Lance Fortnow, commenting on a post by guest blogger Scott Aaronson, has some sensible advice for aspiring researchers:
Your success in academics, like any professional endeavor, depends in part on how much effort you put into it with the relationship far more than linear. But by no means is social life and a productive research career incompatible. Most academics eventually find a life partner and many of us have children. We have many non-academic hobbies and activities even as graduate students. The trick is to find the right balance between your academic and non-academic activities, a difficult task but far from impossible. I truly admire the massive works of Paul Erdös, but I would never trade my life for the one he led.
I think the usual result of working as hard as Erdos – who was reputed to work up to 18 hour days – is depression. Besides the inherent tragedy, that’s no good for your creative work! I’ve seen formerly successful researchers work incredibly hard, yet make no progress, simply because they were overdoing it.
My opinion is that successful creative thought requires really intense concentration, and that for most people a few hours a day of such concentration is the most that can be sustained. Otherwise, leave plenty of time for the little daily chores of life, rest, relaxation, aned enjoying yourself!
Examples of people that I’ve heard follow this kind of pattern include G. H. Hardy, who apparently worked four hours a day at his research, like clockwork, and Poincare, who did two hours intense work in the morning, two in the afternoon.
I’m currently about two thirds of the way through the audio version of James Gleick’s book “Isaac Newton”.
What I’m enjoying most about the biography is hearing about the goings-on at the Royal Society, newly formed in Newton’s day. What emerges from the book, in my opinion, is that the innovation in forming such a society was at least as important as Newton’s discoveries. You can see in the Society’s activities the beginning of peer review, of the journal system, of the need to do experiments reproducing others’ results, and of the need to cite others’ work appropriately.
It’s very interesting to read about the little intrigues that went on. Someone would publish a new result; Hooke, or Newton, or some other eminence would then claim “Oh, I obtained those results many years ago”. That’s all very well, but if someone obtains a result, and then puts the only record in their filing cabinet, Science does not advance. Only through publication in archived, widely accessible journals does Science advance. Many early members of the Royal Society seemed to understanding this instinctively, and they moved toward an institutional system in which work is not done until it is published.
December turned out unexpectedly busy, so I’ve been away from blogging for the past few weeks.
This blog is still an experiment on my part. I haven’t yet found a voice I’m completely satisfied with, but I’m content to keep playing around with the blog as a hobby, at least for the time being. One thing I do know – I have greatly enjoyed the thoughtful commentary provided by many commenters over the past few months!