I loved this recent blog by Staffan Lindgren. I followed a very non-linear path to my current position and I’ve been struggling a lot lately with defining my research specialisation.
In high school, I failed chemistry, barely scraped through physics and maths, didn’t study biology, excelled at English, geography and history. I loved nature and being outdoors, but didn’t know there was a science career in that. So I went off to uni and did a Humanities degree (which I thoroughly enjoyed) and spent my early 20s trying out corporate communications, office admin, media, governessing on a remote cattle station, but nothing stuck. By this time, I’d discovered that science wasn’t all about lab coats and test tubes, so I went back to uni to study environmental science.
I didn’t plan to pursue a research career – I nearly failed undergrad statistics and never fit the norm of the ‘successful scientist’ promoted within the academic community. For my Honours year, I followed the well-worn path to vertebrate ecology, but had to switch projects halfway through the year because my supervisor disappeared on his own remote field work for the rest of the year without telling me. The only available project I could feasibly do in the 4 months left of my degree was monitoring a tingid biocontrol agent on its host, an invasive environmental weed. An insect career wasn’t even on my radar then, but that’s when I discovered how much I liked insect ecology. After two false starts at a PhD, I finally found a supervisor and project combination that clicked and the rest is history.
So it’s comforting to read of winding roads that have led others to long and inspiring science careers. Fingers crossed!
As early career researchers (ECRs) looking for advice, we are often told that the key to academic success is finding a research niche* early in our career. I’ve given students this advice myself without thinking about it. The implication is that, to be competitive and stand out from the pack, you need to find a unique research specialisation. Functional redundancy, so they say, is a career killer.
But is this advice outdated? Is it left over from a time when establishing an academic career involved far less forced dispersal, competition, risk of predation, and disturbance effects than it does now?
Ironically, all the ecologists who are credited with developing ecological niche theory (Grinnell, Elton, Hutchinson) spent their entire career (or very close to it) permanently employed at a single institution.
For modern ECRs, this is largely unheard of. It’s now expected that your ECR years involve multiple short-term contracts, with different research groups, in different locations, and different research fields.
This experience is rewarding in some ways, but it’s also expensive and pretty exhausting, with no guarantee of greater success as effort increases (contrary to pretty much everything else in life). Every transition, whether physical or intellectual, comes with an adaptation/evolution phase that can delay career progression. Time spent learning new fields or skills, navigating workplace power dynamics, and learning how to coexist with your new supervisor, means less time to do research.
So what is your research niche?
Whenever I think about my ‘research niche’, I don’t think of one specific specialisation. Instead, I end up with five key research traits that support this overall niche: the conceptual frameworks that inform and support most of my work; the systems I predominantly work in; the taxonomic groups I work with; the technical and practical skills I have; and the personality traits that allow me to succeed (or not) in any context.
Just like the complementary niche and neutral theories in ecology, the relative importance of each trait to an ECR’s success depends on the scale and context being considered. ‘Environmental’ influences (i.e. academic system, institution, research community) vary with each transition, meaning that an ECR’s level of functional redundancy will also vary with scale and context.
Lab group: Functional redundancy in your lab group can increase tension and competition stresses. Your lab group should be a ‘safe space’ for social and professional support and trust…it can be really helpful for your mental health to be recognised as functionally unique within your lab group.
School/Department: At the department scale, there may be other researchers that overlap closely, or even exactly, with some of your niche traits. But, as an individual, functional uniqueness can make you more competitive for internal support and increase internal collaboration potential.
Regional/National: Functional redundancy becomes less of a problem for individuals and increases potential for cross-institution collaboration. It also enhances knowledge development of regional/national perspectives on relevant research fields, especially internationally-topical issues. But functional uniqueness can also be a benefit for science communication aiming to reach local/regional audiences.
International: Functional redundancy reigns supreme. At this scale, the more researchers working within a particular niche, the better for everyone as knowledge advances rapidly and more opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration are revealed. From a science communication perspective, functional redundancy increases audience reach for individual messages, while functional uniqueness increases audience reach for individual communicators.
So ‘find your niche’ is not the most helpful advice to give ECRs. Instead, suggest they focus on understanding how their diverse experiences, interests and knowledge help them engage with their academic community at different scales and in different contexts.
*(/ˈniːʃ/) As an aside, the nitch vs. neesh debate is one of the biggest wastes of time in community ecology. Both are correct, and your preference depends on your native tongue. The pronounciation ‘nitch’ is pretty much only used in American English, while ‘neesh’ is used in British English. I say ‘neesh’ because I’m Australian (from Celtic heritage) so I prefer to speak & write British English. If you want to get technical, this blog provides some justification for ‘neesh’. But whatever, it doesn’t really matter. Either pronounciation is recognised and acceptable.
© Manu Saunders 2018