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So, the title may be a little convoluted, but let me explain. My current interests are regenerative medicine and neuroscience. I'm an undergraduate working in a neuroimaging lab, and while I enjoy the research, I feel like I don't want to limit myself to a narrow research topic as is common in Academia. For example, I'm interested in working with other areas, such as stem cell research and nanomedicine. What kind of career should I be working towards if I want to maintain a broad influence in the field? I was considering something like an administrative position or an being part of some journal's board. Perhaps working in the industry would be good, but I like the whole intellectual/meeting researchers vibe in the academic world. Also, please let me know if I can clarify this post a bit.

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I think most researchers want to influence and possibly work in different areas, but we can't all be revolutionaries in several fields. There are two opposing issues that one needs to balance at any stage of academia (or that pesky thing called life):

  • Doing anything significant usually takes real time and effort
  • Each individual has limited resources, such as time and effort

As research has progressed over the past centuries things have gotten more specialized and there indeed has been a necessary tendency for researchers to focus on more and more narrow aspects of science. However, the branches of science are highly interconnected, and fundamental work in one area often has ramifications in many areas (which the original research may or may not be involved with). Recently, there has been more emphasis on interdisciplinary research, which it sounds like the kind of thing you are interested in. So this opportunity is certainly available for researchers who are interested.

However, interdisciplinary research is easier with certain specialities than others. (If you run a lab with lots of specialized equipment, you will be limited by the capabilities of the equipment.) For instance, interdisciplinary work seems to be pretty common with people who do mathematical biology, or more generally applied math/statistics. They often collaborate with different specialists in different fields/subfields who want to apply mathematical techniques/models to their problems, and in the process learn something about that particular subfield. My suggestion, if you want to go this direction, is look for an advisor in graduate school who does (and if possible, whose students do) interdisciplinary research that you find exciting.

Another way to influence people in different areas is through teaching, giving lectures and writing textbooks. Yet another way is by working for a grant agency or as a policy advisor, to help decide what research gets funded. Working for a scientific publishing company, as you mention, is also a possiblity, but journal editors are professional researchers. Similarly, university administration is run by professors. Thus there are many options, but these typically require specialized knowledge, so the preparation is the same as becoming a researcher.

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  • Good answer (+1). However, I think that it focuses more on possibility of doing interdisciplinary research, whereas the OP expressed interest in performing a multi-area research within the same discipline. I realize that often the borders between disciplines and between areas are quite fuzzy, but still the differences are significant and essential. Jun 21 '15 at 2:02
  • @AleksandrBlekh I was using "interdisciplinary" to include the case of working within multiple areas of one field, because I don't know a better word. If you do, let me know.
    – Kimball
    Jun 21 '15 at 2:58
  • I see. Then please disregard my comment. As for the word, just to avoid confusion with true interdisciplinary aka multidisciplinary research, I would use the word multifaceted, which, while still not perfect, at least, doesn't refer directly to "disciplinary" context. Jun 21 '15 at 3:19
  • Thank you! This was a really insightful answer, I'll look into multidisciplinary labs. On a side note, one nice thing about working in a Neuroimaging lab is being able to work with different researchers on neuropathology, etc. I didn't think of grant agencies or policy advisors, and it probably seems like just the thing I was looking for. Are the people who work in these positions usually academic Ph.Ds or more like business people?
    – Phil D
    Jun 21 '15 at 7:32
  • @anonyneuro I believe most of the people making decisions at grant agencies have science PhDs or MDs. I know less about policy advisors, but I think most of them have at least a master's if not a PhD or MD (certainly presidential policy advisors have PhDs/MDs). BTW, I guess you know there are many research-oriented industry jobs (some of which allow you freedom to work in different areas), and these jobs also typically require a PhD or at least a master's.
    – Kimball
    Jun 22 '15 at 6:52
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As an undergraduate you can still easily move to another field by working in another lab in a different field to try things out and get more experience. As a graduate student, become really well-trained at a field you like even if it's a little narrow for now so you can get high-quality publications which will translate hopefully to a good position and lots of grant money. Then you'll have more freedom for collaboration with other fields. Researches frequently branch out or incorporate different fields after a few years of work.

While doing that you can keep talking to other people in different field and read whatever you like. That's assuming you actually want to do research yourself, which will probably take a good while to figure out.

As for administration, you should only decide that route when and if you decide you don't like research.

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  • Yes thats true, but I'm already going into my third year, so I only have one year to really get something done before apps. Yeah maybe I am taking everything a little too quickly, I just don't want to end up studying one protein or enzyme my whole life (not to look down upon that, they're doing great work!), because I feel like the topic I'm interested in has a lot of ways to branch out. Thanks for the advice, I will definitely keep up the reading! :)
    – Phil D
    Jun 21 '15 at 7:36
  • university administration can be a rewarding career for a motivated individual. it is not a dumping ground for burned out researchers. if you no longer like research you should find something you do like and not blindly go into administration.
    – emory
    Jun 26 '15 at 0:14
  • @emory: Of course, I didn't mean that administration is a dumping ground as you put it. My advice is more directed at someone who seems to like the idea of both: to try research first, and if that doesn't work out, then try administration. It is not directed at someone who doesn't like research and never thought of administration in the first place.
    – user136
    Jun 26 '15 at 14:35
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As a researcher it is difficult to have an impact in a single field never mind impacts in multiple fields. Administrative positions are often very detached from research. One position, or set of positions, which might give you the broad exposure to multiple fields that you are looking for is a program administrator for the NIH. They gets to see, and often shape, grants from a huge range of health related fields. They often go to conferences to talk to researchers and talk to senior administrators about setting policies and broad research agendas. There are probably other positions which would give you similar breadth of exposure.

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  • Thanks for the answer, and I see your point about the administrative positions. The NIH administrator position sounds really similar to what I'm trying to do, so I will look into that for sure.
    – Phil D
    Jun 24 '15 at 15:40

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