A surfboard, flamingo, and balancing two career foci

ECR Community’s very own Anja Ali-Haapala is three years into post-PhD life. She shares her perspective on continuing to undertake scholarly research as an independent.

I am an independent dance researcher. I am also an independent dance practitioner.

When I was undertaking my dance training, I didn’t have a research practice: no distractions. When I was doing my research degree my dance practice took a bit of a backseat: a compromise, but manageable. Now that I am out in the world and away from the comforts and structures of the university environment, I am trying to continue developing both of these practices simultaneously: difficult.

A big part of this challenge is that my research and dance practices don’t align neatly. Creating efficiencies is tricky. I research dance audience reception (i.e., receptive participation), while my dance practice is community teaching (i.e., creative participation). It can feel like I’m out on the ocean with one foot standing on a surfboard and the other on an inflatable flamingo. While both are flotation devices, these objects weren’t designed to go together. When the ocean is calm I can find my balance. I’m not moving fast, but I am managing both objects and they’re keeping me afloat. When the ocean swells and a wave of opportunities (that I am extremely grateful for) come along, keeping my balance gets tricky. It would make a lot of sense to put both feet on the surfboard, ride the wave, and let the flamingo go. So far I have chosen to keep a foot on each, so there I am doing a frantic balancing dance on the waves like many independents before me.

It’s not a great metaphor, but the flamingo is my research: it’s slow going, but it makes a statement. As an independent, I don’t get paid to continue my academic investigation. I do generate income from consulting on audience research and evaluation projects for industry organisations, but the scholarly investigation (the original contribution to knowledge stuff) is self-funded right now.

Some elements, like writing, are actually quite manageable. Blocking out one morning each week to write has been extremely productive for me and has led to a few journal articles based on my PhD project. In these cases, I had data and ideas ready to go, so it was just a matter of shifting these into article-sized pieces. Starting new research projects has also been achievable, as the first steps are often to review existing literature, then plan the methods.

Fieldwork, however, is daunting. I’m a qualitative researcher, so I have time and financial considerations relating to recruiting participants, undertaking the data collection, and transcribing (so much transcribing). I keep asking myself: am I really in a situation where I can do this properly and in a reasonable time frame? I will have to get back to you on that one, as I haven’t yet taken the plunge and tried data collection as an independent.

The frantic balancing dance has led to regular cycles of big picture reflection about my interests and priorities (e.g., do I really want to do this?), as well as more pragmatic thinking about how to make academic research fit into my independent career (e.g., committing one morning each week to writing). I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m optimistic that there’s a way to make it work in the long run. I would be very interested to hear about how other people are managing independent research and balancing multiple career foci.

Dr Anja Ali-Haapala is an Australian audience researcher and community dance practitioner. You can find out more about her work here.