3 nuggets of advice
I was recently asked to distill this down to three takeaway nuggets of advice for anyone starting their research career. Here is what I believe to be the most essential things to know:
1. Forget the REF: Research impact is so much more than one case study. The REF is a blessing and a curse. It has raised the profile of ‘impact’ enriching it with cash, university support and career-enhancing credibility, and at the same time it has commodified impact activity and its outcomes, putting pressure on researchers to do more and more. I listened recently to a talk from a ProVC to a room of early career researchers. I became increasingly annoyed as the focus was entirely on generating a REF case study. To narrow impact to the REF is an unhealthy and unhelpful message for any researcher but especially those starting their careers. Research impact is best understood not as a big-bang outcome, but as the entire process of engagement that will achieve small incremental impacts along the way all as important. Some researchers will never write a REF impact case study, but that does not mean the excellent research they do is not contributing to a wider public good. That brings me to my second point...
2. Research impact is foremost a state of mind: That may sound a little ‘spiritual’ but it is true for the countless researchers I have met and spoken with who have achieved impact from their research. Many of them were doing research long before impact became a policy imperative. For them it is simply how they approach research, seeking out partners and collaborators from other disciplines and outside of the academy; learning to appreciate the creativity (and difficulties) that arises from mixing up different experience and knowledge. It is not the easiest way of approaching research, and not for everyone, but it is frequently the springboard for the much impactful research. (See ESRC’s report on impact practice).
3. If you don’t care, don’t bother: Pursuing and building pathways to impact over five, ten, 15 years and numerous research projects requires commitment and time. Sadly, this time is rarely reflected in work time allocation models. So, if you are going to facilitate your research towards achieving impact, it better be something you are passionate about. Research is invariably driven by personal interest so academics are used to operating in that space where the professional and the personal intersect. The additional pressure to achieve societal and economic impact from research magnifies this tension. If achieving impact is just done to tick a box for a performance review – or to achieve a REF case study – don’t do it. It will make you unhappy.