By Susan Carter

I attended a talk where two professors gave advice to academics on how to develop their careers. Both began with stories of serendipity when outer influences changed their direction, and both spoke of their own naivety in some early choice making. Much of their helpful advice relates to viewing writing as a significant factor in developing an academic identity that is likely to affect career progression—or non-progression. Here I am summarising the points that were made and reflecting on them in relation to doctoral students and their strategy with writing and publication.

Doctoral students and those supporting them don’t always see writing as a big issue—in a recent questionnaire survey of doctoral supervisors [n226] I conducted, several from STEM disciplines kept insisting that my questions about writing were off track. They felt supervision was about teaching doctoral students how to do the research. The writing was not the issue. Their doctoral students ‘wrote up’ after the research as a sort of mopping up process.

But doctoral writing forms the basis for any academic career, and for any other career as a researcher than entails writing reports. In amongst the emotion of developing as a research writer, it is worthwhile using writing as the driving force to steer the career trajectory.

Both the professors at the talk said that good advice about career decisions was really important to novices. It should be sought from the right people. Some academics are genuinely keen to help and others less so—find those who want to mentor. Some know how things work and others don’t pay much attention to that—ask people who know. Some welcome new comers into their networks and knowledge and others don’t. Students should actively look for people whose advice will be really useful.

Novices are often reluctant to reveal ignorance of what they need to know. They need to ask. The process of building research careers inevitably requires continuously increasing understanding of how everything works. Snippets of advice included:

  • never feel too humble to put yourself forward;
  • you will need to develop strongly in teaching and service, but put your research and its writing first; and
  • focus on writing and publication, and be strategic.

Supervisors should encourage research students to publish. It is sensible for them to collaborate to do so—this gives students the chance to leverage off their supervisors’ higher profile. Probably, despite other pressures, it is worthwhile to take the time to write up conference papers and publish them.

One of these prolific and influential professors had a mandate with research writing: ‘keep it personal; keep it passionate.’ Admittedly the context was within the Education Faculty, yet for many, especially in Social Sciences and Arts/Humanities, that advice works well. A sense of personal ownership of writing and a passion for the research can feed energy into the labour of writing.

Maximising publication value from a research project

These professors recommended developing a sense of continuity, so that research feeds into publication, and publication feeds further publication. If a research project can produce two or three articles instead of just one, then several well-focused articles will be stronger than one overly full and possibly less clear article. When a tangled article draft needs revision, one untangling solution is to split it into two articles.

For example, an erstwhile colleague of mine whose doctoral thesis looked at the globalisation of sumo wrestling drew three conference papers from his chapter on women and sumo: at sports, women’s studies and cultural studies conferences. That one chapter had the potential for three peer reviewed articles. I make the case that the principle of seeking different audiences and angling your findings towards quite different discussions and arguments is helpful. Although self-plagiarism is an anathema, many well-respected academics publish more than one article from the same research project, and, unsurprisingly, the description of methods and framing within literature are pretty much the same. Self-plagiarism isn’t always clear cut. In the overly audited environment of the 21st century, it makes sense to make as much use of your work as you can.

As well as making use of diverse discourses to enable shrewd publication outputs, ensure that over a few years you build a solid “research platform,” an area of expertise in which you can aim for high impact as a recognised expert.

Funding can make it challenging to delineate your research platform—you need to ensure that within funded projects there is a place for you to work in your niche area so that your research portfolio retains cohesion. Look across projects for common themes, so that you can write a more impressive academic biography. While funding is a two-edged sword, aim for prestigious funding and plan ahead to secure it.

My hunch is that academics who think writing is not important maybe haven’t recognised the skills that they have as writers, and need to do so in order to mentor doctoral students into being strong. And I was alerted again to the fact that writing and publication shape most research careers—it’s worth strategising.