Advice beyond “focus” for academics

I’m an early-career academic and clinician. As such, I need– and receive– a lot of guidance. I have mentors, I have bosses, I have colleagues. Everyone says to focus. Which is nice, but is it helpful? Certainly focus is critical to build a solid and impactful program of scientific research. Does it capture the goals of a long career for someone like me, with varied interests and broad educational preparation? Does “focus” give me the opportunity for impact across different areas or on different levels? Does this idea of “focus” get me to a place where I want to be? The use of the term is so pervasive, it got me thinking. I’m not a photographer, so forgive any technical errors, but what if we thought about an academic career with a more nuanced set of variables?

  • Depth of field. Can you have multiple objects in focus, even if they aren’t right next to each other? If you adjust the aperature, you can let in more or less light, and along with changing the exposure, this can make your focus shallow or deep. Often in a PhD world, you are compelled to bring sharp focus to a tiny part of an image (big aperture) and blur the rest. This can be a good thing, but it’s not the only way. Say, hypothetically, that you want a career with research and clinical practice both, and you also want to be a policy voice. Change the aperture to a smaller size and see— multiple object can be in focus at once. It’s not better or worse, but it brings a different quality to the image.
  • Shutter speed. So you’ve adjusted the aperture— to keep the exposure right, you need to think about how long the shutter is open. A smaller aperture means you need more time. That’s OK, but you have to be aware of it. You want more things in focus? You need to spend a little longer letting light in.
  • Composition. What’s in your shot? How is it framed? Is it a close-up, or a landscape? Is your subject in the center, or are you more interested in a rule-of-thirds kind of thing? The key here is that THERE ISN’T A RIGHT WAY. It’s all about what you want to show and how you want to show it.  That said, some institutions like certain kinds of images more than others. Does your picture fit into their album?
  • Frame rate. Are you shooting a single, perfect image, or a series? Do you want a smooth, seamless progression through a moment, or do you want to capture discrete pieces over time?

varied interests

you want me to pick just one??

So, what’s the upshot? Should we just throw out the advice to “focus” when it doesn’t suit us? No. . . but I do think we should consider it in a broader context and check to see whether our goals are aligned. I may not want to get on a rocket ship to the moon– I might rather be on a cruise ship through different ports.  Well, now that I’ve thoroughly mixed my metaphors, I suspect it’s time to sign off. What are your thoughts on the ups and downs of focus?

2 thoughts on “Advice beyond “focus” for academics

  1. Max L. says:

    Love the extended metaphor. It got me thinking about people whose careers exemplify these more diverse approaches to expertise.

    Just from the bookshelf in front of me —
    Umberto Eco definitely had “depth of field” going on. He wrote about semiotics and knowledge and meaning-making as an academic and as a novelist.

    Lindsay Faye, sort of the inverse — she writes historical mysteries and teaches about the father of the form, Arthur Conan Doyle.

    Alan Moore triangulates his obsessions with how people tell stories (to themselves and others) and how the fact that something is “a fiction” doesn’t mean it’s not telling a truth. He writes about this, and embodies the same idea as a practitioner of a mystical religion that was known to be a con when it emerged in ancient Rome.

    Brenda Romero, game designer turned industry and design expert… plenty more to think about!

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