Advice for young researchers

by on May 8, 2013 at 8:55 am in Economics, Education, Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

From Andrew Oswald, via the excellent Angus:, here is the opening bit:

If everyone likes your work, you can be certain that you haven’t done anything important. Conflict and pain go with the territory —
that of changing how a profession thinks and furthering what we know about our world. The pressures on young researchers are to conform, to accept fashionable ways of analyzing problems, and above all to please senior professors and their own peers. Unfortunately this is bad for scientific progress.
The main difference between world-class researchers and sound researchers is not intellect; it is energy, single-mindedness, more energy, and the ability to withstand what will sometimes feel like never-ending disappointment, tiredness and psychological pain. Tenacity is almost everything.

1 Andrew' May 8, 2013 at 8:57 am

Maybe the problem is the gray area rather than a clear demarcation line between what a previous post talked about when learning the conventions of art. Or rather, there exists a clear demarcation, but the marketing bears false witness to the gray area.

2 Brian Moore May 8, 2013 at 9:15 am

If the key to world-class research is “energy, single-mindedness, more energy, and the ability to withstand what will sometimes feel like never-ending disappointment, tiredness and psychological pain” and people who are smart, hardworking and energetic enough to get PhD’s in major research fields are also capable of getting high-paid, less punishing jobs in industry, how long ’til no world-class research is produced?

3 Peter May 8, 2013 at 9:22 am

in response to Brian Moore: In my field of biotechnology, the industrial jobs may be less punishing, but the research there far surpasses most academic research.

4 Brian Moore May 8, 2013 at 9:28 am

Well, then that seems even worse for tenure-track academic institutions’ ability to (justification for?) exist.

5 Andrew' May 8, 2013 at 9:54 am

It all boils down to the freedom to choose interests that don’t require immediate approval. It sounds good, but it’s a bit like we used to say about flex time- work whichever 80 hours a week you want.

6 Frederic Mari May 8, 2013 at 9:28 am


Who said the private world is not even more painful? In big companies, it’s not your new ideas that are ridiculed or fought against but your projects, your professional goals etc. In small and stable companies, you might be right but in start-ups…Well, let’s say that while I sometimes say bad things about corporate leaders, you won’t find me saying bad things about entrepreneurs.

To be honest, they might be assholes just like the corporate leaders of giant conglomerates. But, boy, do they need hard work and, more than anything, boundless energy… And I do respect and admire that…

7 Brian Moore May 8, 2013 at 9:35 am

Well, you might be right in some cases, but is there anyone who thinks that private work is as brutal, on average, as the demands of pre-tenure, publishing-field academia? You don’t have to believe me, go talk to some. And then talk to their spouses and children. You may have to remind them as to the name of the person you’re asking about.

If nothing else, you can usually vote with your feet at giant conglomerates without taking a major permanent hit to your employability, but if you’re pre-tenure, leaving because your bosses are jerks is… rather discouraged with some pretty forceful policies.

8 Doug M May 8, 2013 at 5:47 pm

As I understand it, it doesn’t get much easier if you do land a tenured university position.

It is a constant pressure to apply for more grants to keep your lab funded and your post-doc working.

9 Rahul May 9, 2013 at 12:31 am

I’ve known 50 year old professors who got bored, stopped getting funding, had no post-docs nor grad students and yet comfortably drew their $100k+ salaries. All they had to “suffer” was a bit of an increase in their teaching loads.

Tenure does lessen the pressure. Any other performance-agnostic positions in today’s economy that pay $100k for ~6 hours of desk work a day, essentially no boss to answer to and 3 months of yearly vacation?

10 Zach May 8, 2013 at 10:04 am

Not terrible advice, but the tense is wrong. You should *have* done controversial work, preferably long ago, in a way that doesn’t conflict with other people’s expectations. Of course, your controversial work must be immediately and unanimously praised, and should not interfere with your string of impressive positions and universally good recommendations. And of course, the value and correctness of the work must be immediately obvious to nonspecialists who are reading through hundreds of applications for any open position.

You know what you call work that is produced at prestigious instituions, in collaboration with prestigious scientists, whose value is obvious to nonspecialists and is universally praised? Uncontroversial, that’s what.

Of course, all of these things are optional if you’re willing to dispense with minor details like getting a job.

(I kid, but just barely. It is possible to thread the needle, but there are very real pressures to do conventional work on conventional subjects.)

11 Martin May 8, 2013 at 10:17 am

I completely agree with this statement. I think the brightest students at the high school level should immediately be offered to work at the PhD level, skipping ~4 years of undergraduate studies. Textbook knowledge is a big disadvantage when trying to think outside of the box, and this is exactly what you get from an undergraduate degree. More importantly, you can afford to take big risks when you are ahead of your peers, career wise (18-22 years of age). Beyond this, financial stability becomes so important from a personal point of view that taking even moderate risks has huge costs.

12 Andrew' May 8, 2013 at 10:29 am

Or a BSMS, but I repeat myself.

13 mavery May 8, 2013 at 3:09 pm

What, exactly, should these 18-year-olds be doing? I have a PhD now, but I had no idea in high school what to do with my life. It’s possible that I’m unrepresentative of “the brightest students” for any of a number of reasons, but I think assuming you could effectively match 18 year olds with programs/advisers they’d do well in is fantasy. I’m sure there are some cases where this would work out well, but I generally find these students will proactively skip grades early on in the process.

For example, most students from my high school who excelled on their standardized tests can enter a top tier research school like the University of Florida with 3 semester’s worth of credit completed. This means you can be doing graduate level course work within a year or two of starting. So it’s not like the process is unavailable to sufficiently motivated students.

14 Martin May 8, 2013 at 4:28 pm

It’s very difficult to know where to look to advance scientific knowledge, so I can’t answer your questions “What, exactly, should these 18-year-olds be doing?” with specifics. However, people who have not been burnt before who still think anything is possible will investigate all sorts of things which older researchers would never think of investigating. I think most will fail to find anything important, which is not great for them, but they’re only 22 and still have lots of time on their hands. The point is that a few would make important findings which would push scientific knowledge forward much faster than is currently occurring.

15 wiki May 8, 2013 at 10:35 am

The reality is that for those with good controversial ideas who aren’t products of top-ranked (usually top dozen) departments the odds are simply overwhelming. Not being at the top places means they won’t be able to write up their findings in the language du jour. Threading the needle between maintaining new ideas and translating them for the elites will eat up all your time even if you’re lucky to have a job someplace decent. The few outsiders who manage to “win” anyway — whether it’s a cushy Ivy job or a Nobel — will undoubtedly have exhibited enormous energy and persistence and luck to get there. But for the 99%, single-mindedness will equal at worst unemployment and at best a reputation for kookiness at a third tier establishment. Put simply, hoping to do what you like even if it’s controversial and becoming persuasive to the academic taste makers is as likely as a random waitress eventually winning an Oscar. The odds might even be worse.

16 Andrew' May 8, 2013 at 10:57 am

I heard PK describe getting the Nobel as a huge weight being lifted. Something is wrong with that. It’s not professional athletics. Then people will point out how the pronunciation of words sometimes changes (e.g. ne-ander-ta-hal) for possibly no other reason than to signal in-group versus out-group status. Why does everything suck?

17 TuringTest May 8, 2013 at 10:40 am

Great advice … when considered in a vacuum … But it’s a risky strategy for a pre-tenured researcher … indeed, the author of that advice is already tenured …

18 Tyler Cowen May 8, 2013 at 11:18 am

I should note that I do not myself necessarily agree with this advice. It depends on the intended audience, for one thing…

19 Andrew' May 8, 2013 at 11:28 am

We know. Your advice is “Be Awesome.”

20 whatsthat May 8, 2013 at 1:48 pm

What is the intended audience? Seems to me that “young researchers” is pretty clear.

21 PLW May 8, 2013 at 12:25 pm

But it’s a risky strategy for a pre-tenured researcher.— an understatement.

22 dirk May 8, 2013 at 2:02 pm

Worthless advice. Stubborn folks don’t choose to be, just are.

23 Rahul May 9, 2013 at 12:36 am

Besides isn’t there a strong selection effect? For every stubborn successful researcher whose tenacity paid off might there not be ten other stubborn ones whose leads ended up as duds?

Maybe being smart yet not stubborn is a risk aversion strategy? You’ll probably produce nothing that the world remembers you for but OTOH land a cushy Fed / UN / WorldBank job for life. (using Econ. as an example)

24 Paul May 8, 2013 at 2:31 pm

The personal accounts (in economics and physics) I’ve read seem to suggest that the great researchers worked on specific problems that they found interesting. They did not consciously set out to change the world.

25 albert magnus May 8, 2013 at 10:01 pm

Really its too hard to have a new idea out of the box. You have to do whatever people are doing when you coming up with dissertation topics and try and do as good a job as you can. After that, you are pretty much required to start thinking of new ideas otherwise you get stuck doing post-docs for 10+ years. It helps if faculty think you are really smart and sometimes they will create a job for you. This doesn’t happen to many.

26 Dave Backus @ NYU May 8, 2013 at 6:08 pm

Richard Hamming along similar lines. Old, but a real classic.

27 barios May 8, 2013 at 10:34 pm

good a job as you can. After that, you are pretty much required to start thinking of new ideas otherwise you get stuck doing post-docs for 10+ years. It helps if faculty think you are really smart and sometimes they will create a job for you. This doesn’t happen to many.

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