Research – a survival guide…and some of the sociology that goes with it… Bruce Bassett - AIMS/SAAO/UCT
Caveat Emptor♦ This is a very personal view of a complex issue♦ I recommend getting lots of other views by searching the web and talking to people♦ An overview like this is always incomplete and oversimplified. Please read it looking for the holes! B. Bassett
Outline♦ What is research?♦ Types of research♦ Big decisions – Supervisor – Topic♦ Attitudes and Expectations♦ Good skills to develop…
“Research is a human activity based on intellectual investigation and aimed at discovering, interpreting, and revising human knowledge on different aspects of the world.”So research is about breaking new ground…“It will be hard at first, but then, everything is hard at first…” - Miyamoto MusashiSo research is always hard…should you do it?
Should you do the PhD?♦ The PhD and a career in research is not for everyone…♦ …and not doing research is no shame, despite how it may feel! B. Bassett
Reasons you might not want to do the PhD:1) You don’t want to have to move around afterwards2) You don’t want to wait until you are 25-30 to get a real salary and to 30-35 to have a permanent job3) You want to make real money…have a house and a family…to settle down
Work according to Mark TwainIf he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.♦ The beauty of research is that, although you have to produce something (paper/thesis etc…) what subject you work on and how you produce it is up to you (depending on how strict your supervisor is!). So it can feel like play…♦ It is the joy of flexibility and freedom…
Little joys…♦ Working with people who want to know the truth…♦ Being passionate about what you are working on…♦ Being able to sleep late*♦ Being able to take time off easily*♦ You get to address deep problems…* At least when you are a student or post-doc
Types of publishable research♦ A new idea, with consequences worked out (at least partially)♦ Analysis of new data, or new combinations of data to address an interesting question♦ A new theoretical study of a problem♦ Presentation and characterisation of new data (either observational or numerical)♦ Presentation of a new tool (instrument, code etc…)
Research as a bicycle race♦ “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” – Nelson Mandela♦ Research is a full of this glory!♦ It is like a bicycle race – you have to cycle uphill to experience the exhilarating downhills…♦ You will hit the wall over and over and you will feel bad…so expect it…The key is get back up as quickly as possible…
But lots of students don’t have this experience…they appear to sail through without problem…what do they do?
♦ Two people see a lion. One bends down and starts doing up their shoe laces, prompting the other to say “why are you doing that? You can’t outrun the lion!” “I don’t need to outrun the lion…” says the first…“I just need to outrun you!”
In the same way…♦ Everyone gets knocked down and depressed about the difficulties of research…♦ This cannot be avoided…why?♦ It is how quickly you can pick yourself up that counts…you only need to do that better than the people around you (and in your cohort world-wide) to be successful…
Why research is hard foreveryone♦ At zero order, research is equally hard for everyone. Why?♦ Because we all adapt to a similar “Goldilocks” or biting point – we all want to do research that is neither too hard nor too easy for us.♦ We change problems until we get the right kind of fit… B. Bassett
Moral of the story so far…♦ Make sure you want to do research - it is not the right choice for everyone♦ Expect to feel bad… - Research is hard. Just because you struggle doesn’t mean you are failing.
Choosing your supervisor…♦ Personality…do you get on? Are they friendly, hands-on, approachable? Are they formal? What would you like?♦ Will they let you choose your thesis topic or simply give you one?♦ How often do you want to meet? Some supervisors only want to meet once a month, others every day. What do you want?♦ Have they published in your thesis area in the last 5 years? If not, how are you going to? This is crucial for the PhD. Is their work recognised internationally?
♦ Do they have lots of overseas collaborators? This is important if you want a job overseas or want to travel…♦ Do they have travel funds? Do they think MSc/PhD students should travel?♦ Do they work on subjects that you are interested in? Do you admire their work?♦ Speak to their current/past students! (but bear in mind that it is a two-way street.)♦ Changing supervisors is not the end of the world…don’t go down with a sinking ship…it is your life after all!
Choosing a thesis topic♦ This is tough and will, with your choice of supervisor, have a profound impact on your career♦ Questions to think about:1. Where on the risk-reward curve do you want to be?2. Do you want to work alone or in a group?3. What split in terms of theory/data/numerics/ observing do you want?4. What are the future prospects for this subject?
Moral of the story…1) KNOW WHAT YOU WANT – Only you can answer that2) TAKE RESPONSIBILITY – Your choices have a big impact now3) DO YOUR HOMEWORK
What skills do you need to begood at research?
Good skills to develop♦ Work smarter. Don’t accept “half-understandings”. Make sure you really understand. Ask lots of stupid questions.♦ Refine your “soft” skills – time management, project management, team building, leadership etc…♦ Think of yourself as a brand – what is your stock price? Always have three people who will write really nice letters of reference for you. If you don’t have this, get cracking!♦ Be curious. Play as well as “working”
♦ Develop “multiple personalities”: critic, creative and dreamer and bring them out when appropriate♦ Find ways of picking yourself up quicker and motivating yourself better after a difficult period. Manage your expectations♦ Hang out with and learn from people who are smarter and do things better than you.♦ Become a better coder. Moore’s Law means that computers are only going to get more important.
Good skills to develop♦ Work on learning how to learn♦ Regularly consider your career alternatives.♦ Have a portfolio of problems you are thinking about, from straight-forward to very difficult. Keep a log-book or blog of your ideas and thoughts.♦ Come up with your own ideas…even if only on the side…creativity takes practice.
♦ Be a good team player. Build collaborations. Being smart is only one piece of the pie…accept that there are smarter people out there than you.♦ Network, make friends, not enemies – the community is small and not going anywhere…♦ Learn to write good scientific English and to speak well! It isn’t fair but people do judge your science by your English language and presentation skills.
♦ Have a life! Treat yourself well and find great ways to relax and de-stress…otherwise you will burn out from the hard work♦ “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool.” - Feynman♦ Realise that everyone has their own special skills. Be generous and work with those who complement your skill set.
Good skills to develop♦ Don’t reinvent the wheel. What you need has probably been done somewhere already…♦ When you get depressed, talk to people. It makes a big difference.♦ Learn time management! Watch the Randy Pausch video on it.♦ Realise that to good approximation the only real currency in academia is published papers. Everything else is secondary (although potentially valuable)…ignore this at your peril!
Finally: Take Responsibility foryour Research and your life!♦ Thanks to phdcomics.com