Maintaining Your Research Mojo

March 23, 2009

Some years ago, as new assistant professors in the natural sciences, we spent many lunchtime conversations talking about how we would remain active as lab-based researchers after we earned tenure. We knew that the senior professorial ranks at liberal-arts colleges bring an inevitable increase in service responsibilities. As a chemist and a biologist, respectively, we vowed to guard those precious hours in the lab and maintain our research momentum.

How ironic then that we find ourselves, many years past tenure, battling the same predicament we once felt sure we would avoid.

Like many a midcareer academic, we have found it challenging to maintain the research productivity we had earlier in our academic careers, despite our best attempts. So how do we push through and regain momentum, particularly when other responsibilities pull us away from the bench? Before we share our answers to that question, it's important to first recognize some of the factors that undermine or derail the research productivity of tenured faculty members, particularly in the sciences at small institutions.

Leadership demands. Immediately after earning tenure, and often before, you start to feel pressure to take your turn as department chair, to lead some major committee, or to participate in some other service work that would contribute to the greater good. You are still an active researcher, but so is everyone else, and you are now in a position to balance more tasks or complete them in a more efficient manner — supposedly. So you step up. You chair the department or the committee, or both.

Research isolation. When it comes to research specialties, science departments at small institutions usually have, as we like to say, "one of each flavor" — i.e., in our departments, there is usually just one of each type of chemist or biologist. That pretty much ensures that, unless you maintain ties to people in your field at other colleges, the essential community of scholars that can serve as a sounding board for new ideas will be absent on your home campus. A sounding board is critical in the sciences, where work usually occurs in collaborative research groups. Sure, there are opportunities at national meetings for discussions with colleagues in your specific subfield, but a once-a-year immersion and idea infusion is not enough.

Unrealistic, inconsistent project assessment. Your project has been in place for several years and your publication rate has slowed. You just need to do one more experiment, be more judicious about your selection of a research student, spend more time in the lab — the list can go on and on. But at some point you need an honest assessment of the project's trajectory. Is it time to scratch it and start anew? What about that other idea that promises to be fruitful? What if you get scooped before the paper is ready?

Scholarship angst. The culture at small institutions tends to value breadth in all areas of the professoriate, particularly in teaching and service. Since you spend a great deal of time teaching, you're good at it and you want to ensure that your students learn, so you put in place innovative classroom pedagogies, engaging activities and lab experiments, and effective assessments. You approach your pedagogical work in a scholarly manner and publish it in peer-reviewed journals focused on science teaching. Are those contributions truly valued? Yes, at our college they very much are. But while everyone is proud of those contributions, they are not the currency of the realm because they are not in your area of research expertise. Promotion and grants are primarily awarded on the basis of your research publications.

Waning expertise. As the years pass, you may start to feel less comfortable at national meetings. There are small but noticeable changes in the way that science is done in your subdiscipline, perhaps in the way data are acquired, processed. or presented. You don't have a reliable cadre of postdocs and graduate students trained in the latest techniques, and their absence makes you, by default, the font of all knowledge for your undergraduate researchers. You realize that you may be falling behind, and as your confidence wanes in your ability to sustain a certain level of cutting-edge science, so does your drive to soldier on.

Slowing down. Something happens to slow your work pace considerably. It may be as simple as a change in your student researchers; the ensuing steep learning curve may slow down a project enough to significantly affect its momentum. Any number of other circumstances may then conspire to torpedo your project even further, and you may find that starting up again requires more energy and ingenuity than you can summon.

Life happens. Working 60-plus hours a week is almost a necessity for assistant professors who must teach new courses and get their research up and running. The truth is that maintaining your productivity in the sciences after tenure requires that you continue that work pace unrelentingly — through child rearing, divorces, illness, and any number of other personal circumstances.

So we've listed the challenges, both personal and institution-specific, to maintaining your scholarly productivity after tenure. What steps can you take to get things moving again? Here are some of our ideas:

Recognize that sometimes good enough will suffice. Beware of delays; that one extra experiment you think you must do to get the manuscript published in a top journal may end up preventing you from getting it published anywhere at all. The key is to chip away steadfastly at your to-do list. Certainly you will face institutional constraints that greatly influence the type of scientific work you can do and that make it essential that you choose your project carefully. But the reality is, there's not much you can do to change your teaching load or expand the pool of support staff members available to you. Your work must advance within existing parameters.

Maintain your research connections. Or consider reconnecting. Stay in touch with old friends, former colleagues, your dissertation adviser, postdoctoral mentor, or anyone from whom you may be able to get helpful ideas in your discipline. Ask them about next steps, interesting sabbatical options, or creative financing for your project. The goal is to diminish your isolation and spinning of wheels. Staying current with the latest techniques is a challenge for every scientist, and making a call to a friend of a friend who can help is often a necessary component of refining your experiments and moving forward toward completion.

Separate the project into manageable parts. Projects can get messy and daunting, akin to walking into your kitchen after a big dinner party and facing such a big clean-up job that you just don't know where to start. Pick a spot, or an experiment, and start there. Be strategic to avoid the pitfall of getting bogged down in busy work that never goes anywhere.

Write it up. The process of preparing an article for publication allows you to see where the holes are, and what needs to be completed to present a coherent story. If you're not far enough along in the work to publish it, consider presenting it at a regional meeting of your scientific society. Putting a presentation or a manuscript together can also create the necessary momentum to help you refine and advance the work. After you submit the manuscript, and then recover from any scathing reviews, go back to it. It may take a while for you to be motivated to deal with the reviewers' comments and resubmit, but when you do, both you and the manuscript will be better for it.

Give yourself an intellectual boost. Inertia is deadly. The idea here is to regain your momentum. Welcome any opportunity to reflect, reorganize, and intellectually recharge.

It may not be easy to maintain your research mojo beyond tenure, but it is possible. Acknowledging, assessing, and discussing the challenges of sustaining an active laboratory-research program at a small undergraduate institution can help to focus and encourage your work.

As we all know from conducting scientific research, analyzing the problem is a critical first step toward finding a solution.


Lilia C. Harvey is an associate professor of chemistry and Karen Thompson is an associate professor of biology at Agnes Scott College, in Georgia.