Finding your pace in research

Before I start, let me explain that I am a terrible runner, but having donned my trainers for many years and endured hours of mindless treadmill pounding or flailing around a park, I have discovered 2 things – 1) I have never encountered a “runner’s high”, unless it’s the feeling of sitting down on the sofa after going for a run, 2) I have not yet “found my running pace” (my preferred speed is walking).


(I don’t look like this when I’m running. Even in silhouette form you would see my utter distaste for the exercise)

So, in running there is this concept of “finding your pace”, some kind of mythical sweet-spot where you are at your optimal speed without getting worn out. I imagine that one day I will be out running and I will magically find that I am no longer a sweating, panting, flustered mess of over-heating pain and am instead bounding effortlessly down the street, with a smile of genuine enjoyment pasted across my glowing face. Like a smug, athletic gazelle.

When I run, I am not in a place of zen, focused on maintaining my perfect speed; I am listening to loud music and trying to drown out my constant barrage of thoughts, mostly about how much I hate running, followed by wondering if I’ve run 5k already, only to discover I haven’t even hit a kilometer. One thing that has crossed my mind recently is that maybe research is like running…

At the moment I feel like I am caught up in this chaotic whirlwind of trying to think of novel and feasible experiments and then finding the time and energy to put it into practice. My mind seems scattered and so does my research plan, which seems like it consists of anything shiny that catches my eye – “I think neurogenesis is awesome this week! Oh, lets do some neuroimaging! Now lets do western blots! Lets play with immuohistochemistry! I want to study binging behaviour! Now lets do adolescence vs adulthood…”

I’d like to think that some of this is because I’m passionate about my work. I’m in a place (mentally) where I can rapidly generate ideas and have the drive to get on with experiments I’m excited about. But, I’m also worried that I am not focused enough, and that I haven’t yet found my niche… that one thing that I research that could make me the “expert”. Success in research seems to favour those who are really nifty at one thing, which is executed well. My old boss is awesome at memory reconsolidation, my PhD supervisor was great at behavioural assays in transgenic Alzheimer’s disease models. I’m really great at (… insert research here …).

Science doesn’t favour the jack of all trades approach, it’s nice to have a selection of skills, but they have to be all aimed at the same target. Like one of those ridiculous guns with missiles attached, the skill set you develop is your artillery, your research niche is the target that they get aimed at.


“I often favour the classic AK-47, but with a flamethrower and grenade launcher add on”

(I know nothing about guns by the way). In the end you don’t need to have an artillery of weapons though. You just need to be really, really good with one thing. Like Hawkeye, you can totally nail everything with just a bow and arrow.

I digress. So, running and research…

I get this feeling that maybe, with time, you find your pace in research. That one thing that you can define yourself by. Then once you’ve got that sorted you’re on track. You get funding, you’ve got a niche that you can go to conferences and talk about. Your name becomes synonymous with your research. And then you can do some “fun” projects too that you’re interested in, but your niche is your bread and butter. But how you actually go about finding this is unbeknownst to me currently, in the same way that I will still try to sprint around the park and end up with stitch, ever hoping I’ll find that magic sweet spot.




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