Academic Detour: Having to Change Your Research Focus
Doctoral students often feel frustrated in the process of having so much detail of their dissertation research approved. Research questions and hypotheses need approval. Study design and analysis plans have to be approved. I have heard many students lament, I can't wait until I finish my degree so that I can do the research that I want to do!!!!
Later, on the tenure track, we learn that it's not so easy to do the research "that we want to do." For some academics, we learn that our areas of interest aren't as publishable or do not attract enough funding, putting us at risk of not being awarded tenure. Yikes!
Recently, I have had to change my research focus to meet my career demands. Emotionally, it was difficult to do. I had to put an area that I have a lot of success and passion about on the back burner as I pursued projects that were in better alignment with my current career goals. Along the way, I learned that there were a lot of positive benefits as well. So, I thought it would be helpful for others to share my story.
As a health and social science researcher, my tenure track career started off with a detour in my research agenda. My dissertation topic was not one to attract a lot of funding. This did not bode well with my new institution, which elevated its research status to "Very high research" during my time there. The demands were steep. So, I veered into a topic that was in the area of my dissertation research, but more focused on health: health self-management among older adults with chronic conditions (a mouthful, I know). At the time, I was not so upset about the change as I grew a little tired of my dissertation topic.
To my delight, changing my research focus generated a lot of success: I maintained a productive publication record, I received external funding for my research, I was selected for a prestigious fellowship through the John A. Hartford Foundation, I was invited to speak at conferences and agencies, I was awarded two NIH loan repayment awards. I even gave a TEDx talk on my research that has received more attention than any of my published articles. Best of all, I got tenure!
Fast forward and I am without tenure again. For personal reasons, I left my tenured position aside to move to a different city. My tenure didn't transfer, though I have the ability to apply for it after my first year. I was very excited about the new opportunities ahead of me!
As I hit the ground running, I realized that there wasn't a lot of interest from potential local collaborators on research focused on the topic of health self-management. Also, several of the NIH grant announcements for health self-management research had expired. In stead, there was a lot of excitement in my secondary work focused on technology for dementia care. This was a topic I also worked on for several years, co-leading a multi-disciplinary research team to create a smartphone app that we ultimately received funding for to research and further develop. It is great work and we have had success. However, I was more passionate about promoting older people's autonomy and ability to take care of themselves than studying how other people could take care of them.
As I faced this detour, I learned a few things about myself as a researcher:
Being a skillful researcher is about being able to adapt.
I've overcome hurdles before in my research. Slow recruitment. Rejected grants and papers. What made me a good researcher was not the ability to make everything go "right." It was figuring out a plan for addressing problems when they emerged. Some of the most successful people in academia have had to detour their work. At my former institution, I led the college-wide initiative for aging research. Slowly, I saw our heaviest hitting scholars show up, despite the fact that none of them were gerontologist. They explained that as funding was cut back in their areas, they looked at new NIA grants that could offer opportunities to bridge their work and attract more funding.
Don't lose sight of the forest for the trees.
At one point, I became frustrated and a little sad about moving away from health self-management. I revealed this to a collaborator, who explained that she went through the same thing. She started out researching depression in older adults and moved to dementia as funding priorities shifted. But in the end, our work is always focused on improving health and social services for older adults to improve their health and quality of life. With that, I felt good being reminded that I haven't abandoned my research goals and purpose. I just have a different route to reach them.
New research agendas may offer new opportunities.
I learned quickly that my new research focus offers new and exciting opportunities for funding and collaborations that weren't afforded to me before. People find the technology we are working on exciting. By prioritizing my work in this area, I have been able to pursue cross-cultural research, investigations with new study populations, a chance to apply for a National Science Foundation grant (rather than the NIH grants I typically apply for). I am learning new skills and working with great people. I'm happy about that.
The take away? Taking a detour in our research agenda can bring us down, but ultimately get us where we want to be in our careers. They may help us graduate with our PhDs a little faster. They may result in more publications or grant funding. We shouldn't look at changes in our topics or trajectories as failures. They actually may help us stand out and get ahead.
Need advice about your academic career? Contact Nicole today and see how you can work together to get ahead!