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Bending over backwards

First off, I must apologise to any avid readers out there for the lack of posting over the last few weeks. It has been my turn to write a post for a while now but forces beyond my control have prevented it. These forces came in the form of all-too-familiar obstacles – technical issues, over-work problems, and motivational concerns. Ok, maybe not all of these are beyond my control, but I feel like I have been professionally stretched and pushed and squeezed over the last few months. I’m not talking about my regular visits to the exotic massage therapist, but about realising just how much flexibility is needed in my professional life as a researcher.

As some of you may know, a few months ago I landed a new research position in Germany. This obviously involved a big change both personally and professionally. While I have enjoyed the challenge of a new culture and language, I found a bigger challenge in having to deal with having a totally new research focus in a different field. I had previously spent most of my research life at a clinical level, thinking about things like low back pain, diagnosis, and primary care. Now I’ve found myself working at a population level - on epidemiology and public health. My new colleagues are involved with large scale surveillance projects, disease registries, and multi-disciplinary (with anthropologists and geographers and biologists) programs. What I realised on my first day is that while I have a pretty good working knowledge on my previous topics, I knew next to nothing about research in this new field. It reminded me of first starting out on my PhD and being faced with the sheer number of scientific articles I was supposed to read (and wondering whether my new boss had made a big mistake!).

Along with a new topic, joining a new research group is a tricky thing. We all know that researchers are often a little quirky and hard to connect with. Try being the weird Australian guy in a group of German statisticians! Finding common (research or otherwise) interests can be as difficult as finding Vegemite in a foreign country. Aside from the social aspects though, it seems that every research group in the world has their own way of doing the same thing. I have been in three different research groups in my career and have (so far) had to use three different reference management programs and three different statistics programs.

On top of everything else a little disaster struck. Don’t ask me what I did to deserve it, but within a two week period I managed to break the key to my bicycle lock, destroy my laptop with a water bottle AND lose both my notebook (full of Nobel Prize winning ideas) and work diary! Trust me when I say this is not an experience you want to go through at the best of times. Losing all of my programs and notes and appointments left me with the feeling of being naked and lost in the forest after a big conference dinner.

So, for better or worse, I was left with an opportunity to re-evaluate both what I researched and how I did it. I felt like I needed to approach this new position from square one, much like the very first day of my PhD but with a little extra “know-how”. I always imagined being flexible was a key attribute in research and for once I was glad not to be a specialist, or “the guy who does XX research in YY way”. After my personal re-evaluation and fresh start, I came up with the following pointers for research flexibility. I hope these may be of interest to someone who finds they are taking on a new position or a new topic:

  • After endless reading of articles in my new field I realised how much I knew (and didn’t know) about the basics of research. A solid understanding of methodology and statistics will allow you to be much more flexible than being an expert on a specific disease or process. All research follows similar basic principles and realising this was a “light bulb” moment for me.

  • Be ready to let go of your research ideas if they don’t fit the situation. Or at least be ready to re-align them with the interests of your group. A research group is a lot like a sports team, you need to play together to score goals.

  • With new colleagues or a new institute, look for common research interests. Finding the person(s) who are working closest to your area of interest is worth the trouble. Failing that, show interest in other people’s work. Researchers tend to make friends with anyone who has read one of their papers.

  • Be enthusiastic about your new opportunity! Sometimes a change is as good as a holiday, sometimes it is even better.

  • When it comes to computer programs, use what you are comfortable with but keep your eyes open for something better. This includes statistics programs, reference management programs, and digital music players. Finding the right one could increase efficiency whereas the wrong one could cost hours of frustration and despair.

  • …and finally, have an electronic backup of your files on the internet. This will limit the consequences if things do get stolen/lost/water damaged. It is the year 2013, there is no excuse.