Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Formulating a research agenda: the courage to be prominent

Last month, I posted "rules for best research" and I mused about the temptation to choose low-hanging fruit. The low-hanging fruit is a reactive approach: you see what is available, and you choose among it. The "big picture" approach to research sets your own agenda, irrespective of what seems to be available. The question of which type of research to pursue was couched in this essay as if it were an intellectual question, but I contend that it's primarily a psychological issue. A researcher needs not just the mind to pursue the big questions, but also the courage to do so.

I've felt pretty silly writing all my research statements about these low-hanging fruit, but the combination of finishing one of my dissertation papers (which gave me a "big picture view") and the combined experience of many job interviews has made to formulate a big picture research agenda with big questions to answer. The difficult part, of course, is implementation.

As a college student at a top college, there was a big temptation to hide: get the B+ you felt you were going to get no matter how hard you studied, don't stick out, don't do too much of the work or attend class too much, pull ideas out of thin air, and "research" problem set answers by hoping that the problems were done in other textbooks. At different or smaller schools, maybe it's easier to keep high school habits of being the big priss sitting at the front of the class, but with classmates who started a chain of profitable homeless shelters in all major cities at age 12 and won the Nobel Peace Prize at age 13, my friends and I didn't try too hard to gain prominence. In graduate school, if you choose to join the most challenging circles in order to learn the most, you feel like you're just one of many, and others are better than you, so you have no inclination to push yourself into prominence.

Post-graduation, though, it's a different story. In graduate school, it's enough to be one of a group. After graduate school, you need to be distinctive as an individual in order to get a job and the funding necessary to support yourself and your students, and that's a bit scary.

There are many uncharismatic academics, but the most successful ones do have a charisma and self-importance. They're not necessarily arrogant, but they do have presence. It's a chicken-and-egg story: those who were charismatic may have gotten better jobs, while those who got better jobs may have gained confidence and charisma in the jobs, and both are simultaneously true. Everyone is doing excellent work, but the way to select among the many excellent candidates is personality; the ones who exude the most confidence give the search committee the most confidence that they can implement their ideas.

It seems similar in other fields as well. I have a friend who's a writer in Hollywood and has had dozens of almosts: he was represented by a top agency, he's submitted to everything well-known in his genre and gotten positive feedback for his submissions, he's pitched to major studios, he's co-written pilots for major networks, he's won lots of awards, and his writing is simply top-notch. He's an affable guy, and everyone who meets him likes him, and yet he doesn't exude the kind of presence which makes people just love being around him; by contrast, many writers who are successful in Hollywood do have this presence and they're good at networking. People have a preference for working with those that they already know, and that preference comes into play when choosing among people of similar talent. I'm sure some Hollywood writers are successful despite their lack of charisma, but the personality factor is apparently huge. When I was listening to an NPR interview with writers about the WGA strike, I was struck by how smoothly they spoke: they stayed completely on-message, sounded authoritative but not arrogant, their voices were pleasant and smooth, and their radio interview skills were equal to any good politician.

Ironically, it seems like having the qualities that could make someone be popular in high school is what marks the difference between being a successful academic working on important questions and a mid-rank one. Writing the research agenda was not difficult, but having the presence and confidence to implement it will be. It takes a great deal of courage to truly make an effort to become prominent.

I know that this post sounds a bit like one of those clicheed motivational business books, and I certainly don't endorse the genre. I do think that there is a kernel of truth to the idea that it takes a lot of courage to be successful, and one of the first tasks for some new academics is to build up that courage before even setting their research agendas.

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