Pre-tenure survival: Research diversity

Jul 10 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

This is a topic I think I'm going to get some strong counter arguments on, but it's also something that has been essential for my labs ability to navigate tight funding lines. For my own success, one of the best things I did pre-tenure was diversify my research around two central themes. At any given point we've had two to three minimally overlapping projects around each theme. Some have worked out great and some have resulted in only a single publication. But they have all produced something.

More importantly, this strategy has kept up publications in two different scientific fields. Because of that, we've gotten federal and state funding in each of these areas and continue to seek funding for the different projects in each. Diverse topics means diverse research funding sources and programs.

Of course, diverse research topics also means spreading resources thinner, including time and money. It means having to stay on top of more than one body of literature. You'll find that there are certain things that students can't train other students in. It's time consuming and you risk being the jack of all trades and master of none.

But I'm watching the consequence of a single focus play out with a friend of mine right now. He's been successful as a solid contributor to a field that has ballooned recently. But in the last few years there has been a massive $$ dump into the field, with a focus on a few labs. The result is that those labs have more people and more money and churning out papers rapidly. The field has been suddenly and massively tilted. Not only does this have significant consequences for my friend's research program, but his trainees are on the outside looking in as well.

BTW, neuro peeps, how is that whole BRAIN initiative going to distribute funds?

In any case, I'm not suggesting you diversify your research program in case some funding agency drops a lot of money on your direct competition, but there are numerous benefits to keeping a wide base. It made my pre-tenure experience better and more successful.

7 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Run for daylight, noobs, run for daylight.

  • meshugena313 says:

    As a no-longer-noob (almost 5 years in), I can state that I successfully diversified my lab on 2 major topics, except that they complement each other well and are essentially in the same sub-field. And each project is now funded, 1 with a foundation grant and a brand new R01, the other with american cancer society $.

    Not sure that I would have had the ballz (to gratuitously bring gender into this) to start with 2 completely distinct projects. If I were a BSD it would be fun, though.

  • E-roock says:

    My summary statements have caused me to reach the opposite conclusion about diversification. I do not believe most could replicate your situation. I've seen it tried thru to the Full Prof level, and those people are labeled as dabblers and other unkind words. Also got a veiled warning from a committee member about this years ago. Wise person, that.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Remember that I don't run in the bio-med world, so your milage may vary. However, NSF is also looking at near historicly low pay lines and I believe that our success at getting concurrent grants funded is directly attributable to the diversification I described. If I was stuck going to one or two panels in a single directorate, I think we would be in a different situation.

  • GMP says:

    I have also done the diversification thing and it worked out well for me.
    People who focus on a single topic, hard, for many years, have the potential to become very prominent. But, they have a greater risk of failing, too.

    I am in the NSF world as well (physical sciences), and have always had 2-3 single-PI grants (not all from NSF), with additional ones from with collaborators. I actually have three different directorates at the NSF where I now submit, as I have a track record on all of the topics, but that took some doing.

    I think diversification is a very good approach, if you can pull it off, and that really depends on the personality. I have research ADD, and I *have* to dabble in order not to be bored. Also, a number of different projects really helps keep the productivity up. My group cross-section now is three people on a very hot material (different properties of said material), one of them overlaps in the phenomenon they study with a fourth student who works on different materials (so two people on that hot phenomenon thrust), and three other students who each have their own fairly separate topics; of those three, I have prior publications and a strong track record in 2 subareas, the one student who is doing stuff really unrelated work is funded as TA and some large center money, so basically fringe funding.

    I would say that I follow 4 different bodies of literature, and that's probably the most exhausting part, as PlS says above, as I constantly feel like I am not keeping up and am missing things. The "hot material" and "hot phenomenon" studies are extremely prolific fields now; both are areas I got into over the last 4-5 years, didn't do them when I started on the TT. I will say, though, that students are happier and productivity per student is higher when there are at least 2 people doing closely related work. Having a sole student on something that is barely related to what others are doing can get demoralizing, and only some students have the psychological strength to pull it off. (I work on theory/simulation.)

  • Dr. Noncoding Arenay says:

    "I will say, though, that students are happier and productivity per student is higher when there are at least 2 people doing closely related work. Having a sole student on something that is barely related to what others are doing can get demoralizing, and only some students have the psychological strength to pull it off. (I work on theory/simulation.)"

    I agree with this and it applies to experimental sciences as well. The discussions and brainstorming between two+ minds is always interesting and insightful.

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