Tom Rodden on doing good work, metrics, failure, funding, and family

Tom Rodden is a Professor of Interactive Computing and Director of Research for the Faculty of Science at the University of Nottingham. He has led the Mixed Reality Laboratory and founded and co-directed the Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute. He is currently Deputy CEO of the UK research funding council, EPSRC. In this podcast we cover lots of issues from personal career choices, what drives his research and dealing with insecurities and rejections, to bigger issues around funding models and metrics and what universities are about. He also discusses being part of a two-academic family and their strategies for managing this.

“There’s always another, whatever it is, there’s always another […] and it’s only a job”

“Research is never perfect, it never pans out perfectly and actually remembering the things you’ve done and the successes you’ve had is important.”

"I am not an income source, I am a researcher!"

He talks about (times approximate) …

01:20 Early days of the EU COMIC project

05:30 Worrying about whether the system now allows the same space and risk taking and the impact of metrication of research

07:00 His role as Deputy CEO of UK funding council, EPSRC and journey to this current secondment

08:50 Understanding his skills as a researcher – energy and enthusiasm, making connections and focusing on doing interesting things rather than thinking strategically

12:10 The difference between drive and ambition and targets, and where achievements become the incidental things along the way

13:50 The tendency to focus on the things that are failing than celebrating successes

16:20 Managing rejections, taking a while to not personalize the failure, and taking solace in the statistics and that you don’t always get ideas right the first time

20:20 Advice from his grand supervisor - Do good work and everything else works itself out.

21:30 Unpacking metrication and the responsibility to interpret metrics – that citations don’t equal impact and influence; and that metrics aren’t the issue, it’s the pressure that the institutions puts on individuals

26:40 The path of a new idea and taking a while to be socialized and understood; and the dilemma of needing to think of your career over 30 years vs the next 3 years

29:00 Understanding the rhythm of a university and that they are complex and slow to change; and having informal mentors and people you can talk with

31:00 Creating the space to do good work, and thinking of your work as the resources to build a good narrative, then figure out how to match it the funder’s expectations – the craft of doing projects

33:25 Talking about different funding models - remembering that the income is only the means to deliver the research and remembering there’s good and bad funding, thinking about whether the type of research you do matches the funding model

37:40 Building a research identity – moving between fields vs being focused, enjoying opening up new questions but also beating himself up about not having a deeper focus

40:00 Always being able to find people that you feel are doing a much better job than you, and this is at every level. “Still the case for me. I still get nervous about things.” But having a better armory of coping tactics now.

 42:30 Strategies for when both partners are academics and having a family – changing tactics, throwing selection not time to problems, understanding each other’s pressures and job dynamics,

47:38 Compartmentalizing, being tactical, planning in rewards and the Achilles heel of marking procrastination

50:45 Remembering ‘there’s always another’ and ‘it’s only a job’!

Reflecting on the incredible freedom and flexibility and opportunities in this job

55:20 Every yes is a no, but also being careful not to give up the bits of the job you love too quickly - the mid career challenge or ‘the problem of demonstrating competency’

58:40 Final reflections

59:34 The ‘go home’ announcement!

1:00:45 End

Related Links:

EPSRC - https://www.epsrc.ac.uk

REF Research Excellence Framework - http://www.ref.ac.uk

Steve Benford – https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/computerscience/people/steve.benford 

Boriana Koleva - https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/computerscience/people/b.koleva  

Roger Needham - https://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/archive/ksj21/RogerNeedham.html