A Vision for Research: Revisited

Hellmann_mission_blogpost2_imageA bit more than a year ago, my lab and I spent a day trying to figure out who we were and what we were about. We wanted to express this identity to ourselves—to help keep us on track and to give us purpose—and we wanted to express it to the outside world. I blogged about the process that we used in our self-exploration, and it’s been great to see other labs, like Chris Buddle’s, give it a try and share their wisdom.

From that process—the process of articulating a mission and vision for our research group—my students and I learned a number of things about ourselves. We learned that we all have different research questions (though the PI shares most of them!); we have different research methods and different stages of career. But we share a common objective. We work to see ecology and climate science inform decisions that protect people and nature. We also all strive for excellence in the work we do. Writing this shared vision down helped—a least for a little while—bring the lab together.

A vision statement should be something you want your organization to hope to achieve, something that reflects your goals and ambitions. A good vision statement should be something like Teach for America’s: “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” This vision doesn’t say a thing about the tasks that teachers do.

In making a statement for our lab, we brainstormed about how we want the world to be and how we want it to be changed or improved through our scientific work. In the day-to-day life of science, teaching, and research, we tend to emphasize productivity, mastery, and progress, the number of papers and grants. But a vision is the reason you do all of those things. Vision also is something that grad students, postdocs, undergrads, and even PIs don’t get to talk about and write down everyday.

Today, I find that we don’t reference our vision, or our mission, statement as much as we probably could or should. We mention it from time to time in lab discussion. We introduce it to new members of the lab. But I now think that group visioning should be a repeated exercise. The statement should be re-crafted from time to time. I also think that the activity of making the vision statement may be more important than having the statement itself, at least from the point of the view of group dynamics.

Our current vision statement does help me as a PI, however. As our group grows and the scope of our work steadily expands, there are more and more opportunities, different directions we could head, different projects we could initiate, and different students we could take on. I think frequently about whether a new project or a new collaboration will advance our vision, as much as I think about whether it will lead to good papers or new streams of funding.

So I think that visioning with a research group is a good idea, maybe not just once but periodically. It doesn’t have to be a formal process, and folks like Chris Buddle and Elena Bennett have a number of good ideas to share. Working with one’s research group to craft a collective mission and vision is just another way of stopping and taking stock. Taking stock provides clarity of purpose, and doing it as a group can elevate your collective endeavors to a new level.

Jessica Hellmann, a 2011 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame. Read more about her work on her blog, Adapting Nature to Climate Change. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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