 

This episode also connects with prior podcast guests Mark Reed and Stuart Reeves.


00:29 Introduction and Reflection on Academic Freedom

01:54 Replay from Katta Spiel Part 1

02:37 Mark Reed’s principle for engagement and impact

05:22 The Tension Between Personal Values, Identity and Systemic Expectations

07:05 The Reality of Funding Proposals and Strategic Game

08:40 The Impact of Funding Conditions on Research

10:27 The Dilemma of Playing the Funding Game

13:08 Choices for How to Play the Game

19:59 Choosing Not to Play the Game

21:54 Reframing Research Identity 

26:55 End

Related links:

Katta podcast Part 1 episode

Mark Reed podcast episode 

Stuart Reeves podcast episode

Mark Reed, What is good practice engagement and impact? Dec 5 2023


Welcome to Changing Academic Life. I'm Geraldine Fitzpatrick, and this is a podcast series where academics and others share their stories, provide ideas, and provoke discussions about what we can do individually and collectively to change academic life for the better. Hello and welcome. In this short episode, I'd like to take some time to reflect on the tensions that I've experienced and that I've been hearing lately around the autonomy and freedom that we have as academics to shape our researcher identity and work on things that we love, that we care about, where we think we can make a difference. And the tension of recognizing that we're trying to pursue that in a system that we're not fully in control of. In a system that values what gets funded and defines for us in some ways, what topics are worth exploring and what is going to get CV value in terms of funding. And consequent papers and success for promotion or appointments and so on. And I've been thinking about this triggered by something that Katta Spiel said in part one of our conversation recently, About their surprise at getting funded. Despite being very uncompromising in what they wanted to do and deliberately not playing the strategic game of doing all the right things that were supposedly getting the ticks. And I'll replay an edited extract where Katta can explain this in their own words.


And the funny thing about that is because I did write a proper proposal, like it wasn't a joke proposal or anything, but I wrote one that made no compromises in terms of what I wanted to do. Like, it didn't try to pander to reviewers. And then that was what surprised me so much then that I got it because I was like. I was not trying to do any of the strategic things.


It's interesting to think about if it would have been, as successful if you weren't as authentic and uncompromising.


Yeah. That is like then what I keep telling people sometimes, like if you dare to then just do the thing that you want to, but I know also that it's really difficult and. And even I can only get there when I'm not that afraid of like how it could work


And interestingly not long after this, I came across a post from Mark Reed. You may remember that. I also spoke to mark very recently as well. And one of Mark's passion areas for research and for activism is about engagement and impact and in this. Post, and I will put a link to it in the show notes is where he draws together what he calls nine good practice principles for engagement and impact. That's drawing on his impact culture book and some papers they've written and, and his experience in training people about impact. And I was really struck by principle number one, which talks about. To read directly, "Understand your purpose and pursue impacts you find intrinsically motivating rather than allowing extrinsic incentives to drive your engagement". And that's interesting, isn't it? Because that in some way reflects what Katta just talked to us about. About being uncompromising in pursuing. What they found intrinsically motivating. So Mark then elaborates in these principles, what that might mean for institutions and for researchers. So I'll just read what he says this principle means for researchers. So again, just to read directly. "Researchers need to clarify their purpose. And to understand if and how engagement and impact might express important identities and values. And contribute to the meaning they derive from work." And of quote. But let's return again, to those words for researchers. Researchers need to define their purpose. About how their work might express their identities. And values. And contribute to the meaning they derive from work. And that just sounds wonderful. Doesn't it? And all of the research across many domains and disciplinary areas would talk about how we're going to be much more creative and engaged and effective and have better physical and mental health and wellbeing when we can deliver on that identity, work to our values, do work that's meaningful that we feel like it has an impact. And then there's the tension that arises when you're hit with the realities. The tension between what our values are. And what we want to shape our research identity to be where we derive meaning from our work and where we want to have impact. And then how this might hit up against. How we practically are able to get research done these days, which is often through having funded projects and shaped by other people's notions of what's good research or what are reseaerchable and fundable topics. Towards this, then I'm also reflecting on some various social media posts I've also happened to have seen recently. From colleagues who talk about getting rejected yet again yet again yet again, despite excellent reviews for the research they'd been passionate about for many, many, many years. Research topics that are at the core of how they define themselves as a researcher. And in some of these posts. You can almost hear the grieving at having to let go of those topics that they really care about. And then just the uncertainty about what to focus on next and. and how they should redefine their research identity or not. And it brings to life for me very much that what we get to define as our own research topics is so core to our identity and purpose. As Mark says, in that principle. About feeling alive and feeling like it makes a difference in our work. But the facts of life are that not fitting with funding calls or government grand research challenges happens. A lot of the funding proposals that we need to write, depending on the scheme, we need to often frame very closely to what the funders are needing. And when we go to training courses, they'll often tell us about reusing their words back to them and making sure we frame the proposals to deliver exactly what the call is asking for that may or may not fit with what we actually want to do. Or what we think is the right thing to do. And then there's the question of not just having an excellent research project as some of those social media posts have said, but even getting excellent reviews. What is deemed as fundable within current priorities of the funding organization or the government body or whatever. And what is fundable also seems to be changing as well as in many places in many schemes is getting harder and harder it seems to have more open exploratory research or to ask more complex questions. Again, social media posts that I can reflect on talk about the challenges of even moving to a different country where research that was acceptable more in one country is less so in this new country where there's more of an emphasis on industry collaborations and applied research. And then some other tensions that we can feel that particularly, I guess, go towards values Sometimes the funding comes with very strict conditions. There's some funding schemes that I've been part of that are more applied where we have to define very clearly what our phases are going to be? What particular activities we're going to do and exact deliverables and exactly when they're going to be delivered. And at the same time, this was a scheme where we were encouraged to have more participatory approaches and to engage with the people for whom we were designing new technologies in this case. But it felt like that engagement and that participation was really lip service because it would have been almost impossible to go back to the funding body and say the funding that you've given us to deliver X. It's not what our participants want. They want something very different. That's Y. And the fear I know in the discussions that we would have as a project team would be. How the funding body might pull the funding, or we would have to pay back the funding we'd already received, how it would impact people's contracts and jobs. And so on. And so there's that tension between what we need to say we're doing, what funding bodies expect and what are the principles and values that guide our research. So for us, really engaging with participants very closely was a really closely held principle. And that created a lot of internal tension for us individually and as a team in not being able to properly respect the participant's wishes. And then there's the issue of playing the game where you are told you need funding for your CV for promotion, for moving onto different jobs. But not all research actually needs big funding projects and Stuart Reeves. Again, another earlier podcast conversation that I had talks about the fact that a lot of the research that he wants to do just really needs him and maybe one or two people to help. And yet that sort of research isn't deemed as CV worthy or promotion worthy research in terms of the brownie points and the ticks we need to do. And to hear Stuart in his own words.


I've also thought about, people's different research styles, and sometimes I feel like the kind of style of research I do, firstly, doesn't tend to cost that much money, and secondly, is, I don't know, It feels like it's not necessarily, going to lead to or work well with sort of massive, massive grants. Or maybe I'm just not understanding how to frame stuff or spin stuff in such a way that it could be seen as doing that. So some people's research in HCI seems to be tailored more towards getting large research grants, whereas others maybe less. I mean, I feel like, sometimes there's a lot of research you can do from stuff I kind of do, which you could do with very little, very little resources and get similar kind of results in terms of publications and all those kinds of things.


And that was from Stuart Reeves. Episode part one at about 11 minutes, if you did want to go in and try to listen to it because he does talk more about the challenges of trying to frame a grand vision and so on. So It just seems to me like there's an ongoing challenge and negotiation around identifying who we are. What our research identity is, what we care about. What our values are, what's meaningful work for us. What difference we want to make? What impact we want to have. And negotiating with how we navigate the current structures and processes. And. At what currently counts as research and what currently counts as project. And I recognize in all this, our ability to negotiate those tensions changes, depending upon what stage of career, where at what institution we're in and so on. So what are our choices? I don't have any answers here. I'm just sort of more reflecting on the experiences, maybe just to normalize that you may be not the only one trying to navigate these tensions. So we could choose just to play the game because when we weigh the trade off it may be more important for us to be able to advance our career or to be able to get access to the funding to at least do something. And indeed, Katta did talk about being more strategic in one proposal than they were in a previous one. Because for them the weighing of risks change because this new proposal entailed three years, four years of funding for jobs for other people that they cared about. And so they weren't just playing a game individually in not being strategic, but needing to play the game and be strategic because they cared about these other people. Another way we can choose to play the game is in reframing the story. And I often talk to people about your leading actors and supporting actors in a research story. I remember a colleague many years ago, who submitted a research funding proposal to a particular funding body. And it got desk rejected. They said that it wasn't fitting to, to their strand of research funding. And with much thinking and discussion what this person ended up doing was retelling the story of exactly the same work, but foregrounding, backgrounding, different aspects, making something that was more of the. Uh, supporting actor now, the leading actor and so-and-so. An example was where they were really foregrounding the participatory approach that they were going to take with their target audience in order to come up with a new system. And the emphasis was on the development of the methodology and the learning and thinking skills that their participants would gain in that process. And they just reframed it to say this project was about the technology. Oh, and by the way, we'll do it by participatory engagement with our participants and as a coincidental impact they will learn something So you can see the same pieces are there, but they were just reframed. It's totally playing the game. And that proposal went through got excellent reviews and got funded. And for that person that game cost the effort of rewriting reframing the proposal, but they were still lucky enough to be able to still basically talk about doing exactly the same work that they really cared about doing Just telling a different story about it, that fitted someone else's agenda for that time. And then there's the game that we can play that's just about getting projects for the sake of it. And it could be for the sake of the tick, because that's what we need right now for our CV. Or it could be for the sake of a colleague and wanting to be supportive. Or it could just be about hedging, our bets in the funding lottery. But that can be risky as well. So, We may all have had experiences of saying yes to be on someone else's project that we don't necessarily really care about, but we may be care about that person and what does support them. And. It gets funded. And then we're committed to that work. And if you're conscientious, then you will take that commitment seriously. At a cost of time and effort and energy. And you can almost feel your lack of energy when you talk about it. I'm reflecting on some of my own project experiences. And similarly, I've worked in some places where say a post-doc isn't able to be a PI on a project in their own, right. So in wanting to support them and their career progression and their development and them being able to do research that they own and drive. I am happy to go onto their project proposal as the PI and support them in that, of course not just in name, but trying to say, what do you need a support from me in writing it up and framing the research and so on. But it's someone else's meaning and purpose, and it's reflecting someone else's research identity. And normally when they get funded and the person's doing it, I would be playing much more of a supportive role, a coach type role in, helping them deliver on the work, but letting them own it because it's their passion project. And I've had the experience of that happening and then that person leaving for another job. And not being able to take the project with them. And then I'm left with actually delivering on the details of that project. And it's not a project that I really care about. It's work. I can do it. But it doesn't light me up in that same way as it would, if it was a project that was my project. That connected to my values, to the impact I wanted to have. And similarly I've also had the experience of having a number of projects under review at the same time, including my passion projects, that I really care about my identity projects and the other ones that I may have gone on just to be part of a collaboration or to support someone in their career and getting their research identity sort of shaped. And that the disappointment of your own project not getting funded and the only one or ones that do get funded are the ones that you care less about. And again, it's that cost of time and energy and effort. And not having the impact that you would really want from your research efforts. And I know that as I've got more senior in my career, I've been much more strategic, I guess, and careful about those sorts of projects that I've taken on. Having been, burnt sounds like the wrong word, but. Having paid the cost for some of that. And I recognize the privilege of maybe not needing to play that game as much as you go on. Especially when you have a secure position. Although, I also recognize that there's always the ongoing tension of trying to get more funding because you care about the people that you're working with and that they have next short-term contract to move on to where we don't have long-term contracts for them to get. Whole lot of interesting tensions and trade offs. So we could also choose not to play the game. And that could just mean going ahead and doing the research that we want to do. Maybe drawing in one or two others or seeking out collaborations of people who we know would also care about the same topics. And we don't get the CV tick in the box as an extra funded project that's prestigious. But we do get to carry on and do the work we care about. So gain costs and trade-offs. And. Maybe for another time, we could also talk about other sorts of funding mechanisms, like crowd funding, or other sources of funding. That may be a, not so. Uh, recognized or held in esteem by our institutions, but enable us to get on and do the work we want and have the impact we want And in all of this, where we still want to get funding for projects that we care about, whether it's for CV value or helping someone else's career, or just because we love working in collaborations with people. When is it time to stop playing the game? Or When is it time to change directions? And I think one of the advantages of the research area that I'm in, which is human computer interaction research is because we're really focused on the impact of technology and design on people and contexts and how do we design better technologies and so on. We do have the opportunity to pivot. Quite a bit. In terms of latest technologies that may help redefine some challenges or being able to take similar technologies and explore them in different domains and still asking similar questions. And maybe not all research areas can have some of that flexibility. I'd like to finish off here by providing some reflections about how we could engage in some of that reframing. In a way that still connects to the intrinsic motivation that Mark talked about earlier in his first principle. Because it is fundamentally going to our research identity. It's about expressing our values, who we are, what we care about. Enabling us to do work that we find meaningful that will have the impact that we want to have. And maybe there are multiple ways of doing that retelling of our research identity. Or reframing our research stories. And also recognizing that our identity will necessarily evolve with time and experience and circumstance. So can we give ourselves the gift of some deliberate time and effort to actually step back and stop. And reflect on questions that might help us explore who we are when we're most alive and at our best as researchers. Those questions might be things like. What's the red thread or red threads across all of the research that you've done. Like, what are the common or recurring themes? What are the deeper underlying questions that you're asking? Maybe it's about how you've been developing methods. Or evolving your concepts over time. Or maybe there are particular types of impacts that you're trying to seek. One approach to this is to draw out a map of the last X years, X being as relevant for you and where you're at with your career. And think about all the different projects and research that you've been involved in over that time. And for each of them reflecting about when were the times you felt most alive? When you felt like you could really get into the flow when you were really excited about what you're working on. What were you doing then? Who with where? What questions were you asking. What values did it connect to? What strengths were you drawing on? And you could also look for the opposite. Like when were the times and the projects and the work where you felt most like a drag and it just felt like hard work. Or you felt 'meh'. Yeah. It's okay. But not that excitement or that energy. So in this sort of mapping and reflection, you're looking across these for the patterns. For the elements that might help you reframe your research identity. Looking for the actors in your research story. And it may help point you in new directions that are grounded in when you're really at your best, doing your most impactful work. So that we're not just trying to compromise and reframe our research identity to fit in with someone else's notion of what's the current research priority. But we're looking for ways to navigate the tensions. So that we can find that sweet spot of what we love doing and how that can be shaped to meet maybe what others need. And as a final thing. Just a reminder that it's okay to be you. And to do you, and to be your sort of researcher, we're all different. And recognizing that there are always going to be trade offs in every choice we make in navigating these tensions. So wishing you wisdom in the navigation. And clear insight into what lights you up. So that you can keep having fun and having impact in the work that you're doing. You can find the summary notes, a transcript and related links for this podcast on www. changingacademiclife. com. You can also subscribe to Changing Academic Life on iTunes, Spotify and Google Podcasts. And you can follow ChangeAcadLife on Twitter. And I'm really hoping that we can widen the conversation about how we can do academia differently. And you can contribute to this by rating the podcast and also giving feedback. And if something connected with you, please consider sharing this podcast with your colleagues. Together, we can make change happen.

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