On holiday with my parents last week and talking about my career plans, I became aware of how obscure the content of an academic researcher’s job is to anyone outside. It has galvanized me to write a blog I’ve been meaning to do for a while about what the day to day life of an academic looks like. Of course, this reflects my current working practices, so for a start, there is a lot less teaching / student supervision in there than most of my colleagues. This is exacerbated by the fact that it is the University holidays. If I’d done this blog a month ago my week would have been: marking, marking, personal tutee meeting, marking, marking, marking. Finally, I’m not at a career stage where I’m involved in any of the higher-level administration of my department. In fact, the vast majority of my week is really research focused – but even with that there’s a lot of variety.
So, here’s my calendar for next week – I’ve blacked out names but otherwise this is unaltered:
Let me take you through it.
On Monday, I’m planning to submit a proposal for a major grant called the Sir Henry Dale Fellowship. I’ve blocked out a lot of time for this as I still have to revise the statement according to last minute feedback from colleagues, and write a couple of supplementary documents like the cover letter. It can also take a surprisingly long amount of time simply to organise and upload all the content. The proposal isn’t due until Friday 27th but I need to give my superiors time to “sign off”.
Assuming I get this done as planned, I’m then going to do a bit of preparation for a first year post-graduate review board. This is the process where every PhD student, one year in to their studies, has an independent review by colleagues with expertise in their area. They have to present what they’ve done so far, and what they’re doing next, and get feedback. It is also a chance for the student to comment on their supervisors, since a successful PhD heavily relies on this being a productive relationship. In this case, I’m chairing the review board so won’t comment but will compile the board report and so on.
Finally, I have some work to mark from a training course I did in January. This was for clinicians and researchers who are learning to use one of the main autism diagnostic tools – the ADOS. I have some videos of their administration of the assessment to mark and have been struggling to fit this in to my week – it will be the first thing to go if additional jobs build up on Monday. This isn’t really part of my academic job. My involvement as an ADOS trainer gives me access to clinical networks which then informs my research (i.e. so I can make sure I’m asking questions which are relevant to practitioners) and helps me when it comes to finding participants for future studies.
On Tuesday “adherence” refers to some edits I need to make to a paper about treatment adherence in early autism intervention studies – how can we tell, when we do a study to evaluate an intervention, whether the therapists or trained parents are actually delivering what we intended? The paper has come back from a journal with comments from reviewers – see more below in this peer review process – and I have to modify the paper to take account of their recommendations. From the wording of the editor’s letter, I think that if I can adequately respond to the reviewers’ comments then the paper will be accepted and published in the journal fairly soon. Good news.
After this I have a skype meeting with my mentor, a supervision meeting with a PhD student, and at the end of the day a meeting with my Head of School to discuss the location for my new “lab” – i.e. the room where I see children and families enrolled in my studies – which is moving. The most interesting of these meetings is probably the PhD supervision. We are going to prepare for her first year review (as above), discuss whether she needs specific training in complex statistics, and think about submitting some of our results for presentation at a conference next March (yes – we do have to plan that far ahead – the deadline for submissions is 6th August).
In the afternoon I will be working away from my desk so I have set aside some time to write a review of an article submitted to a major journal in my field. I might not need all this time but sometimes reviews can take ages if the article is good but could be better. Terrible articles and brilliant articles are very quick to review! This is part of the peer-review process which lies at the heart of academic progress, in getting grants and getting published. I find it hard to explain why I would set aside time to do this – no-one rewards me to review articles – but every academic contributes and even though we might complain about the way the peer review process is administered, it is ultimately the best method we have to ensure quality.
Wednesday I’m off with the kids. Phew. I work full time but take every other Wednesday off and one of the great things about academia is the way it offers this kind of flexibility.
Thursday kicks off with coding a parent-child play video. I’m collaborating with a researcher in Norway, Anders Nordahl Hansen, who is doing a study comparing two different ways of measuring a child’s social interaction behaviours while they play with a parent. These kinds of “coded” films are often used to evaluate progress in children with autism, and there are lots of different ways to “code” or score the behaviours we see. It is pretty complex in reality, but you can imagine it like the child is getting a point every time they respond to a question, look at their parent or show them something. The more points = the more sociable. Anders I need to regularly choose a film, code it independently and then compare our scores to make sure we agree. This is a way to check that Anders (who is doing most of the coding alone) is accurate and not going off with his own unique interpretation of the coding.
Later a series of meetings – with a researcher who wants my advice on selecting iPad apps for users with learning disabilities, with a colleague for coffee and a chat, with the LaerLab, and lastly with one of my four Masters project students (here’s some info about her project). The LaerLab is a group I’ve been involved with since arriving in Edinburgh. We have a shared interest in issues around technology research and practice – design, accessibility, play and learning. We meet once a month, sometimes with external members who want to consult with the group, sometimes as a resource for students who need advice, and most often to share our own ideas and plans and get the benefit of peer feedback.
Last thing on Thursday I’m going to draft up an abstract (500 word summary) of a research project and send it to a colleague in Ireland who is putting together a group submission to a conference in the USA. This is the presentation I’ll be discussing on Tuesday with my PhD student so if we don’t decide to share our data at this conference – there are others where we might try to present instead – then I won’t have to do this abstract at all.
At the end of the week, on Friday, I have a nice clear day to try to get some bigger projects moved forwards. Together with colleagues I am working to get some funding for a group training session for Scottish ADOS trainers (see Monday) to get together and update their skills. The ADOS has recently been revised and we need to upgrade accordingly. Then I’ve got another paper which needs revising – this time reporting on an evaluation of a new measure of change in children with autism (there is a theme here – change is very hard to measure in autism, not least because people disagree on what sort of change we are aiming to effect). Finally, Friday afternoon is a bit of a treat because I have a new-ish data set from an online survey in which parents told me about how their autistic children use technology. I am going to spend some time analysing the data, which is always very exciting. Once I have a better idea of what the numbers look like – for example, how do parents say their child spends their time on technology? does this vary depending on the type of technology? age of the child? ability level of the child? and so on – then I will be making a plan to publish the results in a journal article.
So I think in this week you can see the full life cycle of academic research – consult with colleagues, apply for money, collect data (OK so I’m not doing that this week in person, apart from maybe the coding on Thursday morning, but I do have a few projects on the go: this one, that one and the other), analyse data, submit the paper, get reviews and edit it, finally publish and meanwhile the whole thing has started again many times over. I have to say, I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have such a satisfying and varied job.