Keeping Your Research Alive

May 26, 2000

"I treat my research time the way I treat my class time. It is high priority and I don't cancel my research time unless I would cancel a class for the same reason."

-- Paul Humke, professor of mathematics at St. Olaf College

University faculty members have more unstructured time than do professionals in most other fields. Except for showing up for class, which usually doesn't occupy more than 6 to 9 of the 100 or so waking hours in a week, professors can pretty much decide when and where they choose to carry out the rest of their academic responsibilities.

Indeed, this freedom of action is why many faculty members chose university careers in the first place. Yet, as a colleague of mine is fond of pointing out, "there is nothing so scary as complete freedom!"

Having such freedom can be a particular problem when it comes to doing research. Since research is not public in the same way as is teaching, time to do it is not automatically set aside for you. You must make time for it if you want to keep it alive.

There are four things you can do to help maintain your research productivity:

  • Make research a priority.

  • Connect with experts in areas adjacent to your current research specialty.

  • Seek out colleagues within your own as well as other institutions.

  • Keep something on the burner.

Making research a priority

means setting aside particular times of the week when you can work free from interruptions. In some cases this will mean "hiding out" in another office, the library, at home, or even in a coffee house off the campus. In other situations, it will mean working with colleagues in a laboratory or field setting, but in a way that "protects" you from unwanted intrusions, telephone calls, and e-mail messages.

As Alison Bridger, a professor in the meteorology department at San Jose State University, noted: "At my kind of institution you have to make research a priority at least some of the time every week, otherwise everything else will fill all your available time. I find it really helps to go somewhere else to think and set up. This time away from campus enables me to work on important, non-urgent things I would otherwise ignore. Plus, my students and colleagues are now accustomed to the fact that at certain times during the week I will not be in my office."

Connecting with experts in areas adjacent to your current research specialty means looking beyond the narrow focus of your dissertation or postdoctoral studies. According to Lew Lefton, a mathematics professor at the University of New Orleans, "taking this broader perspective is what enables you to do interesting work other people care about. At the research level, things change so quickly that you could easily be out of date if you don't have more than one problem to work on."

You can begin by setting aside at least one hour per week just to browse journals, magazines, and the Internet to see what other people are doing, and to get a sense of what's hot in your field. Don't be afraid to send investigators an e-mail message describing some of your work and asking for further information about what they are doing.

Of equal importance is going to conferences. The size of the conferences you attend will be determined in part by your institution's research emphasis. At Research I universities, it may be important to attend major national and even international meetings. Yet, much can also be gained by attending smaller conferences, particularly if your travel budget is limited.

As Mr. Lefton puts it, "I recommend the smaller regional conferences as opposed to the large annual meetings. Not that the annual meetings are bad. In fact, if there's a special session in your area it can be quite productive. But smaller conferences often have fewer distractions and more opportunities to interact with people who have similar interests. Even if you don't know anyone, go to listen and ask questions and learn."

Once you attend a few such conferences, you will start to see several familiar faces and you will have begun the important task of establishing professional contacts in your area. Don't be intimidated; most active research groups are happy to welcome new people, and they may well suggest some interesting questions for you to work on.

It is important not only to attend conferences, but also to participate in them. By giving talks and getting feedback, you learn if your work is interesting and relevant. Conferences are also a place where you can rediscover the magic that got you interested in your field in the first place as an undergraduate, and which may have diminished in recent years. Also keep in mind that you will need references for upcoming tenure and promotion reviews, and these are the people who can give them to you.

Seeking out colleagues within your own as well as other institutions means finding colleagues whom you can collaborate with on a regular basis. Mr. Lefton meets once or twice a week with colleagues to work on problems of mutual interest. As he describes it, "We think aloud, go to the board, write down equations, and bounce lots of ideas off of each other. We are not judgmental and none of us is embarrassed to ask simple questions. It takes a while to build up this trust, but when we do, it works wonders."

When possible, new faculty members should try to pair up with at least one older, more experienced colleague even if this may seem intimidating at first. It is important to work with someone who will really challenge you and stretch you as much as possible.

Working with colleagues at other institutions can also be helpful if resources are limited in your own location. This is what worked for Ms. Bridger when she started collaborating with colleagues at the NASA/Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., about 15 miles northwest of her campus.

"I began interacting with one person on a project, then I added another and another, to the point where I am now part of a whole research group with facilities I could never have acquired at my institution," she notes. Now Ms. Bridger is able to publish papers with herself as the first author and her NASA associates as co-authors. "But this didn't happen overnight," she says. "It took a lot of work and regular meetings to get to this point."

Keeping something on the burner means not letting your research become dormant. All of us know that if we wait too long to get back to work on a problem, we end up spending a great deal of warm-up time just getting up to speed. You need to identify a piece of your research problem you can work on whenever you have a spare minute. Granted, research often takes long periods of uninterrupted work, but it's also a good idea to have some aspect of your problem to think about when you have a free minute or two, while you're alone in the car or waiting for an appointment.

As John L. Hennessy, provost and incoming president at Stanford University, notes: "You need to keep your creativity cycles free, and the best way to do this is to have something to work on in your head when you are walking across campus, sitting in a dull meeting, and riding in a car. Doing so also keeps you from thinking about a lot of trivial, negative stuff that isn't helpful anyway."

The flexibility to schedule most of you professional activities at convenient times is one of the real pluses of an academic career. However, this means you must also develop the discipline to carry through on projects in the absence of external pressures. Doing so will go a long way toward ensuring your success as a scientist.

Richard M. Reis is director for academic partnerships at the Stanford University Learning Laboratory, and author of Tomorrow's Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and Engineering, available from IEEE Press or the booksellers below. He is also the moderator of the biweekly Tomorrow's Professor Listserve, which anyone can subscribe to by sending the message [subscribe tomorrows-professor] to

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