Tuesday, 4 December 2012

‘Stickers’, ‘Jugglers’ and ‘Switchers & Dumpers’ – Which kind of researcher should you be?

I often look back on my own research career with some surprise at where it’s all travelled to. When I was a PhD student I was a dyed-in-the-wool behaviourist loading rats into Skinner boxes and clichés into arguments. Cognitions didn’t exist – and even in the remote possibility that they might, they were of no use to a scientific psychology. I was a radical Skinnerian pursuing a brave new world in which behaviour was all that mattered and contingencies of reinforcement would win out against all the airy-fairy vagaries of other approaches to psychology. Just a few years on from this I was still wondering why my PhD thesis on the “determinants of the post-reinforcement pause on fixed-interval schedules in rats” hadn’t been nominated for a Nobel Prize! 

I’ve begun with this personal example, because it emphasizes how relatively narrow interests (and views and approaches) can seem like they are the universe – and that is especially the case when you are personally invested in a specific piece of research like a PhD thesis. But what happens later on in our academic lives? Should we stay focused and hone our skills in a focused research niche, or should we nervously wander out of that niche into new areas with new challenges requiring new skills? 

It is certainly a question for young academics to think about. Stick with what you know, or get other strings to your bow? If you are a newly graduated PhD, you are more likely than not to be a “clone” of your supervisor, and that may well be a block on you getting a lectureship at the institution in which you did your research degree. But then most recruiting Departments will want to know that you are – as they put it - “capable of independent research” before appointing you. Do you go scrabbling for that last section in your thesis entitled “Future Directions” and try to stretch out your PhD research (often in a painfully synthetic way, like seeing how far some bubble-gum will stretch – even though the ‘amount’ there is still the same). Or do you bite the bullet and try your newly-learnt skills on some new and different problems? 

You have one career lifetime (unless you’re Buddhist!) – so should you diversity or should you focus? Let’s begin with those people who focus an entire research career in one specific area – “the stickers” - often concentrating on a small, limited number of research problems but maybe have the benefit of developing more and more refined (and sometimes more complex) theoretical models. Cripes – how boring! Take that approach and you’ll become one or more of the following: (a) The person who sits near the front at international conferences and begins asking questions with the phrase “Thank you for your very interesting talk, but…”, (b) That butcher of a referee who everyone knows, even though your reviews are still anonymous, (c) Someone who sits in Departmental recruitment presentations openly mocking the presentation of any applicant not in your specific area of research (usually by looking down at your clasped hands and shaking your head slowly from side to side while muttering words like “unbelievable” or “where’s the science?”, or, finally, you’ll become (d) Director of a RCUK National Research Centre. 

So what about taking that giant leap for researcher-kind and diversifying? Well first, it’s arguably good to have more than one string to your bow, and become a research “juggler”“. The chances are that at some point you’ll get bored with the programme of research that you first embarked on in early career. Having at least two relatively independent streams of research means you can switch your focus from one to the other. It also increases (a) the range of journals you can publish in, (b) the funding bodies you can apply to, and (c) the diversity of nice people you can meet and chat sensibly to at conferences. It can also be a useful way of increasing your publication rate in early mid-career when you’re looking for an Associate Editorship to put on your CV or a senior lectureship to apply for. 

But there is more to diversifying than generating two streams of research purely for pragmatic career reasons. If you’re a tenured academic, you will probably in principle have the luxury of being able to carry out research on anything you want to (within reason) – surely that’s an opportunity that’s too good to miss? B.F. Skinner himself was one who promoted the scientific principle of serendipity (a principle that seems to have gone missing from modern day Research Methods text books) – that is, if something interesting crops up in your research, drop everything and study it! This apparently was how Skinner began his studies on response shaping, which eventually led to his treatise on operant conditioning. But diversity is not always a virtue. There are some entrepreneurial “switchers and dumpers” out there, who post a new (and largely unsubstantiated) theory about something in the literature, and then move on to a completely new (and often more trending) area of research, leaving researchers of the former topic to fight, bicker and prevaricate, often for years, about what eventually turns out to be a red herring, or a blind alley, or a complete flight of fancy designed to grab the headlines at the time. 

Now, you’ve probably got to the point in this post where you’re desperate for me to provide you with some examples of “stickers”, “jugglers” and “switchers and dumpers” – well, I think you know who some of these people are already, and I’m not going to name names! But going back to my first paragraph, if you’d told me as a postgraduate student about the topics I would be researching now – I would have been scornfully dismissive. But somehow I got here, and through an interesting and enjoyable pathway of topics, ideas, and serendipitous routes. Research isn’t just about persevering at a problem until you’ve tackled it from every conceivable angle, it’s also an opportunity to try out as many candies in the shop as you can – as long as you sample responsibly!

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