Thursday, October 08, 2009

Fire Levels

Yesterday I mentioned something about the "fire" that some of us have for research. If you have this "fire" it means that you are deeply fascinated by research and discovery; you are motivated by a strong desire to investigate and answer questions; you are thrilled by new results and ideas.

Perhaps some people have this fire always. Definitely some never have it. For others -- perhaps most of us -- the flame flickers and may even appear to be extinguished at times.

If I were to graph my research-fire level vs. time, the time averaged result would show a steady presence of research-fire. If you looked at specific data points, however, you would see some extreme wiggles in the curve, including some very low points (though nothing like what one of my PhD students experienced in the lead-up to the defense). In my academic career, there have been months/years, especially during my student years but a few in the post-PhD years, in which events conspired to squelch my enthusiasm for science, research, academia or all three.

The research-thrill always came back. Typically the fire-squelching was driven by some sort of harassment or by major problems with co-workers or students. Through the bad times, however, I never completely lost my interest in research; sometimes it just seemed like the interesting parts of my job were overshadowed by the awful parts. On a few occasions I wondered if it was worth it to keep going or whether I should figure out a new career plan.

I haven't felt that way in a long time. The curve on the research fire level graph has defined a rather high plateau for the last 10 years or so, with only one valley of any note.

I think that once you find a good environment and are fortunate to have the opportunity to do the research you want to do, the research-fire level can stay high and can withstand the occasional negative things that happen in the course of any career and life. After a while, something that would have been a crisis or at least the cause for major anxiety and/or sadness doesn't have such a significant or sustained effect anymore.

Tenure helps with this, of course, but so does knowing that you have written successful grant proposals, you have successfully advised grad students and postdocs, you have received good teaching evaluations, and you have published papers (that were cited). Then, even if a proposal is turned down or a paper rejected and even if a vindictive student writes a scathing evaluation or a grad student flames out, you know that life goes on, the research and teaching fun will continue, and the disappointments will be interspersed with more happy events.

That perspective is one reason why I like being middle-aged. Perhaps it is the only reason, but it's a pretty good one all the same.

Tonight my mood (but not fire-level) has taken a minor hit because it turns out that the exciting research results I was expecting have been postponed for a couple of weeks. Unlike holidays and birthdays, which come on schedule, research results can be delayed, alas.


Data Kittens

19 comments:

I Hidalgo said...

Hhhmmm...so I am not alone!

Dreich said...

If you're lucky enough to find something you enjoy, it's more likely you'll keep the fire burning longer.

With most things in life if you don't fully understand something you'll be more reserved in your approach as you don't wish to look stupid infront of your peers.

However if you understand the principles of what you're doing you're more likely to be excited and more enthusiastic with your research.

Of course if you plain just don't like what you're doing, you'll find everyday repetitive and slowly die inside.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post! I read your previous post and felt quite sad, thinking I used to be like this, used to really care about science and results and used to get incredibly excited about new and interesting results.

Now, I just feel exhausted all the time, uninterested in everything and annoyed at everyone. My research environment has changed; I work in a very collaborative group and the composition has changed so there are members I don't get along well with whose research philosphy is very different from mine (and who aren't very nice, frankly). Also, the general direction of our department is changing. I dislike the environmnet enough that I can't seem to enjoy the research anymore. I wonder nearly every day if I should quit.

So it was really nice to read this post, and realize that it's not really the science that is the problem, but the non-scientific aspects of the environment. And it's so nice to hear that it's possible to experience lows like this and move past them (perhaps to a new, more supportive environment?) and that the "fire" for research can come back...

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I have had ups and down in my enthusiasm for research, although, like you, the last ten years have been a nearly constant plateau of high enthusiasm. There was one moment six or seven years ago when it felt like fourth-down and goal, but I dug deep, gave it 110%, lined up behind my O-line, and drove for the touchdown! lolz

I Can Haz Data? PLEEZ!

scicurious said...

I hate to break it to you, but the data I worked with last night was WAY cuter than those kittens. Shocking, I know...

John V said...

Mostly I agree with FSP, but when I recall roadblocks, they were mainly from my own poor choice of projects. Sometimes people didn't treat me well, but it was largely due to my choosing overly technical targets, or targets on which progress was unlikely or irrelevant, or people with which to collaborate who were poor choices.

Also, to be contrarian about some posts, I find the excitement comes from people who need the results. Few senior scientists are blasé about results they would be remiss to ignore. They are particularly intrigued by tentative interpretations that are presented with an accurate perspective - this is Nature & Science material. So people who find their advisors oppressive may be reflecting their own poorly conceived, executed or presented work.

Monisha said...

For me, both the science-y pieces AND the non-sciency pieces have affected the fire over the years.

With the non-sciencey pieces, both annoying workplace issues AND highly engaging family life have interfered.

But, i have to admit, that for me the fire can also get squelched by stuff within the science itself - being wrong can temporarily depress my interest, particularly if, as happens occasionally, i find myself to be wrong in an uninteresting way....

Anonymous said...

Like John V, my low-flame moments were almost exclusively due to bad data or science that wasn't going in the direction I'd hoped. I'm also male. I've had my share of personal conflicts, but during these I'm always grateful to have work I enjoy because it enables me to withdraw from whatever personal issues I'm having and pursue my Science...

Anonymous said...

I wish I could get to that state. I still love the data but getting it published is a major struggle right now. And getting the next grant hangs on the publications so there is a lot of uncertainty over the future of my lab. I wish I had the security to just do science.

yolio said...

I can not express how re-assuring it is to hear you say this:

"Typically the fire-squelching was driven by some sort of harassment or by major problems with co-workers or students. Through the bad times, however, I never completely lost my interest in research; sometimes it just seemed like the interesting parts of my job were overshadowed by the awful parts. On a few occasions I wondered if it was worth it to keep going or whether I should figure out a new career plan."

Chris said...

Data kittens are excellent! I have had a recent slide in research fire due to a combination of putting the paper before the work, and as a result, having a few papers in a row either rejected or not submitted at all. Now that I have decided to focus on the work and (perhaps foolishly) let the publications slide for a few months, I find the fire returning.

Ms.PhD said...

Thanks, FSP. Your basket o' kittens was definitely the highlight of my day thus far.

John V, DISAGREE.

From what I can tell, based on anecdata (comments on my blog and from talking to lots of women grad students and postdocs), women's fire levels usually drop due to lack of a supportive atmosphere, if not a downright nasty set of circumstances (harassment, etc.). Not because of poorly chosen projects, etc. But this may be partly because, at least in my field, it's unusual for students and postdocs to really be allowed to pursue ideas of our own.

And no, not all advisers are such wise and wonderful teachers (although I hear such people do exist). Actually, in all the cases that I've seen, the overly risky, poor projects were proposed by the overbearing evil PI, not by the naive, inexperienced student.

Also, not all students and postdocs are ungrateful or unwilling to take feedback - though I'll agree, many are! I listened to a student today who continues to ignore my advice and then continues to whine about her problems (all of which would have been avoided if she would have treated my advice with the respect it deserved).

I don't get it. I was the opposite kind of student- always thirsting for suggestions and willing to go down every path to find out which ones would work. I have to assume it is just that she wants me as a therapist, but does not respect me as a scientist.

John V said...

Ms PhD,

We are likely in different fields. I conceived and executed a wide variety of useless projects in my first few years of graduate school, (and sporatically continue that process today).

I didn't call my advisors wise and wonderful. I said they paid attention to well done and well presented results that they would be derelict to neglect. There were plenty of my fiascos that they felt free to ridicule and neglect.

The PhD Mommy said...

I think, unfortunately, the politics in academia can get in the way of letting the fire lead you. Most of the disgruntled grad students I knew in grad school weren't unsure of whether they liked science/research... they were tired of being treated like crap by their advisors. Some of the people left academia in pursuit of jobs in industry or out of the field all together. Would you suggest that only those with the fire have the ability to push through the politics?

Anonymous said...

"I think that once you find a good environment and are fortunate to have the opportunity to do the research you want to do, the research-fire level can stay high and can withstand the occasional negative things that happen in the course of any career and life."

I have yet to find a good environment that lets me do the research I want to do. Either the research is what I want to do but the environment is bad, or vice versa.

Also, personal problems can really overshadow everything else - death in the family, divorce, becoming disabled, some other serious and permanent loss in your personal life can I think, affect your zeal for research. Maybe not forever, but certainly long enough for your reduced productivity to have major and long lasting impacts on your career.

ExpatGrad said...

I had the opposite situation to Anonymous at 04:48:00 AM. I spent much of my first two years in graduate school questioning whether I liked science because going to the lab made me miserable. I couldn't figure out whether it was the work or the dysfunctional group dynamics, and negative attitudes of some members. Over time, the composition of the group has changed and I have been able to develop some functional working relationships. It feels like a black cloud lifting and suddenly, I can enjoy doing research.

I am a woman, and it is possible that work environment affects women more than men, but I wouldn't jump to conclusions. In my group, the men were pretty unhappy, too. Most of them "dealt" with the situation by some combination of conflict avoidance and blaming others, which only contributed to making the problems worse and longer-lasting. In my opinion this was not a very functional response in the long term, even if it allowed them to get more work done in the short term. (Anon 12:26, take note)

Does anyone know of good research on this issue (gender differences/similarities in response to workplace environment)?

ExpatGrad said...

In this study, female professors more frequently reported interpersonal conflict as a source of stress at work (37% of females vs. 22% of males), while male professors more frequently reported wasted time and effort (30% of males vs. 16% of females).

http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/40005770/abstract

Balancing Act said...

Thank you so much for this post! I am one of those grad students that people don't believe have fire. I have a slowly burning ember, which I hope means it will last a long, long time rather than flashing and flaring, then burning out quickly. Certainly, sometimes it burns a little hotter and stronger than other times. Unfortunately, it never seems to burn so hot that anybody every thinks "That Balancing Act sure is a research fiend."

I know grad students who hate research by a couple years into their schooling. Even having done undergrad research, they really didn't realize that research was not what they liked. For those, there is no fire at all.

Thoryke said...

Yay data kittens!