A while back we invited you to ask us anything. Our next question is from Angela Camargo: I would like to hear the experiences of ecologists who dramatically changed their study system, for either personal or academic reasons (e.g., from tropical forests to the Arctic). How do you learn the new system?
Jeremy’s answer: Sorry, but you’re asking the wrong guy. 🙂 This blog’s motto translates as “the fox knows many things”, but when it comes to study systems I am very much a hedgehog, not a fox. It’s one of my biggest limitations as a scientist.
Many of my graduate students have worked in different systems than me, typically in a system in which one of their supervisory committee members worked. For better or worse (and it’s some of both…), I’ve always treated those collaborations as one-offs, rather than as “dry runs” for a system switch.
Switching systems is hard because you might get tripped up by lack of background knowledge. So I guess my one piece of advice is: learn from somebody who’s worked in the system for a long time.
Ray Huey has a piece on becoming a better scientist. He talks about how switching systems or starting new lines of research can keep you from becoming stale, and has some advice on whether and how to switch.
Hopefully commenters will chime in with better answers than mine!
I find it interesting that nobody questions a theoretician moving from coexistence theory to say metabolic scaling. But moving from small mammals to birds is a big hurdle. I’m not naive. I know there are logistical issues (permits, the art of setting a Sherman trap vs the art of setting a mist net, even the vaccines you need). And there are proclivities of different systems to behave differently that require different experimental designs (e.g. some systems are noisier than others, some can bring ID back to the lab, some cannot etc). But is that really a bigger change than say moving to a new university and having to learn a new curriculum to advise students about, a new sponsored projects office, a new accounting process, etc? I don’t think so personally. And to my mind moving systems in the sense of the question (tropics to tundra but presumably on the same organisms) is an even smaller transition. Most of the survey methods, etc will stay the same. Probably the biggest barrier is getting funded to start in a new system.
So I think my answers are:
a) Definitely do it. There are lots of advantages in being diverse, being exposed to new stuff, and having a fresh eye.
b) The key to transition is to do it through collaborating with somebody who works in the system. That doesn’t necessarily mean being co-PIs on a large grant. But start with a shared student working with somebody who knows the system. Or volunteer to spend some time on somebody else’s project (obviously somebody who you trust who will include you as a co-author)
c) Because of the funding barriers, until you’ve proven yourself, start small and cheap, and work your way up while you keep your old system still spinning.
d) Switch multiple times early in your career (e.g. from PhD to postdoc, postdoc to tenure-track). Once you’ve done it a couple of times it becomes a habit. But if you wait until you’ve got tenure you’ll have worked in the same system for almost 15 years. Its going to be harder to switch then. (Jeremy adds: get out of my head, Brian!)
While I again acknowledge that it is not trivial to switch, I’ve never heard a story of somebody who really tried to switch and failed. Academics have spent 20+ years learning how to learn. A new system is not a big learn compared to the basics of research approaches and career skills that you have already mastered.