Thursday, September 22, 2016

Surviving Life as a Researcher

Last week at SASO/FAS*, I was offered a chance to speak about my thoughts on the scientific life to students attending the doctoral consortium organized there.  I really appreciated this opportunity, because I feel that there are many cultural myths in science that cause lots of pain and difficulty until one learns to overcome them.  Certainly, that has been my experience.

I have struggled, many times, with my relationship to the scientific life and research.  I would say that approximately once every year or two, I have hit such a deep point of frustration or despair that I have seriously contemplated simply giving up and going into some other “simpler” profession (the grass most surely is greener on the other side).  Every time, that has ended up forcing me to look more deeply into what was going wrong and why I had been frustrated, and as a consequence I have frequently ended up discovering something that I did not understand about the realities of the scientific endeavor and my relations to it, a mistake that was an important cause of the pain or failures that were hurting me.  Understanding these things lets me address them, whether by changing what I’m doing or just by changing what my goals and expectations are.

I hope, by writing some of these things down, that I can help others to be able to learn the same things that I wish that somebody had been able to educate me on.  There’s a lot of details on the slides I gave, and a lot of things that I said that are not on the slides, but here are the key takeaways that I wanted most to share:

  • The research world is much larger and has many more types of organizations than one is generally aware of during grad school.
  • Nobody can be a Renaissance man any more: find a niche that matches your strengths.
  • Make sure to work on important problems, even if that’s hard to justify and changes your direction of research over time.
  • Imposter syndrome is always with us, but some things can help to manage it.
  • In a research career, it’s never a good time to have a life.  Do it anyway.

For those interested in the full presentation, the slides are available in both PDF and PowerPoint.

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