Saturday, September 17, 2016

Five Things More Important About a Research Project Than Being in Love

I recently talked to an early PhD student trying to decide between two projects: one they were in love with, and one with a much longer list of "pros" including "more likely to go somewhere" and "the faculty involved have experience working in the area." I was surprised to learn that I was the only person (out of faculty and students alike!) who told her I would pick the second, more reliable project.

It's not that I'm not a romantic*, but I do believe advice to make decisions based on feelings rather than facts can be dangerous. Apparently my point of view is so much in the minority that I need to write a blog post to elucidate my position.

Like most of you, I am a sucker for stories about people finding meaning, love, etc. When I watched movies as a kid, I would always be so confused when the female lead turned down a proposal from a perfectly eligible paramour**. But they look so good together! But they are in love! As time passed, however, I learned that there is this thing called happiness, that happiness is important, and that happiness depends on many more factors than looking good and being in love.

And as I came to learn that all things in life are the same, I learned that these lessons also apply to research. For me, the following things are as important, if not more important, than the specific dream I am chasing in any given research project:
  1. The day-to-day. I'd love to be a lab scientist for the glamorous photographs of me in my lab (and of course the direct contributions to science, etc.), but I am pretty sure I would die if I had to spend my days doing wet lab experiments. (In high school my "will become" in my senior yearbook was "a better lab partner." This unfortunately never happened. In college I loved studying organic chemistry but I would do things like accidentally shatter our sep funnel and throw it away, leaving my lab partner confused about why we were missing half our experiment.) What I love doing is coding, formalizing things every now and then, and apparently, spending days and days writing grant proposals and Powerpoint presentations. Hence my present set of projects.
  2. Collaborators. For some reason people love this idea of the lone scholar. (Maybe because it's hard enough to imagine one person who wants to work on such obscure stuff??) In reality, most science (and probably all other things in life) moves forward not only through single people sitting alone in their attics, but through conversations between people sitting in attics. It's good to know whether you like working by yourself, with a small handful of collaborators, or on massive collaborations where you can't ever tell how many other people are on the same Skype call. There are tradeoffs to each of these situations: the fewer people you collaborate with, the more "out there" your work can be. The more people you collaborate with, the bigger the project can be (for different senses of "big"). Especially when you are working hard, your collaborator interactions are most of your entire world, so it is important to like both the collaboration format and the collaborators.
  3. Community. People tell you that the PhD is about the relationship between a student and their advisor, but it's really about the student entering into a set of conversations within a community. My happiness certainly depends on my position within a community: how much the community accepts me/my work; how much my community values my work and similar work. I like being part of a research community that shares my values; I like it when my community accepts me as one of them and engages with me about my work. As a young researcher, your community is especially important because these are the people who will shape your values and your ideas about what it means to do research.
  4. Evaluation. I used to think that once work was good enough, it would be universally recognized as good, and then we could all celebrate and move on. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and each community has its own customs about how it evaluates work. The evaluation mechanisms determine what work gets recognized as good and ultimately how people work. I much prefer my work to be evaluated on things that feel more objective than subjective, and I want to believe the evaluation is demonstrating something about a universal truth, rather than being a measurement of a particular artifact. (For these reasons, I prefer to be evaluated on correctness--in the form of theorems--than user studies or performance numbers.) This determines what I choose to work on and what I emphasize when communicating about my results, decisions that play a large role in my work-happiness.
  5. Resources. Behind all things in life there is the question of money. While most people would certainly not like their work to be completed dictated by what funding is available, how much funding there is and where it comes from determines many things about your work: whether you have funding to travel to conferences; whether you have additional funding meetings where you are to present concrete deliverables. There are also other resources besides the financial. How many people at your university could give you feedback on this project? How many other people could contribute to actual work on the project? For young researchers, there is also the question of how much attention the advisor would provide on a project, and also the attention other researchers in the field might provide.
Of course, everyone has their own happiness function. I'm sure many other people value the idea of being in love with their research more, and value some of these less. No matter what your value function, it is important to think about the dimensions of your happiness, and how project decisions fit.

Supplementary reading:

* Hm, people have called me the "least romantic person they have ever met."
** Hey, it's not my fault the movies I watched conformed to heteronormative tropes.

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