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Probe Your History to Improve Your Research

Posted in Tenure and Promotion

For many of us, planning begins by examining what we are working on, thinking about next steps, and maybe imagining an unanswered question from the literature that we can now address.   However, one of my most productive clients takes a different tact. When considering where to go with his work, he has the habit of examining the origin of his projects, reconstructing the major benchmarks and turning points in the research, and evaluating his past performance at every major step of the way.  Sometimes these historical reconstructions can go back twenty years.

I first thought this habit was both unusual and unnecessary.  I was also surprised that, despite being the world’s leader in his field and a major player in the world of science at large, he didn’t seem to plan very much.  Unlike many researchers, he doesn’t fixate on his future results and possible alternatives.  He has a sharp instinct about outcomes, but he doesn’t get frazzled if his expected results don’t materialize.  In fact, he rather enjoys it.

Why is this scientist’s approach so successful?  Here are a few thoughts.

He sees his life and performance in terms of the long arc of personal history.  By reconstructing from past to present, he learns about the trends in his world and in his thinking –about both scientific  and political matters.  He learns more about himself – his strengths, his weaknesses and how he has to grow to meet new challenges.  By looking to the past, he discerns how to close doors in his research life, which frees up mental space, personnel and money needed to open new doors.  He doesn’t benchmark his future, but by benchmarking his past he has a sense of the rhythm of history, both for his lab and his work life.  Perhaps most importantly, he finds out what works.  He uses history to test his hypotheses about how the future will work.  For example, if he knows that a postdoc has been careless in so many different ways but has been a good team player, he might have her play a different role in the lab.  That role may not have even come to mind if he was only looking at current research projects and extrapolating.

Scientists often have a way of mentally separating their lab’s research projects from the personnel.  This can lead to trying to figure out where the project should go and then coaxing the lab members to take it there.  In contrast, my client sees the project, the people, and the lab environment as more of an organic whole. By looking at successes and failures through the lens of history, he has learned that a lab is only as good as the people who plan and conduct the experiments.  Although he thinks about the science on its own, he quickly returns to addressing the scientist and her science as one unit.  He has learned that you don’t manage projects; instead, you start by mentoring the scientists to get the projects done, and each scientist has highly individual motivations and skills; the very best bench researchers may even turn the project into a very different, unexpected and more fruitful direction.  Knowing this, my client gets to know his postdocs very well, even though he has a large lab, and he involves them in most every scientific decision he makes about their project.  As a result, everything seems to move very slowly, but by the end of the year 8-10 new papers appear in the top journals.

This long view of lab history has paid off for my client in terms of learning when and how to initiate new projects, add or subtract an area of research, and fit new lab members with projects, some of which have been rattling around in his mind for more than a decade. By looking at history, he spots problems and omissions and mentally bookmarks them, ready when the opportunity appears to address them.  Finally, by examining his past behavior as a researchers and leader, he can make decisions in the present with greater confidence — armed with appreciation that most decisions are only data points on the long arc of his scientific career.

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