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Transitions: Reimagining your academic output by embracing a mind-set of abundance by Christopher Hill

chris_h_post-4_lead-setDr Christopher Hill is a creative writer, who works in the field of academic writing as both a teacher and researcher. Originally from New Zealand, he has spent over a decade living in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore. Chris has a passion for the histories and cultures of the Asia-Pacific region, which form the inspiration for his writing in the form of essays and a novel that is currently in progress. He currently works as a lecturer at the Communication and Language Centre at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore where his research focuses on pedagogical strategies for the teaching of writing. He is currently focused on developing a study investigating the transfer of learning from writing courses to students’ specific disciplines. This is his forth and final post for the series. His twitter handle is @chrishillnz.

In David Bale and Ted Orland’s 1993 book, Art & Fear they describe a study in which a ceramics class is divided into two halves: one half of the students are asked to focus on producing a large quantity of work, while the other half is tasked with producing a small amount of high quality work. The notable result of this study was that not only did the first group produce the most work, but also the best work.

This example illustrates the psychology of human productivity. By concentrating on quantity as opposed to quality one can be produce better work and greater volumes. This example is drawn from a creative field, so does a quantity over quality mind-set work for more general academic research?

Bill Gates is quoted as saying that ‘most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.’ However, the opposite holds true of many academics. We often plan our academic goals and careers in the long term, but are sometimes guilty of assuming that writing and researching takes a long time. After all, a PhD takes years to write, and this instills within people the notion that good research and writing should take forever.    

One of the eye opening experiences about academic writing month #AcWriMo is realizing how much you can get done when you focus on producing a large quantity of work in a short amount of time. It involves reimagining the potential of your output by focusing on quantity and setting strict deadlines. If you took part in this year’s event, you may already be beginning to think about the possibilities of sustaining November’s yield throughout the year, or at least between semesters.

David Hare offers some great insights into this topic in his article here, and makes the important observation that for many researchers it’s not just a case of increasing word count but also transforming ideas and existing projects into publishable and presentable work. Dave also has suggestions for developing a publishing strategy here. Whether you are building your first strategy spreadsheet, or revisiting an old one, keep in mind Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s famous quip that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” By setting challenging goals for your academic output and combining this with a good research and writing routine you can sustain your #AcWriMo habits throughout the year.

But what about the quality? The quality vs. quantity axiom assumes that one prohibits the other leading many of us to focus on quality. However, as the ceramics class example illustrates, this need not be true. A frame of mind that focuses on quantity involves re-evaluating what you are capable of, and, through repetition, improving the quality of the work you produce rather than compromising it.

While not all academics are perfectionists, it would be fair to say that academia as a profession is one that lends itself to perfectionism. If you set good habits with your research and writing, then concerns about the quality of the work shouldn’t be an issue. For example, by sharing your writing or collaborating with others you can use feedback as a barometer for the quality of your output.

Remember also that focusing on quality may not only result in lower output but also lower quality work. For years I approached research and writing at a snail’s pace. I simply assumed that I was slow or not as smart as my swifter colleagues. We also often blanket these types of issues with excuses: teaching, administration and life always seem to get in the way of our research. But as #AcWriMo demonstrates when the goals are set and the determination is there, somehow you just get the work done.

So are there any limits? A mathematician colleague of mine recently lamented that there are only so many theorems a human being can produce in a year and hence a limited number of publishable papers that can be originated from them. But on the other hand, why let limits constrain you? There is nothing to be gained from placing conscious ceilings into your research strategy. Aim high and even if you don’t hit all your targets your likely to beat what you could produce with a ‘quality-first’ mind-set.

Ensure that you exploit your work for the most publishable opportunities as possible. Over the course of my studies I queried several of the most distinguished professors at my university and all of them agreed that leveraging every project, study and experiment for a maximum number of publishable articles was crucial to their success. This ‘waste not, want not’ philosophy guided each of them to great achievement.

There is one caveat to consider when focusing on quantity. In your drive for more output don’t get caught into thinking about publishing in contexts that won’t advance your career, because it seems easy and you want to produce more. In her excellent book, The Professor Is in : The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. into a Job, Karen Kelsky notes that many young academics ‘squander the best years of their academic lives on worthless (for the purposes of the job market) publications such as book reviews, conference proceedings, and chapters in edited collections that a) never see the light of day, b) take endless years to get published, or c) get published but only in obscure hardcovers that even university libraries don’t buy.’

In other words, in your pursuit of greater output keep your focus on the best journals and conferences within your field. If you need further convincing take China as an example. According to a recent article by Changhui Pen in Nature. China’s total output of academic publication is now ranked second in the world, behind the United States. However, in terms of citation numbers it is ranked ninth equal, a statistic that dampens the country’s great strides in research over the last decade. The same holds true for academics, embracing a mind-set of abundance must be matched with a desire to produce the best work.


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