Monday, 23 September 2013

From unknown to known: making an impact

‘So young, and already so unknown’
Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958)

The start of a PhD is a very daunting time for many reasons, and one of the most humbling is the feeling that you are at the foot of a mountain of work to be done, things to read and understand, and targets to be met, not least the production of a thesis and other outputs that communicate your findings, such as papers.

It is hopefully comforting to know that as you stand there bewildered at base camp you have an experienced guide beside you, who has been up the mountain and indeed helped others to survive the climb: your supervisor (or supervisors).

They are hopefully known and established experts in their field, and presumably their reputation for their research is one of the primary factors that drew you to them in the fist place.

They are known; you are unknown.

Then you start reading, and you quickly become aware of the key figures in your field around the world, the names which most frequently appear on the publications you are finding and reading.

They are known; you are unknown.

For those PhD students who wish to build their career in research and stay in their field for their career, one thing is clear; the unknown must become the known.  But how?

To answer this requires acceptance of one simple fact; every single one of those names, near or far, that are intimidating you by their achievements were once unknown too, a novice researcher, perhaps at the start of their PhD just like you.

So, how do you get from unknown to known, and how do you know you are heading in the right direction?

We must again start with a basic principle, that advancement and recognition in any field depends principally on the quality of the research that one does and the effectiveness with which this is communicated widely through reputable (i.e., peer-reviewed) academic channels.  Other things count as well of course, such as the skills required to build networks, communicate informally as well as formally, and the under-rated skills of diplomacy in how you build relationships with those in your field (all topics to be covered in other posts on this blog), but the sine qua non is the quality of the research that you produce.

So, once you start to produce results and outputs that you think are of importance and interest to others, you seek to disseminate and share them as widely as possible; submissions to journals, posters and talks at conferences, letters and emails to other researchers seeking advice or reprints, and all the other channels of academic communication. 

At this point, the traffic is all flowing in one direction; from you to the world.  You are still the unknown, but raising your head above the parapet and hoping someone will notice, and care.

So how do you know it is working?

At some point, the traffic starts to flow both ways.  Every researcher probably remembers the first time they were communicated unprompted by someone about their research, perhaps asking a question or for a copy of a paper, or even by a journal (hopefully a respectable one!) to review a paper.

That is the day you can sit back and breathe a little easier; someone has heard of you, and what’s more they care what you have to say.  Unknown is becoming known.

This is when you know you are really making an impact, and when the novice becomes the professional.

PhD skill: list five outputs you could envisage from your work that will improve your professional profile and visibility other then academic papers.