Friday, February 18, 2011


Jonathan has been trying to get us to think about our research agendas (first post here, most recent here), and he's been having some success (see Matt's post here). He traces the meaning of the word "agenda" to agire, explaining that it is really a plan for "what must be done". We might also say that an agenda guides your agency. It gives you a sense of purpose beyond your current task, but not so far "beyond" that this purpose suggests no tasks at all.

This can be especially important as you finish your dissertation. Finishing it requires the completion of a series of tasks, but when they are completed you are left only with something to submit. You then wait for it to be assessed. During that time you should already have other things to do. Indeed, you will probably have applied for a number of jobs before you submitted the dissertation. In Denmark, this often involves applying for funding for a postdoc project of some kind. Not only will such applications require you to state your agenda in some way, your decision to apply for some jobs and not others will be based on your agenda. Your agenda tells you where you are going in terms of what you should be doing.

Some people lose sight of their larger purpose when finishing their dissertation. They imagine that nothing else matters because if they don't finish it they won't get their degree and if they don't get their degree...etc. But they should follow that logic in the other direction too: they won't finish the dissertation if they don't finish the individual chapters of the dissertation, and they won't finish the chapters if they don't write the paragraphs...etc. So the tasks are much smaller than "finish the dissertation", and once we get down to that level of tasks, it becomes possible to compare them to other tasks on the agenda, like writing a job application, tweaking your CV, and writing a research proposal. Even modifying the agenda itself can, within limits, be given priority for an hour or two over writing two or four or six paragraphs of prose for the dissertation. You start to realize that the things you actually do, one half hour at a time, are not all directly about your dissertation. Completing your dissertation is a set of tasks on your agenda, among other tasks.

People who don't have a clear agenda become very vulnerable at decisive stages of their career. They have an imprecise sense of their options and are dependent on the (interpretive) charity of people who know them personally. And these people have a hard time speaking for them because they don't really know where the research is headed. In my field, where business studies and the liberal arts intersect, many people seem to have a dual agenda (suggesting the "ulterior motive" sense of "agenda"). What they need is to articulate a single agenda to get them through the next few years without closing off too many options. Your local peers, your references and champions, may know you are smart and knowledgeable and dedicated to your field, but lack a good enough sense of where you are going to be of much help to you. You need to know what your next task is, what the next thing is that "must be done". You have to have a sense of your own agency.

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