Monday, 28 May 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).

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