choosing projects that mean something
how do you decide which projects deserve your time and attention? i once said that i'd simply like to "contribute to knowledge" but that strikes me as vague and unsatisfying today. around my fourth-year review, i know i would have said "publishability, and step on it." yet there are always opportunity costs in beginning a new line of research, so i've tried to become at least a little more thoughtful about this.
now i ask myself (and the students with whom i work) some basic questions:
(1) does it matter? and,
(2) is it social science?
in practice, i often add
(3) would i work with a cool person? and (relatedly)
(4) what could i learn?
of course, deciding what "matters" and what is "sociological" or "social scientific" are difficult issues -- and let's not even talk about "cool" or learning opportunities. i once said "interesting," but interesting to whom (just me?)? still, the search for meaning in work seems well worth the difficulty. this is why the conversations about public sociology (and, i'm hoping, public criminology) have been so enervating for me.
while linking to the documentary in the previous post, i came across this statement from off-ramp films: "we like to do the kind of work that makes us feel good." nice. me too. their criteria do not mention anything about social science, but they seem to have some general utility:
We approach each project and work with each client with four criteria in mind:
(1) Will the project be of value in the world?
(2) Will the work be of high quality?
(3) Will it make our company more visible and help us achieve things in the future?
(4) Will it help us pay our bills?
i think they strike a nice balance between the idealistic search for meaning (does it matter? will it be of value in the world?) and more pragmatic material concerns. i especially like the focus on quality here, as this seems like a critical consideration that one cannot always take for granted. they are also future-directed, recognizing that a successful project might open doors to other things they'd like to do. in the end, off-ramp nails the sort of compromises that even the most sincere and deliberate meaning-seeker must make on the job:
If we hit on at least two of four, we can talk. Three out of four is a gimme. If it only fits one but things are slow...
wow, does that sound familiar. so how do you choose projects? you might say your choices depend on career stage (easy for you to talk about meaning, old tenured dude. i gotta get a job/promotion, so i'm attendin' to the market and will pick up the meaning down the road). but do you really think your criteria will change after you get a job or tenure or promotion or a nobel prize or a grammy or an emmy or an oscar or a big plaque with a gold star?