During the past year, I have been shifting my focus to include other research topics than smoking cessation, I have learned new research methodologies, and started focusing more on teaching. Is it a smart move to change so much and ‘start over’ with having to learn many new things? I honestly don’t know. Is it always a conscious decision that these kinds of changes happen during your academic career? Definitely not. But more importantly: Is it fun and interesting to learn new stuff? For me it certainly is!
My new experiences
After a PhD study and a first post-doc study on the impact of tobacco control policies on smoking cessation, I started a second post-doc study last year on the impact of economic recessions on illegal drug use. A very interesting study in which we used the realist review method to describe the mechanisms that explain how economic recessions may change individuals’ illegal drug use. A publication on this topic is on its way, and I will definitely mention it here when it’s published. Meanwhile, if you are interested in the realist review method (which is relatively new and gaining popularity fast), read the book or paper by Ray Pawson. If you are interested in our project, check out our website or this short video.
After years of mainly focusing on doing my own research at Maastricht University, I am now supervising four PhD students there and I became a lecturer at a University of Applied Sciences (de Haagse Hogeschool). The PhD students that I supervise all study (different aspects of) smoking cessation, but at the Haagse Hogeschool I teach research methodology at the study program Nutrition and Dietetics. It turns out that I really like the supervision and teaching role and I also like it very much to learn things about Nutrition and Dietetics.
Finally, I started a few months ago with a new research project about health behavior change among multi-problem families. Multi-problem families have to cope with multiple problems and stressors in their family lives, such as socio-economic problems (e.g. financial problems, unemployment), psycho-social problems (e.g. domestic violence, psychiatric disorders), and problems associated with the upbringing of their children (e.g. neglect, maltreatment). In this project we examine smoking behavior, but also alcohol abuse, unhealthy nutrition, and physical inactivity. I have now started a series of qualitative interviews with members of multi-problem families to talk about their experiences with health behavior change. Both the new topics and learning to do qualitative research has been very inspiring.
What about you?
Should you change research topics or methods after your PhD or should you stick to what you know? It’s hard to say. Changing topics might increase your chances when you are looking for a new job, because you can show that you are versatile. However, sticking to your topic might increase your chances when you are applying for a grant, because grant reviewers and funding organizations have the trust that you know what you’re doing. But you should probably not worry too much about this, because more often than not it isn’t a conscious decision. In my case, I wrote two large grant proposals last year. One was about tobacco control policy and one about health behavior change among multi-problem families. The last one was accepted and the first one was not, which made the choice for me what I was going to do.
If you do have the choice, I would say: Go for it! It is fun and interesting to learn new stuff. Sometimes you feel a bit like you have to ‘start over’, like you are in the first year of your PhD again. But why would you be afraid of that? And you might feel like this, but in the end you have learned a lot of research skills already, which makes you learn and pick up new things much faster than when you just started. Are you considering a change to an entirely different research field? Then this blog post might be of interest to you.
Should you be afraid to lose everything you build up in the years that you worked on your previous topic? My experience is that you don’t have to stop working on your previous topic when you are starting new things. I am still involved in many smoking cessation research projects and in the network that comes with that. You don’t have to work twice as hard to work on two (or more) topics, you just have to learn to divide your attention.
As always, I am interested to learn about other people’s experiences. Feel free to post your experience, thoughts or questions below.