This post is by Dr Abel Polese, a researcher, trainer, writer, manager and fundraiser dealing with development and capacity building in Europe and Asia. He is also interested in Science Excellence, Open Science and alternatives indicators to measure science performance. In this post, Abel shares the story behind his book “The SCOPUS Diaries and the (il)logics of Academic Survival: A Short Guide to Design Your Own Strategy and Survive Bibliometrics, Conferences, and Unreal Expectations in Academia”. The book is a reflection on academic life, research careers and the choices and obstacles young scholars face at the beginning of their career. You can find him, and learn about next #scopusdiaries workshops, on Twitter at @Abiquitous and @scopusdiaries.
In May 2011 I woke up, for the first time in my life, in the grip of a panic attack. My 3-year fellowship in Edinburgh was ending and I had no concrete employment perspectives. Out of 60 applications I submitted in 2010/2011, only two were followed up by an invitation to an interview but, in no case, I was offered a job.
People kept telling that my profile was strong and I would eventually find a job. However, whilst learning to accept rejection as part of of the game, I was left on wondering why applicants with apparently weaker regularly CVs got the jobs I was applying for. What was wrong with me? Why employers would not notice my enthusiasm, my allegedly excellent publication and funding record? Wasn’t this all they wanted, according to the the job ads they published?
As of today, I know that it was not. But the unwritten rules of academic job hunting are to learn the hard way. Eventually, in June 2011, I secured funding a 3-year fellowship in Estonia and moved out of the UK with enough time to lick my wounds and reflect on my failures.
The SCOPUS Diaries and your personalised career path
In March 2015, I delivered my first training on how to manage your academic career. This may sound a bit like “do as I say, not as I do” since, not long before, I had been myself in desperate need of such a training. However, my level of reflections on academic life was already enough, in my view, to train a team of Armenian historians in how to get their research results published internationally.
Encouraged by the feedback received, I went on developing further sessions for scientists based in countries where recently introduced higher education reforms required to target SCOPUS-indexed journals, but only few understood how to do that. My Estonian origin turned to be a blessing. The country had just introduced an easy and effective system for evaluation of academic excellence and allocation of public funding. I first studied for my own survival and then used it as a case study to coach researchers in getting the career they felt they deserved.
Writing a book about all this was far from my plans. But, in December 2016, at the end of a workshop at Vinnitsya Medical University, the vice rector said something like “can I get a copy of your book, where you explain how to publish in SCOPUS journals?”. While answering that there was not such a book, I realised that there could be: times were ripe and this was my long-awaited chance to launch a discussion beyond my discipline and with no disciplinary boundaries. Reminiscent of Johnny Depp’s “Rhum Diaries”, I decided to call it “the SCOPUS diaries”.
Publishers easily sell academic books at €100 per copy and I never questioned this practice when submitting a book proposal. But, when you write the book of your life, you just want people to be able to read it. I decided to pay for an ISBN and make it freely accessible as PDF online. The content, I was confident, would speak for itself.
Epilogue: what makes an academic career?
The process took almost two years but the time was well invested. I found a publisher that processed the manuscript fast, left me most choices on layout and agreed to sell the e-book at €5.99 (paperback €19.90). A “real publisher” meant an additional layer of motivation to improve the text, that went from 45.000 into 80.000 words and took a Q&A format where I answer, usually within one page, the questions an hypothetical young scholar asks about several topics:
1) Writing: there are already many trainings in academic or creative writing. However, there is little reflection about how to address your audiences and speak to them in a way they will appreciate you
2) Publishing: between writing and publishing there is a peer review process whose dynamics you need to reflect upon to minimize rejection. Good articles get rejected because they are sent to the wrong journal or are presented in an improper way.
3) Growing: What distinguishes a junior from a senior academic? There are many ways to grow academically and you need to choose your own way.
4) Shining: You write, you publish, but you need to get yourself noticed. You also need to decide whom you want to be noticed by and what approach would give you most chances to emerge as a scholar.
5) Niching: you cannot be famous everywhere but amongst certain audiences. There is no academic “Olympus” but many and you need to choose which one to enter. What are your selling points and what publics can best appreciate you?
6) Networking: working solo is fine, but collaborations help you to get faster where you want to. Whom to network with depends on your career choices. But a reflection is needed.
7) Funding: everyone is asked, at some stage of their career, to do fundraising. But does everyone need to secure funding? And what kind of funding (multi-million or in kind) is for you?
Academia is a perverse world where pressure comes, rather than from your institution, from yourself. Think of how many tasks, formally counting little towards your promotion, you signed up for, often voluntarily, in the past year.
The main idea behind the book is that when making career choices you should think, rather than ticking boxes; prioritise the things that make sense strategically to your career (and your employer of course) and leave time for your life and the things that you love to do and that made you choose an academic career in the first instance.
Identify things that you can and neglect them, without feeling (too) guilty about it: simply accept that you cannot possibly please everyone and this applies also to untenured scholars. Since you won’t be able to do all the things officially needed to get tenure, concentrate on what you do best, develop a unique profile and you will find your niche.
Going from 10 to 5 articles a year might sound like going down. But time is limited and perhaps this year you devoted more time to your family, hobbies or took time to reflect about your life. This is also an achievement. Few will admit it but, in the long term, your career highly depends on how healthy you stay in your mind.
I like to think of the book as a half autobiography that explains how certain things have worked for me. They won’t necessarily work for you but you can take advantage of my reflections and cost-benefits analyses so to come up with your own career strategy.
Thanks Abel – feel free to check out his book via the link the bio.
Book review: writing groups for doctoral education and beyond
Book review: Writing for peer reviewed journals
Book review: study skills for post graduates
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