The future of the social sciences and humanities

A couple of weeks ago I went to a conference in Cardiff: Boosting the Impact of the Social Sciences and Humanities, organised by the Network for Advancing and Evaluating the Societal Impact of Science.

I was there to talk about one of my favourite topics: making a difference with your research through engaging with Parliament. You can find out more about that in my blogpost ‘9 ways research gets into Parliament.’

The conference, the speakers and their words were really inspiring, so much so that I’ve compiled some of their key messages about the future of our disciplines into an infographic below (pdf here). You can find out who said what by looking at the footnotes.

Be inspired!




Anarchy in the academy: why create an academic poster?

Academia is an institution predicated on convention. The choreography of our words, actions and – dare I say it – ‘outputs’ is implicitly shaped by the historical establishment. As well, of course, as by contemporary agendas: the need to publish; to be measurable; impactful; REFable. Typically, we operate in sentences and paragraphs, charts and graphs, chapters or papers. Images are often secondary, whilst for some they are a seemingly unaffordable luxury.

The academic poster is a form of knowledge communication which explodes the boundary walls of academic convention, opening up a space for alternative forms of expression. Prose is often ousted, or at least demoted, as shapes and forms, space and image shoulder the semiotic load.

The academic poster is an act of liberation – perhaps even peaceful protest. Not only for the researcher, but for his or her research. In our thesis we all tell the story of our research, except it’s not the story; it is merely a story: the tale we choose to tell as we navigate our way along the doctoral path: through supervision meetings, conferences convening colleagues and chapter revisions, towards the Mecca to which all PhD students are directed: the successful viva. Subverting the linear constraints of the thesis, the academic poster provides a stage upon which an alternative research narrative may unfold.

It is for the reasons above that I was drawn, some months prior to the submission deadline, to start planning an academic poster for last year’s postgraduate research showcase. I understand the constraints within which we as scholars must operate, and I know how to do so. Yet I am of an academic generation that is hungry for change, for opportunities to express, communicate and engage in the research process in new and innovative ways, a generation that has not been in the game for long enough to believe that change is not possible. The postgraduate researcher showcase provided me with a platform upon which to enact my frustration with the academy simultaneously with my belief in the power and value of alternative mediums of academic expression.

What is more, I don’t know about you, but I have to do a lot of reading and writing as a PhD student. Creating a poster gave me a break from obsessing over paragraph, chapter and thesis structure, as I was forced to think about colour and composition. It also made me feel good knowing that I was creating something that others would be able to engage with without having to burrow into line-crossing, multi-clausal sentences.

Creating an academic poster enabled me to see my research differently. Simple as. It also forced me to think about how to make my research interesting to an audience that isn’t composed of geeky linguists like myself. It required me to take off my academic blinkers and think about my research from a real world perspective. I have benefited from the activity, as has my research. I can’t really comment on the effects it might have had on others, although it did win the prize for most innovative poster, so I must have done something right. Which is interesting in itself, because what I did was cover my poster with actual swatches of wool. And the judges voted for it. Which goes some way to proving the point above: that there is power and value in alternative forms of academic communication.

So my advice would be to do two things: become proficient at operating within the rules, but also know how not to. Disrupt the norms, push the boundaries and challenge conventions, because that, dear colleagues, is what academia is really all about.

This post was originally written for the University of Exeter’s Doctoral College Blog, which can be found here





The darker side of the PhD and some bright lights to chase the darkness

Dear new PhD student,

This is the second of two posts of wisdom shared for you by 16 old PhDers.

In the first post, mainly keeping the words of the contributors, I shared our 13 top tips for you.

In this one we are going to level with you: we are going to talk about the ups and downs.

Read this when the doubts and negative thoughts begin.
Or read it before that happens, so that you’re better prepared.
And above all, remember we’ve all been there.

The darker side of the PhD and some bright lights to chase the darkness
Getting a PhD is hard and it’s okay to have bad days. Sometimes you will hate your PhD (and even your topic) and that’s okay and most assuredly normal. There will be times when you will want to give up. Mental health is a frequent concern and there will be dark moments for many PhD students. A peer writes:

The PhD is one of the hardest things I have ever done. I periodically felt like I was being ripped apart and put back together (by myself and my supervisor) without always being sure whether I had become a better student/writer/person in the process. I wish someone had really rammed it into my head that it’s ok to let other people know about this, and that sharing these concerns with my colleagues isn’t any kind of admission of weakness. It’s an admission that we’re humans and not machines.

So here’s what we suggest to overcome these feelings and challenges:

  • Remove the phrase ‘I’m so behind’ from your vocabulary and positively reinforce your progress.
  • Look after yourself: your wellbeing is essential for your work. Enjoy your life: don’t neglect your health or the people you care about. Don’t equate your schoolwork and your self-worth.
  • Stay close to people who aren’t in academia, and let them keep you grounded. And know that antidepressants and therapists are available and it’s ok to use them.
  • Remind yourself that it is a marathon and not a sprint. Monitoring yourself can ensure that you don’t burn out and you enjoy the PhD when you can and crack the whip when you have to!
  • Sometimes you won’t feel like you’re making progress, and that may feel frustrating at first. But it is actually very satisfying to pull yourself slowly towards a new idea. It is a privilege to be able to move slowly. Some ideas take a lot of baking. If you keep at it you may be surprised how much progress you were making even when it felt like nothing was happening at all.
  • But also, know that it’s okay not to know the answers (now and always), as long as you’re working towards finding out the answers (to the right and relevant questions, which aren’t always the questions other people ask).
  • Remember: success is just the result of a thousand false starts.
  • The going can be tough, but getting there (wherever ‘there’ is – the end of the thesis, the end of an article, the end of that one difficult day) can be hugely satisfying. A peer writes:

When you are in the thick of your PhD you will probably feel quite a heavy sense of self-loathing that everything is taking twice as long as expected and you have reached several research dead-ends. Try to keep hold of the fact that when you finish the thesis all these knock-backs will have made you a stronger person, you will have overcome obstacles that others would find impossible and achieved things that pre-PhD you would have quaked in your boots just thinking about!

  • Also, if you think about it, a thesis is a complicated piece of coursework. If you’re doing a PhD then you’re probably already great at coursework!

So yes, it is hard, and yes, it is challenging. But we are going to finish by reminding you how exciting it is:

What an amazing thing you’re doing!

This is your chance to indulge yourself, to spend a significant amount of time thinking about the thing you are most interested in, and to follow your own academic curiosity along a beautiful, winding path.

It’s a unique opportunity to develop yourself, to travel a bit and to make life lasting friends, not to mention friends you would never, ever have made otherwise.

Prepare for moments of extreme excitement: that breakthrough moment, anticipating your first results, succeeding at a new challenge…

You are lucky to have this chance; enjoy as much of it as you can.

Love yourself, love your work and embrace every opportunity that comes your way.

Get out there and stretch yourself.

Good luck!
Don’t panic.
You’ve got this.

From 16 old PhDers



Thirteen top tips for new PhDers (from sixteen old PhDers)

Hello new PhDers!

So you’ve just begun a PhD. How are you feeling? Excited and energized? Or perhaps nervous and overwhelmed?

Doing a PhD is an amazing experience. But it’s also pretty challenging.

Two weeks ago I put a call out to the Twitter PhD community asking PhDers to share what they wish they had known at the beginning of their PhD. 15 people got in touch wanting to help give you a head start. Keeping their words, I have woven their wisdom together into two blogposts. In this first one, you’ll find our thirteen top tips.

Thirteen top tips for new PhDers (from sixteen old PhDers)

  1.  Know this: no one really knows what they’re doing at the beginning

It does become clear and you get the hang of it, but at the beginning everyone is clueless. Everyone feels unsure of themselves: you’re not alone.

  1. Use space well

Have a workspace (desk or whatever you like) separate from your sofa/bed/etc. How about this: find three different spaces: space to unwind, space to enjoy writing, and a space to enjoy thinking/reading (not necessarily the department!)?

  1. Get a routine set up

Get a routine from early on and treat the PhD like a job. Have small achievable goals set up throughout the starting months. Then, you know what? After a while the huge mountain you want to carve into a beautiful statue won’t seem quite so daunting (and you might even realise that tackling the whole mountain isn’t what you want to do anyway).

  1. Organisation is vital

Do what works for you, but here’s a detailed piece of insight from one of us:

I kept a database of references from the outset and I’m extremely glad I did so. In addition to notes on specific topics, I also made a collection of notes that didn’t fit in any category – I had a document called ‘observations’ that was just a collection of random notes – insights, ideas for research, questions, etc. In paper notebooks I would date such notes and label them ‘observations’. It was useful having seemingly random notes together in chronological order. I still do this and every few months I read through the notes, which a) reminds me of things I would have otherwise forgotten, b) reveals a coherence to my thinking that I would not otherwise be aware of.

  1. Write from the beginning

Write early and often. In fact, write something every day. Seriously, start thinking of how to write the document you’re working on – be it your thesis or a paper – right from the start, even if it’s just the structure. It’ll help to have a picture of the whole, which will also help you understand the context of the problems you’re working on. It will also help your motivation in the difficult times when you feel you’re stuck.

  1. Be wise about your supervisor

You will need to nurture a relationship with your supervisor. The importance of picking the right one shouldn’t be underestimated. Having such a one-on-one relationship with your boss can be hard and can feel isolating when things are not going as you hoped. Know to expect this and prepare yourself to handle bumps in the PhD supervisory road. Also: a friendly relationship with a supervisor isn’t the same as a good working relationship. Being brutally honest, two of us have shared:

I would not necessarily change my supervisor, but I wish I knew to look for someone with supervisory experience, perhaps attended a conference they spoke at to gain a sense of their style and personality.

I wish someone had told me that your supervisors cover up their own shortcomings because they are arrogant and vain; you can learn a lot from them, but it won’t be easy to work out what you are missing. Specifically, I regret not publishing more (at all) as a PhD student and I wish I’d worked out sooner that my supervisors weren’t publishing themselves and were not good mentors from a professional point of view.

  1. Pick an external examiner who will get what you’re doing

One of the most important things is picking an external who gets what you’re trying to do. And, whilst we’re on the subject, find out about your institution’s procedures regarding submission – for example when the deadline is, whether you can submit early etc.

  1. Prepare yourself for fieldwork

If you are including field research in your PhD then you have to be really strict in setting out deadlines of when certain aspects have to be completed: ethical consent, target groups, sample groups etc. Do this as soon as possible upon starting and have a realistic conversation with your supervisor, admin and other members of staff about what help you will need in order to be successful.

Being truthful, fieldwork can be really challenging – particularly if you’re alone out there. But it will be made easier by knowing this and preparing psychologically for it. Find others in your university or network who have done it and talk to them; they will get you in a way that those who’ve never done it just can’t. This is comforting and strengthening.

  1. Be curious and talk to people

Take a note of things that catch your attention and work out why they stand out. And tell people you meet what you are researching. Other people are incredibly useful as sounding boards and for ideas for avenues you may not have thought of and more books to read! Oh, and work on your elevator pitch from day one. (Elevator pitch = the short summary you’d use to ‘sell’ your PhD to someone in the time it takes to take a lift!) 

  1. Make friends

An honest truth? PhD work is often a lonely business. So talk to people, go along to things, make some friends; make friends with people who are in different departments, or not PhD students at all. You’ll need these people around you over the next 3 years.

  1. Look up and out from your books

Go to workshops on a variety of subjects (even if they don’t appear directly relevant), take part in committees, start a blog and Twitter account. Do all the things that you will wish you had done by the third year, but have no time to do at that point. And take risks! Honestly, use any excuse to get out and meet people because it’s surprising how many will share your enthusiasm and peculiarities. And because later on, when analysing and writing up, you might wish you had. Doing public engagement might help you realise why you started this whole thing in the first place! Oh, and if you teach, be nice to your undergrads.

And yet…

  1. Be protective of your time

Your time is finite: realise that you probably won’t have time for your other research interests. Say no to stuff in your own university that seems tangential and search out the networks that you are interested in and more linked to your topic. This will help with a job because it is unlikely you will be employed at the same institution as your PhD. In fact, you should know: academic jobs are few and far between and having a PhD is not going to guarantee you getting one. However, if you grab every opportunity that comes your way, the PhD will set you up with a lot of desirable skills.

  1. Be your own type of academic

Finally: be your own type of academic. One of the main things you will learn in your PhD programme is how to accept critical feedback. You have to develop your own style of doing this, and you have to remember that your professors are not gods, and don’t always know what’s best for you every single step of the way. Listen to their feedback, and that of your peers, but don’t let it drown out your own instincts. And don’t compare yourself to other academics or PhDers either; it is a one horse race. This is your work, it’s what you want to do, you don’t have to please anyone else, as long as you meet the basic criteria of making a unique contribution to new knowledge. Please yourself, stimulate yourself, thrill yourself!


In the next post I’ll share our advice on PhD struggles and how to overcome them, but for now I’ll leave you with a summary of our top tips:


pdf here


How efficient is academia?

Efficiency academia

Last month I attended a seminar in Cardiff. Up got a distinguished professor to deliver his paper. Up got the distinguished professor who was tasked with introducing him. Here’s how the dialogue went:

Distinguished Professor A: It is my great pleasure to welcome Professor B. We last saw each other two years ago, at a conference in the south where Professor B gave a great paper on X…

Distinguished Professor B: [interrupting]… oh, that paper? Huh! That paper just got published last week. Two years on…That’s the system alright.

Two years? Step away from the situation and that’s kinda nuts.

Last year I attended a talk on ‘mission driven business’ at the RSA. There the entrepreneur Michael Hayman said something that I’ve not been able to forget since. He said:

We are living in dog years.

By which he meant that the world moves so fast these days and things change so quickly that where 30 years ago a year was a year, nowadays, a year goes by and seven years of change have happened.

Today’s world is operating in dog years and, last time I checked, academia was still situated in today’s world.

A two-year publication cycle? More like a 14-year publication cycle. That’s absurd.

How efficient is this system? Is it even working?

About 82%of articles published in the humanities are never cited. 32% of articles in the social sciences are never cited. The percentage is 27% for the natural sciences and 12% for medicine. Publications get you a job. Publications keep you in your job. But half of them are just being added to the pile to gather dust, whilst beyond academia information is increasingly consumed in 140 character chunks or from fleeting glances across a number of websites.

How efficient is this system? Is it even working?

A couple of weeks ago I attended a talk delivered by the NCCPE about Public Engagement as a ‘Pathway to Impact.’ During the session, we had to get into small groups and look at 3* and 4* case studies and try to work out what made them 3* or 4.* That way we’ll know what to do for the next REF. It was as if I’d just gone back 15 years and was sitting in a biology lab at school, surrounded by classmates, trying to work out what had made the GCSE exam response an A* grade. Teaching to exams. Really? Are we really going there? That’s how we are going to approach Impact?

How efficient is this system? Is it even working?

A couple of months ago I met a PhD student based in the biosciences. His research feeds into a big European project on nanoparticles. “Sounds fascinating,” I said. “It is,” he replied, “but it’s not getting to the people who need to hear it; the farmers. It’s not even in the appropriate format.”

How efficient is this system? Is it even working?

It feels like for weeks now I’ve done nothing but come across junior and senior academics who think that something’s not right. Who think that the system is inefficient and that it’s not working. An upsetting dual attitude of disillusionment and acceptance echoes around the institution. And it sucks. It really gets you down.

system failure

But aren’t academics supposed to be smart?

Surely if anyone is going to be able to sort out a system failure it’s going to be the crowd of people whose remit it is to have intelligent and original thoughts?


  1. Larivière, V., Gingras, Y. and Archambault, É. (2009), The decline in the concentration of citations, 1900–2007. J. Am. Soc. Inf. Sci., 60: 858–862. doi: 10.1002/asi.21011.

(See also Dahlia Remler’s blogpost ‘Reviewing the literature on academic citations.’)






What academic publishers wish we knew

Friends, colleagues,

I have privileged information that I need to share with you.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a seminar for academic publishers. They were in attendance to learn about ‘the researcher of the future.’

I was there as a ‘future researcher’ panellist along with six other ECRs, and we were joined by individuals working at the intersection of academic publishing and innovation.

The delegates came to learn about our perspective on the academia-publishing relationship, and they’d paid between £200 and £500 for the privilege. Being surrounded by academic publishers all day, I couldn’t fail to learn about their perspective on the relationship. And, though some of it seems obvious, I want to share what I learnt:

1) Let’s start with this: academic publishers would not exist if academics didn’t exist; without us they got nothing! Sure, we need them because they publish our work for us, but at a push we could find other ways of disseminating our research whilst they, on the other hand, would cease to have a raison d’être.

2) Next: the word in my uni corridors is that to get published you have to jump through whatever hoops the immovable academic publishers throw your way. But that is so not what our relationship looks like to them. Remember, there are lots of academic publishers, all vying for our custom, all competing with each other. To survive they’ve got to attract us, and to attract us they’ve got to be attractive. Let’s take a moment to think about the fact that ±40 organisations were prepared to pay between £200 and £500 to learn about the needs and wants of the academic community. Friends, colleagues, they are not immovable; they want to flex to meet our needs because that means we’ll give them custom and keep them in business.

3) And so here’s the next point: although they want to flex to meet our needs, they don’t know what our needs are. Because we’ve got it into our minds that they are immovable and don’t care about us, we don’t reach out to tell them what we want.

4) Final point: this is kind of surprising, and also kind of not: lots of them don’t know what it’s like to be a researcher. It’s not just our needs that they don’t know about, they don’t know what our day-to-day life looks like, nor the nature of the patterns on the many plates we are trying to keep spinning. And why would they? They work in publishing houses; we work in universities. But they want to know. In the afternoon networking session, seminar delegates started coming up to my ECR colleagues and me, telling us that our insights were the best part of the seminar. At first we joked and assumed they were just being polite. But so many publishers said it to us that we ended up believing it. One publisher said she had been to a similar meeting about researcher needs and that there had been 200 publishers and just two researchers! It seems that, except through article submission portals and the likes, communication between them and us is lacking. Yet this isn’t what they want: they want to build, strengthen and develop communication channels.

To summarise:

  • Academic publishers exist because we exist.
  • They want to flex to meet our needs and wants.
  • They won’t know what we want and need if we don’t tell them.
  • They want to develop the relationship between them and us.

To conclude:

A few months ago a friend told me about ‘the Hero’s Journey.’ It’s a narrative structure that crops up in countless stories. Once you’ve heard it, you start seeing it everywhere. The bare bones are this: there is a hero. He or she sets out on an adventure. Along the journey the hero encounters obstacles and villains, but also meets helpers who help the hero overcome those obstacles. There’s an ultimate challenge, and though it seems touch and go, ultimately the hero overcomes it and returns home changed and triumphant.

Why am I talking about the Hero’s Journey? Like I said, I’ve started seeing the structure everywhere, including in the researcher-publisher story. So let’s tell the story:

We, the researchers, are obviously the heroes (!) and to survive and triumph we must publish. Along the journey to publication various obstacles get in our way, including academic publishers….

See, I reckon we’ve spun a story for ourselves wherein we see academic publishers as obstacles; it’s us against them. But that’s not how it is. They want to help us, they want to get our publications out there; they aren’t villains, they’re helpers!

I’m not suggesting that the journey isn’t challenging and problematic, but actually, if you think about it, the obstacles we encounter such as the process of peer review, are issues with the system, and they are challenges that publishers have to deal with too.

So my concluding thought is this: why don’t we write a different narrative, see academic publishers as they want us to see them, engage when we can and look for opportunities to do so? We should remember that they want to meet our needs and want to help us. Let’s try to see them as helpers. After all, in this new narrative we’ll still get to be the heroes.

What next?