Applying your time correctly

An exchange of comments on this recent SV-POW! post was in good fun, but it masked an actual issue within research that’s worth making note of. The short version is that you can’t know everything (though some people get quite close!) and you certainly can’t study everything you’d like. Thus you do have to balance your time and efforts to what will yield the best or most productive veins of research. No matter how good your ideas or how much you might like to take on certain projects, it’s often simply not a worthwhile endeavour.

If you want to step well outside your normal field of research into an area you are not familiar with this likely represents a very significant investment of time. You’ll have to dig into the literature and specimens to get up to speed and there’s still a chance you are duplicating someone else’s work or reinventing the wheel. Obviously communication and collaboration can ameliorate this, but then if you are new to a field, there may not be much you can potentially bring to the table with your new potential colleagues.

This is not to denigrate or discourage people from spreading out and diversifying. I think too many researchers are actually too specialised. However, in the incredibly, and increasingly, competitive world of research it is sadly rather normal to feel pressured to produce as much work as possible as fast as possible and as such, to make a significant shift towards another area that will require a significant investment of time and may not yield much in terms of novelty, is not likely to be high on anyone’s agenda.

I don’t have the time to do the work I really do want to do, let alone the random things I’ve thought of that might work if only I had the time and assuming it’s not a half-baked plan that won’t work because I don’t know the material well enough. Jerry Harris once told me his hardest lesson was to learn to say ‘no’ to cool projects he was invited onto. Much as we’d like, we can’t do everything, so you have to pick your battles. Which is a shame, as I’d really like to take a good few months off and serious work on important issues such as “what is the most cool colour / pattern combination for a Styracosaurus frill?”


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