Benjamin Martin had a great comment on my recent post asking “What’s your best paper?”:
Perhaps one reason so few replied to your original question on their best paper is that your audience is largely skewed towards early career types, and if they are like me the title of “best paper” is an ephemeral one.
Nearly every first author paper I have written has at one point been my “best paper” , but was quickly relegated to the ranks of “its a paper…” It’s a little frustrating because it would be really nice to have a paper for which you maintain that initial level of pride. But in another way, the feeling you get when you notice the improvement from one year to the next was probably the most rewarding part of grad school. I don’t fret too much about if I will eventually get a TT job because thinking back on how little I knew about anything as a a newly minted college graduate reminds me it was a worthwhile investment.
I wonder for people further along in their career, if there is a point where you eventually feel like [you’ve] more or less made it, for example there is no longer a significant (positive) temporal trend in the quality of your work? If so about when? Or what was is the functional form of your scientific growth? Linear, exponential, hyperbolic? If I had to guess, I would go with sigmoidal growth with an inflection point around the last year of the phd/first year of a postdoc, but maybe this also varies a lot among disciplines and individuals.
So, what do you think? Are you still improving as an ecologist? How has your rate of improvement changed over time? How do you keep improving if you already have your Ph.D., so that your “official” training is more or less over?
I think it’s good to ask oneself questions like this periodically. It forces you to step back and think self-consciously about what you’re doing, what you want to do, what you should do, and how to make sure those things overlap as much as possible.
Of course, all this kind of begs the question of what it means to “improve” as an ecologist. I’m not going to attempt a definition, except to say that (obviously), the more background knowledge and technical skills you have, the better you are. That’s presumably one important way in which grad students improve–they learn stuff and acquire skills. But “having lots of background knowledge and technical skills” falls way short of completely characterizing what it means to be a good ecologist. Indeed, I doubt there is any single adequate characterization–subjective and personal considerations necessarily are in play here. So in answering Ben’s questions, feel free to assess your own improvement however you see fit.
Looking forward to your comments.