N. Douglas Lees recalls a midcareer colleague, a behavioral ecologist, who was pursuing a complex and ambitious research agenda in the face of tremendous competition. Lees had recently become chair of the biology department at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The ecologist, Lees says, "was not going to be successful" with his research program, "and when you're not successful over a long period of time, you generally tend to lose your interest."
This faculty member, meanwhile, had developed an interest in creating new computer tools for ecologists, Lees says--an area for which his computer skills gave him an edge. Lees suggested he switch fields, and he did. It was a risk, but it paid off. The new research agenda kept him engaged, led to some important advances, and got him promoted to full professor.
It can be difficult to recognize that the research you previously lived for doesn't excite you anymore.
After earning tenure, faculty members tend to follow one of three different career trajectories, Lees says. "You've got people who continue to achieve higher and higher levels. You've got people who become deadwood. And in the middle, you have people who just kind of meander along and don't really make much progress, but they're not totally unproductive," Lees says. "Just like any other affliction, the earlier you notice it, the better the chance you have of redirecting or correcting that."
According to a 1997 report published by Carole Bland and William Bergquist--The Vitality of Senior Faculty Members. Snow on the Roof--Fire in the Furnace--predictors of sustained productivity include keeping knowledge and skills up-to-date, developing vital networks, and maintaining several projects at once. Simultaneous projects, in particular, "provide continuous stimulation and a buffer against disillusionment or feeling stuck: If an important project fails, stalls, or proves unsuccessful, another is already up and running," Bland and Bergquist write.
The strategy of Burk Dehority, a still-active former faculty member of the Ohio State University in Wooster who last year received the 2008 Distinguished Senior Faculty Research Award from the university's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, has been to keep the work fresh by expanding his interests. Dehority has studied ruminant microbiology for 50 years; he retired from his faculty position a couple of years ago, but he still has an office where he works part-time. "Although I've stayed within the same general framework," Dehority says, "I did shift gears several times"--from bacteria to fungi and then protozoa, eventually studying how these organisms relate to each other in breaking down forage in the stomachs of ruminants. Every shift "made it new and exciting," he says.
Collaborations, Dehority found, are another good way of keeping your research stimulated. "You have a chance to observe how other people do things, and you can give them ideas, ... and you also pick up methodology and techniques ... from their lab." Collaborations are all the more stimulating when they involve travel; Dehority's collaborative work took him several times to Australia and Brazil for a couple of months each and to Alaska, Ethiopia, and Kenya for shorter stays.
The prospect of getting tenure and the desire to be successful in the early years are strong incentives to pursue research energetically. But it can be hard to keep up the pace for several decades, especially after key milestones have been met. That doesn't mean that decline is inevitable. "Vital faculty also get stuck but manage to create new opportunities or are fortunate to have colleagues or department heads who ... encourage them to find ways to overcome barriers," Bland and Bergquist write in their report.
Faculty members can become disengaged, let their research go stale, or become unproductive for a multitude of reasons. Dead-end projects, technical problems, difficult students, a lack of funding, reviewers who delay publications, competitors who scoop you, and personal hardships can eat away at enthusiasm over time, says Erwin Wagner, one of the vice-directors of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) in Madrid. After working in the same research field for a decade or two, it's easy to feel that there are few surprises left. "It is just a matter of doing the same old thing all the time," Lees says.
It can be difficult to recognize that the research you previously lived for doesn't excite you anymore. "If they're not feeling really good about it, they will just not feel the urgency to change anything," Lees says. It is often a department chair or another institutional administrator who brings the disengagement to light, Lees adds, when signs of waning interest emerge from annual performance reviews. "You see the funding is beginning to taper off, and it's getting hard to get renewals. Productivity ... begins to diminish, and there's just this general lack of real excitement when you talk to them about research," Lees says.
It's important not to wait too long. "If you've reached the point where you're deadwood, that's really hard to turn around. ... So I would want to ... talk to you 5 years ago when you would have said, 'You know, this is kind of getting old and I need something different.'... Then we can talk about what would you like to explore next to see if we can excite you again."
Dehority obtained his research leaves by writing letters to his department chair describing the opportunity he had to pursue research abroad and the likely benefits to his institution. Today, many institutions have posttenure review policies that encourage senior faculty members to remain active. Most institutions also offer institutional faculty-development programs. Institutions also typically offer regular sabbaticals, which allow tenured researchers to explore new interests at another institution. Researchers can also apply for seed grants to initiate new research directions or discretionary institutional funds to attend conferences in other fields, initiate collaborations, and supplement institutional support for salary.
Alberto Paoluzzi, who leads the geometric computing laboratory at the Roma Tre University in Italy, spent 7 months with John Hopcroft in the computer science department of Cornell University in 1986. The time at Cornell was "the most important moment in the development of my career," Paoluzzi writes in an e-mail to Science Careers. Until then, he says, "my experience was very provincial. One of my mentors pushed me to travel and to look for what people [were] doing around" Italy and beyond.
Paoluzzi took a second sabbatical in 2005, this time to search for new scientific directions. He visited Chandrajit Bajaj at the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences of the University of Texas, Austin. "There, I fell in love with his approach to geometric biomodeling," Paoluzzi says. The two developed a joint program to write a new biomodeling language, Paoluzzi says, which in turn led to a spinoff company developing control rooms for security, which Paoluzzi established back in Italy with another company and a government grant.
A top-up isn't always enough to renew flagging enthusiasm; sometimes more radical measures are needed. Before he and his lab moved to CNIO last year, Wagner had worked at the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna, Austria, for 20 years. At first he was happy at that institute, which he helped found and run. But eventually, he realized he needed some new stimulation. The institute became quite inbred, he says, "so there was no exciting atmosphere for me" anymore. It got to a point at which he "was not looking forward going to the institute." He felt in real danger of losing interest altogether.
His research interests were also shifting: As he got older, he wanted to work closer to human disease. Spain, and the new institute, not only allowed him to pursue this line of research but also offered "a new environment where ... everyone is excited."
Wagner's stimulation was such that his productivity didn't lag. But he acknowledges that "there's definitely a risk" to making a move like his. "In this foreign environment, many things could happen: that ... you wouldn't get external funding, your colleagues would not appreciate you." Another risk, he says, is that your new colleagues could "see you as a threat because you want to change things." But "if you don't risk anything, you don't have fun."
Not everyone is up to taking such risks, and personal constraints mean that not everyone can swing it even if they want to. And a few senior scientists are content to eventually watch their research fade away. "There are ... very productive research people who don't want to fight the battle for 40 years," Lees says. Once tenure has been awarded, "the only leverage you have perhaps is salary," Lees adds. In such circumstances, the best option may be "to harness their energy in some other way that's of benefit to the unit," through teaching or administrative responsibilities, for example. "We have to be ready, rather than force them to be researchers all the time, to allow them that flexibility. That's what tenure is supposed to do for us."