Tuesday, October 03, 2006

On Models For Research

In a review of Lee Smolin's new book, 'The Trouble With Physics', Sean Carroll writes:
Faculty positions and grant money are scarce commodities, and universities and funding agencies are naturally risk-averse. Under the current system, a typical researcher might spend five years in graduate school, three to six as a postdoc, and another six or seven as an assistant professor before getting tenure – with an expectation that they will write several competent papers in every one of those years. Nobody should be surprised that, apart from a few singular geniuses, the people who survive this gauntlet are more likely to be those who show technical competence within a dominant paradigm, rather than those who will take risks and pursue their idiosyncratic visions.
It's worth pointing out here that there are many different models for being a successful researcher. And when I say successful, all I mean is that you contribute interesting results to the community and your work is appreciated. Indeed, finding out what model works for you is an important part of developing your identity as a researcher.

We develop our sense of what the 'ideal' researcher looks like from people around us: the advisor, the mentor, the researcher whose papers we pore over. Invariably, some will influence us more than others, and we'll start adopting, unconsciously almost, some of their style and taste for problems and lines of attack. All of this is good, and natural. But it's important to remember that like you form your own identity as a person by drawing on influences and modifying them, you must do the same as a researcher.

It's worth pointing out because I don't know how deeply we think about models of research, and what style of work makes us happier (problem solver ? theory builder ? voluminous production ? multiple collaborations ? sitting in a room and contemplating? ). Once you find your "comfort zone", you'll be a lot more content with your work, and in all likelihood you'll produce quality work.


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