In the first two articles of this series, we offered tips on maximizing publications and citations (part 1), and on collaboration and networking (part 2). In this final article of the series, we offer guidance for early-career scientists on developing a big-picture research strategy.
The postdoc and the first 6 years of the independent academic career are crucial: Your performance during that time and the decisions you make establish the foundation for the rest of your professional life (Pfirman, 2005).
During these critical years, scholarship must be your top priority. This is the time for exploration, for discovering in detail what interests you, identifying your professional goals, and for mustering the resources you need to pursue those goals relentlessly and energetically. Achieving recognition from your department, institution, and professional community requires the production of high-quality, important scholarship--and that, in turn, requires funding. All this needs to be done on a certain schedule: Meeting, or even exceeding, performance expectations 6 months after your tenure review won't do you much good--although several of our colleagues produced their landmark papers just a little too late but went on to noteworthy careers (at other institutions).
One of the most important things you can do during these first few years is set your research on a clear, well-considered course. This means a thoughtfully conceived but flexible research plan.
The Importance of Planning
Good plans require time to mature, so, although a research plan can germinate at any career stage, a good time to start is when you enter your first postdoctoral appointment.
A recent analysis found that postdoctoral scholars who established written productivity expectations with their advisers were much more productive than those who didn't (Davis, 2005). They submitted papers to peer-reviewed journals at a 23% higher rate, first-author papers at a 30% higher rate, and grant proposals at a 25% higher rate than those without written plans.
Having a plan at that early stage can also help you apply for jobs. Many advertisements for academic positions ask applicants to articulate their research goals. Once you have a research plan, it's easy to summarize and submit.
So what exactly is a research plan, and what goes into it? Consider the following questions:
What area of science really interests you?
Within that area, what specific questions are you curious about?
What gaps exist in the knowledge within the scope of that curiosity?
Why is filling those gaps important to your profession and society?
How do your particular skills and expertise prepare you to fill those gaps?
Once you have thought about these five points and come up with some preliminary answers, ask--and answer--another set of questions:
What support and resources (i.e., space, equipment, and money) will you need?
Whom might you collaborate with?
Where should you go for funding?
What audience (scientific and otherwise) will be interested in your results?
A research plan should present the big picture of your research and its motivation, but it should also connect that big picture, in time, to countless small but important details. For more on timelines, keep reading.
You might also want to develop a concept map, a graphical tool for organizing and representing knowledge, that depicts your approach and how it relates to the existing body of knowledge. Concept maps have been shown to be useful in communicating ideas across disciplines (Heemskerk et al., 2003). They can also help you identify gaps in your approach and the approaches of others and help you make new and useful connections. An overview of how to construct a concept map can be found in Novak and Cañas (2006), who employ a downloadable program called CmapTools.
Cole (2000) observed that there is a "fairly clear hierarchy of value associated with most scientific work." Theoretical work is valued the most because it leads to quantifiable predictions that often transcend the immediate problem. If you are an experimentalist and can do so without digressing from your clear research course, consider developing a theoretical component. Having a theoretical element in your research plan can increase the impact of your work while helping to clarify experimental priorities. If a theoretical treatment is not practical, or if you're not interested in doing theoretical work yourself, collaborations with compatible theorists offer similar advantages.
Timelines and Deliverables
Once you have a few ideas sketched out, talk with your Ph.D. adviser, your postdoctoral mentor, and other colleagues. They can help you hone your approaches, set priorities, and identify collaborators and funding agencies to fund those fledgling ideas.
It's crucial to populate your timeline with the dates of your major reviews as an assistant professor or junior researcher (i.e., 3rd year, 5th year, and tenure). Enter the dates on the timeline with the dates of major meetings and workshops at which you plan to present. Also record the deadlines for the grants you intend to apply for. Find out how long the most likely publication venues typically require for review and publication. Organize your research and writing so that you can submit your publications in plenty of time for your reviews. Be sure to build in time for a rejection or two.
Collaborations, in our experience, serve at least two functions. Most obviously, they allow you to supplement your knowledge and skills so that you can take on bigger, more complex problems. Of course, skill and knowledge gaps can be filled with additional training (which, however, takes time), but collaborations offer benefits that additional training can't match: They stimulate new ideas and enhance your recognition and connectedness. So, be sure to allow plenty of time in your research plan for establishing collaborations. (For more on collaborations and their value see Part 2 of this series.)
Speaking of publications: Ask your colleagues what productivity rates are expected in your own department and field. National averages of scientific publication output range from two to three publications per year per scholar (Xie and Shauman, 2003). But such (informal) guidelines vary considerably from field to field and from institution to institution. Also investigate the community norms for sharing authorship with students; in some fields, first authorship carries the highest prestige, in others, it is the last-author position. (In almost every field, middle positions carry far less weight.) Also find out whether there are specific journals and funding sources, such as early-career scientist awards, that your department especially values in its personnel reviews.
As you fill the gaps on your timeline, remember that it’s a good idea to work on more than one idea at a time. Recent research shows that people who work on several projects at once are more productive than those who work sequentially (Fox and Mohapatra, 2007). But don't take on projects that require a completely different knowledge base or infrastructure. Instead, pursue synergistic topics and immerse yourself, reading intensively and going to related conferences and presentations where you’ll meet others with similar interests. With immersion, you achieve greater expertise more quickly. Furthermore, an analysis of creativity by Csikszentmihalyi (1996) found that immersion was critical in making innovative connections.
Focus also helps you achieve recognition. If you disperse your energy over too wide an area, the professional communities you impact (and who cite your work) will be diffuse, diluting your impact. It is far better to be central to one field than peripheral to several. You will also pay a productivity penalty because learning a new field takes much more time than continuing in the same line of research, and, hence, leads to fewer publications (Leahey, 2006).
Plans themselves are very useful things, but the process of planning is invaluable. The scientific goals of many scientists, especially early-career scientists, remain half-conscious and indistinct. It is possible to be a great scientific success without well-defined goals, but articulating clearly and thoroughly a route to achieving your ambitions and goals will lend your work a clarity and direction that will serve you well. A plan will also help you explain your research to others, in and out of science, and the more others can understand the importance of your work, the higher it will be valued.
Developing a research plan is a creative, iterative process that integrates your interests and outputs so that you continually find new ideas and better approaches. It is a map of the relationships between your scientific mind and the rest of the scientific community.
It's a rare scientist who's smart enough to know what's likely to matter, say, 5 years into the future. A research plan is a map, not a promise; as you move along your timeline toward becoming a productive researcher, the data and insight you and others accumulate will almost certainly require recalibration. At the start of your career, such plans should be revisited and updated at least a couple of times per year. Follow the Global Environmental Management Initiative recommendation for managing companies: Plan-Do-Check-Advance, cycling back periodically to revise the plan.
This material is based upon work supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) under Cooperative Agreement SBE-0245014, ADVANCE at the Columbia Earth Institute. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of NSF.
E. Leahey. 2006. Gender differences in productivity: research specialization as a missing link. Gender & Society. 20 (6), 754-780.
G. Davis. 2005. Improving the postdoctoral experience: an empirical approach. The science and engineering workforce in the U.S. R. Freeman and D. Goroff, Eds. NBER/University of Chicago Press.
J. Cole. 2000. A short history of the use of citations as a measure of the impact of scientific and scholarly work. The web of knowledge: a festchrift in honor of Eugene Garfield. B. Cronin and H. Atkins, Eds. Information Today. pp. 281-300.
J. D. Novak and A. J. Cañas. 2008. The theory underlying concept maps and how to construct them. Technical Report IHMC CmapTools 2006-01 Rev 01-2008 (Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition).
M. Csikszentmihalyi. 1996. Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. HarperCollins.
M. F. Fox, and S. Mohapatra. 2007. Social-organizational characteristics of work and publication productivity among academic scientists in doctoral-granting departments. Journal of Higher Education 78 (5), 543-571.
M. Heemskerk, K. Wilson, and M. Pavao-Zuckerman. 2003. Conceptual models as tools for communication across disciplines. Conservation Ecology 7 (3).
S. Pfirman. 2005. Early and often: strategies to increase women's productivity, recognition, and impact. New York Academy of Sciences ebriefing, Columbia University, New York City.
Y. Xie and K. A. Shauman. 2003. Women in science: career processes and outcomes. Harvard University Press.