Day 1 to Year 10:  Planning Your Research Programme

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One of the biggest mistakes that young faculty members make is not planning and promptly initiating long-term research. In fact, too often no research is started until funding is obtained. Given the normal cycles of funding calls, evaluations, and administrative bureaucracy, this would mean a new faculty member delaying data collection by the better part of two years. While many transformative research projects require large-scale funding, lots of staff, and/or specialty equipment this is not (and should not be) the model for all research projects. In fact, some of the most interesting work is longitudinal in nature and surprisingly modest in scope. Often the value is in the long-term documentation. Examples include topics related to material aging, environmental modifications (human and natural), and attitudinal changes in populations. In each of these cases, a few hundred euros may be more than sufficient to get the necessary permissions and to start the project. 

Longitudinal studies are interesting in many respects. Firstly, because of their durations, trends may appear that are missed in shorter experiments either because of a lack of diversity in external factors or because the documented effects are secondary (or even tertiary) and, thus, not particularly pronounced or entirely missed in studies of more limited timeframes. Secondly, because of their nature, longitudinal studies cannot be readily repeated by others. So if the idea is good, a colleague down the hall or at the next institution cannot easily add a parameter or tweak a variable and replicate the work. This bestows a certain sanctity to the initial study. Specifically, the original set of experiments must always be cited, thus giving that researcher some status in that field. Finally, as longitudinal studies tend to collect a lot of data, they contain a level of creditability that shorter experiments may not possess.

Given these benefits, the relatively few researchers who undertake such work is surprisingly limited. This may simply reflect a lack of foresight, but the issues may be more complicated. For example, sometimes this type of work is undertaken only as a source of preliminary data to demonstrate a proof of concept, and once the initial phase is completed, the work is abandoned.

Another consideration is that if the original study was not envisioned as something long-term, the initial set up may preclude achieving long-term data acquisition. For instance, there may be insufficient samples, if destructive testing is required. Similarly when working with living things (e.g. plants, people), some are likely to stop being viable during the study’s duration either because they die or are no longer accessible (e.g. people who have moved out of the study area or are no longer willing to participate). Thus, careful consideration is needed with respect to defining the initial scope to ensure that there are enough “specimens” at the end of the study. A further problem may involve a failure to collect all of the necessary accompanying data (e.g. rainfall and humidity at the point of interest, or a complete photomontage of each streetscape) and without such data extracting meaningful, high impact correlations then becomes difficult.

A different challenge relates to location. For physical experiments to be most meaningful, there should locational consistency. Moving experiments from one location to another may compromise the underlying premise of the study. Similarly achieving long-term data collection may require an uninterruptible power supply, constant temperature, and/or a place where the samples are protected from vandalism or other forms of physical disturbance (e.g. animals). So long-term planning is critical.

Another reason why this type of work may not be undertaken at particularly high rates is the relatively high level of reactivity to specific research funding calls. Instead of having a strong vision for one’s life’s work, research ideas are often generated in pursuit of specific funding calls. When funded, while such project outcomes are completely legitimate, they often fail to aid in creating a larger research programme or even any further work. Such reactive research tends to answer a problem or topic posed by a research agency (or company) but does not force the researcher to identify and confront his/her underlying motivation for studying the topic. By creating one or two longitudinal studies that will always be operational (even though they may be in the background of flashier, funded research), the driving focus of one’s research is always present. By having this, checking whether more short-term activities are fully aligned with longer-term goals becomes easier to ascertain, especially when a five-year and a ten-year plan is made. 

Such plans should include verifiable milestones/achievements by year (every year for a five-year plan and every two years for a ten-year plan) that involve all metrics for promotion and/or tenure, plus any personal aspirations. These are likely to include winning certain competitive grants or grants of a specific size, publishing so many articles, chapter and/or books, being appointed to committees of specific professional organizations, and serving on an editorial board for a journal, in addition to being nominated for specific prizes, graduating a certain cohort of student and getting tenured and/or promoted. Without a written plan, achieving these major accomplishments becomes much more difficult. However, the most important thing to remember is that every day such plans and experiments are not in place is a day that further delays the achievement of such goals, whether it be Day 1 on the job or Year 10. So get started today!

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