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Principles of Effective Research: Part V

by Michael Nielsen on July 13, 2004

Note: This is part V of my continuing series. It, like the other parts, can for the most part be read independently. Part VI will arrive in the next day or two.

Aspects of research: self-development and the creative process

Research involves two main aspects, self-development and the creative process of research. We’ll discuss the specifics of each aspect below, but for now I want to concentrate on the problem of achieving balance between the two, for I believe it is a common and significant mistake to concentrate too much on one aspect to the exclusion of the other.

People who concentrate mostly on self-development usually make early exits from their research careers. They may be brilliant and knowledgeable, but they fail to realize their responsibility to make a contribution to the wider community. The academic system usually ensures that this failure is recognized, and they consequently have great difficulty getting jobs. Although this is an important problem, in this essay I will focus mostly on the converse problem, the problem of focusing too much on creative research, to the exclusion of self-development.

There are a lot of incentives for people to concentrate on creative research to the exclusion of self-development. Throughout one’s research career, but particularly early on, there are many advantages to publishing lots of papers. Within limits, this is a good thing, especially for young researchers: it brings you into the community of researchers; it gives you the opportunity to learn how to write well, and give good presentations; it can help keep you motivated. I believe all researchers should publish at least a few papers each year, essentially as an obligation to the research and wider community; they should make some contribution, even if only a small one, on a relatively unimportant topic.

However, some people end up obsessed with writing as many papers as possible, as quickly as possible. While the short-term rewards of this are attractive (jobs, grants, reputation and prizes), the long-term costs are significant. In particular, it can lead to stagnation, and plateauing as a researcher. To achieve one’s full potential requires a balancing act: making a significant and regular enough research contribution to enable oneself to get and keep good jobs, while continuing to develop one’s talents, constantly renewing and replenishing oneself. In particular, once one has achieved a certain amount of job security (a long-term or permanent job) it may make sense to shift the balance so that self-development takes on a larger role.

For many people (myself included) who have concentrated mainly on making creative research contributions earlier in their careers, this can be a difficult adjustment to make, as it requires changing one’s sense of what is important. Furthermore, there is a constant pull towards concentrating on research over self-development, since there are often short-term incentives to sacrifice self-development for research (“I’ve got to get this paper out now”), but rarely vice versa. To balance these tendencies, we need to remember that nobody, no matter how talented, is born an effective researcher; that distinction can only be obtained after a considerable amount of hard work and personal change, and there is no reason to suppose that just because one is now able to publish lots of papers that one has peaked as a researcher.

In my opinion, creative research is best viewed as an extension of self-development, especially an extension of a well-developed reading program. I don’t believe the two can be completely pried apart, as the two interact in interesting non-linear ways. I’m now going to talk in a little more detail about both processes, keeping in mind that the ultimate goal of research is new ideas, insights, tools and technologies, and this goal must inform the process of self-development.

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