On being a researcher

Edward Z. Yang recently wrote about applying to grad schools. This paragraph caught my attention:

… I frequently switch between thinking, “Oh, look at this grad student, he didn’t start having any publications till he started grad school—so I’m OK for not having any either” to “Wow, this person had multiple papers out while an undergraduate, solved multiple open problems with his thesis, and won an NSF fellowship—what am I supposed to do!” I’m still uncertain as to whether or not I’m cut out to do research—it’s certainly not for everyone. …

I started to write an email response to Edward but realized that it might be useful for others as well.

As a concrete encouragement, I’m one of those PhD students who didn’t have any publications before starting grad school, and I think that’s true for many (most?) of my fellow PhD students at Penn as well.

As a more abstract encouragement, one of the hardest but most important components of becoming a great researcher is to stop comparing yourself to everyone else. It’s bad for your self-image (this is true whether you compare yourself to people “better” OR “worse” than you!). Worse, it encourages you to view other researchers as competitors rather than collaborators. I am getting better at this but have by no means arrived. It’s harder than you might think to get rid of this insidious way of thinking–but of course it’s also well worth the effort.

The point is, you’re cut out to do research if you enjoy it and are willing to work hard. Period. Sometimes prodigies are cut out for research too. But only if they work hard.

About Brent

Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Hendrix College. Functional programmer, mathematician, teacher, pianist, follower of Jesus.
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3 Responses to On being a researcher

  1. Pingback: On being a researcher « blog :: Brent -> [String] | Sound and Complete

  2. Ben Lippmeier says:

    If you have the seed of an idea inside of you trying to claw its way out, and feel that you’ll go crazy if you’re unable to express it, then this is both necessary and sufficient for Grad school.

  3. Pingback: On being a researcher | Piotr Kaźmierczak

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