Dan Wieden, the co-founder of the advertising firm Wieden and Kennedy, may not be a name you know; however, I bet you know his iconic tagline, "Just Do It."
This tagline resonated with me recently after having the incredible experience of presenting two genetics talks in Alaska. In the middle of January, Alaska is not usually where you would expect to give academic talks, but this was a unique opportunity. These talks were presented at a Sled Dog Course run by a long-time friend, Dr. Mike Davis, a veterinarian with a Ph.D. in Physiology and a faculty member at Oklahoma State. Mike is an example of 'doing something different' and the "just do it" mentality we don't often see in research.
Being in Alaska and giving these talks made me reflect upon my 30-plus years in academia, where I witnessed researchers who stayed with research paths that had been well-plowed and usually didn't lead to engaging, interesting, or different research from the status quo. Additionally, I have also watched researchers continue on one path even when bored with their topic.
As a career coach for academics, I speak with individuals who think that academia isn't for them when in reality, it's their research that needs to change, not their career path. That said, I know it's easy to get locked into a research path even when boredom or burnout is present because it happened to me.
As an Associate Professor in the mid-90s I considered changing my research path. Some colleagues advised me to continue my existing research, but I knew I was bored with the topic. More importantly, I lost my passion for pursuing the funding required. So, even though I was advised to stay with my existing research, I trusted my gut and remembered an old adage, "To thine own self be true." Last month the Academic Balance newsletter article was about burnout among doctoral students. However, mid to senior-level academics can and often experience burnout due to boredom with their research.
If you're at a place in your career where you're ready to do something different, here's what I learned as I took the steps toward making a change.
1) Take a step back. What are you genuinely interested in?
My 'do something different' moment came while researching the neural control of fainting – a severe problem in several different settings. I was bored with the research line; it no longer interested me. I knew I was interested and curious about the role of genetics in exercise, but I didn't have the background or training in the area. On the other hand, this was a field I could enthusiastically pursue – and a rare topic in my field of study.
2) Research your newly chosen area.
Once I realized what I was interested in and wanted to pursue, I read everything I could get my hands on about the topic and met experts in the field. Next, I wrote and received an APS grant allowing me to spend time learning techniques in a good friend's genetics lab. Then I looked for my university's colleagues with the genetics expertise I needed and became their student.
3) Put away your ego, and don't be afraid to look stupid.
I asked many stupid questions, but gradually, I gained the knowledge to change my research focus. With that knowledge, I received small pilot data grants, leading to publications and larger grants. However, it wasn't until after I did 'something different' did I become successful with NIH funding.
4) Be open to short-term projects.
You don't have to completely change your focus to benefit from doing something different. For example, different short-term projects increased my enthusiasm and vigor for my primary research line. Additionally, I gave my first year doctoral students a different kind of lab project from what we were doing and this helped our lab meetings have a renewed focus.
While our lab did genetics work, two examples of our different projects focused on the physiological stresses of playing music professionally and the characteristics of successful auto-racing pit crew members. These projects, while different, still were in our general area of physiological stress.
5) Things to consider.
If you are changing your research focus, you'll have to work to reestablish yourself in a different research area. Also, if you are working on tenure – usually during the first five years of a faculty position – shifting your research focus can hurt your tenure because you lose the national recognition you've accumulated.
So, timing is critical if you want to do something drastically different. But that's where smaller projects can help alleviate your boredom and help you gain recognition in a new area.
No one can tell you what to do or when to make a change except you. However, being with Dr. Davis in Alaska reminded me of the fun and adventure of tackling different projects. I can attest that there is nothing like being in 20-degree weather, blasting across the snow at 15 mph, and being pulled by six elite sled dogs to help you see your research passion in a different light.
Doing something different can make all the difference in your vigor and enthusiasm for your work, so how about it? Are you ready to do 'something different'?
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