Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Research, unleashed.

The formidable Zuska is hosting the next edition of Scientiae (get your submissions in soon) and has declared that the theme for this month is "unleash." I've been pondering what exactly I was going to be able to contribute that fit the theme. Then as I walked across campus this afternoon, contemplating whether to submit Idea A or Idea B to a grant RFP, it hit me right in the face.

In grad school I was tethered, albeit loosely to my advisor's research interests. As a post-doc, I was tied to the project that provided my funding, although free to work on other side projects. But now as a brand-new assistant professor, I've finally been unleashed to research whatever my mind fancies. I don't have any pre-existing monies obligating me to finish up projects and I don't have such a focused funding and publication track record that I can't get funding to work on new topics. I'm free.

If I want I can go from working on subfield alpha to subfield gamma, and, as long as I have good fundable ideas, no one can tell me I'm working on the wrong thing. I can spend some time testing out ideas myself, and if they don't fly, I haven't let down a student by giving them a bad thesis topic. I can develop collaborations with whoever I want - whether they are at Mystery U or far away. When I go to a conference and listen to a great talk that gives me ideas, I don't have to shelve them for sometime when I am not encumbered by projects already underway. The freedom is exhilirating.

And, honestly, the freedom is a little scary. I don't have an advisor to steer me away from bum ideas or good ones that will take an impossibly long time to produce results. I don't have any students to keep publications churning if my independent ideas don't work out. Since I'm new in Mystery State, I don't have an established field site where I know the body of previous work and what research is still needed. In fact, I know very little about the -ology of Mystery State at all. I don't have other funding to fall back on if I send out a round of proposals that all get rejected. In fact, I don't even have funding to get the little supplies I need to get the big piece of equipment in my lab working so that I can generate some preliminary data. But mostly, I think, the obstacles are in my mind - the ever-present self-doubt that seems to come with the woman/academic territory. What if my research ideas aren't creative enough? What if I don't get funded? What if the results aren't what I expected?

But however scary, this freedom - to study what I want when I want - was a major driver pushing me to get my Ph.D. So it'd be a shame if I let my timidity and self-doubt get in my way now. I've got a pre-proposal due on Friday, a grant proposal due in late September, and another one due in early October. I don't know where I'm going to find the time to get those ideas flowing and the proposals written, but I am going to do my best, because this time I am doing research, unleashed.


Jane said...

You've hit the nail on the head. All that research freedom *is* frightening at times, but then again, it's also the reason I think that I'm so damn lucky that someone actually *pays* me to do this job. Good luck with the proposals!

PhD Mom said...

Girl, I feel the same way...its awesome in both a I'm on my own for the first time excitement...and oh my G-d I'm responsible for a lot of money and people... kind of way.

Anonymous said...

I've been figuring this one out on postdoc fellowships where I've had total freedom to do my own thing. And it's terrifying! So far some of my ideas have gone nowhere (or been dull and un-citeable) and others have really gone well. The isolation of doing your own thing *is* hard to cope with - and can on occasion be very depressing in the sense that you have no one to blame but yourself if it goes wrong - but wow it's good when it goes right!

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