Research-Life Balance

There’s no such thing. Well, maybe there is, but a lot of researchers probably don’t realize it.

I’ve been told several times by my learned elders that the best way to have a happy life as a researcher is to blur the line between work and play. The problem with this wisdom is that I can always tell the difference between work and play: some things are fun, and some are not. Things that I don’t really consider play include: reviewing papers, revising papers, articulation work (the work you have to do in order to do your real work), coordinating, logistics, transcription, data cleaning, grading – need I go on? There’s plenty more where that came from.

I can sort of relate to this research-as-play concept, however, since I’ve always loved doing analysis and I enjoy qualitative data collection. I like hearing people’s stories when I interview them. I like writing papers, for the most part, and I really like presenting. I like designing courses and working with students. Perhaps I’m just a little too literal when I question the idea that one should not experience the work-play dichotomy as such, but not all parts of research, or of the academic enterprise, are all that much fun. I just can’t find much fun in hammering out workshop logistics, for example, which is what I’ve been doing for the last few days.

But from another angle, I’ve been incredibly successful in blurring the line between research and play. The leisure activities that I most enjoy include spending time outdoors, hiking, photography, and now that I’ve taken it up for my dissertation research, birding. The topic of my research – technologies supporting public participation in scientific research – therefore lends itself very well to mixing business and pleasure.

My research requires me to spend time birdwatching, gardening, and hiking: next month I’ll be wrapping up my fieldwork by going on a wildflower hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This experiential  approach (participant observation) helps me better understand how citizen science projects work, and it’s fun! Not just a little bit fun, but a lot of fun!

For example, today I dallied on my walk home from campus – in the rain – because I stumbled into a patch of warblers. I spent an hour spotting 9 species of warblers and an Indigo bunting, instead of zipping home in the usual 13 minutes. It was really exciting since it means 5 additions to my life list of birds, and they were beautiful creatures. Then I had to spend another hour with my field guides verifying my identifications of the birds. All of that is part of my research. Of course, I do have to take extensive field notes – not exactly fun per se – and spend oodles of time analyzing the experiences, but at least it’s something I can enjoy in the moment, and that pleasure is relevant to the research as well.

Enjoying my research is not accidental. When I chose a dissertation focus, I selected a topic that I’m passionate about, that capitalizes on my skills, and that offers endless variety. This is not a research topic I’m going to find boring by the time I defend my dissertation, and I’ve been working in this area for a little over two years. I did not pick this topic solely because I want to hang out in National Parks. I chose it because I think it’s really important: technology allows more and more people to become directly involved in doing science, which both enriches their lives and makes a substantial impact on what science can achieve. Every time I stop doing it long enough to think about it, I’m excited about my research.

People often respond to my description of my dissertation work by saying things like, “I should change my research focus so I can go hiking for my dissertation,” but the specifics of my fieldwork are atypical for my field. And the fieldwork is not the whole story; like nearly all of my colleagues, I spend substantially more time at a computer than I do in the field. Systematically analyzing the mountains of data produced by 5 days of hiking in the mountains is going to take many, many hours, and not all of that will be much (any?) fun. That’s just how research works.

But my fieldwork photos are going to make some awesome dissertation defense slides!