Principles of Effective Research: Part VII
Developing research strengths
The foundation is a plan for the development of research strengths. What are you interested in? Given your interests, what are you going to try to learn? The plan needs to be driven by your research goals, but should balance short-term and long-term considerations. Some time should be spent on things that appear very likely to lead to short-term research payoff. Equally well, some time needs to be allocated to the development of strengths that may not have much immediate pay-off, but over the longer-term will have a considerable payoff.
In targeting areas of development, an important goal to keep in mind is that you want to develop unique combinations of abilities. You need to develop unique combinations of talents which give you a comparative advantage over other people. Do what you can do better than anybody; to mangle a quote from Lincoln, nobody can be better than everybody all of the time, but anybody can be better than everybody some of the time.
In my opinion the reason most people fail to do great research is that they are not willing to pay the price in self-development. Say some new field opens up that combines field X and field Y. Researchers from each of these fields flock to the new field. My experience is that virtually none of the researchers in either field will systematically learn the other field in any sort of depth. The few who do put in this effort often achieve spectacular results.
Finally, a note on how to go about developing some new research strength. A mistake I’m prone to make, and I know some others are as well, is to feel as though some degree of completeness is required in understanding a research field. In fact, in any given research field there are usually only a tiny number of papers that are really worth reading. You are almost certainly better off reading deeply in the ten most important papers of a research field than you are skimming the top five hundred.
These ideas carry over to the problem of staying current in your fields of interest: I believe that you can stay quite current by (a) quickly skimming a great deal of work, to keep track of what is known, and what sort of problems people are thinking about, and (b) based on that skimming, picking a dozen or so papers each year to read deeply, in the belief that they contain the most important research results of the year. This is not the only deep reading you’ll need to do; you’ll also need to do some which is related to the immediate problems that you’re working on. But you certainly should do some such deep reading.