Distraction Free Reading

The Second Project Project: The Security to Feel Insecure

Editor’s note: Platypus is launching a series called “The Second Project Project” that asks scholars to reflect on the process of developing new research projects at the intersection of anthropology, science, technology, and computing. Anthropologists, and most qualitative social scientists and humanities scholars, typically produce book-length research projects rather than series of articles, so the “second project” refers to the next major, book-length research project following the dissertation and  first book.

During the week of March 21, I attended the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) international annual conference on developments in virtual reality. Though I had been reading up on virtual reality for the past few months, this was my first dip of the toe into an ethnographic field I hoped to explore in depth. I knew exactly zero people at this 500-person conference. The language on the conference posters in the hallway was mystifying. The thought of introducing myself to any of these strangers triggered butterflies in my stomach. I stood in fear of opening my mouth, thus betraying my outsider status. Right, I remembered, this is what the beginning of fieldwork feels like. It kind of sucks.

This initial foray signifies a much delayed beginning of work on my “second project.” The question of my second project has been one I’ve artfully dodged since graduating in 2011 until just this past fall,  2015. The pressure of articulating a second project in my job applications—starting in my final year as a graduate student up until I secured my magical unicorn of a tenure-track position in 2014—led to a rather uncreative string of unstarted projects. These were often derivative of my first project, and ones that I felt comfortable approaching but neither inspired nor excited to work on. Only with the security of my current position did I feel I had the freedom and time to find a fieldsite that would, in fact, make me feel insecure (in both the best and worst ways). The predicament this raises is, with the realities of the current job market and ever growing expectations for what is accomplished before tenure, how do we find the time and space to develop this second project?

In search of a second project

While a postdoc, I attempted to carve out this time and space. Soon after I graduated, I bought two notebooks in different shades of pink. The lighter pink one was reserved for thoughts I had while recrafting my first project from dissertation to book. The second was reserved for Inspiration for my second project. To this day, exactly three pages of this darker pink book are written on. One snippet of an entry reads simply “space, dinosaurs, robots.” (I would love to know what grander social scientific questions I was hoping to answer.) My time as a postdoc was instead filled with learning how to teach, spinning off articles from my dissertation, and courting a press to publish my ethnography of planetary science. And, of course, applying for jobs. I continued to follow the codified wisdom that proposing a second project was a crucial part of the letter and interview, but I had to force myself to write those sentences.

Three open spiral notebooks of varying sizes, all blank.

The Blank Page. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It strikes me that there are few conversations being had on how to choose this second project. Unlike with a dissertation topic, there isn’t a committee to help you through the process (at least, not in the same way). And, when “science and technology” is your area there isn’t a set site you need return to. This created an uncertainty of how close my first and second project were supposed to be. As an anthropologist of science, I had a set of questions and themes that I was interested in (the role of place in practice) and an area of scientific work (planetary science) about which to ask these questions. The half-baked second projects of my job letters show that I waffled on which axis to deviate from and which to hold secure. Sometimes, I held on to both (a study of Earth as a planetary place!), sometimes the topic (amateur astronomers and citizen science!), and sometimes neither (embodiment and distributed data collection!? [I totally understand why I did not get past the first round for that job]).

The idea to study VR did not come from journaling or directed thinking. Rather, at right around the time I was experiencing peak anxiety over not having a solid second project, I was driving to work and listening to the TED talk radio hour. Though TED is a problematic format, the talks on this episode about Virtual Reality immediately caught my attention. The speakers were describing themselves as world-makers. The very first sentence in my dark pink notebook reads “What scientists are thinking about place in an interesting way?” and here, years after scribbling that sentence, I had a compelling answer.

Indeed, despite the initial insecurity I felt at the IEEE VR conference, as soon as I heard the researchers discussing ideas of “immersion” and “presence” I found myself settling into this field and mentally developing the conversations I soon hope to be having with these folks.

Lessons learned

As I reflect on the past few years and my current research trajectory, it strikes me that there is a taboo nature of talking about the difficulty of this big research move and, because of that taboo, a lack of writing and conversation on the strategies people have used for developing a project (first, second, or seventh). Because of the demand to articulate a second project in the job letter, the ability to do so (and do so quickly) becomes part of the credentials that supposedly goes along with one’s Ph.D. Though there is a bit of a wink about this (“you don’t actually have to do what you propose”), it nonetheless reinforces that to be a competent researcher is to know what big questions lie ahead. Consequently, to express difficulty or uncertainty with what research is coming next, especially while seeking a job, belies a vulnerability that is rarely discussed. With my closest friends, I talked about my lack of enthusiasm for the projects listed above, but with colleagues and mentors I felt it expected to express confidence in where I was heading. I thus missed out on what could have been helpful conversations of people’s own experiences at this same stage as well as encouragement to be bolder and challenge myself when selecting the topic I’d be spending the next several years with.

My goal with this post has been to open up the conversation about choosing a project, especially with regards from shifting from the first to second, as that represents a shift, too, away from the built in support of graduate school. My own experience suggests a few lessons, however as I’ve pointed out above some of these are in opposition to the current structures we face. First, I was unable to force a second project into being (RIP dark pink notebook). As with my first project, I knew I had found my second when my thoughts kept drifting back to a puzzle with many different angles and points of entry. Second, and this was advice I got from my Ph.D. advisor as well as one of my mentors at my current institution, read, listen, and watch. Not just academic books, but scientific (for those of us doing anthro of science and technology) and popular media as well. I had a hard time with this advice—finding the time and figuring out how to be undirected were both challenges. But, ultimately it was one of these pursuits that led to my project. And third, you’ll never know if you’ve found the ‘right’ project unless you try. I realize that how I have narrated my journey sounds like I waited around for four years for inspiration to strike. In fact, I spent quite some time in the past few years pursuing a different project, even presenting a conference paper on it. But, as I worked on it, I realized that it did not have the richness to be what I needed next in my career. In contrast, within days of beginning to read up on VR I saw endless avenues to pursue and questions for which I couldn’t even fathom the answers. I needed the false start of that other project to recognize the greater promise of this one.

Again, these are all tips that are not easy to follow unless one has the institutional security to take on the challenge of insecurity. What other structures inhibit (or foster!) our growth as researchers? This is also only one experience and I’d like to hear your own challenges and wisdoms in transitioning between projects. What are the unique factors that scholars of science and technology face? How do different career paths and positions invite different opportunities? How have you gone about selecting and developing a project? And what questions or hesitations do you have about this process?

Platypus is seeking short reflections on the process of transitioning between projects: if you’re anticipating it, in the middle of it, or reflecting back on it. Please contact Lisa to submit a post on your experiences to the blog.

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