One of the issues that has come up in both Office Hours (a group coaching session for members of the Academic Writing Studio that I’m holding weekly at the moment) and in the Establishing a Writing Practice class is the relationship between motivation to write and finding the writing you need to do meaningful. I’ve written about this a bit before, Risking doing the work you find meaningful. I’ve also written about the relationship between meaningfulness and self-confidence, Where does confidence come from? Part 1: meaningfulness. There are several ways the issue of meaningfulness arises in the current situation which I’ll write about in separate posts.
Although you don’t want to make radical changes to your research programme in a crisis, it is possible that your current research programme is relevant to the crisis in some way. Those who have immediately useful medical research programs have shifted their focus to developing vaccines. Epidemiologists have shifted their focus to analysing data about the COVID19 pandemic. Your expertise may not be so immediately useful, but the pandemic may raise interesting opportunities relevant to the broad questions your programme of research investigates, or offer opportunities to consider your current research questions from different angles. If you are considering this course of action, this post is for you.
If you are already collecting oral histories, conducting an enthnography or qualitative interviews, or collecting other data, and the pandemic raises interesting questions that are relevant to your overall research programme, it is absolutely okay to prioritize collecting relevant data during the pandemic. Many research grants allow you to make changes to the research in the light of preliminary findings as long as the overall objectives of the research remain the same. Research funders may be interested in funding research on the effects of the pandemic or on pandemic related work, and will be happy to discuss your ideas with you and perhaps consider changes to your current agreement. Some organizations may have funds they would be happy to spend on this kind of thing if you are in a strong position to help them adapt their services or policies to respond to the situation, direct the recovery after the main crisis has abated, or be better prepared for future crises.
You are excited by these research possibilities because they are opportunities to advance knowledge in a field you are already knowledgeable in and contributing to. Data collected during the pandemic will be different in important ways from retrospective data collected later, although both will be useful.
Make careful decisions
Write out a research proposal clearly outlining the potential contribution to scholarly knowledge, the potential contribution to policy, practice, or other non-academic research user (if relevant), why these are important contributions, how you would conduct your research, the ethical considerations of doing so in the current moment (including but not limited to adaptations to limit disease transmission), and what outputs may result. Also consider how this specific sub-project would fit into your larger programme of research, if only to clarify that this is an opportunity to extend and deepen your existing research rather than a variation on the desire to completely change your focus to be more immediately relevant.
In other words, if you are going to do this, do it properly. If you are not motivated to set your project up properly, that’s probably a sign that you don’t really want to do it.
Yes, there are cynics who will see your efforts in this direction as careerist attempts to meet “impact” targets, or otherwise gain from a difficult situation. This kind of reaction is more about the person voicing it, and their experience of bullying or meaninglessness in their own career, than it is about your specifically. You do not need to defend yourself to people who do not have knowledge of your situation or power over it.
You may never have to share your research proposal, but writing it out will help quiet your own gremlins. Taking the time to think through the things a funder, ethics committee, or PhD proposal defence would consider also allows you to ensure the quality of any research you do in this moment, identify potential sources of funds or ensure that your existing funds can properly be used for this purpose, and connect with colleagues who may be able to collaborate to make it even stronger.