Researching on someone else’s project – it’s a relationship



From jobbing researcher to PI: Nick Hopwood

I was struck by the patter series about working on someone else’s project. The posts took me back to my time as a newly minted PhD, and nudged me into thinking about my position now – as someone whose research other people work on. In the second half of this post, Teena Clerke writes from her perspective as a Research Associate on ‘my’ projects.

Pat wrote about an identity shift that isn’t always easy or welcome, going from pursuing your own agenda to working on something of someone else’s conception. Was my capacity to ‘assume the identity and practices of a fully fledged researcher’ abruptly curtailed in the way Pat and others suggest often happens? Yes. And no.

My main recollections of that time was that I was energised by a feeling of importance and being valued. In my PhD I wasn’t needed by anyone, apart from as a completion statistic for the University and funding body. Never having had a proper job, I was suddenly gainfully employed, trusted by someone else to do stuff they needed doing. So this was an expansive shift for me, rather than being curtailed, my identity was infused with new, unfamiliar layers. At last my friends couldn’t tease me for never having paid taxes or for lifelong avoidance of the ultimate four-letter word: work.

But there was some awkward academic identity-shifting going on, too. I remember vividly one of my first mornings, sitting proudly at my desk, arranging all the free office supplies (pens of every conceivable type, my personal stash of staples and letterheaded paper) and planning out the first tasks that I had to do for my boss. I had a boss! An administrator came through to tell me my meeting with the Head of Department was starting. A few minutes later she came back, saying they were waiting for me. Later still, and quite insistent this time, she escorted me to the office. So engrossed was I in arranging my free staples that I’d overlooked that my schedule was no longer my own. Other people got to decide where I needed to be and when.

It wasn’t just my schedule that was determined by others. This job had nothing to do with what I’d been researching for my PhD, so I had to create an identity in a whole new field – defined by the job, not by me. The job involved research that we approached in a way that was ultimately determined by the PI, Lynn McAlpine. I am naming her here (with her permission) because she was a fantastic person to work for (work with is probably more accurate). While she gave me a lot of freedom (I’ll get to that in a moment), she decided many key features of the research we did together. Quite rightly, I now realise, because it enabled us to merge our analyses with data coming from Canada, where she was also a PI.

So yes, there was some awkward shifting going on. I’d just got my research driving licence, and found myself unceremoniously removed from the steering wheel, the accelerator, and the brakes.

Here’s where the magic of working with someone like Lynn comes in: that wasn’t the overriding feeling. Lynn had relentlessly high expectations of me, and matched that with high levels of trust, and what I recognise now as high degrees of freedom. When your boss expects the best of you, entrusting you with roles in research that you’re unfamiliar with and feel somewhat unprepared for, it’s hard to feel curtailed. I wasn’t diminished, but stretched; I wasn’t boxed in, but pulled into new opportunities; I didn’t feel I was losing control over my academic destiny, I was being given unprecedented responsibilities and openings.

What made this possible? While there were some decisions I didn’t get to take, I was always involved in how we implemented them; and Lynn only ever took a few, big-picture decisions. The detail was always up for negotiation, and indeed we developed things together that fed back to and changed her Canadian projects. I was trusted to plan and write my own papers, while always being given the opportunity to join in papers authored by Lynn. I was allowed to apply for mini-funding to have my own spin-off projects, and to publish from them. In this I was not what Pat describes as ‘the extension of the PI’. This capacity to set my own terms was crucial to my career, as by the time I finished my first contract I had a number of grants under my belt, some with me as PI.

I was a jobbing researcher, but I was challenged and trusted to grow in the process. The project had its bottom lines, but I felt Lynn cared as much about my development as a researcher as she did the deliverables.

Pat asked, can such positions play out into real, permanent jobs? For me the answer would be yes, but not directly. My next job was another contract, and yet again requiring me to move into a new field and reinvent myself. But that was a Postdoc Fellowship – 4 years to do what I promised in the proposal (which was shaped to the institution’s strategic priorities, hence the repeated upheaval of field). And that job led to a one-year extension as a fixed-term lecturer, and that contract led to a continuing position.

So, my experiences as a jobbing researcher were confusing at times, challenging, but affirming of an evolving academic self. Lynn set a horribly high bar for how to work with jobbing researchers. One of the most daunting things about my Creating Better Futures project has been the pressure to live up to Lynn’s standards. So it means a lot to read in the second half of this post how Teena, the most important jobbing researcher in my career so far, reflects working with me as PI.

Pat asked me to think of an image that could go with this post. The one I chose speaks to the issues in this series in a number of ways. It is in my office, showing us working on a theoretical framework I decided we should work on. But Teena is holding the pen: we are creating a joint understanding and vocabulary to work together. In that sense it is symbolic of a way of working that seeks to create a sense of co-ownership, to flatten the hierarchies, and which leaves material traces of the ‘jobbing researcher’ in the privileged spaces of the PI.


 The view from the other side: Teena Clerke

Reading Nick’s reflections, I am reminded of my various experiences working on other people’s research projects. Unlike Nick however, I came to academia and educational research as a practitioner, not in education, but in graphic design. I had been self-employed and began teaching in the mid-1990s, which led to my enrolment in a Masters degree and then PhD in adult education. My supervisor was Professor Alison Lee, who sadly passed away in 2012. At the time, it amused me to hear Alison refer to my PhD as ‘my work’. I was not being paid to do this ‘work’. To me, it was ‘study’.

Alison co-opted me into the business of research in 2007, the second year of my PhD, where I was paid as a jobbing researcher to do what has sometimes been called the ‘grunt’ RA work. In this case, it meant following Alison’s directions as to what to do, where to find information and how to manage, analyse and extract from the analysis something significant that could be published. Together we wrote my first published, peer-reviewed paper and co-presented at a national conference. Yet I felt like a free loader, because Alison’s ideas, direction and writing got us there.

Between then and completing my PhD in 2012, I worked on a range of small, unfunded research projects for various faculty members. Different ‘bosses’, different purposes, different methods, different audiences. But the same feeling. Although I was ‘doing’ research, this was not my work. I was not really a researcher.

In 2011, Alison encouraged me to apply for the RA position on Nick’s project, which involved long-term observation methods called ethnography. I didn’t know it then, but it was also Nick’s first experience of having someone work on his project. Twenty years apart in age, it was Nick’s first big funded project, while I had run my own businesses, changed careers several times, and was finalising my PhD as Alison fell ill. But I had no experience in ethnographic fieldwork, nor in working for such a boss, who held higher expectations of myself then even I had!

Yet similarly to his experience with Lynn, Nick gave me ‘freedom’ to develop my own ethnographic sensitivities working on his project, while learning the importance of research administration and team communication. These experiences were documented in a book  (for which I’m first author – an example of Nick’s high expectations and trust), and encouraged by one of the reviewers, it includes my reflections on the ‘hidden’ gender dynamics of an older woman working with a younger, more experienced male researcher.

Five years out from my PhD and having worked on a multi-member and institution research project in between, we are completing the third year of Nick’s current project. Nick now trusts my research instincts, while mentoring my writing practices. There is mutual respect for our differences and leeway to negotiate and navigate compromises. I can say that it feels more like working on our project than the first one. Not quite, but almost.

Our co-work began with me seeing Nick as some kind of research guru, freakishly good at fieldwork, analysis, writing and teaching. Now I see that he is human too. And he cares about my development as a researcher. Through our collaboration, my identity as researcher has grown to the point where I work with Nick on the project, and I also work on other research projects. My professional instincts honed in other careers guide me in navigating the multiple and complex uncertainties in research, not the least of which is not knowing what is to come after December as I mourn the loss of our partnership.

Author Bios: Nick Hopwood and Teena Clerke  are from the University of Technology Sydney