Stephen McGrail writes in his candid reflection on completing his PhD:
The scary truth is I’m not too sure where I find myself. Having taken time off post-PhD and more recently (this year) started to seriously look for work, I’ve struggled to focus my job search and identify jobs that I’m an ideal applicant for (i.e. able to meet all the key selection criteria). I’ve only seen one or two academic jobs I could apply for, which may suggest postdocs are my best option in academia. Moreover, I occasionally find myself feeling somewhat envious of others who have missionary zeal for a specific cause/idea or a very specific research agenda. They have focus. For example I recently read Fabio Rojas’s book Theory for the Working Sociologist (which is a good read) in which he summarises his research area as “the interaction of protest and organizations” (p.160). Six words!
In Good To Great (New York: Century, 2001) the management scholar Jim Collins writes of the Hedgehog Idea: a central focus that enables a manager or organisation to allocate resources effectively. Karen Kelsky (The Professor Is In) and Robert J. Trew (Get Funded) also emphasise the importance of a self-directed research program.
However, developing a self-directed research program is not always taught in a PhD program. Rather, it is often learned in the Post-Doc: a two-year or more period in which the new Early Career Researcher gains further specialised research training under the direction of an experienced mentor or team. This is often done in a university-based research Centre or Institute, and is increasingly aligned with their strategic research priorities.
My own Hedgehog Idea is the role of Metis (cunning intelligence, craft, skill, wisdom) in contemporary life. This can be obscure to understand. So, I talk about a research agenda of bridging the sub-fields of strategic culture and terrorism studies via causal inference methods such as counterfactuals and process tracing. A relevant research question for this might be: “Why do some terrorist organisations use shared, long-term ideas on the use of violence to achieve strategic objectives?” A more general form applicable to non-terrorist examples might be: “How do social change agents develop and use mobilisational counter-power to achieve their goals?”
It took me more than a year of reflection to condense this research agenda down into such research questions. I see other, related areas such as economic statecraft and nuclear deterrence where it might be applied. These are out-of-scope for my PhD dissertation and they may inform future research. It also took me awhile to identify relevant experts, specific journals, and relevant book publishers. I’m still an emerging scholar so I’m slowly building my networks and reputation.
This identity formation is important for Post-Doc roles. A Post-Doc is a period of intense and hopefully mouth-to-ear training. It does not necessarily lead to a sustained research career. Its two year time-frame is often really a year to 18 months once ‘revise and resubmit’ scheduling is factored in for publications. Centre and Institute Directors expect their Post-Docs to publish and to also apply for competitive grants. Furthermore, broader social engagement and impact is also now expected via The Conversation, media outlets, community consultation, and targeted social media (the source of ‘alt-metrics’).
This can be a disillusioning shock to new Early Career Researchers. They may expect an Ivory Tower and instead encounter the contemporary neoliberal university. Having a self-directed research program is necessary to navigate this competitive environment. It tells you what to focus on, who to collaborate with, where to publish, who your national and international funders might be, and just as importantly, what to say no to. Research managers can create data analytics for it. Consider your research program to be the equivalent of an entrepreneurial or investor slide-deck: you can even use the popular business model canvas to brainstorm it.
Even Fabio Rojas has a Google Scholar profile. His research program? Sociology.