As a researcher, every time you enter a new research field or start to work on a new problem you need to review the knowledge that is out there already and find out about what is currently being done in that field. A great part of getting to know what is actually out there is usually done with some sort of literature review or survey. Sometimes, a literature review is a formal part of the first year of grad school and is completed in the form of a write-up.
While such a write-up is generally very useful, it is only a snapshot of a dynamically evolving research field and is not able to capture any of the dynamics of that field. However, I believe that getting to know the dynamics of your field might be equally as important as finding out about what knowledge is out there already. By the way, if you feel like your field is not evolving dynamically something is wrong. That is, either you oversaw something, or you are not looking into the right direction, because research fields do evolve dynamically driven by the scientific community working on them.
Now, after the preparation of such a snapshot-review you should be very well prepared to get working on your own contribution. However, there is something that is often not paid enough attention to, namely the fact that research fields evolve dynamically. This dynamic evolution heavily depends on the nature of the field and usually it is impossible to know the evolution in advance. Consequently, unless you get into the research field yourself and spend time and energy working in the field, it looks like it is very hard to find out about the dynamics of your field. Some fields seem to have rather slow dynamics and other fields have incredibly fast dynamics. To be clearer, I think the fields with fast dynamics are sometimes referred to as “hot topics”. Just to geek out a little bit, there seems to be a logic explanation for that: From a scientific point of view, it is actually totally reasonable that one cannot know about the dynamics of a field in an instantaneous way, since for all dynamical systems several snapshots in time, or ideally some sort of derivatives are needed to describe them in a reasonable way. However, since the evolution of a research field is a real time process you are part of, you can’t help but spending time and energy in the field to find out yourself.
The question whether a field is hot, or fashionable, or anything else is yet another problem, which I am not going to address here. Instead, I want to make another point. I believe that a snapshot-review of such nature I described above is not suitable to find out about the dynamics of your research field. But more than that, I believe that knowing about the dynamics of your field is overly important, since this is the only way that enables you to make significant contributions yourself. Notice that “knowing the dynamics of your research field” automatically means that you spent time in the field and that is often closely associated with “experience”.
But how can you find out about the dynamics of your field and how do you find out about the nature of the field you are working in while still being able to dedicate enough time and energy to work on your own contributions? There is probably no right or wrong answer to this question and even making meaningful general recommendations is kind of tricky, since every field has it’s own, very unique character. However, here are some aspects of my personal viewpoint (which might evolve dynamically as well): Apart from reading as much as possible, one should also try to talk to as many people as possible and interact with other persons working in your research field or in related fields. That is what conferences, workshops, and other meetings are really meant for. Consequently, such meetings are an important part of my personal strategy to learn about the dynamic nature of our current research field and other, related fields. Apart from that, you often don’t even have to look that far to find persons to interact with and have meaningful discussions with. Sometimes, groups in other departments are working in the same fields. Although they might have different viewpoints and objectives, it is always worth to get acquainted with as many groups as possible.
Coming back to the somewhat provocative title of this article, knowing “who is leading the chase” is an important part of knowing the dynamics of a research field. This does not mean that one should necessarily follow someone into some direction, but rather keep an eye on how the whole field evolves dynamically. Notice that most of the time it is not even the case that you could just point at some group and say “they are leading the chase”. Further, whether science should be related to a “chase” is yet another debatable question. Anyways, no mater where you are (that is, at which position in “the chase” you see yourself), you want to make sure that you are participating in the chase because that means that your are working on the frontiers of knowledge advancement and that is the most important point.
During my work on this article I realized that there are opportunities to branch out the discussion in several aspects ranging from the concept of experience to research strategy, hot topics, and the “chase” of science. I hope that at least part of these subjects may be picked up in the future, maybe also by my fellow bloggers. Anyways, to keep my personal strategy going, the academic travel season will continue very soon. (Related to that, also see my previous post The academic travel season.)