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Principles of Effective Research: Part VII

by Michael Nielsen on July 16, 2004

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.

From → General

4 Comments
  1. “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.”
    Gosh, that’s quite abstract … can you think of any specific example? 😉

  2. Scott: Hah! I had nothing in mind at all…

    Actually, I did have some _other_ fields in mind, beside quantum information. There seems to be a rather long diffusion time involved in making a multi-disciplinary field truly one discipline with a common background. Big recent examples include BEC, where traditional AMO physicists and people from superfluidity / superconductivity have come together, and the crossover between condensed matter and particle physics in the 70s.

    Of course, I can hardly disavow guilt on this score, either.

  3. Anon permalink

    Mike: nice sequence of posts on research. I’m wondering if you can articulate why you believe one should do some general “deep reading”.

  4. Anon:

    Interesting question. I’ve made a few abortive attempts to answer it, but I’m not completely happy with any of the attempts. Here’s my best shot.

    I guess my belief is that having a deep mastery of very basic tools of general applicability is (a) something not many people have; (b) something that a dedicated person could obtain; and (c) would have stunning consequences for one’s research.

    That’s not much of an answer without more supporting argument and good examples, which I’m not sure I can give in a really convincing fashion.

    It’s possible that what I should really be saying here is more like: “make sure you’re a well-educated physicist (or whatever), who understands all the basic principles of physics, not just at the level of being able to pass a comprehensive exam, but deeply, in a connected way.”

    In my experience, this is not something most of us ever do. It’s certainly not something I had to do as a grad student, although I’ve been moving in this direction lately. My reasons are that the few people I know who I think have done this (a) learn stuff at an incredible rate (because they can learn from a much wider range of sources, especially seminars, than most of us); and (b) see connections that I don’t, simply because I haven’t fully mastered all the basics.

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