The Grass is Greener

The Times Higher Education just published my contribution to the quit-lit genre, called The Grass is Greener (scroll to the bottom, the article is last in a series of three). They’ve also allowed me to reproduce it here.

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If you have always wondered about a life outside academia, I’m here to tell you: the grass is greener. Since my PhD days, I’ve been peeking over the fence. In 2019, I finally took action. My aim is to speak to you, an academic who’s contemplating leaving, and suggest why it might be a positive life-changing move.

One month into my new career, I had a drink with a still-academic friend. She’d been running three internal committees in the hope of making a vague promise of tenure come good. She’d neglected writing articles and had put a book idea on hold to monitor internal politics, and as she drank her wine she told me she’d lost. She’d been denied tenure. I listened, and I was outraged.

But then I recognised something. My heart was not racing. I was not consumed by the fight-or-flight response that usually overtook me during such conversations. Why? Although it made me angry, her story no longer reminded me of my own desperate plight. I’d found an alternative work universe where academic troubles did not exist. I know I’m still in the honeymoon period of my new job, but this professional pivot made me realise: after 15 years in an academic bubble, the best thing about leaving is finding out that the world is more than the ivory tower.

How did I get to this point? When building up my academic CV, I remember being drilled about the importance of “solo author” or “first author” publications: I would demonstrate my worth through individual visibility. Why do academics find stories such as my friend’s outrageous? She took on a role that contributed to her department at the expense of her own research output and, eventually, her career. We are socialised to baulk at collaboration, and horror stories such as this just push us further into isolation.

As an assistant professor, I loved how I could focus on my very own research topic. It’s a privilege to publish under your name. But there’s a dark side. If you don’t get credit, you have no value. We are afraid to share our research project until it’s finished – or, better still, published. I learned the lonely but effective strategy of keeping my cards close to my chest.

“Collaboration” is certainly one of today’s buzzwords. While networking for non-academic jobs, I heard the concept thrown about. In my second week in my new job, I saw it in action. Several colleagues presented work in progress, from a project that had been conceived four days earlier (four days: not four months, not four years). Everyone in the room gave constructive feedback. Not simply because they were nice people, but because the success of the project involved them, too: their work would excel if their colleagues’ work excelled. Their insights could contribute to the insights of the entire team.

There is no “I” in team, but there is one in “academic”. When there is scientific collaboration in an academic department, there’s an inevitable fight for authorship, which in my experience extends even to internal policy documents. In my brief time outside, I’ve learned that contributing to the research strategy and production of a team and, eventually, an entire company can be empowering. For the first time in my professional life, I believe that I can actually change a place for the better. It turns out that authorship isn’t so important after all.

There was a time when I forgot about my urge to leave. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, they say. The phrase is meant to reprimand people who aren’t satisfied with their current situation. I was determined to be optimistic: I was on the tenure track, living the academic dream! I did the dance of grant submission, convinced that I was on my way to being a star. I failed, and failed again. And again.

Grants: all your ideas, painstakingly laid out over months and sometimes years of preparation. That list of publications you fought to assemble tacked on as proof of your competence. Then there’s blind peer review, in which an anonymous person gets to decide whether the grant proposal is good enough. A lonely professor, halfway across the world, who has some weird negative association with your topic, rejects your idea, and it goes in the bin. “It’s a lottery,” they say. “It doesn’t mean anything.” But it does. If you don’t win, you don’t know if it’s because your ideas suck or you just missed the mark by chance. That uncertainty, to put it mildly, messes with your mind.

In the end, this was the reason why I would never get promoted. The necessity of grant success became the thing that wore me down, more than anything else. For years I saw grant submission as a curse, but failing at it was also a blessing in disguise. It gave me the momentum to declare that I would no longer play a rigged game and to say goodbye. Now I have weekly meetings with a manager who measures my success through tangible outcomes. It’s as if I’m taking great gulps of air into my lungs after what feels like a lifetime underwater.

Should you quit? I know I just spelled it out, but forget about the dysfunction: the real question is simply whether you have that nagging feeling that you’re in the wrong place. If you’ve got that and you have the audacity to quit, find something else and realise there is a life outside the ivory tower, then I guarantee: the grass is always greener.

Putting the “academic” research in UX

An article I wrote a few months ago – called Putting the “Academic” Research in UX – has been published on UXinsight Notes. The article focuses on parallels between UX and academic research. Here’s an excerpt:

Whether in academia or UX, we do research in order to systematically uncover what people need, want, and desire. We do research to avoid coming to conclusions that simply reflect our private beliefs and opinions. By reflecting on the research process in this way, both types of researchers can improve their research techniques, argue persuasively for more time and resources for the research process, and, in the end, better the products (or papers) they are developing and improving.

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UXinsight Notes is a brand-new (still in beta!), Netherlands-based platform that looks to be a great resource for those interested in UX research. It aims to connect, stimulate and inspire UX researchers to share and expand their expertise.

A Dating App Autoethnography: Presenting Myself as a Researcher and User

888c835d4039f0da035f887c35abe14fThe Qualitative Report published my article “A Dating App Autoethnography: Presenting Myself as a Researcher and User”. The full article is available online, and the abstract is below.

Matchmaking mobile applications, or dating apps, have become hugely popular in recent years, with millions worldwide swiping through potential romantic partners. The literature on technologically mediated dating has explored how people manage impressions but has rarely taken an autoethnographic perspective: How does the author, both a researcher of dating apps and a user herself, experience self-presentation? In this paper, I first introduce a theoretical focus on impression management on dating apps. Next, I explain the choice of autoethnography as a method. Drawing from various source materials like personal journaling and chats with matches, I present two autoethnographic pieces: one focusing on my self-presentation as a dating app researcher, and the other on my own dating app use. I follow these by analyzing my motivations and impression construction in the dating app environment, keeping in mind theoretical insights. I conclude with a discussion into the challenges of an autoethnographic approach to impression management.

How to Write an Academic Article

The Times Higher Education just published my (tongue in cheek) piece The publication game: how to write an academic article. They’ve kindly allowed me to reproduce it below, for those who do not want to register for access.

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Title

This must be in two parts, separated by a colon. The fragment before the colon uses a colloquial expression preferred by your research subjects, something grammatically dubious and profane. This is placed in quotation marks to demonstrate your personal distance from it. The short sentence after the colon establishes your knowledge of the chosen theoretical framework, and alludes to your method.

Introduction

Strike the necessary balance between showing how many people have already researched this topic and demonstrating the uniqueness of your study. Identify a “gap” in the literature, but head off objections that the “gap” is there for a good reason (such as that it is a worthless thing to study) by using terms such as “urgent” and “unprecedented”. Describe how and why your topic is socially relevant, and justify it with a link to a well-regarded news source. Avoid acknowledging the irony of publishing a socially relevant article in an academic journal.

Theoretical framework

Provide a multitude of references that show the complexity of your thought and its embeddedness in the literature. In this section, be especially careful to use the passive voice to confirm your neutrality. “Some scholars have been found to define the problem this way (eg, author from long ago, author from not so long ago), and others have been found to define it in this other way (ditto). There are studies to support earlier findings (eg, multiple authors) and there are studies to support later findings (ditto).” The “eg” is essential as it confirms your vast knowledge of the literature: you could have cited many more sources if space had permitted. Mention this in a footnote.

Resign yourself to excluding from your theoretical framework the manuscript you wrote with co-author X, who stopped responding to emails during editing, and the MA thesis you should have co-published last year if your student hadn’t decided that a marketing internship was more important to pursue than a published journal article.

Method

You have chosen a mixed methods design. This serves to unnerve both qualitative and quantitative readers. Offer an explanation of the quantitative survey research that is just complex enough to confuse readers with only an elementary knowledge of statistics. Pepper your description of the in-depth, qualitative interviews with an assortment of terms (eg, naturalisticreflexivityphenomenological) that emasculate the quantitative researchers. And sprinkle the whole method section with references justifying your approaches: authors who did similar surveys; authors who did similar interviews in an entirely different subject; and authors who combined surveys with follow-up interviews in different ways. These last references are totally irrelevant to your paper, but that’s OK. No one will check, and they sound impressive.

Results

This section allows a break from external reference validation. In other words, it’s in your own words. Present your findings numbers first, and illustrate the significance of some findings over others by adding asterisks. The qualitative findings are, in essence, an expansion of the colloquial quotation in your title. The longer quotes are indented to emphasise that this is not the sort of language you would use. But their syntactic inferiority and vulgarity serve to amuse the reader. Expletives really make Table 3 come alive.

Discussion

With an attempt at conversational academic language, summarise your findings. Use the present tense to emphasise the urgency of the work. Then present four thinking points. The first of these was suggested to you by reviewer#1. The second came to you under a very hot shower in the midst of lathering your hair. The third repeats a discussion point raised in a 20-year-old academic article that you’re confident no one has read. The fourth was suggested to you by reviewer#2. The reviewers will be satisfied now that their suggestions are incorporated. They will feel as if they are a part of your work; if not in name, at least in spirit.

As the discussion reaches its conclusion, turn up the grandeur and eloquence of your language. This illustrates your intellectual capacity for connecting your conclusions to the broader (academic) world. Choose an ordinary word or two, like “pattern” or “concrete”, and add “isation” to the end. You know it, and your readers know it: the creation of long neologisms is the essence of theoretical progress – especially if the neologism in question ends in “isation”.

References

Don’t be shy: self-citation is fine. Your detailed proof of your paper’s legitimacy includes five articles you wrote yourself, and three that you co-authored with others. This number would be higher if it weren’t for the incompetence of some of those mentioned in the theoretical framework. It isn’t important that the self-referenced articles are only sort of connected with the topic of the current piece: their presence further validates your qualifications anyway.

It isn’t necessary to read all the articles you cite: scanning their abstracts works just as well. And don’t feel guilty about including the six articles suggested by reviewer#3, who did not comment on your introduction, theoretical framework, method or discussion, but insisted that you include insights from his friends, collaborators and obscure academics he regards as brilliant. If such minor concessions are what it takes to publish such a brilliant article as yours, they are well worth it.

Writing the (creative) self into research: The process and product of autoethnography

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On Friday June 1st 2018 I gave a talk to the Media Technology master’s students at Leiden University about two topics near and dear to my heart: creativity and autoethnography. The message I ended with was: If you can’t use autoethnography to complete a research product, you can still use it to enrich your research process. Abstract below:

Doing academic research in a creative way is key to uncovering new insights. As a creative researcher, are you really thinking outside the box? For example, have you ever imagined reflecting on and writing about your personal experience in order to better understand your research topic? In this talk I will discuss autoethnography, an approach that combines elements of autobiography and ethnography. We will discuss how autoethnography lets you embrace subjectivity, and in the process, challenges traditional notions of what academic research is.