Each year I try to take a few moments to reflect upon the previous 12-months and to keep a public record of my successes and failures. This year has been a bit of a strange one for me professionally, as I have decided to get off the metaphorical hamster wheel and am now focused on increasing the quality of my research rather than the quantity. As such, my reflections are not going to follow the same format as previous years.
I am now at the stage of my career where I probably should be cosying up to influential people who can help advance my career. For example, I was asked recently how many of my papers are guaranteed 4*? I said none and was told to go and “get on at least one”. I won’t be following this instruction and worry for those who would. This advice is daft for a number of reasons. First, based on a review I undertook earlier in the year and despite what many (many) researchers will tell you, I suspect there were relatively few 4* papers produced in my area (I’d guess around 50 across the whole REF period). Second, even if you were to follow the advice, you don’t simply “get on” a 4* paper. If it were that easy, everyone with a slightly questionable character would be following this advice. Fortunately, the vast majority are not as (a) most of those 4* manuscripts are longitudinal in design, (b) PIs are not daft, and (c) I believe the majority of researchers are good and decent.
Rather than looking for short-cuts and quick fixes, how about taking a longer term view and supporting ECRs to do better research? Shocking idea I know, but such thinking is in short supply within the academe. Some have suggested that such a position is naïve, but when I am sat on my death bed looking back on my life, I want to feel that I have done good work, left useful tools, and helped people. I am not about chasing in-vogue topics, by-line banditry, and making promises I can’t or won’t keep to further my own career. If this is what some people feel they need to do to achieve a career, that’s up to them, but that path is not for me. Further, I don’t believe it is a path that we have to follow. Instead, I think it’s ego, competitiveness, and/or laziness that drives researchers to take such action. Maybe I’m wrong?
From hereafter in my career, I will focus on adopting a multi-study approach that includes replication, recruiting enough participants so that my work is appropriately powered, and doing research that has a direct benefit to the communities I serve. You can do things quickly or you can do things properly. I’m choosing the latter. An example of such research is a proposal I have recently submitted that aims to examine ways in which team sport may be used as a vehicle to improve communication skills in those with Autism Spectrum Disorder. I have published very early qualitative research in a similar area and am convinced that such research is unlikely to yield tens of thousands of reads and citations, but the outcomes (i.e., tangible information that can be offered to teachers, parents, and coaches) is of higher value to me personally. However, this project probably won’t be supported as, beyond impact, the work is unlikely to hit the types of metrics most universities are striving for. It’s a pretty sorry state of affairs when meeting a target for largely meaningless metrics is placed above solid and worthwhile work. The tail appears to be wagging the dog, but again, maybe I’m wrong?
I have been fortunate to meet some likeminded individuals whilst sharing my plans and we are launching a new society in January 2019 (keep an eye out on my Twitter and on FiveThirtyEight for more information). The hope is that the society can act as a hub for others who believe the evidence base in the sport, exercise, health and performance sciences requires improvement. The society is a work in progress, but we have some big plans and I’m proud to have been voted in as the society’s inaugural Executive Chair. I promise that I’ll do my best to set the society up on as solid a footing as I can before getting out of the way this time next year so someone else can build upon my efforts further. With this in mind, I have decided to step down as the Chair of SportRxiv. It’ll take a few months to set someone else up, but I think this is the right decision as: (a) Chairing two projects of this scope felt wrong — I want to create opportunities for ECRs not block them, and (b) new blood may give the service a boost. I have been really excited to see SportRxiv grow this year (we’ll be up to 60-submissions by the first week in January) and am confident that the service will go from strength to strength. I will also remain on the steering board for as long as the new chair wants me.
I have published two manuscripts this year that can be found on my Google Scholar page. I also presented some research at my first North American conference (NASPSPA), which was fun – although jet lag was a bitch and caused my eyes to puff up like I’ve never had before! The conference was a bit too focused on motor control for my liking, but it gave me the chance to meet up with some old friends and make some new. I don’t plan on attending too many conferences in 2019 as frankly, neither Munster (FEPSAC) or Baltimore (NASPSPA) are doing much for me and lots of my projects are a work in progress and my older datasets are not really up to the higher standard I am now working towards. I am planning to attend SIPS though, which should be really interesting.
I also did a load of media work at the start of the year after publishing a study based on differences in skin tone by playing position in the English Premier League. Being interviewed for TV was a first and I was shown on the BBC World Service and on ITV’s regional news (you can see the media generated here). The biggest thing I learned from this process is that the media are almost certain to misinterpret a study’s results. I don’t know if it’s statistical illiteracy or wilful ignorance, but it happened with almost every organisation I worked with. I suspect it was partly my fault for not being tighter in some of my own interpretations and partly the media’s for wanting to fit the work to a predefined narrative. Either way, the experience was a good one and lessons were learned for the future. Plus, my mother was delighted to see me on TV!
I am sure others feel the same, but I often worry that my academic curiosity pulls me in too many directions. I entered academia because of this curiosity and the freedom to explore my interests, but it seems this approach may be viewed negatively by some. To help with such feelings, I have recently mapped my primary research interests on to a Venn diagram (see Figure 1). In reflecting on what is most important to me and critically thinking about how my interests fit together, I feel happier that the directions I am pulling in are at least complimentary to one another. I’d be interested to hear from others who have undergone similar exercises and to hear about their perceptions of what is required within academia.
I have also spent some time thinking about who is doing work in my field that upholds similar standards to those I have set myself. This has been a useful exercise as the draw to work with high profile scholars is pretty strong (there is a name for this effect [not primacy/recency]), but one that I am trying to avoid. Obviously if there are high profile academics doing the kind of work I implore, great. However, I want quality of work to be the primary reason to collaborate rather than popularity or the impact working together may have on my bloody h-index. I don’t think we spend nearly enough time evaluating the work of our peers and am convinced that our decisions are often led by heuristics – we should know better than to permit this.
In terms of grant capture, I somehow found myself two-for-two this year. I’m convinced it was the right idea at the right time on both occasions rather than some amazing grant writing ability and I don’t expect the run to last long. Both were as a Principle Investigator and the second was for, in my field at least, a reasonably significant amount. I won’t go into details as I’m not sure what throwing figures around really achieves, but it’ll mean I can work with some excellent researchers who I have a huge amount of respect for (shout out to Zack Zenko, Jordan Axt, Ian Boardley, and Rick O’Gorman) and can recruit a fully supported PhD Candidate to work on the project for the next three years. It also means that I am reasonably assured of permanency (tenure equivalent within my home university) as most of my targets have now been met.
The initial grant also meant that I could recruit my first funded Research Assistant earlier in the year, which has been an interesting experience. I have also had four internally funded Undergraduate Researchers working for me this year, which has meant I have been able to start pulling something that resembles a lab together. I still co-run a lab out of the University of Birmingham with my mentor and former PhD supervisor, but it’s nice to have a group working at my home institution too. I have also established a new research group at the University of Essex based around mine and my colleague’s interesting in Developing Children and Young People Through Sport (DYPS), which has been a whole new challenge. Leading a group of experienced academics (many more experienced than me) is very different to leading a group of grad students.
I have also started working with a number of charities this year who focus on using sport to develop life skills in often disadvantaged young people. Trying to combine those working in academia and the third sector has been another challenge, but things are going well. I have taken on a fair amount this year and am hopeful that, once the lab becomes more established, I will be able to support the charities I am working with to take a more evidence-based / scientific approach to their practice / evaluations and ultimately have a positive influence on more people. This year has largely been about setting the foundations for the years to come and I am hopeful that 2019 will start to see the fruits of this labor. If you’d like to get involved in any of the projects I have mentioned here, please do not hesitate to get in touch!
Lastly, I am hoping to find a better balance between work and life in 2019. The fact that I am writing this on New Year’s Eve suggests that this may be a battle, but it’s something I need to do. Since entering academia, I have pretty much lost contact with 90% of my old friends and the new ones I have made are now scattered across the country. Moving around for my PhD and jobs has also meant that I have stopped coaching and playing sport. A lack of exercise, social life, and an approach to work that borders on obsessive isn’t a great mix if you’re trying to avoid burning out. More importantly, I want to be a good father to my son and husband to my wife. Being stressed and worn out all the time and distracted by work isn’t conducive of this. As such, part of the reason for making these reflections public is so you can hold me to these aims in 2019. If you see me at work or at a conference, feel free to ask me about what I’m doing to try to improve the quality of my work or my life. Better still, suggest we grab a tea/coffee/beer or find the nearest table tennis table/badminton court (etc.) and help me put it in action. I want to keep this happy and healthy period of my life to go on for as long as it can!
P.s. Please excuse any typos in this post. It’s the Christmas period and I am receiving disapproving glances from Mrs Mills for being on the computer. Work-life balance and all that!