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Interview with Helen Kara

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Independent researcher and author. Officially, Director of We Research It Ltd.

I have never held a university position; I have been an independent researcher for 20 years. Further, I have never wanted a university position, though I did apply for a few part-time ones during the UK recession in 2011 when I was desperately applying for part-time jobs in several sectors. (In the end I got a part-time job with a charity for a couple of years to make ends meet and help me keep my business going during that difficult time.)

How does the research you do in your current position differ from an academic position?

I do commissioned research, mostly for non-academic clients, so they decide on the research topic and question(s). A sizeable proportion of the research I do is evaluation research and some is more ‘academic-style’ knowledge-gathering research. When I started work as an independent researcher in 1999 it was quite rare for UK university departments to take on commissioned research, but now it’s much more common. So I have more competitors, but on the plus side, I can make a good living from projects that are a sensible size for me to take on but too small to be worth the bother for a university department. Also people in academic positions sometimes ask me to join their research project teams.

Another difference is that, as an independent researcher in the UK, I can’t apply for any of the research funding distributed by the Government to academic researchers. I can be part of a team applying for such funding, but that team must be led by someone in a university position. There are a few small pots I can apply to which are set up and managed by independent grant funders. However, with the increasing casualization of academia, plus other politico-socio-economic factors in play, more and more people in the UK are becoming independent researchers (and I know in other countries too). Also, indies can do a lot with a little. So this is beginning to look to me like a waste of a national resource.

What is your side hustle?

My side hustle is writing. I write books on research methods and ethics for Policy Press, SAGE and Routledge. I self-publish short books for doctoral students and other academics. I keep a weekly blog, I blog professionally for Funding Insight, and I write book reviews.

Why did you start your side hustle?

I have always loved writing and have written fiction for many years – some of it has even been published, though none under my own name. In the early 2000s I was lead author of a professional book about commissioning external specialists (now out of print) and I enjoyed that enormously. In 2005-6, the final year of my PhD, I realized I wanted to write a book about research methods. I knew I needed a good hook – there were already enough books about research methods in general – but I was so busy with commissioned work and it wasn’t until the recession hit that I had time to figure out what that might be. My first full-length book, Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide, was inspired by many conversations in meeting breaks where people would ask for my advice on their dissertation or evaluation research.

How does the writing you do in your current position differ from an academic position?

I can write about whatever I like. And I love the variety! Right now I’m writing with education researchers, a comics professor and a comics student, sociologists, an anthropologist and a forensic scientist, among others. I understand from some colleagues in academia that they are constrained by management imperatives in what they can write about, but I have no such barriers.

How does your side hustle impact your career?

What it doesn’t do is make me rich. Last year I earned around £2,000 directly from my writing. For sure that’s a very useful amount of money to have coming in, but if I worked it out in terms of an hourly rate for the time I actually spend writing, it would be way below minimum wage.

However, writing has a range of other positive impacts on my career and my income. To my surprise, I discovered that when you’ve written an academic book, some people take you more seriously. After my second full-length book, Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide, came out in 2015, I began to receive requests to teach and speak around the UK and beyond. Since then I’ve worked in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic, Canada, Australia, and Singapore. I have been paid for all of these and I wouldn’t have had those earning opportunities if I hadn’t written my books. Also, before my third full-length book, Research Ethics in the Real World: Euro-Western and Indigenous Perspectives, even came out last November, I was getting more work in the research ethics field. In the few short months since the book came out I’ve had several other enquiries. So although my writing doesn’t bring in much income on its own, it has really helped in getting me to where I am now. In each of the last three years my business has turned over £36-£39,000 which means I’m finally making a decent living again.

What advice would you give others looking at an alternative career path?

I have five pieces of advice which are all equally important.

  • First, you need to be willing and able to live on less money than your contemporaries in university positions. Luckily writing is a cheap habit and I’d rather have time to write than expensive luxuries.
  • Second, you need to be self-motivated, self-disciplined, and good at time management.
  • Third, you need to be good at networking, including online – relationships built on Twitter took me to Australia, a relationship nurtured on Facebook took me to Canada.
  • Fourth, it is essential to keep up to date with developments in your field.
  • Fifth, you must look after your health and wellbeing. If you are sure you can manage all of these, you’re well placed to handle an alternative career path.

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