Researchers have never had more potential to do so much. While the history of ‘universities’ is characterized by change and flux (Barnett 2011), unprecedented advances in the last 20 years in research work have been made possible by powerful computing, email, the Internet, telecommunications, online access to publications and social media. Most recently, researchers have been challenged to focus their efforts on the world's most urgent problems (Jansen & Ruwaard 2012). They are also urged to be more collaborative and to work actively with communities, clinicians and the media before, during and after studies so that their research can better influence the world (CIHR 2012). These innovations create new opportunities for researchers, but place extra demands on their time (Christensen & Eyring 2011).

Despite these changes, the importance of publishing in influential national and international journals remains (Clark & Thompson 2012) and continues to have far-reaching implications in many countries for institutional rankings and funding through national research assessment exercises (Thompson & Watson 2009). Nurse leaders have been slow to adjust to the working cultures, currency, and demands of universities (Thompson & Watson 2006). Consequently, too often, nurses see their doctorates as the end or as a highlight rather than the beginning of their research career – and a large volume of good quality research led by nurses still features in journals with poor visibility and low citation rates (Clark & Thompson 2012).

Researchers continue to change too. Those born in the 1970s who have come to the academic workplace over the last 10 years tend to expect to have a better balance between work and life than their predecessors (Helms 2010). While a strong commitment to scholarly excellence remains, work quality and efficiency in completing work take precedence over quantity of work and time spent (Helms 2010). Yet, without watering down standards for career progression, amidst this ever expanding and more complex research environment, how can time be best used to establish and sustain excellent research programmes? Fortunately, a rich stream of work from management and game theory exists to give some key lessons.

Do the right things well

Life in today's universities severely tests the ability of researchers to identify and follow the right priorities. Irrespective of the talents and skills of the individual in achieving these ends, the field of personal effectiveness offers many useful insights for using precious time not only to do things right but also to do the right things. Peter Drucker, the father of management science, advised famously to focus on a small number of priorities at any one time and to define oneself not by what one does or the hours one works, but by what one's work actually contributes to priorities (Drucker 1967). This requires first identifying what the right priorities are, ensuring that your time and calendar reflect these priorities, and avoiding prioritizing tasks that give the illusion of productivity such as attending meetings or managing emails (Allen 2011).

Other experts on effectiveness offer invaluable insights into how to address priorities well: think, plan and work with priorities strategically (Rumelt 2011), build relationships and networks to leverage these priorities against one another (Ferrazzi 2005) and resolve conflicts around them well (Stone et al. 2010). Social media offer exciting new possibilities for engaging more actively with content and other people via podcasts, Twitter and discussion forums such as Managertools that discuss virtually every aspect of priority management (Managertools 2012).

Master the academic games

Doing the right things requires an intricate understanding not only of how to do things well but also what needs to be done. In the novel, The Glass Bead Game, by Hesse, an isolated community of scholars running a school, play a mysterious game guided by a myriad of seemingly impenetrable rules (cited in Christensen & Eyring 2011). Over time, they mentor new scholars in the hidden obscure rules and social conventions of their game. Of course, the rules are mostly unwritten and secret – the subtle nuances of the game take years to master.

So too, researchers often find themselves in isolated, mysterious, enveloping, scholarly communities, which have their own distinctive and ambiguous norms, boundaries and practices (Christensen & Eyring 2011). It is vital to prioritize becoming adept at the various games of academic life. There are many games to learn, including writing particular kinds of articles or writing for particular journals; achieving promotion; working with people from other disciplines; and getting proposals funded. Nevertheless, learning the rules and conventions of these games is not straightforward because the games have both formal and tacit rules, practices and conventions. As most involve humans, they are also prone to the idiosyncrasies of human social and group processes. While formal documents offer important insights into rules, much of what is needed to succeed remains tacit. Prioritizing understanding and becoming adept at the various games of academic settings are important, but has been neglected in nursing (Thompson & Watson 2006). How then can nurses best achieve success in academic settings? Good strategy is integral to effectiveness and often involves addressing those factors that have greatest influence on what matters most (Rumelt 2011). We suggest two priorities: seek always to improve your writing and build your network of mentors.

Be strategic: writing

Writing well is pivotal to a successful academic career. Whether this writing is for articles, research proposals, promotion applications, emails and even unit reports – writing is the ‘recurrent practice’ of academia (Sword 2012). The career progression of academics is heavily dependent on their ability to become familiar with and then reproduce various ‘occluded’ writing genres (Swales 2005). Yet, <15% of published research articles are engaging, clear, and concise (Sword 2012).

It is important to prioritize becoming a better writer because it is central to so many academic games. However, very few people start out as good writers, and good writing requires practice, time and continuous effort. This means avoiding common bad excuses for bad writing – such as your ideas being complicated or that it is the reader not the writer who should have to work hard. Key tasks, particularly editing, should not be delegated or sub-contracted, but are essential to learning to write well. Fortunately, a large number of self-help books contain advice and exercises on academic writing. Analysing over 100 of these books, Sword (2012) identified a consensus that good writing is clear, concise, and coherent. It contains a mix of short and longer sentences. It is plain, precise, active and tells a story. Books that are written for academic writers and from a theoretical basis in genre-theory are especially useful when you have to write in many different academic genres (Reinking & von der Osten 2007, Faigley et al. 2008). Other books can help with how to better prioritize writing time (Silvia 2007), develop persuasive arguments (Cioffi 2005, Faigley & Selzer 2009), and harness the power of stories (Simmons 2006).

Be strategic: mentors

In tandem with writing, attaining and harnessing trustworthy mentors who are generous, experienced, and candid in their support can influence your success at the numerous academic games. The influence of mentors for nurse academics is particularly marked and important due to the relatively recent introduction of nursing to academic settings. The presence of a mentor for nurse academics significantly improves job satisfaction, empowerment, likelihood of permanent employment and salary, and reduces job-related stress – yet, approximately 40% of nurse academics do not have a mentor (Chung & Kowalski 2012). Heads of department, colleagues, and students are all well placed to suggest people who are effective and supportive mentors. No one model or type of mentor is universally appropriate; however, working to actively establish a network of mentors across substantive, methodological and personal dimensions in and outside nursing is an important and strategic early career priority that is likely to be beneficial across the wide range of academic games.

Keep aiming high

Research careers offer a great scope for autonomy. Researchers employed in universities typically have remarkably wide scope to determine and lead the kind of research they believe needs to be done. Yet, as nurse academics, we can fall all too readily into the comforts of the conference circuit, parochial publishing practices, and forms of scholarly narcissism that serve individual status more than the influence and credibility of nursing. Simultaneously, despite almost 20 years of presence in the academy, nurses’ involvement in influencing mainstream health care and clinical guidelines remains quite peripheral, and our presence in mainstream healthcare journals, slight. Designing creative and innovative research projects, competing aggressively for funds in interdisciplinary competitions and publishing ambitiously are vital to the future of nursing, but necessarily involve effort, risk and the likelihood of frequent failure.

Influence and impact in today's ever demanding, complex, and cross disciplinary research environments do not happen automatically, but are best achieved by working to priorities that are clear, strategic, and reflected in daily working patterns. Aiming high, whether in publications, grants, or career progression, necessarily involves investing time and effort in mastering the range of academic games and the risk and realities of failure. Setting and working to priorities, being strategic in developing core skills, such as writing and harnessing mentors, provide the best foundation for successful research careers.


  1. Top of page
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