I can get a little jealous of people who have research systems in their labs, or do fieldwork nearby. You can just run experiments year-round if you want. A manuscript needs a more data for the revision? Go ahead and knock that experiment out. If you want flexibility when you get to do research, then having research right at home works quite well.
Then, why is it that some of the most successful researchers that I know have research systems that are geographically far away from the university? And the people — at teaching institutions — with the most tractable, easy-to-use systems can have trouble getting stuff done? (I think there’s a whole other set of problems with model systems on small campuses, but that’s a whole other diatribe post.)
Being far away from your research system can be a recipe for success. Among people I’ve known, a marine ecologist might have to drive eight hours to the rocky coast. Some physicists have collaborative projects at big national or international labs on the far coast of the US, Europe, and Japan. Anthropologists have sites in Southeast Asia and Central and South America. Humanities researchers rely on archives that are in libraries in distant cities. Others might study ephemeral events that occur locally, with no control over the timing of the events.
There are also successful people who work locally, too. Regardless, it is very clear that having your research system on the other side of the world doesn’t preclude success, even if you’re based in a small pond. That strikes me as counterintuitive.
In my own circumstance, I think having all of my fieldwork based out of Costa Rica has been a great boon for my productivity. If I was able to do research in the local mountains or desert, I don’t think I’d really get anything done. I’d never compartmentalize the time that it takes to fully focus on the work.
I’ll consider this with a social insect analogy.
Some of the most “advanced” social insect societies (as some call them) have workers that demonstrate temporal polyethism. That is: workers are born as nurses, then are promoted to guard duty or nest maintenance, and then they spend the last phase of their lives doing the most risky task, foraging. It’s well described in a variety of species.
This temporal division of labor makes for higher productivity, as a result of higher efficiency and organization of labor. (This is at least true in large colonies with a lot going on. The jury is still out on species with small colonies.) A big ant colony would be in disarray if all individuals tried to do everything at the same time. And so would I.
If I tried to run a field research program while doing every other part of my job, I doubt I’d be able to get high quality fieldwork done. I’ve figured out, in a clearly suboptimal fashion, how to juggle writing, teaching, analysis, mentoring during the year, service, and all that stuff. I can’t imagine adding “data collection” to that list of things to juggle during the academic year.
(And, of course, my greatest responsibility and source of joy is being a parent. But this isn’t a Daddy blog, even though I wish such a genre existed. Even though I spend my time writing here about research, don’t be mistaken. I’ve already established that parenting and spousal duties are more important than everything else.)
When I finish a field experiment, it’s over. One project might build upon the other, but I work with discrete ending points, and that’s when I pull the flags from our field sites and pack things to go home. I’ve hired people to do things in my absence for bigger projects, but for most work, I don’t have the option of just returning to do more. If an editor or reviewer asks for another sample, you know what? They’re out of luck, and I’m out of luck. They can buy their own plane ticket to Costa Rica to get that additional data point, if they don’t want to publish the paper without it.
This finality of data collection helps me to get stuff done. I have no doubt when I need to start analyzing and writing the manuscript. It’s as soon as I leave the country.
I never think to myself, “Here is a little something which is missing from this project to make it complete.” Instead, I tell myself, “I have to package this as a complete project, and accept the fact that there are some missing holes.”
There’s another reason that working far away lets me get more work done. When I go to my field station, I’m in 100% data-collection mode. We’re running experiments full time, and I’m usually working my butt off. And I’m working my students’ butts off. There’s no way I could give so much focus to work like that while I’m at home, because I’d have to get home and cook dinner, and I’d choose to hang out with my kid at times. When I’m in the field, my responsibility to home is an evening video chat date, which is sometimes missed on one side or the other.
There’s also no way that I would be able to get so much dedication and effort from the students in my lab, without taking them to a kind-of-remote rainforest. When you plop people down in a place where there is nothing to do but fieldwork and labwork, and that’s mostly what you get. (If you bring the right people. I’m getting better at that over the years, but there are always flukes. Flukes, you know, are a kind of parasite.)
I’d guess that work happens by students on site about 12 hours per day, in one form or another. You don’t get that kind of consistent work at that level for an extended period at home. (I lament that the internet has gotten faster on station, because those with an internet addiction have a hard time fully dedicating themselves to their work.) So, at the end of a field season, we have a relative ton of data, much more than I’d have than if I tried to work locally or in the lab.
Some lab work does happen during the academic year, mostly dealing with samples that we collected during the summertime. However, we reserve the academic year for writing manuscripts and preparing for the next field season. Data only gets collected in intermittent bursts, and that has been more than enough for my lab. The fact that I can’t collect data except when I fly to Costa Rica forces me to spend my time writing up the results. That gives me a lot of time to write without any other research-related distraction.
If I block away time during the academic year, it’s usually not to do lab work, it’s only to analyze and to write. When I do research while abroad, it’s only to collect data, and not to write. This temporal polyethism is what allows me to get stuff done.