Daniel Lemire's blog

, 2 min read

Updating your model as a researcher

Doing research is hard work. Most people make their life easier by following a model. This model is made of a series of recipes used to carry forward research projects.

There are a few reasons why a researcher may want to update his research model:

  • you want to do research on a new topic: some of your recipes no longer apply;
  • you have new collaborators: they may not follow your rules;
  • you want to increase your long term productivity.

This winter, I updated my research model. Here are a few changes I have made:

  • I relaxed my focus on exploration: I used to spend months toying with random ideas with no precise purpose in mind;
  • I decided to spend more time managing my research by keeping track of precise tasks I need to accomplish;
  • I setup stronger filters: anything that is not closely related to my may research theme is ignored with higher probability than ever.

I did not follow through entirely on my new model. For example, I cannot resist exploring random research ideas. However, my focus has definitively become much narrower.

In a sense, this is a step backward. Indeed, as a Ph.D. student I used to focus on the subject of my thesis at the exclusion of everything else. After my Ph.D. was finished, I started learning about entirely different fields. For example, I know a thing or two about geophysics or image processing, whereas I completed a somewhat theoretical thesis on Wavelets. Now? I work on databases. However, exploratory research is expensive. Yes, I have learned that I can pick any topic at random and eventually make a small contribution, but the effort is considerable. However, carrying several unrelated research issues is difficult for another reason, beyond just the obvious cost of becoming familiar with a new field. The problem is that you cannot maintain alive your different projects if you have too many and they are too unrelated. Hence, as you open a new front, you drop another. After several years of this process, you have proven that you can learn fast and be creative, but you are still not standing on firm ground. Things do not become easier as time passes.

Hence, I now spend a lot of time choosing which battles I am going to ignore. Am I more productive? Hard to tell. The catch is that, as a researcher, it is very difficult to establish solid grounding since you are constantly picking at it yourself. However, I feel less overwhelmed than I did a few years ago.