Monday, January 18, 2016

Realized and Fundamental Niches in Academia

Two things I read last week motivated me to sit down and post some thoughts. Last night I found some time to read Jesse Shapiro's new preprint (because, for once, my kiddo went to sleep early and I still had some energy at the end of the day), which focused on using metagenomic data to tease apart how recombination and selective sweeps affect genetic diversity within bacterial populations over time. It provides quite a good summary of recent research into this topic and I found myself binge reading a bunch of newer papers late on a Sunday night. It's surely not for everyone, but I am and have always been fascinated by this research topic. When I finished grad school, this was kind of what I thought I'd be researching over the course of my career.

I'm a few months from submitting my tenure packet, and have been working for the better part of the last 5 years to sculpt that document. Over that time I've been lucky to have really good people working in my lab, and we've been lucky enough to be decently successful in terms of funding and manuscripts. However, even though all of the work we're doing is interesting and exciting, it has ostensibly nothing to do with recombination in bacterial populations despite my intrinsic interests. I wouldn't say that I'm sad about this, but I definitely have feelings that border on regret.

Couple these thoughts with a great blog post I read earlier in the week from Proflikesubstance describing "Tenure Funk". Since I don't have tenure, it's a bit premature for me to say anything about the feelings after accomplishing that goal, however I think I'm on a trajectory towards something that resembles a funk. As a PI you work so hard to find ways to carry out experiments, pay for research, and take care of your people. You have to do what you can to make sure that the lab survives. When I started my lab, a friend (also a PI) described having to "sell out" in order to find ways to fund research. There are no doubt lucky people out there that can do exactly the research they want and find ways to pay for it, but I think there are a lot of us out there that find that our "lanes" diverge from where we thought they'd go. You have to do what you can to survive, and this often means downshifting your energy away from experiments you love to pursue the fundable. Aside from $, there are also institutional pressures that direct your research. I'm in a Plant Science department in a School of Agriculture. I feel compelled to work on systems and questions that my whole department and school can easily relate to. Sure, there are bits and pieces of research that would allow me to investigate recombination in bacterial populations in agricultural settings, but I find these projects more difficult to sell across the campus/school than applied projects.

In ecology, researchers talk about fundamental and realized niches. A fundamental niche is the total space/role that an organism can theoretically fill in nature if not affected by outside forces. The realized niche is the space that an organism actually fills in nature. As we progress through our careers, we all find out what our realized academic niche is (this may be what type of college you work at, what type of research you do, what industry you work in, etc...). This often differs from our fundamental academic niche because outside forces affect the direction of our lives. At certain points in our careers (like tenure time) there are benchmarks that force us to sit down and evaluate how we're doing. It's at these benchmark times that the divergence between our realized and fundamental academic niches becomes apparent. I can see pretty clearly now how these realizations could lead to "tenure funk" or related funks across careers. Can't say that I know how to fix it, although the idea of taking sabbaticals to think and develop projects is definitely appealing. I also have a feeling that realization of divergence between what I'm doing and what I'd do given unlimited funds is actually quite good in the end.

It just hit me that, in my 5th year review meeting, my department head made exactly this point. Tenure is a great time to evaluate the course of your career and what you'd change. Now that I've established a couple of interesting (and fundable so far, fingers crossed) systems, I can begin to tweak these to ask questions that align better with my intrinsic interest in bacterial evolution. When you start your lab everything goes so fast and time management is so difficult that you have to focus on only the most important things.  Now that I'm a few years in, I have a better sense of how to carry out smaller exploratory projects given time constraints. Being a PI is the greatest job in the world (IMO, for me) even though it's stressful as hell and bathes you in bad news most of the time. Truth is that it takes a few years to figure out how to navigate the system where the research you truly want to do may not be fundable. The research is still quite possible, it just takes some time and perspective to see how to get the paths to converge again.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Disqus for