Academia is an environment that includes teaching, research, and the pursuit of scholarship. It’s often described as embodying an atmosphere of isolation, while at the same time being highly competitive. Faculty members are routinely asked to take on increasingly heavy teaching workloads, without any easing of pressure to publish in peer-reviewed journals and obtain external funding for research.
Yet, academia yields many benefits for nurses, such as the opportunity to expand the healthcare literature in a particular area and to engage and educate future scholars while developing and strengthening an individualized program of research. This article describes how you, as a new faculty member, cannot only transition to this environment, but thrive in it.
Learn the basics
The first year as a faculty member can be daunting. The new academic must quickly adapt to a new role, become familiar with the techniques and nuances associated with teaching and designing courses, and learn how to best interact with students. Added to these stressors is the continued need to have an active and productive program of research. As a new scholar, you may not have had an opportunity to clearly articulate your program of research, so you may not have any research studies underway.
Knowing that teaching is an integral part of one’s life as a scholar, a good portion of your first year should focus on developing your abilities to engage students in the classroom, refine your knowledge of course content, and enhance skills related to grading and providing feedback. This is not to say that research should be cast aside. On the contrary, you should reflect on what studies have already been completed and what future studies need to be designed and implemented. This introspective reflection will guide development of ideas for future projects. Keep notes of all ideas as they are generated.
The formulation of ideas and thoughtful reflection are key to the research process, but they are not valued at the time of evaluation. It’s the tangible outputs such as the number and quality of publications that count, and upon which year-end evaluations are based. Thus, as you are reflecting on ideas for future projects, keep a list of ideas for manuscripts as well. During the first year, you should aim to publish as much as you can. Typically, a portion of an academic’s time is partitioned off for research endeavors. This may be 1 or 2 days. Block out hours and days you want to commit to research activities. During this time, aim to write as much as possible.
Many new scholars argue that it is difficult for them to write when they don’t have results from a study to write about. I respond that you many types of papers that don’t require results can be writing, including clinically based articles, case studies, practice, service development or innovation focused papers, theoretical perspectives, policy reports, discursive analyses, commentaries, and educational viewpoints. As an academic, you were hired because you have a unique knowledge base and are able to critically examine concepts, so you are in an ideal position to write about almost anything. The more you reflect on your research endeavors, the easier it becomes to write and generate ideas for future projects.
As you write, ensure that your manuscripts fall within a defined area. Try to be as consistent as possible with the overall theme. Ensure that your focus reflects your program of research. Your goal, as with any scholar, should be to develop expertise is a particular area of interest. Ask yourself, what is it that you want to be known for. Your response should ideally be limited to one area. However, it is not unusual to encounter scholars who have developed a program of research around two different themes.
Rejection is common in the world of academia. It is rare for a paper to be accepted without any revisions. You will encounter many rejections throughout your life as a scholar. These are not personal evaluations of you, so don’t dwell on them. Instead, use feedback from peer reviewers to revise the manuscript and resend to another journal.
You will also be evaluated on your ability to acquire external funding. Unfortunately, failure to obtain funding has become the basis of frustration and anguish for many scholars. The recent economic downturn has made an already competitive area that much more competitive. Large government funded organizations estimate that only one out of every ten submissions receive funding, meaning you may have to deal with many rejections over a number of months or even years, before obtaining an externally funded national grant.
Take some comfort in knowing that in time, with dedicated effort, the creation of research proposals gets much easier. A helpful technique when revising proposals is to use the feedback obtained from reviewers and edit according to suggestions that were put forth. This increases your chances of getting funded. In addition, the more publications you have, the better your chances are of obtaining an external grant because an extensive publication record indicates you have developed a thorough knowledge base of your program of research.
Focus is the key to success in academia. Delineate clear, achievable goals with realistic timelines and maintain consistent focus as you address each goal. At the start of each semester, identify specific goals and place them near your usual workstation. Type the goals in a large, bold font and include your timeline. As you achieve each goal, delete it from your list.
Without dedication and attention to achieving identified goals, you will not be able to progress within the realm of academia. If, for example, you identified the submission of two manuscripts for review over the course of a semester; then you should use the days you have blocked off for involvement in research to work on these manuscripts. Meetings with students, marking of assignments, and engagement in professional activities should not occur on these particular days.
Joining research forums, attending professional development lectures and workshops, and even creating a research cluster (a research group made up of peers either within or outside of your organization) will help you develop formidable research partnerships. It’s challenging to write on one’s own and in many instances it’s not recommended that researchers apply for grants independent of co-investigators. Thus, working with your colleagues both within and outside of academia can be fruitful and prove to be beneficial to all parties involved.
Finally, accept invitations to serve as a peer reviewer. This will provide you with further insight as to peer review evaluation procedures, how to give constructive feedback, and to keep abreast of current innovative techniques within your area of interest.
Suzanne Fredericks is an associate professor at Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing, Ryerson University, Toronto, Ontario.