Becoming, being, and change: reflecting on early career (and what comes next)

I’ve been trying to write this post for a while, and I can’t quite get what is in my head onto this page in quite the right way. What I want to do is something a little indulgent, and reflect on my experiences, over the last 5 years, of becoming and being an ‘early career researcher’. I am a couple of weeks away from no longer officially being one, according to my country’s National Research Foundation, and some of the literature out there*, and I am pondering what is next, and whether I am quite ready.

Photo by bruce mars from Pexels

If you take 5 years as the ECR period – the guideline I am using – then my time is almost up. On the 10th of April, it will be five years since I graduated with my doctorate. This is giving me pause.

There is a certain amount of mental and emotional ‘space’ that comes with early career. People expect you to publish, but not to churn out top quality papers that make a huge impact in your field. You are joining, rather than steering, the conversations in your field. You’re learning how to publish, and conference, and engage as a peer in your field. People expect you to teach, and consciously grow as a scholar, but if you are not yet settled, it’s not really a big problem – yet. ‘Early career’ seems to offer a bit of space to hang back, and observe, and then choose your doing with help from mentors – perhaps a supervisor, or more senior academic peer – alongside you. And the doing can be halting, and uncertain at first and no one will get too het-up about it.

As I move towards the next phase – I assume ‘mid-career’ – I am starting to supervise my own students, and I am starting to apply for grants to run my own research projects. Thus far, I have been supervised and mentored, and joined projects others have won funding for. Moving from being mentored to being a mentor to others is one significant change from early to mid-career. I am now asked to be responsible for parts of others’ research journeys, and this is daunting. It means you have to know stuff – what to read, what networks to join, which are the good conferences to attend, what areas of study are novel – and be able to do stuff – offer feedback and advice on writing and thinking work, co-write grant applications, co-publish with students and peers more often. There are more things, I am sure, but these are the ones I can think of now (that are pressing on me, anyway). Less time to observe, and hang back, and see what happens.

Moving into a more ‘mid’ phase of my career now, I feel like the biggest shift is the one from becoming, to being (and a new trajectory of becoming). I have become a researcher, and now I have to really be one. I have become a doctor, and now I have to help others to achieve the same goal through being a supervisor. I have become a decent writer, and now I have to really be a published author. And this is what I signed up for, and actually I enjoy all of the work, but what is making an impression on me is that time is taking on a different dimension. My career is starting to really grow now, and things feel like they’re speeding up a bit. Citations are becoming a thing, and making my research more visible. There is pressure to publish a few papers a year, and I am writing a book. I feel I need to be thinking about other avenues for sharing my research with wider audiences, such as in newspapers or The Conversation. I need to really start thinking about wider forms of service to my scholarly community, such as serving on editorial boards, reviewing papers, examining dissertations and so on. I now have enough distance and time from my own doctorate to be able to offer these services, and do a relatively good job.

Photo by Ankush Rathi from Pexels

I am struggling to sum this all up – probably because the becoming is ongoing really. I am still becoming a scholar, and mentor, and supervisor, and researcher, and critical peer, yet many of these roles are offered now because I am seen as being further along the path in terms of knowledge, experience and ability. I have climbed a few key staircases or ladders, and have the capacity to keep climbing, choosing which staircases to climb, and who to bring with me. I have different choices ahead of me: new research projects and related networks, different kinds of writing, teaching and travel opportunities, different ways of being an ‘academic scholar’ and playing this particular game.

Although there is less time for hanging back, there are new kinds of freedom: I have seen more of how the ‘game’ of academia works, and with that knowledge, I can make better choices about how I want to play it in this next career phase. I can see better some of the push and pull factors that I was blind to 5 or more years ago. Although I’d like a bit more time to be ‘early career’, especially to indulge in the mental allowances I have given myself to hang back at times, and be a participant guided by others but not a leader and guide, I can’t stay here forever.

I will, of course, always have mentors of different kinds as I go, and leaders are also participants, and time can be manipulated to suit your own life, and personality and pace. The becoming never becomes a static form of being – being is a just a landing on a much longer staircase of becoming. So, I suppose I am on a new landing, looking up at a new set of stairs, familiar and also strange. Now, I just have to find the strength, and courage, to start the climb.

*Literature from Australia and the UK defines early career as five year post-the end of a PhD degree. In the US, early career is a little longer, perhaps 7 years and tends to incorporate the end of the PhD process. In Africa, early career often includes all or part of the PhD, and therefore can extend to a period of 7-10 years. So, there are different time-periods and also definitions of what needs to fill up this time to move a researcher from early into mid-career.

What if I’ve got it all wrong?

Readers of my blog will know that I have finished my PhD, and am now working on postdoctoral research, and the seemingly endless process of trying to write, receive feedback, revise and (please universe) publish my research. So, I am not in the middle of the chaos and confusion that can often be so much a part of working on a PhD thesis. But, I am in a different kind of chaos, trying to work out what research I really want to do now, trying to find new questions to ask and find answers to in higher education that will make my research relevant, and useful, and trying to work out which theoretical and methodological tools and frameworks will help me do all of this.

I am currently at my alma mater for a week of research meetings, workshops and seminars centred around doctoral support for PhD scholars in the programme that I was part of while doing my PhD. Today, I spent the afternoon listening to a researcher I am going to now be working with, and whose work I have found very useful, talking about theory and how to use theory in educational research. I love and hate seminars like this one in equal measure: I love them because they always offer me new ways of thinking about my own work, and what I am doing with the theory and data I am using; I hate them because they always make me wonder whether what I have been doing up to this point is actually all wrong.

One of the things I heard early on in my PhD process, and fairly often, was that I couldn’t just buy into my theory wholesale; I needed to retain some kind of critical distance. I needed to be able to see what it offered my study, and defend that, but also see possible occlusions in what I could see with it, or blindspots to be aware of. I must confess that I did, and still do, find this difficult, and unsettling. During my PhD it felt impossible to do this because I really needed the theory to be right about the world. I needed it to be robust, and strong and able to just help me answer my research questions and get to the end so I could graduate. I was afraid to be too critical, and then find holes, and then be unable to live with the holes and then feel like I was wrong and would have to start again. I didn’t, in the words of a wise therapist I once consulted, know how to hold the ambivalence – to be right and maybe also wrong at the same time, and work through that.

This ambivalence – where I like the theory I use because it makes sense in relation to the questions I am asking and the work I am trying to do, but where I also see now how other kinds of theory could complement or even replace it in certain ways – is still hard to hold. I have rather bought into the theory I use, and I really do like both it, and the community of scholars I am now part of because we all have this theory in common. It’s useful, and relevant. BUT, the danger, I feel, is that I am still not always able to see possible occlusions and blindspots, and some of these have been pointed out to me by peer reviewers of papers I have written. These comments are helpful, but also invoke great anxiety: what if I still have it all wrong?

I had a conversation with the researcher who spoke this afternoon, after the seminar, and it was heartening to be listened to and taken seriously (I hope). But it made me feel so young, in career terms, and so naive about some of the work I am doing, and I wondered, driving home, whether I am actually reading enough, or thinking enough, or thinking about the right kinds of things. I know this is what I’ve signed up for, and I can see how far I have come and how much I have learned, and that I am always going to have things to learn and a distance to travel in my thinking and writing. But, man it’s exhausting. All this writing, all this thinking, all this reading, all the seminars and workshops and scribbles and peer reviews – it just goes on and on and on. When you have a day where you learn useful things, but also stop and wonder, quite seriously, if what you have just learned calls into question theory and methods which you have invested much time and energy in learning about and using, it can just feel flattening.

I know, rationally, that my research is probably okay. Good, even. I know that I am driven, as I think we all should be, by the problems I am working to find solutions to in my context, and by the questions I am asking that I really want to answer, and that if I am finding theory that helps me work in this way and is relevant, that’s fine. I know that I have learned enough to be more comfortable than I was two years ago, with being wrong. I can hold, for some of the time anyway, a kind of ambivalence without wanting to rush too quickly to a resolution that does away with doubt or confusion. But, tonight, I am tired. Tonight, I just want my theory and methods to be right, and I don’t want to wonder if I have it all wrong. Tonight, I want my research to change the world just as it is, without peer review pointing out all the things I have not seen or thought about yet, and need to look at and think about next.

There’s no moral here: just a recognition that it’s really normal to feel like you have no idea what you are doing. It’s really normal to be close to finishing a PhD, or even to have one, and still wonder if you’ve got it all wrong. I think that if you never wonder if you’ve got it all wrong, you never get to push yourself to work out whether indeed this is the case. Research is not really about proving your assumptions right. Research is about trying to find out whether you have the right assumptions to begin with, and where you do have blindspots and where where you might have got it wrong, or at least less right, so that you can keep pushing yourself to do the kind of thinking and writing work that makes your research relevant, useful and transformative in your context. To adapt a well-known phrase: a pesquisa continua*!

*The research continues (Portuguese)

Carving out and holding your research space

I went to a colloquium on Friday, and it was a thought-provoking and stimulating day. There were lots of opportunities to talk to colleagues, share ideas and listen to fascinating research being done in my field. I enjoy these kinds of academic events and I had been looking forward to this event for a while. But, I also find these kinds of events tough. Coming home on Friday night, I had some great ideas for a paper I have been trying to write for a while, but I also had loads of questions I don’t have any answers to, and that brought on a sense of being without a voice and a space to claim.

As a researcher at an early stage in my career, and very new, still, to the theoretical and conceptual tools and framework I am currently using, I am not always very confident within my research space. My voice is sometimes strong (usually when I am talking to people who are outside of my field) and sometimes quite hoarse or small, or even silent (usually when I am with much more experienced and immersed researchers in my field). I battle to be confident about my own research when I am asked tough questions or come up against perspectives and research that really challenges what I am working on, or even completely perturbs what I think I might know about my areas of research and practice. In some cases, I may have answers, and can debate the points raised by my colleagues, and those debates usually provoke the new ideas and thinking. But in more cases, I don’t have answers, and I feel the youngness of my thinking keenly, and the overwhelming weight of all of the reading and thinking and writing and thinking and reading and writing I still have to do to be able to find my way to those answers.

This is the business of being an academic; I get that. I really do. But, having just finished a huge, supposedly enlightening piece of research, I was kind of hoping to have more of the ‘I think I have something to say about this’ moments than the ‘?????’ moments I experienced on Friday. It knocks my confidence, and the self-doubt becomes harder to manage. I wonder if I should even try to finish the papers I’m writing, because the answers I do not have are tied to what I am trying to write about. It’s all a bit much, really, this academia business. The more you read, and write, and the more you engage in these collegial spaces and and put your ideas and self out there, the more you realise not how much you do know, but rather how much you do not yet know. And while I understand that this is just life, really, and can (on good days) feel really excited about all that future research, reading and learning, I also feel a bit squashed by this sense of not really knowing very much at all when 3 or more years of my life have been invested in a huge learning experience.

So, this is what I told myself on the way home, because I have to write these and many other papers, and I can’t be wallowing in the mud-pit of self-doubt:

1. Chill, and breathe. Yes, it is true that you were asked some tough questions that challenged the basis of your research questions in some ways, and that was scary. But, you are not trying to answer all of these questions that other academics will ask you on the basis of their own research and personal interests. That’s not your job. Your job is to ask and seek answers to your questions, while being aware that you are advancing a perspective or a problem-answer scenario rather than the anything.

2. Claim your space. Now that you have chilled out a bit, you can see that your research is valuable and valid. You can’t focus on everything, and just as you listen to and read other people’s work using your own gaze or lens or set of perspectives informed by your own situatedness, and your own research and practice interests, so do others when they listen to your work. There will always be questions, and there will never be enough answers. Each paper, each argument, will grow your thinking and strengthen your voice. You have something to say that people will want to hear.

3. Questions are a good thing. Scary as they can be, because they can unsettle us, questions provoke thinking, reflection (if you’re not just dismissing them) and on the basis of that reflection, growth. If no one pushes you, how will you grow? If no one disagrees with you, how will you refine and develop your thinking? Being challenged is uncomfortable, especially if you’re early on in your career and still finding your feet and your voice. But it’s also part of being an academic, and I am starting to realise that I would rather be challenged than have people just pass me over. At least if they are challenging my work, they are reading it, and it’s provoking their thinking in some way. That’s way better than being so blah that no one can find anything to say.

It can be difficult to claim and hold the research space you are carving out for yourself during and just post the PhD. But it’s important to remember that you don’t know nothing, and your work has not been for nought because you do not have all the answers yet. In some cases the questions are not actually for you – they are not yours to answer. In other cases, the questions people challenge you with can be opportunities for further thinking, more reading, productive scribbling and writing, and ultimately, your own intellectual, personal and professional growth. Taking this perspective is helping me to see, again, what these engagements and events offer me, and helps me to hold this space in spite of my misgivings. Onwards, and onwards…

Post-PhD Drift

I have been wandering around for the last few weeks in a bit of a fug. I have been feelings all sorts of things – frustration, boredom, aimlessness, sadness, the Meh – and I have been a bit puzzled about this. Why do I feel this way? I show people my thesis in its beautiful ring-bound form – friends and colleagues who have been cheering me on – and they exclaim and hug me and I feel fabulous, and then I go back to my office or sit on my couch and feel all of these other things. After some deliberation I have diagnosed my problem and am working on a cure: I have Post-PhD Drift.

I started this year with a sense of relief – no more looming deadlines and panic and sleepless nights wondering about whether I am really doing a proper analysis of my data or something less than that. No more carrying this weight around with me everywhere, this thing that pulled me to my feet and off to my desk most of the times I sat down in front of the TV or with a book. But as my work year started – and bear in mind I am only about just over a month into it – the sense of relief started turning into something else. It turned into a new kind of anxiety. A ‘what-am-I-supposed-to-do-now?’ kind of anxiety.

Of course, I am still waiting for the reports from my examiners – I don’t have to do a Viva but I do have to engage with and respond to comments and requests for revisions from three examiners. This has compounded my anxiety enormously. But the anxiety will not necessarily disappear when the reports are in and the revisions or corrections are finished. It goes deeper than just waiting for feedback. I feel I have lost a piece of my self. I’m not a student anymore, but I’m not a Dr either. I feel I am in a strange sort of no-(wo)man’s-land. I know I have to move on and get going and write papers and submit abstracts for conferences but I just can’t seem to do that. My brain still feels a bit paralysed.

I think part of this paralysis is because I don’t know yet whether my work will be lauded or trashed. I don’t know if these examiners, all experts in my field, will applaud what I have done and suggest corrections that will make it even better or will hate it and ask me to revise it completely. So I can’t write papers yet because it is possible that my work is not good enough, that my thinking is not critical or analytical enough. (Yet.) Of course, I know my supervisor would never have let me submit if this was the case, but it is my fear all the same. I don’t really feel full ownership of these ideas yet. I feel hesitant and afraid to take the risk of telling people what I think in case they argue with me and I cannot argue back persuasively or knowledgeably. And I have written a whole thesis. 83246 words. I should be confident and persuasive and knowledgeable, at least about my own research. Yet, I am not quite there yet.

Part of this paralysis is also down to the Drift I have diagnosed. Working on, researching, writing a PhD dissertation is great for giving your life meaning and purpose. It’s a clear goal, and defined. There is a beginning and an end and usually the former is about three to five or so years before the latter. So, unless calamities and awfulness befall you, and I know this is true for many scholars, at some point you will finish. It’s not like that with a career, and that is what I am staring down the barrel of now. The rest of my career, whatever I may choose to make it. A career is longer, without a very clearly defined end, as many academics go on researching and publishing after retiring from formal academic life. Is this what I want my career to be? I know I can make changes as I go, and my interests will shift over time, but I have chosen academia. A life of the mind and research and also teaching. Some days I am not sure I’m really cut out for it.

I am not sure yet how to get over this drift. I went to a meeting with colleagues yesterday where we talked about a course we are designing, and I attended a book launch where colleagues talked eloquently about the research they had been doing. I felt, for the first time in a while, a renewed excitement about the research I am doing and what I can contribute into these intellectual spaces. Perhaps that is one way through this; to connect as much as I can with fellow scholars and researchers whose own research questions can spark off my own, and whose work can catalyse my own continued thinking and writing.

I will stop drifting, and my to-do lists will become more focused on my writing and less on emails and filling in forms in time. But for now, and perhaps until I graduate and am forced to confront and take on this new identity properly, I am likely to keep drifting, finding ways to keep my little boat at least pointing in the right sort of direction as I find my way in my new post-PhD career.