Sunday, February 25, 2024

What to Do When Your Academic Research Agenda is Stalled

by Dr. Sarah Ruth Jacobs

Asian woman researching on computer, looking frustrated

Days, months, and years pass by, and still, that book and those articles remain unpublished. Perhaps you have submitted an article to multiple journals, only to be rewarded with harshly worded rejections or a seemingly impossible set of revisions. Whether you are on or off the tenure track, it is easy to fall into a state of paralysis or even quiet despair when it comes to research productivity. No matter how much time has passed, it is never too late to change your patterns and restart your research and publication agenda.

Take Careful Stock of Your Materials

Perhaps you have spent a long time focusing on a single project, and it might be a good time to revive a different project or change your approach. Take some time to look over all of your unpublished work, and consider which projects are the most promising and which should be archived indefinitely or forever. Perhaps some of your material is outdated, but it could still be repurposed or folded into a new project. You might want to first go for the "easy wins" (the projects that need the smallest amount of revising) and return to the more complex projects later on. Dr. Jason Brennan, author of "Good Work If You Can Get It: How to Succeed in Academia" and the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, advises that "One way to keep on track is to always have multiple projects at different stages. For instance, have some that are just percolating in the back of the brain, some that you are actively drafting, and others that are nearly polished. That way, when you get stuck on one thing, you can work on something else for a bit and then come back to the first thing two weeks later with fresh eyes."

Take on Your Internal Blocks

Maybe you have been burned by a great deal of rejection, and you have fallen into avoidance and procrastination. Perhaps you are a perfectionist who pours every last bit of time and energy into teaching because it feels more pressing and impactful than research. Journaling a little bit about the state of your research agenda, your concerns and frustrations, and where you want to see things go could help you identify and address some inner roadblocks. If you are struggling with depression, anxiety, or a potential attention disorder, having the courage to seek out evaluation and treatment could transform your life in multiple ways.

Say No Where You Can

Perhaps you have taken on too many commitments that have diminished the time that is available to you for research. Dr. Robert Kelchen, the head of the department of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, recommends that you divide your working hours based on how you are evaluated for tenure, "So that if 30% of your evaluation is based on research, make sure that you are doing that to the extent possible." If your service and teaching commitments are standing in the way of doing productive research, it is time to ruthlessly reduce your time spent on these endeavors and say no wherever possible.

Set a Specific Agenda and Honor Your Scheduled Time

Only revise a piece when you have a particular publication or publisher in mind. You should have both read recent articles from that publication and searched for articles on your topic across all of your discipline's journals before revising. Schedule time for a specific project, and honor that commitment by being willing to struggle with putting words on the page. Dr. Brennan states, "My best advice for avoiding writer's block is simply to give yourself permission to write bad work. When you have a puzzle, write down as much as you can, train-of-thought-style, about that topic. Then, walk away for a few weeks. Come back, comb over what you read, and see if there's anything there. Write first, edit second. Many of us get stuck on writing because we won't let ourselves put something on the page until we have it perfectly thought out in our heads. But, on the contrary, writing is thinking."

Plan for Meaningful Breaks

Honoring your "off" time and planning rewarding and fun activities could motivate you to be more focused and productive during your work hours. Dr. Mary McKinney, a psychotherapist and an academic career coach, states "I find that many people who view themselves as procrastinators actually rarely take any guilt-free time off. Because they are inefficient, they think they should be working all the time. Procrastination becomes the only way they get a break! I advise everyone I work with to take off at least one full, guilt-free day each week. It is surprising how hard this is for some people. After a bit of rest and relaxation, it is often easier to focus on tasks that have been avoided."

Submit as Much as Possible

Rejection can sting, but like any skill, academic publication is a learning curve, and your results will improve with practice. Dr. Brennan insists that "The main thing is to submit. Journals are swamped, sure, and as an editor myself, I'm not craving getting excessive submissions. But, despite that, you need to take the shot. There is significant randomness in publishing. If you wait until you have everything perfect, you won't publish much. In general, I recommend everyone in a job track that depends on publishing success to have at least three papers under review, at all times, no matter what."

Find Accountability

Setting hard deadlines and finding someone who will hold you accountable in a serious way (such as by supervising your donation to a cause that you despise when you miss a goal) can add a hard layer of reality to goals that otherwise could remain loose.

If All Else Fails, Look at the State of Your Field

Perhaps a lot of time has passed since you were actively involved in research, and all of your projects are a bit dated. You might, therefore, look at what is happening in the preeminent conferences and journals of your field in order to get some ideas for new directions and topics. Dr. Brennan suggests that "There are strategies for finding new projects. Ask questions such as, does this whole debate assume some premise which might be false? Might people in my field learn something from a cognate field? Are two opposing ideas really the same thing? Do big theories or principles have implications others haven't noticed and perhaps would not endorse? Do people say the word 'obviously' and 'of course' about things that we should instead question?"


This article is republished from HigherEdJobs® under a Creative Commons license.