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Quick reflections on what I have learned this semester

This term has been incredibly instructive. Since moving from UBC Vancouver to CIDE Region Centro in Aguascalientes I have had the opportunity to start developing a number of research questions I had wanted to examine for a long time. I will fully admit that I am enjoying a full year of teaching release (2012-2013), a privilege that definitely has paid off (at UBC I had a 2-1-2 teaching load). Though I love teaching, being able to focus solely on research is giving my research programme a big boost.

I decided to write some quick notes on what I have learned this semester (it’s only November so technically I am not supposed to be taking stock before Christmas, but I don’t want to risk forgetting – you know, the myth of the forgetful professor is sometimes quite true!)

I) Don’t be afraid to test your preliminary thoughts in seminars and academic conferences

My research programme has matured quite a bit, I believe, because I have had the opportunity to test some of my preliminary thoughts at conferences and seminars. I used to be of the mind that you could ONLY present fully completed projects at seminars, I no longer do this. I have received some excellent feedback at early stages of my research projects and it’s been a good year to launch new projects. Three of my current projects were launched this year, precisely because of positive feedback I received at conferences last year. And other three projects received very good commentaries that helped me refine the research question.

II) Use conferences and seminars as drivers to encourage you to write

This 2012 I have written more preliminary drafts of papers than I had in previous years (I’ve drafted 8 papers and submitted 2 for peer review), and the main driver behind all this writing has been the fact that I promised to deliver a paper at a conference or seminar. Having a firm deadline to present some research findings, even if at an early stage, has prompted me to write more. For example, I was invited to present a paper at a seminar on transboundary water governance earlier this year. I had always been interested on delving more (after having published a journal article on this topic last year) on delving more into transboundary water conflict in North America, so I was forced to write down my thoughts even if in preliminary form simply because I needed an outline of what I was going to talk about (and prepare the slides for the talk!).

III) Use the feedback from conferences and seminars to polish your thoughts and refine your thinking

I used to be of the mind that recycling one’s thoughts was a big “no-no”. I rarely presented the same paper or gave the same talk at different conferences. This year, I have experimented with using consecutive seminars and conferences to refine parts of my project. After each academic event, I summarize what lessons I have learned from feedback I receive, and use it to polish my next talk. But I never give exactly the same talk.

For example, early this year I presented the preliminary outline of my research design for the comparative analysis of Latin American waste pickers’ behaviour at CALACS. I then used CALACS’ feedback to improve my talk and expand the analysis from three to four countries. Then at the research seminar I coordinate at CIDE, I presented a cross-regional comparison of conflict dynamics between Mexican waste pickers and their municipal governments, examining two cities as case studies (Leon and Aguascalientes). This paper will be a component of the book I am writing and of the larger, multi-country, multi-city project I am leading. Presenting cross-linked components of the same project at various conferences enabled me to refine my thinking process and fine tune the research strategy.

IV) Building original datasets counts as research output

While I have conducted field research for more than a decade, I often forget that one of the ways in which we can contribute to a body of knowledge is to build original datasets. For my dissertation, I collected data on that nobody else had had access to: an original dataset of number of inspections that PROFEPA (the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection) had done to industry polluters. Nobody had accessed that kind of data nor had they assembled plant-level inspection data the way I did. And that’s original research and an original contribution. Somehow, after receiving my PhD, I seemed to forget that building a dataset is indeed a great contribution. And now, with the help of several of my students and colleagues I am building new original databases. This should (and does, for CIDE) count as research output.

V) Write every day. Every. Single. Day.

I have taken heed of the advice that 3 academic coaches will tell you (particularly if you are a young, up-and-coming, rising star) that you need to write EVERY DAY. Even if for 15 minutes, write every day. I have used, as I mention above, invited seminars and conferences, as drivers to force me to write draft papers. It also helped that I had already planned to participate in #AcWriMo, and that I knew I needed my book to be sent out for peer review before the end of the year. I also decided that *any* generative writing was good writing (e.g. any writing that moves me forward), rather than punish myself for not writing every day something related to a research article.

VI) Encourage interdisciplinary collaborations

I have always believe in collaborative work. At the core of my research programme is collaboration, in fact. I am currently co-authoring a paper with Aldo Ponce from CIDE’s Political Studies Division, and most of my 2012 production is collaborative. This is relatively new for me, as I used to want to do single-authored papers. But I now have been consolidating a research programme in intractable water problems, and I have had to force myself to learn to be more collaborative (e.g. with a broader variety of co-authors). The outcome has been stellar.

VII) Believe in people, trust people.

This is one of the biggest insights I have gained from I hired 3.5 research assistants (well, 4 but one is shared) and I just had to basically learn to trust them and guide them with little to no micro-management. I just tell my RAs (and student co-authors) “this is what I need, and you go ahead and do it“. I’ve been rewarded as I have been able to generate much more research output by just providing guidelines and trusting my RAs and collaborators that they will know how to .

VIII) Map out your research trajectory and research plan in advance

Towards the end of last week, I was asked to provide my Research Plan for 2013 and my Research Trajectory 2013-2016. Plotting a research trajectory requires in-depth thinking and organizing. The final output was a 20 page, single-spaced page document that helped me a lot to visualize where I am going intellectually and scholarly. I also have been jotting down little bits and details on the actual research process (e.g. budgeting issues – how much can I pay a research assistant, how much would I need to pay for transcription time, how many interviews per day can the research assistant conduct, etc.) This reflective process has been extremely helpful to refine my research interests and trajectory statement as well.

IX) Have a handbook of handwritten notes on your research.

Some people call this a “project notebook”, and I now have one. I basically write everything (which papers I am planning to write, which collaborations I am mapping out, etc) now by hand.

All of these reflections are specific to me, so I don’t want to generalize any lessons, or trends. But this is an insight I have gained during this term.

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  1. multidisciplinary writing says

    Lovely blog, I’m also multidisciplinary (science and arts) currently completing a postdoc in geography but no idea where to head next! I also discovered it’s best to present at seminars and conferences to get work done, and see these as ideas in the making, although what I struggle with is editing papers – should one keep editing or minimise it? I think also I get bored once I have written the paper, and as it is a draft, how does one then refine it? Hence work does tend to ’sit’. Some words on this would be great!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Lessons on academic writing that I learned from doing #AcWriMo – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD linked to this post on December 3, 2012

    [...] love doing these posts on what I have learned because I then have a permanent record to [...]



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