This guest blogpost from Kaitlyn Bunker discusses and illustrates a familiar theme for researchers.
There is often a conflict for researchers between depth (becoming an expert in a very specific area) and breadth (learning much about a range of related topics). In my experiences both as a student and now as a professional, I have found value in both approaches to research.
As a PhD student at Michigan Technological University studying electrical engineering, I focused my research in power electronics, designing a control method for renewable resources connected with remote microgrids. This required drilling down into specifics that would allow me to accurately model microgrids, and then using hardware-in-the-loop methods to test my proposed control method. I enjoyed focusing on the details, creating and testing my models, and learning as much as possible with a narrow focus.
At the same time, I was interested in microgrids and electricity systems in general, beyond the specifics of how they can be operated and controlled. With guidance from my PhD supervisor, I chose several courses from outside of our department that would allow me to expand the breadth of my knowledge. I enjoyed experiencing ideas that were new to me in courses such as Energy Economics and Energy Policy. These courses not only provided interesting knowledge in new areas, but also helped prepare me to be a well-rounded graduate and job seeker after completing my PhD.
Now, as a Senior Associate with Rocky Mountain Institute, I again enjoy opportunities for both depth and breadth in my work. My main role is as a technical contributor to our Smart Island Economies programme, where we work with several island nations as they transition to renewable energy and energy efficiency. I perform most of the modelling required by our team, and enjoy diving into the details of how each specific island utility operates their grid today, and then modelling possible future scenarios.
Beyond the technical analysis, I also support our team in effectively collaborating with partners and stakeholders. An important part of our work is convening people and facilitating discussions to find solutions that will be beneficial for all. I enjoy this part of my work as well, which is more broad than modelling and analysis.
As a student and now as a professional, I have been fortunate to find a balance between depth in my research, and breadth in related topics. For others, the ideal balance may be more inclined in one direction or the other. As researchers, we can strive to find the most valuable balance between the specifics of our small area of expertise, and the broader impacts of our work.
About the author: Kaitlyn Bunker is a Senior Associate with Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit organisation focused on advancing renewable energy and energy efficiency. Her interests are in microgrids and distributed energy resources, and she is primarily involved in the Smart Island Economies programme. Kaitlyn joined RMI in 2014 after completing a PhD in electrical engineering from Michigan Technological University. Her dissertation focused on microgrids and optimizing control strategies for distributed renewable resources. Kaitlyn is a 2010 recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.
Image credit:Michael Coghlan, 2013, [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr