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Principles of Effective Research: Part III

by Michael Nielsen on July 10, 2004

Note: This essay is part of a longer essay series, but you don’t need to have read the earlier essays for this one to make sense.


Effective people have a vision of what they’d like to achieve. Ideally, such a vision incorporates both long-term values and goals, as well as shorter-term goals. A good vision answers questions like: What sort of researcher would I like to become? What areas of research am I interested in? How am I going to achieve competence in those areas? Why are those areas interesting? How am I going to continue growing and expanding my horizons? What short-term steps will I take to achieve those goals? How will I balance the long-term goals with the short-term realities of the situation I find myself in? For example, if you’re in a temporary job and need to get another job soon, it’s probably not such a great idea to devote all your time to learning some new subject, without any visible outcome.

A vision is not something you develop overnight. You need to work at it, putting time aside for the process, and learning to integrate it into your everyday life. It’s a challenging process, but over the long run it’s also extremely rewarding. History shows that great actions usually are the outcome of great purpose, even if the action that resulted was not the original purpose. Your vision doesn’t always need to be of a great purpose; it’s good to work on the little stuff, some of the time. But you should occasionally set yourself some big, ambitious goal, a goal that gets you excited, that makes you want to get up in the morning, and where you’ve developed a confidence in your own mind that you have a chance of achieving that goal. Such a great purpose inspires in a way that the humdrum cannot; it makes things exciting and worthwhile if you feel you’re working towards some genuinely worthy end. I believe this is particularly important in the more abstract parts of research (like theoretical physics), where it can require some work to make a personal, emotional connection to one’s own research. Having a clear vision of a great end is one very good way of making such a connection. When you don’t do this, you can get stuck in the rut of the everyday; you need to get out of that rut, to develop a bigger vision.

Finally, a good vision is not inflexible. It’s something that gets changed as you go along, never lightly, but frequently. The importance of having the vision is that it informs your everyday and every week decisions, giving you a genuinely exciting goal to work towards.

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