Daniel Lemire's blog

, 2 min read

Getting my research back in focus

This has been long coming.

In recent years, I extended my research horizon in many new directions. I think it made me into a better researcher. When you start out in research, you have a very tight focus. You may change your focus as time passes, but you tend to work on only one or, at most, two problems at a time. This is entirely justified by the fact that you are only starting now and need to achieve some results, any result, before spreading out your wings.

Yuhong was reporting on her perception that European researchers tend to remain very focused all their lifes which bring them a nice, constant flow of results… whereas North American researchers will constantly adapt and change their research focus, in part because they are always seeking new funding. I don’t know how accurate Yuhong’s view is. It does match my intuition, but only partly so. I think that many researchers, even in North America, remain very focused all their lifes.

What is true, I think, is that you need to broaden your horizon at some point in time. Otherwise, while you may keep publishing at a constant rate, you are unlikely to be able to reflect in a critical fashion on your current research projects. How can you tell if your research is currently relevant if you have and always will work on the same things, no matter what? By uncoupling yourself from your immediate research agenda, I think you become a better researcher who can not only do good research, but also learn to choose good research topics.

Ah! But here comes the downside. You can’t possibly do everything. Well, maybe you can if you have people and take credit for their work.

How many research projects can you be involved in at a given time? My magic number would be 3. You could go up to 4 is you are merely finishing off one of them, but 3 seems like a reasonable number. What happens beyond this number is that I get stressed out, overworked, and I lack focus. How do I define a project? Typically as something that will produce one or two papers. As a side note, this suggests that maybe, publishing 3 papers a year is a good target. In any case, you have to choose 3 projects and not get involved more than you should.

So, I wrote a list this morning. I went for a long walk, and I decided to settle on the 3 most promising research projects. This worked well, until I had to add one. So I have 4 on my list. They appear right there on my palm every time I look at my schedule.

This is quite a small number since I have a far greater number of individual projects going on right now.

This is an experiment. I need to keep this list a short list. It needs to remain under control. If I add something, I need to take something out. Will it work? I’ll report about this little experiment here.