5 months ago
Friday, April 13, 2007
An example of a 'fine line' in research relates to establishing boundaries between the research projects of different students and postdocs working in the same group.
Sometimes it is obvious where those boundaries are, but in those cases the danger can be that the person working on the 'distinct' project might feel isolated from the rest of the group; e.g., the green circle in my dorky diagram on the left.
If we imagine that each individual can be represented as a dot positioned in some way with respect to various axes (perhaps representing techniques or subfields or something like that), and the diameter of the circle (sphere) around each person represents the breadth of their research, what degree of overlap between spheres is best? The answer of course depends on the type of research and also, to some extent, the personalities of the people involved, but in general, what's the best way to figure out the optimal degree of overlap?
Just when I think I've got it figured out, at least for the short-term, a mini-crisis arises involving someone feeling territorial or worrying that another person is going to out-compete them (and therefore get the best job etc.), and I have to dive back in and sort things out. In general, I think everything works well if all the group members are working hard and dealing proactively with any obstacles that arise. But life is complicated and sometimes that isn't possible.
Even when everything is working, though, there are issues of authorship (including authorship order) and credit. Having a harmonious research group depends both on the good will of the individuals (I am fortunate in this respect with my present group) and to some extent on how I organize the overlap so that the overlap leads to synergy and not to stressful territorial behavior. It's also my job to keep the lines of communication open among group members, including me, but at the same time to not let every minor intra-group disagreement become a big deal. Some people can do this effortlessly, without all the psycho-social-analysis, but it doesn't come naturally to me. I have to work to stay aware and involved in the group dynamics, so that the fun part -- the research -- proceeds.