Advice to young researchers

If I were ever asked, this is what I would tell  young researchers embarking on their career.  They are in no particular order.  In fact, 8) may be the most important.

1)   Understand your problem as deeply as possible.  You should know everything that there is to know about your topic. Always ask the next question and think hard about how feasible it is to answer it.  Know why it would be hard or easy to do so.

2)   Learn as many tools as possible.  Get into the habit of constantly learning about new methods.  You may not need to implement everything yourself but be aware of what is out there and even more importantly who knows how to use it.

3)   Be known as an expert in something.  You don’t necessarily want to be pigeonholed but it will always serve you well if you are known as the expert in a certain area.

4)   Knowing what you don’t know is as important as knowing what you do know.  This goes with having deep knowledge about your subject.  You should know whether or not the reason you don’t know something is because no one knows or just you don’t know.

5)   Do not slack on scholarship; always do a thorough search of what has been done before.  Never be lazy about checking references.  It is your job to know everything that has been done before.  Also, just because it is not on the web doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

6)   Talk to as many people about your ideas as you can.  Getting feedback is extremely important to sharpen your ideas.

7)   Never let the lack of effort be an excuse for not getting something done. Sometimes, research is tedious.  Sometimes one more calculation or simulation will make a huge difference in your result.

8)   Learn to finish.  On the flip side of 7) you also have to know when a project is done.  There will always be unanswered questions and loose ends. Be aware of which are critical to your result and which would represent future projects.  The inability to finish papers is probably the biggest problem young people have.

2 thoughts on “Advice to young researchers

  1. Hi Carson,

    if I mostly agree with all your advice, I am not sure about the first one.

    First, it takes an awful lot of time to know everything there is to know on a given subject. And at some point, a young researcher is expected to produce something. So there must be some kind of compromise here between “learning” and “doing”.
    Second, it may be highly productive to look at a problem with new eyes, without knowing in details how others have tried to tackle the problem yet, what may impinge on creativity and bias your approach towards walking on well-trodden paths.

    As a mere postdoc, I would suggest that this is the role of the PhD supervisor (for example) to know everything that has been done and to let his students roam free and possibly tell them if what they currently do has already been done.

    The two approaches are probably productive. Maybe it boils down to Feyerabend anarchistic view of science…


  2. Hi Romain,

    With regard to point 1), I mean you should know everything you can about your project, meaning your little corner of the research world. So if your project involves studying some specific differential equation then you should know everything you can about that differential equation. But again, that includes knowing all the things that you can know and all the things that you can’t.

    With regard to looking at a problem with fresh eyes, I think that is always profitable but as an editor I receive too many papers where the authors have not done any scholarship whatsoever and have left out whole fields of research. At some point in the project, you should know what has been done in the past that is relevant to you work.

    You should notice that I did not mention anything about how to choose problems to work on, which is perhaps the most important thing. This is where exploration and not knowing everything could be useful. My advice was more geared towards a student who had already selected a project and was trying to finish their thesis.


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