Sunday, May 21, 2006

More and more

Last week I had almost identical discussions with several different professors (including a former dean of the business school) about narrow specialization in academia. We all agreed that the way to get ahead is to stake out your turf in one narrow area and defend it at all costs.

I, however, specifically became a physicist in order to think about new and interesting things -- even things not traditionally considered physics! While the typical academic is someone who knows more and more about less and less, I think my motto is to learn more and more about more and more :-)

I don't think I could stand to spend all my time writing the (N+1)th paper on some speculative model (which I don't really believe to be a correct description of Nature), or on some straightforward application of known techniques, just to get citations. Instead, I'll take the quixotic path of working on totally new things every few years. But of course, as noted by everyone I talked to, I can expect only punishment for deviating from the norm!

Marcus Aurelius:
"Or does the bubble reputation distract you? Keep before your eyes the swift onset of oblivion, and the abysses of eternity before us and behind; mark how hollow are the echoes of applause, how fickle and undiscerning the judgments of professed admirers, and how puny the arena of human fame. For the entire earth is but a point, and the place of our own habitation but a minute corner in it; and how many are therein who will praise you, and what sort of men are they?"

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

The unwritten secrets to success in academia. Specialization, careful choice of adequately trendy subject matter, and pooling with collaborators to maximize your number of publications. They don't tell you these things when you start out at graduate school (or at least they didn't in my day).

steve said...

Although I'm familiar with the rules, I've decided not to play by them ;-)

I guess I read too much Marcus Aurelius:

"Or does the bubble reputation distract you? Keep before your eyes the swift onset of oblivion, and the abysses of eternity before us and behind; mark how hollow are the echoes of applause, how fickle and undiscerning the judgments of professed admirers, and how puny the arena of human fame. For the entire earth is but a point, and the place of our own habitation but a minute corner in it; and how many are therein who will praise you, and what sort of men are they?"

Anonymous said...

"A physicist who plays by his own set of rules... He fought the system, and the system fought back... Coming this fall, 'Dr. Danger' shows you the hidden dark side of academic research..."

Anonymous said...

anonymous wrote, The unwritten secrets to success in academia. Specialization, careful choice of adequately trendy subject matter, and pooling with collaborators to maximize your number of publications.

Ain't that the truth.

Anonymous said...

steve said...
Although I'm familiar with the rules, I've decided not to play by them ;-)

Easily said and done when one is a tenured professor and co-founder of a few million dollar start up. Not so much when one is a grad student or a post doc. On the other hand, hasn't a lot of important and brilliant work been done by *young* academics? Tthink Einstein, Hawking, Dirac, ... Also, hasn't that brilliant work been brilliant in part due to it deviating from what everyone else had been doing?
Deviating from the norm is a pretty bad career move nowadays, specially when one is chasing tenure or the next post doc, as the post seems to suggest.
The fact that our collective body of knowledge grows by the day only adds to the problem. Certainly, to "learn everything needed to do research" in a given area in the early 1900s took a lot less time than nowadays for grad students didn't need to learn neither QFT nor GR!
Maybe the system is a bit broken? Any thoughts on possible fixes, anyone?

Carson Chow said...

It's about risk and reward. If you deviate from the norm and hit on something big then you will be greatly rewarded. However, chances are you will fail and then you get crushed. Research is a diffusion process. The problem is that we reward the random person that hits it big. As a society, maybe we need to reward the losers because they're just as important for success as the winners.

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