Does an academic need an attention span?

I’m calling my new blog “Scientist Sees Squirrel” in anticipation.  You see, I’m not sure what I’ll be writing about tomorrow, much less next month or next year – but I’m pretty sure that it will resist nice tidy categorization.  I’m interested in insect host-race formation, of course (my research bread-and-butter these days).  But I’m also interested in phylogenetic tree shape, in the evolution of plant tolerance to herbivory, in aggregation and coexistence, and in the ecology of invasions and outbreaks.  More broadly, I’m interested in science as a way of learning (and its use by non-scientists), in the culture and sociology of science and of academia, in science outreach – and increasingly, in scientific writing, including the use of humour and beauty in technical writing.  At least, those are the things I can think of just now.

And that brings me to my topic: these aren’t the same things I would have listed two years ago, or five, or ten.  My career has hopped from research area to research area: from ‘processing chain’ interactions as a PhD student, to competition in mushroom-breeding flies as a postdoc, to stream ecology as a new faculty member, to host-race formation as I approached tenure, and just recently to forest entomology.  And that’s not counting side projects, like the heritability of speciation rates, the clonal diversity of immune response, the phylogenetic structure of communities, or the biogeography of plant-insect interactions.  It also doesn’t count the two years I’ve spent (so far) on a book on scientific writing.  (You can see most of this diversity via my web site).

The question at hand

So does this diversity of interests make me a Renaissance scientist displaying command of many fields, or a dilettante with no attention span who’s jack-of-all-trades but master of none?  And is my field-hopping career path a good or a poor example for early-career researchers to follow?  Some thoughts follow.

Why field-hopping is bad

When I was approaching tenure review (in my first job, at the University of Iowa), about the only unanimous advice I got was that I needed to open my tenure dossier with a short, clear statement of why my apparently diverse research was actually all closely related.  This seemed like really bad news, because I didn’t think it was!  I had thought my research breadth was a strength, increasing my value to my department (and to science), but the senior scientists who would vote on my tenure case seemed to disagree.  Well, actually, there wasn’t much “seeming” about it.  My senior colleagues obviously thought I’d made a big (and repeated) mistake shifting research areas, and were questioning both my judgement and the quality of my work.

At the time, this made me both discouraged and angry.  In hindsight, though, I can see their point: in some ways, field-hopping can hold back early-career progress in science.  Each time I moved into a new research area, to some extent I had to start over, without a toolbox of proven techniques, a command of the literature, or a reputation with grant and manuscript reviewers or potential collaborators.  Furthermore, field-hopping made it harder to attract the very best grad students or postdocs to join my research group.  [An aside to my excellent students: I said harder, not impossible!]  These are real constraints, and I don’t doubt that I published fewer papers as a field-hopper than I might have if I’d stuck with a single research area throughout my career.  Finally, field-hopping made it harder for me to attract the kind of seminar, working-group, or editorial invitations that tenure reviewers might see as signs of international recognition.

Why field-hopping is good

I think there are also ways in which field-hopping made me better.  Least controversially, field-hopping surely improves teaching.  I can teach a wide variety of courses with a decent command of the subject matter, with the ability to bring in up-to-date research, and with the authority that comes with some of that research being my own.  I think field-hopping has also made me better at graduate-student supervision, and more valuable to more people as a supervisory committee member and a thesis examiner.   Similarly, it has made me a better reviewer and made me useful enough as a subject editor for the American Naturalist to keep me on for a dozen years (and counting).

It’s less obvious, but I think true, that field-hopping has also improved my research (qualitatively if not quantitatively).  Most importantly, it’s let me see connections between fields, or between ideas, that wouldn’t have been obvious to that alternative me with a nice long attention span.  As a few examples: I’ve published papers linking processing-chain dynamics with stream ecology, linking phylogenetic tree shape with community structure, linking insect host shifts with the evolution of parasite virulence, and linking phylogenetic community ecology with species distribution modeling.  I think each of these papers built some progress for its research area, precisely because it didn’t just do more of the “usual” experiment or analysis.  Hybrid vigour can be good for science, not just for crops.

On balance

So how has field-hopping influenced my career so far?  With n=1 and no control group, it’s hard to be sure.  I did get tenure at Iowa (although the vote was far from unanimous), and I parlayed that into a tenured appointment at UNB, where I’ve been very, very happy.  I’m not the most cited researcher in ecology and evolution by any means, but my work has had some impact; for instance, seven of my papers have been cited over 100 times.  Those seven papers represent six very distinct research areas: processing chain ecology, key innovations, the biochemistry of enzyme inhibition, phylogenetic tree shape, insect host-race formation, and phylogenetic community ecology.  And while a longer attention span might have brought me a longer list of publications, field-hopping has kept me fresh and kept me passionate about my work.

In my case things have worked out nicely to date, and therefore Non, je ne regrette rien.  But – and here’s a big but – I don’t think I’ve set a very good example for early-career scientists.  At least, not for those in conventional academic appointments.  The quantitative drag on research from field-hopping is probably significant, and the disdain of senior scientists for field-hoppers at tenure time is definitely significant.  Even if you don’t think the hoop should be where it is, when the stakes are high it’s a good idea to jump through it.  A side project is one thing (just one or two, and kept obviously secondary to your main research programme), but before tenure, don’t look like a dilettante.

So do as I say, at least before tenure, not as I’ve done.  Nevertheless, it makes me happy to have published papers (so far) about community ecology, conservation biology, population genetics, biochemistry, systematics, evolution, and beauty in scientific writing, and to have published on insects, plants, birds, primates, carnivores, and viruses.

But squirrels – I’ve never published on squirrels.  Hmm…..

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) Jan 3 2015

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18 thoughts on “Does an academic need an attention span?

  1. Jeremy Fox

    Welcome to blogging! This seemed apropos:

    http://xkcd.com/167/

    More seriously, your post reminds me a bit of my own first post for Dynamic Ecology. I like to think of myself the same way you do–as someone with a head full of interesting medium-sized ideas rather than one big idea. A fox rather than a hedgehog. But whether I’m broad or narrow kind of depends on one’s point of view; I think. Sounds like you have a better case for being a true “fox”. 🙂

    https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/07/09/the-fox-and-the-hedgehog/

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  4. jeffollerton

    Some interesting thoughts here, thanks for sharing. The advice you received from senior colleagues was at best blinkered and at worst flawed. I think it reinforces the point that there’s no single right way to do science, just a lot of wrong ways. Fully agree that being broader is an advantage for teaching. When I was promoted to a professorial chair (UK system) a couple of years ago I opted for the title “Professor Biodiversity” for exactly the reason that the topic is so broad it enables me to explore (research and teach) whatever I find interesting.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Nice reasoning on the “Professor of Biodiversity” title! And while I agree that the advice was blinkered, the very fact that those making the judgement think that way (unfortunately) means it’s in one’s interests to go along! At least before tenure. Thanks for the comment!

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