On breadth in research interests

March 16, 2014

In a comment on the last post, Anonymous wrote:

I was wondering, in the course of your career, have you ever gotten tired of studying sauropods? Not to say that sauropods aren’t interesting, or that you might be losing interest in them, but have you ever looked out the window one day and gone “you know, I’m sick of working on sauropods for a while, I’d like to do some research on (say) stegosaur necks”. I ask this question because many prospective paleontologist nowadays, particularly graduate and undergraduate students, are feeling increasingly pressured towards being pigeonholed in a certain, rather small area of paleontology, e.g., tooth wear in extinct ungulates, histology in dinosaurs or therapsids, or ankle adaptations in Triassic archosaurs. In particular, many students end up working on whatever the professor they are working under gives to them as a project, and come out feeling they are so specialized in this area that they can’t work on anything else even if they wanted to. Though, in your case because sauropods exhibit such weird and diverse neck anatomy, it may not be a problem. In my case, I have been doing work on a group that is very morphologically stereotyped, and while I enjoy doing work on it, it would be nice to branch out into more diverse groups given my interesting in things like functional morphology and paleoecology. I know several other people in my research group feel the same.

I am going to answer first for myself, and then invite Mike and Darren and everyone else to share their thoughts.

For me, two things. First, I don’t always work on sauropods–I have a human anatomy paper in press, and two different projects on mammal skull osteology struggling toward publication, and a couple of bird things. You could be forgiven for thinking that sauropods are all that I do, though, since almost all of my publications to date have been on sauropods. :-) But I have been doing research on non-sauropod things that interest me for many years, they’re just taking longer to see the light of day.

Second, within the admittedly narrow field of sauropods I do many different kinds of projects. To take four consecutive papers: my part of the Brontomerus paper (Taylor et al. 2011a) was mostly writing about North American sauropod diversity in the mid-Mesozoic, whereas for the next paper (Taylor et al. 2011b) I was hacking through the sexual selection literature, and for Yates et al. (2012) I was thinking about the early evolution of pneumaticity, and for Wedel (2012) I was grappling with the internal processes of neurons. So that’s a spectrum of stuff from cell biology to biogeography–sauropodomorphs are just the thread that held all of these disparate bits together. Army ants typically have a central camp or bivouac from which they send out foraging parties in radiating directions. That’s my scientific development in a nutshell.

And I’m still pretty narrow compared to a lot of other folks. Dan Ksepka is best known for his fossil penguin work, but he also described the sauropod Erketu and has published on choristoderes, among other things. By the time he finished his dissertation, Jerry Harris had done a morphological description of a sauropod (Suuwassea) and another of a theropod (Acrocanthosaurus) and had published on pterosaurs and IIRC some other things as well. And then there’s Darren, whose remit is Tetrapoda, and not just for blogging.

One thing you wrote particularly caught my interest:

In particular, many students end up working on whatever the professor they are working under gives to them as a project, and come out feeling they are so specialized in this area that they can’t work on anything else even if they wanted to.

Really? I am having a hard time wrapping me head around that. Does “this area” not butt up against any number of others? I mean, my first project was Rich Cifelli saying, “Hey, why don’t you go identify these sauropod vertebrae?”, which metastasized into the description of Sauroposeidon. But along the way I got interested in:

  1. the diversity of Early Cretaceous North American sauropods;
  2. pneumaticity;
  3. how birds breathe (and, yes, that’s a separate topic from pneumaticity);
  4. neck muscles in birds;
  5. biomechanics and posture of sauropod necks; and
  6. all the weird stuff lurking in the OMNH collection (see for example Bonnan and Wedel 2004 and Taylor et al. 2011a).

That looked like several lifetimes’ worth of work even back in 2000, and it looks like many more now.

Now, I worry that I am sounding like a jerk, because I know–I KNOW–I was handed the most cherry planned-to-be-one-semester undergraduate research project ever. I get that, and I’m as grateful and humble about it as any naturally arrogant genius could be. But still, it seems to me that just about every project involves applying [method] to [taxon] to measure or infer [parameter], and by the time you look into applying the method to other taxa or problems, and into related or complementary or opposing methods, and into other animals that closely related to or in some way analogous to your ‘home’ taxon, and into other parameters or the same parameter in other places or times or clades, you’ve got a pretty full slate of possible things to work on–and this is just a list of areas where you have a head start because you’re already up to speed. If you want to go work on something completely different, who’s stopping you? And if you have intellectual wanderlust but don’t know what to work on, I’ve already written something that might help with that.

But maybe I am misunderstanding your complaint. If the problem is that your research project is narrow, well, that’s a common lament, but the upside is that it’s the kind of limit that might make things easier. If the OMNH crew had found any more of Sauroposeidon, it would have taken longer to prepare, and it would have been more obvious that it was new, and it would have been a lot more work. So I probably wouldn’t have been put on the project, or if I had been, it might have taken up my whole MS and kept me from working on pneumaticity. I am wondering now if a useful heuristic for student projects–or any projects, really–might be, “Keep narrowing it until it looks tractable.”

If you’re bored, start a side project. At best you’ll have a second thread of publishable work, at worst you’ll have an excellent distraction from writing up your thesis.

If the complaint is that your research project is making you too narrow, then maybe you just haven’t been at it long enough to have found all of the interesting links to other methods and taxa and parameters. But I am certain they are there. And discovering them is one of the chief joys of doing research in the first place.

So, there are my thoughts on the desirability–or inevitability–of breadth in one’s research interests. What does everyone else think?

References

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5 Responses to “On breadth in research interests”


  1. […] 2014-03-16: This post inspired a follow-up, and this much later post touches on some of the same […]

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    I’m on board here with pretty much everything Matt has said (apart from the implication that working on mammal skulls may sometimes be morally justifiable). The idea that working on sauropods is limiting in terms of broader science is like the idea that playing guitar is limiting in terms of different styles of music. Guitar gets you rock, pop, jazz, folk, prog and more; and in the same way, sauropods get you nomenclature, diversity, description, palaeobiology, systematics, futurism, history, evolution, mechanics, ontogeny and more.

    The core observation for me is that every single project I work on gives rise to three or four more that I’d like to work on, given time. I have long given up on the idea that I’ll ever get them all done, because even if I did I’d be left with three times as many new to-do projects. I imagine that’s true of most scientists — and artists, for that matter.

    Matt writes:

    If the OMNH crew had found any more of Sauroposeidon [...] it would have been a lot more work [...] it might have taken up my whole MS and kept me from working on pneumaticity.

    Of course, this is the long-running problem with the Archbishop. If those gorgeous dorsals had been the only available material, I’d have had that description whacked out in no time, like I did with Xenoposeidon (less than four months from seeing the specimen for the first time to submitting the manuscript). But the weight of all that additional material has left me continually going “Oh, I’ll just do this short paper first before I really get down to doing the Archbishop”.

    If you’re bored, start a side project. At best you’ll have a second thread of publishable work, at worst you’ll have an excellent distraction from writing up your thesis.

    Actually, there’s an even better outcome: you might accidentally write your dissertation while you’re doing side-projects. That’s what happened to me: as previously noted, all five chapters of my dissertation started out as side-projects to a core project that I never got around to doing.

  3. 220mya Says:

    I want to reinforce the second part of Matt’s post. Although I do think there is a problem with students being “given” PhD projects that are quite narrow, the idea that one feels “so specialized in this area that they can’t work on anything else even if they wanted to” is plain and simple a self-imposed limitation. Its up to each researcher to educate themselves on the topic and generate research questions – just as you do for your PhD dissertation!

    If you feel like you can’t do that, then you haven’t received good training on how to be a scientist. Ask questions, read up, look at specimens! You don’t need an advisor to do any of that.

    I think the biggest problem with alot of MS and PhD projects is that the student and advisor fail to ask the question “who cares?”. That is – why does the broader paleontologic/geologic/biologic community care about the research question I’m asking? Or, how do I make them care about that question. It doesn’t matter if someone works only on sauropods or on all tetrapods as long as the research questions they’re addressing are relevant and of interest to others in the broader research community. If you can’t interest these folks, then it will be hard to get a job, and few folks will read your work.

  4. Matt Wedel Says:

    That is – why does the broader paleontologic/geologic/biologic community care about the research question I’m asking? Or, how do I make them care about that question.

    I think you nailed it right there. By now I am convinced that there are very few boring problems, but lots of problems that are still looking for their Carl Sagan. It is possible to overcome the collective boredom of a roomfull of students by opening up and sharing your excitement and enthusiasm for a topic.* I think it is possible to fire the interest of one’s colleagues the same way. You can’t come out in a paper and say, “Hey, check it out, this stuff is badass!” But you can certainly convey that in a talk or a blog post, which is one reason those forms of engagement are so valuable. And that idea can be embodied in your papers even if it is not stated explicitly.

    * And by meeting them halfway, not talking down to them, explaining things in common language instead of retreating into jargon, etc. All of the excitement in the world won’t help if you can’t communicate. Fortunately communication skills can be learned.

    Science may advance by controlled tests of hypotheses, but scientists are driven by curiosity and passion (at least on our best days; staying clothed and fed and making rent are also strong motivators). Whatever you are working on, clearly it was interesting enough to hold you for a while. So figure out how to articulate that inherent fascination to other folks. They might not all be interested, but some of them will be fascinated for the same reason you were.

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Right. Anything can be made interesting by someone who cares about it enough.

    (Rodent teeth excepted, of course.)


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