Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Making Change

The topic for today is whether/how much some of us academics change our research focus over the years. Some of you are too young to have sufficient data to answer this question for yourself, but even you youngsters can look around at more senior researchers and see whether and how much people change research focus over the years, from very dramatic changes to a small but perceptible shift.

Some possibilities are:

(1) dramatic: this could be very dramatic, like a change from chemistry to classical languages, or it could be within the same general field but with a change to a totally different subfield.

(2) semi-dramatic: this could involve a shift motivated by interdisciplinary research -- for example, a physical scientist who increasingly became involved in a major way in the life sciences or engineering such that they develop a new field of expertise. In this case, they still have their feet in their original field and subfield, but they also have a new research identity. This type of change is not so rare, or even surprising in some fields, but it still does involve a rather major shift.

(3) perceptible but not very remarkable: this type of change could involve a change in the types of research problems addressed, but the researcher would still be mostly identified with their original subfield; maybe someone develops new research methods that can be applied to different types of problems and this motivates a bit of branching out in research questions and subfields, probably with lots of help from colleagues in these other subfields. Or maybe interests shifts, new collaborations lead to new interests, and so on. There are lots of ways that this type of change can (and probably should) happen during a career.

And then there's:

(4) no change worthy of note.

Although I certainly know some in the first two categories, I think many of us are in the third category, which describes what I think is a rather normal sort of change in the course of a career. I am trying to think of examples of category 4, and I can think of a few people who have done the exact same thing for many many years (some with great success), but I still think various shades of category 3 are more common.

Do any of you consider yourself a category (1) or (2) or (4), or are most of us (3)s? You could answer about your advisor or other academics you have observed if this question isn't relevant to you (yet).


Anonymous said...

I have more respect for people who do (1) and (2) as that requires more guts, risk-taking, boldness, and broadening of horizons. It's also a lot more challenging and the chances of failure are higher.

I'm dismayed that most "successful" people that I see in my place of work (a federal lab) are (3) and (4). Doing essentially the same thing throughout one's entire career has, I think, led to a lot of narrow mindedness and tunnel vision and lack of creativity. But I can understand why people do this - it's safer.

Some of my most successful colleagues in academia are (2). Those who are (3) seem to be struggling.

Unknown said...

I met an amazing guy at my first conference as a postgraduate who, despite mainly working on animal physiology (blood, I think?) was presenting a paper on how flamingo flowers (the ones with the leaf that functions as a petal and then a big spike) produce a ridiculous amount of heat to attract beetles to pollinate them. I think he was at a stage in his career where nobody would question a side project, but I thought that was fantastic!

Anonymous said...

Does transitioning between early career steps count? If so, then my husband would be a 1.5- he switched to a different sub-sub-field between grad school and post-doc (ie he goes to the same big national conference annually, uses many of the same tools and materials, but with completely different science goals to the point that it's quite a steep learning curve). His switch was motivated by the fact that his future career options would likely be much more limited in his PhD field. Something tells me that this sort of transition during that career step is much more common.

GMP said...

I am currently undergoing a period of intense boredom with my research area, and something will have to change. However, since I have students to support and I need to maintain continuity in the lab, this change cannot be as abrupt in time or topic as I could pull off if I were alone, following my own interests.

I remember a few years ago, a very successful female academic said she was going to undergo a change during her sabbatical as it's been enough of doing one thing for the past 10 years. She didn't do it. To an outsider, it still looks like she is doing the exact same thing (very successfully).

Making a dramatic change of research field is pretty hard (so it seems to me): you need to build up expertise and funding in a new field where you are unknown while maintaining your group's funding and productivity in the old field in order to keep lab's continuity.

Anonymous said...

This is a major issue and of great interest to me currently. I am now mid-late career (53) and have both made this transition successfully once and am now striving to make it again. I started my career as a "molecular biologist" applying his skills to developmental biology. That was the challenge in those days--we were among the first to clone genes that regulated normal development.

However, once we did so, it gradually dawned on us that these cloned genes encoded proteins, and those proteins did work within cells. We needed to become cell biologists. I was fortunate in having taken a job where I was surrounded by some superb cell biologists, and to be in a field where I was welcomed as (at the time) the token person working on development using my model animal. I thus made this transition successfully (I was also young then a fairly malleable, and had a terrific postdoc mentor who pioneered both fields). While most of my colleagues of my generation also made this transition, some did not, and their careers have suffered to greater to lesser extents as a result, to the degree that some are out of the business and others are now largely research inactive or heading there.

I am now faced with a new challenge--the future of my field now requires sophisticated quantitative and computational tools, both for analysis and modeling, and I need to add those to our labs skill set. I am not likely to do this myself at this point, and thus need to recruit folks with these skills and push my current students and postdocs to develop them. We're doing some if it by collaboration, which helps, and also trying, as a Department, to hire in this area.

If I don't make this challenge, the future for our work and our impact is much less bright.

Mark P

EcoNerd said...

As a young assistant prof, one of the patterns I see in my peers is that many of the successful ones are working on a manageable number of distinct research projects that in some cases are fairly distinct. What seems to be a 'change' from the perspective of colleagues in a subfield may simply be a re-allocation of effort among these.

More generally, I think most of the 'new' questions we work on have identifiable roots in the old ones.

Anonymous said...

Although I am not very high in academic ladder, but I belong in (2). I move from Physics to physical chemistry to bioengineering (also from theory to experimental science to biomedical sciences) with changing sub-sub-fields (although the big field which makes all these sub-sub fields possible is still the same). Most of these changes were due to life issues as I moved from place to place with my family and accepted the job offer which fit best, but it was also due to the fact that I love accepting new challenges and working on new problems every few years. This does reflects on my CV as it takes a year or so to get in tune with new area before you can produce anything useful. I might move out of academia sooner or later as I can not convince bean-counters how exciting and useful this could be.

Richard Edgar said...

I'm probably a 2; I started out in theoretical astrophysics, and then got involved in instrumentation and, as a result, the engineering and software required to make things work, in a vacuum, far from help.

Anonymous said...

I would say (2).

I was brought into the FFRDC where I now work to be the "expert" in a specific field. But by the time I actually began work, funding in that area dried up and I had no choice but to work on other projects. I am now considered the "expert" in a couple of completely different fields than my Ph.D.

Anonymous said...

I think I'm a (2). However, it is hard!

Anonymous said...

I don't see many struggling 3's. Being a high-functioning 3 can be lots of fun.

Anonymous said...

I'm too young for this question to be relevant, but I see some "pure" science faculty (Chemistry, Physics, etc. PhDs) in Engineering departments. I would say these people are generally the cream of the crop - as it was harder for them to transition into engineering that someone who just had an engineering background (maybe this is why, my sample size is probably not large enough to make definitive conclusions.) Also, this is a little different from the original question - these people were not so much changing research direction as changing departments, where there are naturally overlap in expertise.

Again, I haven't walked the academic faculty route, but it seems that being 1 or 2 takes courage. When I was an undergradate I changed research fields as I got to know my interest, and I was worried about what it might do to my graduate school applications. Will they not think I'm focused? Will they wonder why I did that? I can only imagine what it's like when you're trying to build a career and trying to make a change at the same time...but I'm not sure how related these two situations are, so take everything I say with a grain of salt.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

(1) or (2). From math undergrad to computer science grad, to VLSI design EE faculty, to computer engineering faculty (logic minimization), to bioinformatics (protein structure prediction), and now changing again to bioinformatics (genome assembly from sequence data).

I've created and taught dozens of different courses, and expect to continue creating new courses until I retire.

Anonymous said...

I did a 1.5 between grad school and postdoc. Since then closer to 3, though starting to have some interdisciplinary collaborations that would, if I got really deep into them, put me into the 1-2 range. Probably won't get that deep into them any time soon, but it keeps things interesting.

While it may seem adventurous to get into a new field, sometimes it is a symbol of sliding into a mellow old age. I work in a societally relevant physical science field, and seen some prominent senior citizens in my field start getting into the "human" side of the field, after spending their whole careers up to that point in the "hard science" side. I think this is because they perceive (rightly or wrongly... I tend to think it's some of both) that the standards are lower there and they can make a contribution without working as hard. This is well known to those fields that have been invaded by ex-particle physicists.

Anonymous said...

I know many people in my field who are actually doing (3) or (4) yet *think* they are doing (1) or (2). You can tell from how they talk that they have no idea how shortsighted they are beyond their sub specialty

C said...

I am a (1) - within the same field but now in a completely different subfield, as far away from the previous subfield as it's possible to be.

The change was unexpected and largely due to circumstances. What's also really weird is that my research partner (we did a lot of research and writing together) in my former subfield has also made exactly the same change, for different reasons.

Life is strange sometimes.

Anonymous said...

I am an example of a 1 or 2. I made a mid-career change from really basic plant cell biology to ecological risk assessment at the large scale. It is one of the best things I have done in my career. However, I have found that the transition is not well regarded by promotion review committees. They don't realize how hard it is or why it produces a gap in productivity (as measured by the academic yardstick of papers published per year). Also, they don't understand contributions to public policy if they think you should be doing data-driven science. Outside of this roadblock, it's been totally worth it.

Anonymous said...

A mentor of mine said something that I really take to heart: "No matter what, in 10 years, we can't be doing the same thing and succeed. Either we will have succeeded, in which case it isn't research any more, or we will have failed, in which case nobody will want to fund it any more."

That said, I think the difference between (1), (2), and (3) can also be a matter of perspective and what measuring stick you're using. For a good example for myself, at the conferences I attend, in some cases I am clearly (3), since everything I'm working on flows from the same scientific and methodological core. In other venues, however, I am clearly a (2) or even a (1), because it's a *totally* foreign application area where my work as only recently begun being used and I barely even know the jargon.

Anonymous said...

I have done 1 or 2 (lets call this 1.5) a couple of times and a few different 3s. I work in an interdisciplinary department but even for the department, I am on the diverse end. It definitely had drawbacks, especially in terms of giving coherent job talks. It also means you have to make a new name for yourself in each field all over again (and some fields are very territorial). I told myself I'd stop doing this as TT faculty but I found myself using a totally new methodology and a few new directions already on the TT. I can't seem to help it. It's a bit of a research ADD.

On the other hand, doing this has enabled me to do creative and unique work. Not everyone appreciates this but many do. It's pretty clear I am not a one trick pony. I also didn't have any issues proving independence from advisors/senior collaborators.

For people like me I suggest maintaining one continuous line of research to stay on the safe side. Take risks, explore, but have that one corner of a field in which you remain consistently productive. My work in a smallish subfield has given me a consistent community within which I am recognized and produce. And I feel less stressed out when I take new directions and take risks.

Overall I enjoy my work - though I have to say it is stressful to work like this. Sometimes I wish I worked on something more specific and well-defined but it seems like this is my process and I do reasonably well anyway. The main worry I have now is if I am hurting my students with this style of work. I try to make sure their work is reasonably coherent, but I am sure they could be doing much more focused and coherent work in other labs.

David S said...

"While it may seem adventurous to get into a new field, sometimes it is a symbol of sliding into a mellow old age. I work in a societally relevant physical science field, and seen some prominent senior citizens in my field start getting into the "human" side of the field, after spending their whole careers up to that point in the "hard science" side. I think this is because they perceive (rightly or wrongly... I tend to think it's some of both) that the standards are lower there and they can make a contribution without working as hard. This is well known to those fields that have been invaded by ex-particle physicists."

I have also noticed some older scientists moving into the "human" side of a field. I do not think it is because they think it's easier. I think it is because when you get to a certain stage in life, you want to know that what you did meant something and made the world a bit better. The "human" side is the side that feels like it's closer to achieving that aim.

As you get older, you have a broader perspective, and the minutiae of hard science doesn't matter as much.

Grant said...

I have worked with several scientists who were very successful in their chosen field but drifted into something else over the years as they chased funding. It is sad but true: money drives much of today's research. If PIs are being well-funded in their research area, they may slowly drift to other things to follow the money.

Lorelei said...

I am in category 1. After a career as a science professor, I'm doing that half time now while I finish an MFA in creative writing. In a few years, I hope to be a writer and an ex-woman scientist.

Closing up my lab was hard but it turns out I also enjoy helping students write better (creatively, not dry academic essays), so that I haven't altogether let go of the joys of teaching a delightful new way to gain insight into the universe.