Advice for the next generation of (forensic) researchers; or, eight habits for highly effective researchers
This is the commencement speech that I don’t think I’ll ever get to give, for an audience of early career researchers and graduate and undergraduate students who are beginning to find their way. I believe a successful and fulfilling research career can be had if one follows these eight habits, based on my experience, observations of highly accomplished colleagues, and of course, research evidence when available.
Habit 1: Having a longer-term plan. This is obvious, but sometimes overlooked: It’s important to know what topics you want to study, what questions you want to tackle, and what you hope to accomplish in your career. With the daily contingencies of school, work, and trying to establish yourself as an early career researcher, it’s normal and expected that you are focused on your current projects and planning for the next projects, with a time horizon in weeks or perhaps months. Stepping back and thinking about the hopefully long arc of your career is important because it will help you make decisions about the next steps to take: where to train, where to apply for funds, where to apply for work, who to establish connections with.
I have a tactical 3-year plan for thinking about when to say yes (and even more importantly, when to say no; see Habit 2) to invitations to write articles or chapters, journal reviews, speak at conferences, etc. And I have a strategic 10-year plan in terms of what I think of as the current and next chapters of my career: looking back, approximately the first 10 years of my career focused mostly on pedophilia and sexual offending against children; the next 10 years was an offshoot, focusing mostly on online sexual offending. Now, I’m turning to two parallel lines of research, one focusing on mentally disordered offenders more generally (in keeping with my current research director roles) and the second focusing on incest offending, a puzzle that has been on my mind since I first started training as a clinical and research psychologist.
Habit 2: Just say no. This is a hard but I think very important habit to learn. We’re inclined to say yes to new and interesting opportunities. We want to be nice, and we don’t want to disappoint our colleagues or our friends. But it’s easy to become over-committed and to be distracted from our career plans by saying yes to opportunities, and this grows as a challenge the more established and better known you get. We have a finite amount of time – hours per day, days per year, years in a career – and we want to make the most of them.
I say no much more often than yes nowadays, to invited talks (even at very interesting meetings in exciting locations), to invitations to write articles or chapters, and to invitations to take on new roles and responsibilities. I travel only a few times a year for conferences and invited talks, because I know each trip is disruptive, with the time to prepare, the time away, and the time to catch up after getting back. I’m also mindful about the potential impacts on my personal life (see Habit 6; though maybe not as far as this person). An unintended bonus of becoming known as someone who says no a lot? People really appreciate it when you do say yes! (Bonus #2: Less worry about opportunity costs.)
Speaking of opportunity costs, part of this habit is knowing when to cut your losses and walk away from a project that isn’t going anywhere, damn the sunk costs. In general, it’s a good policy to only start projects that you intend to finish, but sometimes things don’t play out as one hoped, and you need to move on.
Habit 3: Read widely and historically. It’s hard to keep up with reading new research just in one’s current areas, so this is a tough habit too (actually, like any good habit, none of these habits are easy). But I think it’s very important to read widely – to learn about models, paradigms, and important findings from other areas that may cross-fertilize your own work – and to read historically, to get a bigger picture of the directions the field has taken to identify older and still important problems and to recognize – and cope with – fads. Your chosen area might be “hot” right now, but it’s not guaranteed to be in 10 years; conversely, your area might be obscure, but it’s time may yet come. It’s more important to choose the topics and questions you care more about than to follow the latest trends. I realize that being topical matters in terms of getting funding and getting noticed in a noisy and crowded field, but it needs to be kept in perspective.
Habit 4: Finding your brand. Part of setting longer-term plans (Habit 1) and reading widely and historically (Habit 3) is finding your brand (if you’re okay with marketing language) or niche (if you prefer ecological metaphors). It’s a way of coping with a noisy and crowded field: What sets you apart? What do you want to become known as the expert in? For example, a lot of forensic students are fascinated by risk assessment, given it’s critical roles in forensic policies and practices. But this is an already crowded field, with well-established experts and active teams. There are still many unanswered questions, and there’s nothing wrong with incremental research (most of science is incremental, after all), but it’s not exciting, to me at least. I am much more excited about exploring less traveled, or even untraveled terrain.
Habit 5: Communicate clearly. I’m impatient with jargon and unnecessarily obtuse writing and speaking, which I think stands in the way of sharing ideas and communicating with each other. It might seem like it sometimes, but we are not writing and talking only for the usually small number of people who work in our areas or the somewhat larger number of people in our field. We are communicating to the broader scientific and public communities. Publication, in particular, is for the record, hopefully to last long after we’re done. We should strive to write, even if we don’t always succeed, in such a way that reasonably educated and intelligent readers from outside the field can understand what we have produced decades from now.
Another point is the increasing importance of communicating outside the traditional academic venues of books, journals, and conferences, as the nextgenforensic blog and other blogs demonstrate. We should engage rather than retreat from the public, because it is ultimately the public that pays our way, absorbs (or rejects) our ideas and findings, and supports (or discourages) the work we do. There are many non-academic outlets for sharing our knowledge, including social media and mainstream media. For reasons I don’t understand, there has traditionally been suspicion or even antagonism in academia towards speaking with the media, even though the media is still the main source of information about science that the public gets. Social media has the advantage of being less filtered; we can say what we mean and worry less about being misquoted or being taken out of context. Most people don’t read academic books or journals (if they can get access) to learn more about a subject. They go online.
Habit 6: Work-life balance. The work matters, else it’s not worth doing. But it’s not everything. I’ve always been skeptical of an academic work culture that emphasizes being busy and productive (which are not synonymous!) and neglects health, relationships, and quality of life. If you think you need to work 10+ hours a day, and on evenings and weekends, to accomplish what you want to accomplish, then I think you either (a) need to become more efficient in how you use your time; or (b) need to reconsider what you need to accomplish, because some of it is worth it (see Habits 1 and 4) and some of it is not (see Habit 2). Eventually, sleep debt and sub-optimal health will impair your productivity and enjoyment of work, putting aside the other personal costs.
Habit 7: Be and seek nice. Personal reputations matter because research areas and even entire fields can be small communities. It can hurt in many ways to become known as someone who is rude, arrogant, careless, or unethical. It’s in your self-interest to be polite, friendly, helpful and professional in all of your interactions with others, whatever their status or tenuous connection to you. We know first impressions matter, and rightly or wrongly, how we behave towards others will influence how people judge our work.
At the same time, we should seek out allies and colleagues on the basis of their interpersonal qualities; maybe they are really brilliant and ambitious, but who wants to work with a jerk? It is also extremely helpful to choose colleagues who have complementary skills and aptitudes. I have been blessed to collaborate with colleagues who are fantastic with study design, heavy-lifting statistics, and attention to detail, none of which are my strong suits. Instead, I bring a strong “big picture” perspective, some facility with writing, and an ability to see subtle links with other areas and disciplines (see Habit 3).
And this brings me to the last habit.
Habit 8: Have fun. It is an historic and social oddity that we can make a living asking and trying to answer questions that fascinate us. We are lucky to be able to pursue this career path. Though our topics may be serious ones that affect many people’s lives, this doesn’t mean we have to be grim about it. Enjoy the intellectual fulfillment of tackling important questions and appreciate the side benefits of this work – like being invited to give a talk for an interesting group in an attractive location – and do your best. There’s (almost) nothing I’d rather be doing professionally.
Seto, M. C. (2014, April 22). Advice for the next generation of (forensic) researchers; or, eight habits for highly effective researchers. [Weblog post]. Retrieved from http://wp.me/p2RS15-4i.
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