Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Food for thought

It's funny how an incidental conversation with someone you barely know can change your perspective on things. I had such a conversation last night with a guy I play soccer with. We were both out the front of the RSISE building, waiting for others to show up for our weekly soccer game. He is a PhD student like me, working in a similar field, so we weren't short of research related topics of conversation to keep us occupied. It is inevitable, when two PhD students strike conversation, that the focus quickly fixates on the question of productivity, or of ones progress towards thesis submission. "How's your thesis going?" one asks. At best, the response would be "I think it's going ok", but is more likely to be "pretty shit!", or, "I'm really not sure". My response to this question was the latter, partly because it is true, and partly because I do not have the confidence to upgrade it to anything more positive. The question is somewhat analogous to asking how long a piece of string is.

Having gotten the PhD rituals out of the way, we then delved into the more philosophical topic of what constitutes a good days work. Without going into the depths of this somewhat convoluted thread of conversation, we both agreed that we were too focused on having to produce some sort of tangible "look what I did" product in order to feel good about our day's work. For many fields of work, this is probably an entirely reasonable gauge of productivity - but for research, this measure is a guaranteed way to beat yourself up on a daily basis.

Today, for example, I have produced not more than 3 lines of program code. Yesterday I wrote about a page worth of notes on two research papers, of which I spent two days prior reading. I'll admit, I am a slow reader, and do find it hard to concentrate for long periods of time - but these papers are not exactly page turners. They a bloody hard reads, and require a lot of mental energy to get through. It is true that some researchers in my field could probably read these papers in a quarter of the time that it takes me. There is a name for people like that - geniuses. For mere mortals like myself, such concentration and focus does not come easy - in fact, I would go as far as to say that it is almost entirely unnatural for me. So much of my energy is spent trying to grasp what are sometimes quite mathematically intense, abstract topics, that I barely have the stamina to then go and read another one, or attempt to extend upon some idea that was expressed in the paper. Clearly then, the one page of notes that I did manage to produce from this mental effort is worth more than the A4 sheet I wrote them on.

My point is that it is the thoughts and ideas that matter most, and good research ideas unfortunately do not come on a daily, or even a weekly basis. In fact, the average PhD thesis is unlikely to contain more than a few genuinely good (and novel) ideas. This is why the national average for PhD completions is only around 50% It's really not an easy thing to do.

So, if I assess my working day productivity on a measure of thinking time expended on my project, then I soon realise that I am not at all slacking off. In fact, if my scholarship allowed it, I think I would be up for a significant amount of overtime. How many times have I stared at my bedroom roof (and no, there is no mirror on the roof!), trying to get thoughts of my research out of my head, so I can get to sleep. How much time have I spent riding my bike, going over concepts related to my project (before being pulled back into reality by the sound of a horn from yet another angry, nut-case Canberran driver). Hell, I even walk down supermarket isles and can't help but think how my vision system is guiding my motor responses to keep me centred and out of harm's way as a slightly erratic shopping trolley approaches. There is no doubt that research is an all consuming activity, and is therefore a constant, niggling thought that is hard to escape from. For this reason, it is important as a researcher to recognise that time invested in thought is at least as important as time invested in writing about those thoughts, or producing other tangible outcomes.

I am well aware that my focus here is very much on the mathematical sciences, where experiments and data collection, at least in the traditional form, are not as common. I can picture a number of psychologists, geneticists, bio-chemists and alike, screaming loudly about how running experiments that rarely work the first time, writing questionaires that never get answered, and collating data is no push over either, and can eat up a huge chunck of time. I do not dispute this for one second. The simple truth remains, the productivity of a day's work for the average researcher is very difficult to quantify, but is rarely lacking - despite what the researcher may believe of them selves.

With this new perspective, I find myself significantly more content about my day's work, and am comforted in the knowledge that tomorrow's efforts will benefit in some way, from the thought's and potential ideas that may spawn from today. One day I will have a big, rather important looking thesis to hand in, and an even bigger, sillier looking hat to wear - those are the only tangible outcomes that really matter (along with a few publications on the way).


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