Change that might do you good

In the life of a scientist there are times when the word “change” takes on a particular appeal. The change I am referring to, is that of area of research. Many, perhaps most scientists spend their whole careers researching in the same, rather narrowly defined field, often investigating the same subject over the course of years, decades. There are reasons why that is the case.

Disclaimer: this post is not about change forced upon someone by adverse circumstances, e.g., loss of job or inability to secure one in the desired area of research. The change that I am describing here is self-motivated.

Any worthwhile problem is difficult. If it were not, someone else would have solved it already. Insight, progress, breakthroughs, normally only come (if ever) after a long, intricate process of trial and error, usually extended in time (we are talking years). Perseverance, no, stubbornness is an essential quality of a successful researcher. It is almost necessary to become obsessed with a particular problem, in order to get to the bottom of it. And, doubtless, a great deal of narcissism and ambition drive one’s relentless quest at being the one to uncover that puzzling riddle of Nature that no one else has been able to crack. There is no scientist who does not have, at least in the back of his/her mind, the worldwide recognition, monetary rewards and place in history that go with ground breaking discoveries…

As a consequence of that, and given the stakes and the investment of time, human resources and infrastructure that is required, it becomes extremely hard to let go of an unsolved problem. Giving up is tantamount to conceding defeat. And how would one ever know that maybe, just maybe, that last remaining idea still not yet tried out, that alternative computational approach, that difficult but in principle possible measurement, would not turn out to yield the missing piece of the puzzle ? Wouldn’t it be devastating to see someone else try that very thing, in many respects building on all the hard work carried out by us until then, and succeed in our place ?

Still, there are also times when a change of direction, field of research, or maybe even area of science, may not be a bad idea, one that might warrants careful consideration. And yes, there can be good reasons for doing it. In this post I am going to write about the potential benefits of branching out into a new field. In a follow-up post I shall explain why I personally (while generally not a “conservative”), tend to be wary of change when it comes to one’s own research activity. Notably, one has to beware of “change for its own sake”.
And the one thing that we should get straight is: a change of direction is not a requirement.

There is nothing inherently wrong in pursuing for ten, twenty, thirty years the same scientific objective. There is, in my opinion, a legitimate way of spending such a long period of time attempting to elucidate an important, outstanding fundamental problem, without ever coming to a definitive “answer” or “solution”, but still yielding a body of work that the community will find useful, possibly for reasons unrelated to the main goal of the research program, in the process contributing to the education and training of graduate students and postdocs [0].
However, as we all know stubbornness and persistence are not always positive qualities. There is such a thing as running out of ideas, endlessly trying the same thing, each time hitting the same wall. And it is not unreasonable to be tired of thinking of and working with the same things all the time, to want to try out something different, especially after a number of years without any tangible progress.

Trying out something new has the following possible (by no means guaranteed) payoffs:

  1. Breadth is always good. The knowledge of a scientific field that one acquires by actually working in it, is unmatched by anything that anyone can learn from books. And knowing more about different fields of research makes one a better teacher, grant reviewer, mentor, science officer and citizen. This is the one clear, undeniable benefit of working in different areas of research throughout one’s career. It is the single best reason why, every once in a while, I do consider to make at least an excursion into a different area, without necessarily abandoning my own. But here too, there are pitfalls — it depends on how one does it, and one may not in the end get much out of such an exercise, as I shall explain in my next post.
  2. There is more to science than just, for example, high-temperature superconductivity, or dark matter, or grand unification. Although it may be difficult to see that, for someone who has spent a decade working on one “seminal” problem, there are many different, interesting problems in other areas within one’s discipline, or even in different areas of science altogether, where one may (please note the emphasis) be able put to good use what learned working on a difficult problem in one’s own original problem of interest [1].
  3. There may be “strategic” benefits as well. Specifically, there is no question that access to funding is usually crucial to the continuation of a research program. The “sexiest”, “hottest” subjects, the ones that are most current and about which one reads most often on the newspaper and hears on television, are also the ones that attract more researchers. That means that competition for funding is fiercer, and one may be left out. Once the funding tap is closed shut, one is forced to scale down one’s activity significantly, and competing with better funded groups may never become possible again.
    On the other hand, in other areas, perhaps less fashionable or “glamorous”, the competition may be less stiff [2].


[0] Obviously, this does not mean that a faculty at a research university is entitled to receive unlimited funding and/or relief from other duties (e.g., teaching or service) to pursue indefinitely a research program that does not produce results deemed valuable to others, and/or whose training and educational components have dwindled.

[1] By this I do not mean to imply that problems in other fields are “easier”. They are not, but one might make an original contribution by bringing in a different perspective, background, and possibly investigative tools, which may turn out to be effective in other contexts in which no one has yet thought of applying them. Examples of that are countless, even though, as I shall try and articulate in my next post, one ought not oversell this scenario.

[2] If I sound unconvincing, is because I am not convinced myself. I really do not think that this is a good reason to make a switch.

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8 Responses to “Change that might do you good”

  1. grumpy Says:

    Well, since nobody else has commented yet and I think this is an interesting topic:

    pick 3 of your favorite (modern-day) scientists. Doesn’t matter if you’re like me and the list changes frequently.

    How many subfields can these scientists legitimately claim to have made contributions in?

    For my top 3, they all contributed to 3-5 subfields. They didn’t all focus on just one at a time though.

    Perhaps its just me but I find breadth to be a prerequisite for being an outstanding scientist.

    • Massimo Says:

      It’s funny, I am reading your question and I can think of only very few physicists whose contributions to the different fields are all outstanding. Isn’t this an argument against breadth ?
      I shall write more about this in my next post, but I think that there are definite downsides to exploring several different fields in the course of one’s career.

      • Nathan Says:

        What do you mean by breadth? For example, if a researcher falls under AMO physics would going from O to A be very broad? Or, would trying different aspects of atomic physics be as broad as one should try?

        Experimental condensed matter physics might be a better example. Most researchers likely have one or two key tools that they use to study their samples. And, most go around trying to find different nails for their very expensive hammer.

      • Massimo Says:

        I don’t think I can give you an absolute, universal definition. I think I could compare two scientists and give you an idea of which one has a greater breadth, but I am not even sure I could tell you at what point one can be regarded as having moved to a different area. If you work your whole life on High-Temperature Superconductivity I think you have less breadth than someone who has also worked in, say, Superfluid Helium 😉
        And it also depends on how you do it, as you mentioned… You have experimentalists who do neutron scattering and have in principle no problem switching sample but, does that qualify as having moved to a different area ?

    • GMP Says:

      Great point, grumpy! Off the top of my head I can think of three who have made key contributions in several fields. Pierre-Gilles de Gennes (ESPCI, France; superconductivity, liquid crystals, soft matter in general), Tony Leggett (UIUC; superfluidity, superconductivity, general open systems theory, I think some BEC of late), and Patrick Lee (MIT; superconductivity, mesoscopic transport, strongly correlated systems).
      I am too lazy to check, but I seem to recall DeGennes’ citation for the Nobel prize (or some other accolade) may have quoted his superior ability to use techniques from one field and apply them in others.

      • Massimo Says:

        There are some, GMP, the one name of a contemporary that I would simply have to mention, as in a different league compared to everyone else, is that of Philip W. Anderson (Localization in Fermi systems, Magnetism, Superconductivity, Higgs mechanism in High Energy Physics, Economics). I agree with the names you gave, even though I am not so sure about Leggett, as I think he never really did move so far away from his general area, which is quantum many-body physics. And then I suppose John Bardeen, Richard Feynman and Enrico Fermi would have to be other examples. Now, I know many renowned physicists who have co-authored papers in different areas, but that is different from saying that their contributions in the various areas are equally important.

      • GMP Says:

        Massimo, I totally agree. I just don’t know that I would consider Bardeen, Feynman, or Fermi as my contemporaries…

  2. Grumpy Says:

    Phil Anderson is an outstanding example and is now on my list ;). Perhaps I was interpreting breadth more narrowly than you. For example, Carl Wieman (parity nonconservation in Cs, BEC, physics education) and Steven Chu (laser cooling, optical tweezers/biophysics, Atom interferometry) are on my list. Also two others who I am embarrassed to admit to.

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