Finding my research center

For the last two weeks, I have been utterly consumed by logistics. I’ve come home from a trip to Utopia and a research project there, have been in the field twice locally scouting a project here, and am preparing for field work in Midwest next month. I’m starting to have dreams about losing boxes of field equipment to the airlines. At the same time, I’ve been continuing to do lots of thinking about “what I want to be when I grow up” – when I go up for tenure, or go back on the job market, what will my research program have become, in which subfield will I fit or which subfields will I straddle.

I’m coming to realize that it’s not enough to think about research in terms of grant X or paper Y, but I need to think about how the pieces reflect a coherent and self-sustaining research program. It’s nice if I have an idea and can get a grant to do a project and write a paper, but if that grant/project/paper doesn’t mesh with the rest of my scholarship, then I am spending a lot of time learning about field sites, relearning techniques, and reading the literature, rather than actually, you know, advancing my science.

Taking stock of where I am now, I have current or proposed research in four states on three pretty different topics. Maybe if I had lots of money and an army of competent, independent graduate students such a sweeping research program would be manageable, but mostly it’s just me and a few very beginning grad students and limited pot of $. Hopefully both will improve over time, but I’ve got to take care not to burn out before they do.

So I think I need to start small – and focused. When the project in Midwest wraps up, I don’t plan to continue the line of research. I may continue to work in that part of the country, because the field accommodations and free babysitting (i.e., ScienceGrandma) can’t be beat, but I’ll make sure to keep the research really closely tied to my other work. If our big proposal to work Out West gets funded, all future research in Midwest will go on indefinite hold, but if the current proposal for Out West is rejected, I’m not going to seek out more opportunities to work out there for a while. Projects in Utopia will continue to wrap up as well.

Where I really need to be geographically focused is close to home, in Mystery State. The logistics are easier (not to mention cheaper) when you can drive to your field sites in a few hours and run back to the lab if you forget (or break) a crucial piece of equipment. Grad students can visit the sites more easily and frequently too. I don’t have to totally overturn Minnow’s life if I work within commuting distance or 1-2 night trips to the field rather than fly-cross-country sort of adventures. Working close to home will also inform my teaching in way that is directly relevant to my students and may even help me feel grounded in Mystery State, where the culture, climate, and -ology still feel like a foreign land.

By choosing to be geographically focused near home, I am also choosing to effectively eliminate two lines of research that could be seen as natural out-growths of my PhD work- the -ology here in Mystery State just isn’t right. But that’s OK – I have lots of ideas for research around here. And if I stop jetting around the continent (physically and intellectually), maybe I’ll actually speed up the establishment of those projects and the production of data and papers.

All this long-range thinking and planning is fine and good, but Saturday morning I get on a plane for Midwest, and between now and then, I’ve got to finish with the logistics…


  1. #1 Kim
    June 26, 2008

    Field-based -ologies are tough in that way – I wonder if people in lab-based disciplines understand that. I like to be grounded in the place where I live, but it takes a lot of work to get established in a place – to get to know the specifics of the area, and to get to know the researchers who are already working there, and who can become collaborators, reviewers, or competitors. It complicates moves to post-docs or new jobs. (Not that setting up a lab is easy, but field-based -ologists often have both labs and field sites, and need to set up both.)

    Anyway, as another field-based person who has lived or worked in all the US time zones except for Hawaii, I feel for you.

  2. #2 Dr. MCR
    June 26, 2008

    Great comment from Kim on a thought-provoking post. As someone in a lab science, I think I get at least part of the issue you’re bringing up- I think for lab scientists it may be more an issue of the microenvironment of one’s insitution and/or speciality within the discipline. For example, when I came to my U (16 years here) I had to make some of the same kind of choices you’re talking about, not based on location of field sites, but other limitations associated with my U. At the time I came, the economy was bad and I received a really modest start-up package. Also, I came when the U was much more teaching-focused, and lab sciences were not well-supported. I chose it because to this day I enjoy teaching, big quality of life issues, and our family’s desire to stay in the West, but from a scholarly standpoint, I had to cut loose 2 areas of research I was doing as a postdoc because the infrastructure of my U was not adequate to support the work. I had to be creative and bootstrap not only the setup of my lab before my grant started (if you ever need to know anything about buying used scientific equipment, let me know), but my research areas as well. That was the fist time I experienced the smallness of the international community of scholars doing work related to mine- it was hard to find folks to collaborate, and I actually had a senior scientist steal an idea from me. I learned the lessons, and have managed to develop as sustainable, funded, reserach program I can do here that I like doing, but wow, did I make some mistakes along the way. Good for you for having a clear vision of what you need to do to focus now- I hope you have or can find a senior scientist to help you when and if you need- that relationship pretty much saved me from my mistakes being show-stoppers. Hang in there!

  3. #3 Jane
    June 27, 2008

    This is a great post! It’s a good reminder for everyone—junior, established, or otherwise—that we need to always be thinking about the big picture in our research lives, and how crucial it is to have that broad view of not just *what* we’re doing, but *why* ultimately are we doing it.

  4. #4 another female -ologist
    June 27, 2008

    I am struggling with this, too. I am in a teaching-focused institution that expects (requires) local field studies. Luckily I’m in an area that’s full of the right type of -ology, but at the same time I don’t have the equipment or infrastructure or release time here to make the lab-based portion be as… rigorous as I’d like it to be. And coming from a purely research background, that’s a tough transition. I’m trying to finish up my postdoc research and expand my dissertation research, both of which require specific equipment which I don’t have.

    So it’s like… where/when/how do you cut the cord? I loved my previous lines of work, but they’re not feasible here for a variety of reasons (extended travel requirements to remote places being a major factor). Like you, I’m trying to figure out what exactly it is that I want to concentrate on, and then do it really well. Field studies put an additional constraint on that.

  5. #5 Karina
    June 28, 2008

    Your post inspired me to finish a post that I started a few weeks ago on this topic. I recently returned from my first visit to my field site for my Ph.D. work in Africa. It got me thinking about working far from home and where I want to be working (generally) when I finish my Ph.D. and how I might go about doing that. Field work is exciting and I actually love all of the logistical planning but I realized on this trip that I’m not as excited about long-term international travel as I was when I applied to grad school.

  6. #6 Gabriel
    July 2, 2008

    So, choices never end

  7. #7 Dr. Mom
    July 2, 2008

    This is exactly what I have been dealing with in the last year. The big picture is so much more important than a smattering of interesting, but unrelated projects.

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