Researcher organise thyself



Recently I put together a promotion application. For those of you unfamiliar with the Australian system, this is similar to a tenure application in the U.S.A. You must compile everything you have done in your academic career, assess its impact and present it all as a legible ‘story’ of your contribution to your discipline and your university.

Colleagues warned me that doing a good promotion application is a lot of work and they were so right. The best advice I got was to treat it like putting together a journal article. Gathering evidence of your achievements and impact involves hours of combing databases to find convincing statistics, asking colleagues to write testimonials and reading back over your diary to remember what you did and when.

This turned out to be an intense month as I only had time to do it at night. I had just finished writing the MOOC and the Inger Writing Tank was almost at empty. I had to use my full range of emotional coping strategies – whingeing to Mr Thesis Whisperer (and anyone else who would stand still long enough to listen), chocolate, James Blunt records and so on.

Slowly, painfully, I managed to compile and write the narrative of my academic self. It was a good thing to do even if the promotion application is unsuccessful. My academic CV now is a complete record of everything I have done and I was reminded just how many friends I have in this industry. Colleagues offered advice, sympathy and testimonials that brought tears to my eyes. Special shout out to Susan Mayson, Sandra West and Megan McPherson who read drafts and to the steadfast Mr Thesis Whisperer, who did a painstaking copy edit at 11pm at night, right on the deadline. I am grateful for my #circleofniceness.

But I’m not here to talk about promotions process (that’s a story for another time), I want to tell you what I learned about organising all the stuff we researchers make so you can write the story of you. Had I bothered to think about this carefully years ago I would have saved myself hours and hours of frustration.

An academic resume is an asset and should be treated as a constantly evolving work in progress, not something you do under pressure to deadline. Most of the stuff I needed was on my laptop hard drive or the internet, but my computer is a bit like Thesiswhisperer Jnr’s bedroom. He’s nearly 14 now and it’s like the second level of hell in there – books, underwear and musical equipment strewn everywhere.  I’m too scared to enter (come to think of it, that’s probably the point of all that mess).

My digital stuff was strewn everywhere; stuffed in the wrong drawer, hiding under the bed or rotting, like a forgotten banana in a lunchbox. Not only was my own digital ‘room’ messy, I had extended this mess through the rest of the digital house. Bits of ‘me’ were stashed online everywhere – Google, drop box, and various other sites.

Don’t do what I did. The time to start organising and writing your academic story is right now, while you are a PhD student. Here’s some ideas to get you started:

1. Find a way to remember everything you do

I fly around the world giving keynotes, presentations and workshops at other universities. This is a mark of peer esteem – if someone has bothered to pay for you to get there they must think you are good.

I never took the time to write down the times and dates of these presentations in my CV – let alone the title of my talk. Retrieving all of this detail was a painstaking task in which my electronic diary was an invaluable tool. To find my keynotes I scanned it for flight numbers and place names. From this I pieced together a list of keynotes and workshops I had done elsewhere. This took a really, really long time because I didn’t realise when I started all this flying about that I would need the information later and it was a mess.

Later you will have to prove you have performed ‘service’ to your communities. This is stuff like committees, consultations, peer reviews, grant evaluations, editing work, organising events etc. I have done a ton of stuff over the years, but I rarely, if ever, wrote it down.

Use whatever system you like, but think of your diary as a way to record everything you do for other people, no matter how insignificant it seems at the time. If you want to be super organised, attach the script and/or power point to the diary entry and be consistent with how you label these entries so you can search them all at once. Making a list of service activities and compiling peer esteem evidence later will be a breeze.

2. Choose your digital ‘warehouse’

There are many ways to store your research papers online:, Linked in, researchgate … We are in a pre-Facebook era in academic social network terms. It’s far from clear which service is the Next Big Thing and which will be the next My Space and get Betamaxed.

While we wait to see what happens, I recommend you decide on one and use that as a ‘warehouse’ from which you always keep up to date. Then populate the other sites when you have time. Start by making sure you index your final copies in your own reference manager, then transfer the details online somewhere. For now I’m choosing OrCID because libarians tell me that’s the best one and I trust them.

3. File everything by activity, then year.

Where do I even start with filing? No system is perfect, but for some time I’ve been following guidelines set out by David Allen in his classic book ‘Getting things done’. Allen recommends filing by activity. I’ve found this to be marginally better than any other system. I’m still a PC girl at heart, even though I work on a Mac. I love a neat file structure with only a few, carefully chosen bits and pieces in the root directory.

Here’s what my top level file structure looks like:

\"FileStructure\"I leave that picture meme, which a student made for me, in the root directory because, well – it amuses me. Here’s what it looks like the next level down inside my ‘writing’ folder:

\"writingfolder\"This isn’t perfect, but I usually remember when I wrote something, not necessarily what I called the file, so it’s good enough.

I keep a copy of my current library of papers in the root directory so that I can send it to other researchers who ask for it – and as a back up just in case my library goes up in digital flames (I’ve never really recovered from a bad Epic Endnote Fail Incident).

Look, whatever works for you, but a good file structure should keep searching to a minimum. If I can’t find a file by name at least I know where to tell the computer to look for it.

4. If someone is nice to you in writing, keep it

It’s well known in marketing circles that customer testimonials have power. How better to tell someone how great you are than to use other people’s words? Hey, if they take the time send it to you in email, even better. Thank them nicely and file it in a folder called ‘thank yous’.  Even if you don’t use their words, you’ll remember who your supporters are and can chase them up for a glowing testimonial when the time comes.

5. Living with the h-index (with thanks to Roger Burrows)

One day you will have to demonstrate the ‘impact’ of your work. The most common way to do this is to look at citations your papers have attracted and the measure that’s often used is the ‘h-index’. The h-index has been criticised for being deeply flawed, but if a number is there, people will use it.

My h-index is 4, which will sound low to those of you in the sciences. That’s because the h-index is built for disciplines like computer science, who publish short papers, not books and lengthly essays like we do in the humanities. To put my relatively low h-index in context I benchmarked myself against other scholars in my discipline and school. I was heartened to learn that, despite all the time I have ‘wasted’ on blogging, I was average for someone already at the level I was aspiring to get to at ANU. One influential professor, after 30 years of publishing, had a h-index of 9.

While I was doing this benchmarking I noticed how few of my colleagues had a Google scholar page, which automagically generate your h-index for you. I just can’t understand why people would neglect this useful scholarly tool, which is essentially a brag wall. It’s easy enough to create one if you have published something and have a university address. Try to do it while you are still enrolled.

That’s just some of my pointers, but I’d love to hear more tips and ideas in the comments. Everytime I talk about this mundane stuff I learn cool stuff from you. How do you organise your digital stuff so you can keep your resume up to date?