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Career Renewal for Established Scientists

(Agricultural Research Service, USDA)

For academic scientists--the successful ones at least--the first decade or more of a faculty post is a challenging time for many reasons. But finding motivation is rarely one of the challenges. Pretenure, the experience of research independence is still new, and the desire to win the respect of scientific peers--and the tenure committee--usually provides ample motivation. And once you've earned tenure, you find yourself free, for the first time, from the threat of losing your job. You're free to take scientific chances you couldn't take before, take on ambitious new projects that don't fit the tenure clock, and follow new, quirky research lines without worrying as much about what others think.

But for many and perhaps most academic scientists--indeed, for most professionals--a time eventually comes when what excited you when you were younger starts to seem mundane. Your main areas of expertise no longer place you on the cutting edge of science. That intense motivation you always counted on may start to wane. And all this may happen at a time when, beyond your most basic professional commitments, you are free to do--or not to do--whatever you wish, and for the first time ever, "not" may start to seem like the better option.

In their seminal 1997 work The Vitality of Senior Faculty Members. Snow on the Roof--Fire in the Furnace, Carole Bland and William Bergquist reviewed previous research on faculty productivity that used publications as a measure. First appointment now occurs as much as a decade later than it did at the time of those early studies, but Bland and Bergquist found that productivity starts low as faculty members settle into their first position in their 20s, increases through their 30s, levels off as they reach their 40s, and then starts declining. Add 10 years or so, and that pattern still seems to hold.

But Bland and Bergquist advised against drawing hasty conclusions. Although younger faculty members generally publish more, the study's most important message, for our purposes at least, is that there's a wide disparity in the performance of senior faculty members. "Many faculty remain highly productive, while others significantly reduce their publishing activity," Bland and Bergquist write.

Some senior faculty members continue to be productive, whereas others become deadwood or just meander along. What factors make the difference? One key factor seems to be how deep our passion for science really runs. "Once some individuals become tenured, they really don't have the vital interest in discovering new truth. ... They did what it took to get tenure, and they're not personally motivated enough to keep on at that same pace," says Burk Dehority, a now-retired faculty member from the Ohio State University in Wooster, who has remained an active and engaged scholar for 50 years.

Another key factor is the choice of institution. "In top research institutions, ... people can't easily allow themselves to just go in a corner and hide. They will always be asked, 'So what's happening with you?' " says Erwin Wagner, one of the vice-directors of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre in Madrid. If you're always exposed to the judgmental gaze of peers, you're more likely to find the inner drive you need to keep going. Being in a place where research is valued and rewarded is also important, Wagner adds.

Still, no one  is equally motivated all the time. Every career has peaks and valleys. "I don't think there is anybody alive who hasn't had a downtime," Dehority says. What distinguishes those faculty members who keep a vital research program from those who let it go stale is the ability to change and grow, to learn new tools and learn to apply the old ones in new ways.

In Rejuvenation Tips for Tenured Faculty successful faculty members and department chairs tell us about the many ways you can rekindle your passion for science and inject new life into your research, before it's too late.

In Revising Best-Laid Plans freelance science writer Siri Carpenter asked tenured scientists to tell us the story of how they managed to restart their research careers.

For more, see the further resources below.

Additional Reading

The Vitality of Senior Faculty Members. Snow on the Roof--Fire in the Furnace, by Carole Bland and William Bergquist

Career Renewal: Tools for Scientists and Technical Professionals, by Stephen Rosen and Celia Paul

Chairing Academic Departments: Traditional and Emerging Expectations, by N. Douglas Lees. Chapter 15 looks at maintaining senior faculty productivity.

Funding Opportunities

Specific career-development funding programs for established faculty members tend to be ad hoc and sporadic, but new opportunities regularly come up.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in particular currently offers Short Term Career Development Awards in the Environmental Health Sciences for Established Investigators (K18), Midcareer Investigator Awards in Patient-Oriented Research (K24), and Midcareer Investigator Award in Mouse Pathobiology Research (K26).

Many institutions and professional organizations also offer awards to recognize and support midcareer faculty members as well as seed funding to start a new direction. One example is the Kellett Mid-Career award at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Training Opportunities

There aren't many, but again, tenured faculty members should inquire at their institutions or professional bodies about training opportunities they may be able to join.

Some universities such as Cornell University also welcome midcareer researchers from around the world to come and expand their skills and knowledge in rice research.

Established foreign scientists may also apply to NIH for midcareer training support in noncommunicable chronic diseases research, clinical research and implementation science for the treatment of HIV and tuberculosis, and the reproductive sciences.

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