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AuthorAID mentor Rachel Strohm shares her experience of mentoring

By Andy Nobes | Nov. 7, 2016  | Mentoring

This is the first in the series of interviews that we are conducting with mentors and mentees who have used the AuthorAID mentoring and collaboration platform. We ask them about their experiences, their challenges, what they have learnt, and their top tips. First up is Rachel Strohm from the United States. Rachel joined as an AuthorAID mentor in July 2015 and has been one of our most active mentors, connecting with over 10 mentees.

Hi Rachel. Tell us about your background and your research

I am a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. I am in my fourth year of the five-year programme. My research focuses on the spread of new welfare programmes in Africa – especially cash transfer programmes. It’s actually somewhat related to the work of INASP in that I’m looking at how governments are drawing on academic evidence and working with evidence brokers like academics and donors as they launch these cash transfer programmes. 

I previously worked for Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), managing randomized controlled trials, in development economics.  I spent about two years working in Ghana, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo before coming back to the US for my postgraduate education.

What made you register to be an AuthorAID mentor?

Sign at University of Ghana. Writing can be a difficult process, and it can be difficult to know which way to turn.

Sign at University of Ghana. Writing can be a difficult process, and it can be difficult to know which way to turn.

I thought this was such a fantastic opportunity for academics in high-income countries to get involved with their peers in low-income countries.  I’m really interested in the idea of building bridges between higher and lower income countries, and particularly in addressing the very imbalanced power dynamics that tend to exist between these countries.  Within academia, you see this in the fact that so much knowledge about low income countries is actually being published by researchers from higher income places.  Now, I don’t think this is inherently wrong, or necessarily driven by discrimination, but it is a major structural challenge.  Working with AuthorAID seemed like a great opportunity to chip away at some of these disparities, even in a small way, by sharing whatever expertise or skills I might have with peers elsewhere.  I’d been looking for similar opportunities for a while before I found this, with no success, so I’ve totally been proselytizing this to all of my colleagues here!

Tell us more about your most recent mentoring relationship

My most recent contact is a woman from East Africa who’s at university in her own country.  She’s a non-native English speaker but is working in English. She basically just emailed to say, “I’m starting this research project and I have some big questions about the research design.  Am I using the right methods for my question? I would love to get advice on this, as well as English language editing”. That was actually a bit unusual because a lot of the requests I’ve gotten have been much more narrowly focused on editing and preparation for publication. It was very interesting to me to get something that was more about research methods, which offered the chance to have some input into research design as well.  

Have you ever reached out to somebody yourself to initiate a mentoring relationship or has it always been the other way around – that people have come to you?

When I joined the site, it was easy for me to locate people with similar geographical and sectoral interests and to reach out to them, so I made contact with four or five people in my field of political science who were based in Africa. A few of those led to mentoring relationships and most didn’t. Since that time, though, I’ve consistently had people reaching out to me, and it happens often enough that I’ve not gone back again to reach out to anyone on my own. Most of the people who have contacted me have shared my interests in African politics, although I’ve had a few totally unrelated requests as well.  (It was both fun to read about new topics, and a challenge to provide useful support to them!)

Are there any particular relationships and tasks that you think were a particular success?

One of the earlier people I worked with was also studying welfare programs in Africa.  We actually crossed paths recently at a conference in the UK, and ended up having a great conversation.  There’s a fairly small pool of young researchers studying our topic, so hopefully we might end up collaborating in the future as well.  In a lot of ways this is the idea outcome as a mentor – not just assisting others, but starting a broader relationship that might lead to interesting new research.

Have you found any particular challenges in any of these mentoring tasks or relationships?

I’ve found that it’s very important to set explicit expectations up front about the types of assistance that I can provide, and the types of assistance that the writer wants.  Some people have wanted extremely detailed editing, for language, organization, theoretical relevance, and so forth, and others just want a fairly light check for obvious grammatical errors.  If you don’t agree up front, it can lead to tension.  One case that comes to mind is one of the earlier papers I worked on.  It was outside my area of expertise, in environmental economics.  I apparently did a more thorough job editing for organization and logical flow than the author wanted, because I accidentally removed a key piece of his theoretical model!  Fortunately I could undo the edits in Track Changes, and ultimately no harm was done.

What have you enjoyed about the mentoring, and have you learnt anything from your experiences?

Aside from potentially building connections for future research, I think the work I’ve done with AuthorAID has absolutely made me a better writer.   It’s so common for authors to have interesting ideas and innovative results, but struggle to present them in ways that are logically organized and at an acceptable level of detail.  It’s really made me think more systematically about how I communicate my own research design and results.

What is your top tip for early-career researchers who are looking to publish their research?

This is a challenging question!  So many of the factors that affect the likelihood that research will be published are beyond the researcher’s control. Funding is the obvious thing that comes to mind – a large, well-funded study pretty much always has a better chance of being published than a small, inexpensive one.  So there’s a question of how to increase the likelihood of publication within those constraints.

Perhaps it sounds obvious, but I think the single most important thing here is using other academics as a resource.  Ask them about their experiences of the publishing process – how to pick a journal, how to do revisions, etc.  Get their feedback on your research design before you begin research. Just having any second set of eyes on your work can be so helpful. And, of course, make use of services like AuthorAID!  Making sure that a paper uses standard grammar in the language of publication, and is logically organized, will go a long way towards increasing the likelihood of getting it into a journal.  So many people are doing really great research within the funding constraints that they face, but just need some assistance in communicating their results clearly, and AuthorAID is a great tool for that.

Another of the things I’m often struck by when editing is repetition. Often I tell authors that their ideas will come through much more clearly if they can be succinct. You don’t need to repeat for emphasis. And you can use simpler words such as ‘used’ instead of ‘utilized’ for example.

Do you have any tips for other mentors on how they could best organize their time?

Another good question!  It’s gotten easier for me to allocate time to AuthorAID this academic year, because I’m doing my own research and haven’t otherwise got a fixed schedule, so I can edit all day if I need to.  It was more difficult when I had to balance this with PhD coursework and teaching over the previous year.  The main challenge is that in-depth editing often takes a long time – frequently up to an hour per page, if it really needs line-by-line grammar edits and reorganization.  I would often tell an author that I could return their paper by next week, then realize that it was actually going to take 10 hours rather than two or three. If I were in that situation again, I would both block out larger chunks of time for uninterrupted editing, and give authors a more conservative estimate of how long it might take to return their paper.  The volunteer mentor model has a lot of advantages, but I do think this is one of the challenges – it’s dependent on already-busy volunteers making time for the work. ■

If you feel you could also offer support to developing country researchers, we would love to hear from you. For more information see our website at http://www.authoraid.info/en/mentoring/ or email us at authoraid@inasp.info

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