Confessions of a researchaholic

November 17, 2009


Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 12:07 pm

China was ruled by one emperor; American is ruled by one million lawyers.

November 1, 2009

How much time should you spend on your research

Filed under: Real — liyiwei @ 12:33 pm
Tags: ,

There are usually two different parts of this question. Only one makes sense. Let me begin with the one that does not.

A common question asked by students (especially the new ones) is: what is the minimum amount of time that I should spend on research (e.g. how much time should I spend in the lab per day)? When one asks such a question, it usually implies that one is working for a certain superior, usually the mentor or advisor. For me this question does not make sense precisely because that is the wrong presumption. Notice that I am talking about how much time you should spend on “your” research, so it is about you, not your mentor, advisor, your parents, or anyone else. Why should you ask someone else how much time you should spend working for yourself? It is like asking what you should have for lunch.

If you are asking this question, it implies that you do not understand the nature of research. Unlike many other professions where one could toil from 9 to 5 and come home call it a day, your research is always with you, even during your sleep. It is a never ending effort. If you do not enjoy this or are unwilling to put in that amount of efforts, you are unlikely to be a good researcher, and I would recommend you choose another career. (I did not recall a single researcher that I know of who could afford to work only 9 to 5 for 5 days in a week and still manages to be good, except perhaps for these very senior ones who have established themselves long ago.)

If you have any doubt on this, let me share with you one simple fact: there are many very smart people in the world working very hard in your field, so ask yourself how you could compete with them. As far as I could see you have to do at least one of the following two things: outsmart them, or outwork them. The majority of you probably cannot do the former, so your best chance is the latter. Even if you are truly smart, it usually does not hurt to assume you are not. Humility takes you a long way. (Researchers and scientists who think themselves to be smarter than they really are will usually get punished very quickly by failures and rejections. This is one of the main reasons why I like research; it provides an objective feedback mechanism to keep ones ego in check. This is in sharp contrast to some other professions, e.g. politicians or corporate executives, whose egos could get boasted by a vicious cycle of self delusion.)

After you have realized that you probably need to work pretty hard to excel in research (either by taking someone’s advice or by your own experience in failures and rejections), you might ask if you should put a cap on the maximum amount of time on your research. Well, a quick answer is that, like I said above, your research will be with you all the time, so you cannot really shake it off (except maybe temporarily like after a major submission deadline). But on the other hand, it does not imply that you should stay in the lab staring at a computer all the time. It is counter-productive, making you fatigued, exhausted, uncreative, and prone to mistakes. I sometimes worked after dinner while in grad school, but after the end of one night when I accidentally typed “rm –r –f *.c” instead of “rm –r –f *.o” in the clean field of a make file (no, I did not properly back up), I have forced myself to stay away from my office and any computers after dinner.

So, in summary, my suggestion is to work on your research all the time while staying in the lab probably only from 9 to 6. This may sound self-contradictory but in fact it is not. Working on your research does not mandate that you have to be in the lab. You can keep your thinking going on as a background process in your brain while you are doing other stuff, like crashing a party, having dinner with your family and friends, attending a concert, exercising, or even sleeping. I am not joking; I actually got most of my ideas while doing all these random stuff while away from my lab or office. I am not a psychologist, but I believe creativity works at its best when you are simultaneously relaxed while having a thought going on in the back of your head.

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