Z is for ZigZag

Well it’s May 1 so the A to Z Challenge is over, but I still have Z to cover! Trust an academic to be tardy…
I had a hard time coming up with this post. Partially because the breakneck pace of a blog post a day has tired me out a bit. Also because it’s spring, and spare time is preferably gardening time rather than computer time. And finally because it’s Z, and what in hydrology/scicomm/writing goes with Z?
I settled on zigzag because I think it describes two key things in science: career and research program trajectories.
How many times have you read in a career book that you need to define your transferable skills, make a short- and long-term career plan, do informational interviews, and make a slow transition to a new job? Sure that works for some people – but we’ve all talked to/read about/heard about those people who quit one job cold turkey to start something completely different, that they’re not even sure they’re suited for. And they excel. I think about Des Kennedy, a gardener and writer who lives on Denman Island in BC. He wrote a beautiful memoir that chronicled his trajectory from the seminary to radical hippie to Denman homesteader to humor writer and master gardener. It certainly didn’t happen all in one linear, predictable trajectory, but with a series of zigs and zags along the way.

Book cover from Amazon.ca

Research trajectories can be very similar to career trajectories. My research has shifted from glacier runoff, to Arctic glaciology, to forest hydrology & ecology, to stream temperature and aquatic organisms. They’re all related, but definitely not in a straight line. A colleague of mine started his graduate degree in rockfalls and mountain geomorphology. Then got into dendrochronology, including climatology and densitometry. My thesis supervisor started off studying birds – yes, coastal seabirds in Iceland. Now he’s a world-renowned glaciologist.
I think these zigzag research trajectories are healthy in that they keep us mentally ‘on our toes’, but they enrich our contributions to the science. With our varied backgrounds, we bring a new perspective to our work that draws on our previous experiences and familiarity with an entirely different subset of the scientific literature and history. It also helps us build a broader understanding of our research in the context of a number of research fields, as opposed to just one. Institutionally, we’re also moving from highly specific, unidisciplinary research back to broader multidisciplinary research. This is evidenced by NSF’s collaborative grants programs, the multidisciplinary graduate programs popping up at various universities, and the rise of biogeosciences and ecohydrology – integrated sciences just by their names.
Some would argue that this varied background represents dilettantism of sorts, an inability to delve deeply – rather than broadly – into a subject. I have no problem with researchers studying the same thing for 20 or 30 years. While science needs both types of researchers in order to advance, each type seems more suited to some personalities than others.
The problem with zigzag research programs arises in the academic hiring process. As we’ve seen in various articles recently, it’s more and more difficult to land a tenure-track position these days, and hiring committees are getting stickier about applicants. With the number of people applying, they can afford to be this way. But it’s in these situations that having followed a zigzag path to develop a broad rather than a deeply focused research background can come back and bite you in the ass. You’re harder to pigeonhole. Your research doesn’t fit into a neatly scripted sentence. It may take longer to publish papers, or the ones you submit may not be well-received because they’re too integrative for a specific journal.
So where does this get us? I’m not entirely sure. It seems multi- or interdisciplinary research is on the rise and contributes to the science, but isn’t for everyone. Particularly if you want to get a job. Perhaps blog readers have a different perspective, and some anecdotal and/or empirical evidence for (a) which approach may or may not be preferable in science and (b) what the consequences are (or aren’t) when job-hunting.
Now that the A to Z Challenge is over I have to think of a new challenge – but in the meantime I’ll be taking a short break. Look forward to your comments!

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1 thought on “Z is for ZigZag”

  1. You never know where you'll end up. If someone had told me in 1980 that I would be a manager of the Geological Survey of Canada in 2000, I would have laughed my head off.Dad


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