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Principles of Effective Research: Part VIII

by Michael Nielsen on July 19, 2004

Here’s the next installment in my ongoing series. This one is a bit more of a placeholder than many of the others, so I’ll make a few extra comments before getting into the essay proper.

The main thing is that I believe people consistently underestimate (a) the extent to which having a good research environment helps, and (b) the ability they have to create such an environment.

Related to topic (a), in Malcolm Gladwell’s entertaining book “The Tipping Point”, Gladwell describes a psych experiment in which people were shown videos of different basketball players, and asked to evaluate the ability of those different basketballers. They were additionally told that some of the basketballers were playing in very poor lighting, while others were playing in excellent lighting, and this should be taken into account. Despite this, they consistently rated the basketballers playing in poor lighting as having less ability, despite the fact that the basketballers had actually been chosen to ensure that both groups had equal ability.

Gladwell cites this as one of many studies showing that people consistently underrate the importance of environmental effects, including the effect of their personal environment. Now, you can debate the validity of the basketball study, but I think the key point is highly plausible: people don’t make good evaluations of the contributions environmental factors make to their (or others’) performance.

On topic (b), as an extreme example, I’ve seen grad students essentially start their own research groups, taking on other grad students in a supervisory role, finding space, running seminar series, discussion series and so on, all without direct faculty support. The story of the “dynamical systems collective” at UC Santa Cruz, told in James Gleick’s “Chaos”, is instructive: a bunch of grad students went off and wrote a whole bunch of seminal papers on chaos, all on their own initiative. This might seem like a freak occurrence, but I’ve seen this kind of thing up close: it’s a function of the drive and determination of the person involved, not a freak accident.

With that as prelude, here’s the next installment of the essay:

Develop a high-quality research environment

There is a considerable amount of research showing that people consistently underestimate the effect of the environment on personal effectiveness. This is particularly important in an academic environment where there are usually many short-term social pressures that are not directly related to research effectiveness – teaching, writing letters of recommendation and referee reports, committee work, academic politics. By contrast, in most institutions there are few short-term social pressures to do great research work.

Some of the highest-leverage work you can do involves improving your environment so that social pressures work for you as a researcher, rather than against you. Discussing this in detail would require another essay of length at least equal to that of the present one, but I will make a few remarks.

The first is that improving your environment is something anyone can do; students, in particular, often underestimate the magnitude of the changes they can bring about. Anyone can start a seminar series, develop a discussion area, create a lounge, organize a small workshop, or organize a reading group. Furthermore, although all these things are hard to do well, if you’re willing to do critical evaluations, experiment and try radical changes, preferably in partnership with equally committed people, things are likely to improve a great deal.

Second, institutions have long memories, so changes that you make in your environment will stick around for a long time. This means that once something is working well, chances are it’ll continue to work well without much help from you – and you can move on to improve some other aspect of your environment. Furthermore, each positive change you make actually improves your leverage with other people. I’ve known undergraduate students who had made so many creative positive contributions to their departments that their influence with canny senior faculty was comparable to the influence of other senior faculty.

From → General

  1. I think you underestimate a new factor: cyberspace. Though it might not work as well with students, I don’t know.

    It so happens that all my key collaborators are in different cities right now. It just happened. The peer pressure is quite real despite the distance.

    Imagine you’ve got collaborators A,B,C… all 3 in different cities. You’ve got a colllaboration going with all 3, and 1 or 2 papers being written with each one of them. Each one pushes the research further on a regular basis.

    Because you don’t like to feel like a “leech” (I sure don’t), you will naturally tend to want to contribute a little to all 3 collaborations. You might even have some of these collaborators who have blogs, wikis, CVS servers… there is much technology that helps.

    I assume this may not work well in all fields… but it works well in the theoretical work I do.

    I don’t think my experience is unique, though I have not documentated this approach to research.

    One big difference with what you describe is that I have not organized nor do I participate in local seminars. I have no need to create any local administrative structure.

  2. Yeah, I don’t say enough about the ‘net. I may add this in a later edition.

    One thing that I think will be huge is bandwidth that lets you see your collaborators and work with them (real-time) in some kind of shared workspace, e.g., a shared electronic whiteboard or some such.

    Regarding local seminars, I find our local quantum information seminar invaluable. I rarely understand things well unless I discuss them at length with other people, in real time, ironing out all the little (and sometimes not so little) errors in my understanding, and getting other perspectives. Our regular seminar series is a pretty good forum for that. Of course, it does depend a lot on the format: you need an interactive seminar, with a very active audience. Seminars which aren’t like this can still be useful (provided the speakers are of a consistently high standard), but are usually less so.

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