Scientific research is fundamentally about learning, about trial and error. Luck and unplanned interactions are a central part of it. Thus research cannot be planned and managed like, say, teaching duties or a Walmart store. If you could manage it, then it would not be research.

Research is usually greedy, in the sense of a greedy algorithm. At each point in time, you try to take the next best move, without knowing anything about the future. Maybe working on this new cloud computing algorithm will open the door to fame and fortune. Maybe you will meet a brilliant student next week who has great ideas on how to advance the field. Or maybe it is a dead end, maybe the problem has already been solved by a famous California professor last year. Typically, you do not know.

If you work hard and you are extremely clever, you might be able to make better guesses. But very, very few researchers can foresee the future 5 or 10 years ahead. Even Einstein got stuck in dead ends.

Fernando Pereira is a leading computer scientist and an ACM Fellow who works at Google. He describes his view of research in similar terms:

Most successful projects I know, and certainly all that I have been involved in (…) started bottom-up, with zero to minor management involvement, and grew through repeated successful interactions with their environment. Pretty much like all the successful projects I’ve been involved in both in academia and industry.

However, much of research today is supposedly based on 5-year plans and funded by the government. The sort of plans that Soviet Russia liked so much. It should come to no surprise as Soviet Russia literally invented our government-sponsored research model. It is worth repeating that it is an absurd model, as Pereira puts it:

(…) in government-funded work I had to go through the ritual of pretending to know where the proposed work would get to in several years before doing the actual experiments. Which over time, as competition for funding increased, became the self-contradictory process of claiming the work was novel and required new funding to carry out while having already enough results to convince reviewers that the project was a sure thing.

It is fascinating how we have a hard time dealing with the fact that R&D is in fact nothing else but bricolage done by smart people.

There are many simple facts that totally escape me for years. For example, though I took biology in college and I knew that plants were made of carbon through photosynthesis, I only realized a few years ago that plants grow by absorbing CO2 from the air. I knew that mass had to be preserved, but I stupidly assumed that plants took the bulk of their mass from the soil. I should have realized right away that the assumption was false by thinking it through.

A few years ago, my wife told me what declawing means. I have spent much of my life assuming the veterinarian had some magic and painless way to remove just the claws of the cat. But once you start thinking it through, it makes no sense.

Many people have their cats “declawed” to protect their furniture. The procedure is actually called onychectomy and involves the amputation of the “fingers” of the car (the phalanges).

It is banned as animal cruelty in 20 or so countries. The procedure appears to cause pain: “Regardless of the analgesic regimen, limb function was still significantly reduced 12 days after surgery, suggesting that long-term analgesic treatment should be considered for cats undergoing onychectomy.” (Romans et al. 2005).

We have non-surgical alternatives to declawing such as Soft Paws or regular claw trimming.

The argument in favour of onychectomy is that it is a relative benign surgical procedure that satisfies pet owners most of the time. Some veterinarians further justify the procedure by stating that without it, the owners would have the cat euthanized or would just abandon it.

I know many cat lovers who have had their cats declawed. I am almost sure that, had I offered to amputate the fingers of their cats, they would have thought me cruel…

We live in a complex world and even the best of us operate on very limited knowledge.

A recent Slate articles warns that coffee makes you less productive. The main claim is that coffee has no cognition enhancement ability but, instead, a range of negative side-effects. Unfortunately, it is not backed by serious research.

There is much we do not know yet about coffee. However, on the whole, the research is clearly positive. Here are a few quotes from research papers:

Aged rats supplemented with a 0.55 % coffee diet, equivalent to ten cups of coffee, performed better in psychomotor testing (rotarod) and in a working memory task (Morris water maze) compared to aged rats fed a control diet. (Shukitt-Hale et al., 2013)

The results demonstrated that consuming caffeine significantly reduced the number of errors and time spent for tracing the star, and also the MMSE [cognitive test] score was significantly higher (…) (Nadji and Baniasad, 2011)

Coffee is associated with a reduction in the incidence of diabetes and liver disease. Protection seems to exist also for Parkinson’s disease among the neurological disorders, while its potential as an osteoporosis risk factor is under debate. Its effect on cancer risk depends on the tissue concerned, although it appears to favor risk reduction. Coffee consumption seems to reduce mortality. (Cano-Marquina et al., 2013)

If your intellectual productivity is low, stopping coffee is almost surely not going to help.

In an earlier post, I compared life in academia with life in industry. One recurring argument to favour an academic job over an industry job is freedom.

Of course, the feeling of freedom is fundamentally subjective. And we have a strong incentive to feel free, and to present ourselves as free. Freedom is strongly linked with social status. Telling people that you are free to do whatever you want in your job is signalling your high status.

So how can you tell how much freedom you have?

I have long proposed the retirement freedom test. If you were really free in your job, you would continue it into your retirement. Another test is the lottery ticket test: would you keep your job if you won the lottery? But these tests are, again, somewhat subjective. Most people only retire once and they usually cannot tell ahead of time what retirement will be like.

For something more immediate, more measurable, I propose the week-end test. I conjecture that, given a choice, most people with a family would want to be free on week-ends to spend all their time with their kids. (Admittedly, others might want to dedicate their week-ends to unbridled and continuous kinky sex. But you get my point.)

So anyone who works on week-end fails the week-end freedom test. If you are checking emails from work on week-ends, you fail.

So how do professors do? In my experience, many of them fail the week-end freedom test. Of course, most of the professors I know are in computer science… and a large fraction of them are active researchers. So my sample is not representative. Nevertheless, many professors who claim to love their freedom fail the week-end test miserably. I know because I got emails from them on week-ends.

Of course, there is no arguing with subjective experience. You can fail the week-end test and claim that it is by choice. But what does it mean objectively?

You pity the poor lawyer at a big law firm who has to prepare his files every Saturday instead of playing baseball with his son. But your case is different: you love your job and that is why you work 60 hours a week. Your decision is entirely yours and it has nothing to do with the professional pressure you are feeling. You genuinely enjoy preparing this new research grant on Sunday instead of teaching your kid to swim. Sure, all professors in your department work on week-ends, except this weirdo who will never get promoted (does he love his job?), but they all do it out of love. It is a love that is so powerful that it beats the alternatives (such as spending time with your kids, or with your sex partner).

Appendix: I pass the week-end test. Mostly. For the last few years, I have stopped checking emails on week-ends. But I fail the retirement and lottery tests.

I have done three things after my Ph.D.:

  • I have been a (permanent/regular) researcher in a major government laboratory;
  • I have been an entrepreneur in industry (making deals, paying other people);
  • I have been a professor, in two different schools. I am now tenured and promoted.

My conclusions so far:

  • At least in my case, the difference in income has not been excessively large. While I did take a pay cut to join academia, you tend to make up some of the lost income in later years. Overall, it looks like things average out. However, if money is really important to you, there is no question that you can earn more in industry where your income is basically unlimited.
  • “Everyone” says that you have more freedom in academia. But whenever I hear someone say that, they are invariably an academic. I think that this is a form of rationalization. Overall, freedom is something you earn. You can enjoy a lot of freedom in industry, in government or in academia… but it is something that you have to constantly fight for. It is quite easy in academia to get stuck in a routine: teach, apply for grants, meet with students, teach, apply for grant, sit on meeting, teach… If you want to have a lot of time alone pondering, you are going to have to fight for it. It will probably not come during the first few years… it might take a decade or two (or you could get lucky earlier).

    A real test of freedom is to look at what people do when they retire. Do they keep doing whatever they were doing? The first thing that most academics will do when they retire is to drop the grant applications, the graduate students, the teaching… in effect, they’ll drop the bulk of their job. So how free were they?

    I consider that I have an excellent job as far as freedom goes. Yet much of my freedom comes from my ability to work on Monday night (as I did today) on my favorite research projects. If I chose to work a fixed 35 hours a week… I would be busy with meetings, teaching, grading, reviewing… almost all the time. Freedom is definitively something I earn every day.

    But another question is: how free do you want to be in your job? It is not uncommon for people wealthy enough to retire in luxury to keep working in high pressure jobs under difficult constraints. The fact is: it is often more satisfying to serve others than to cultivate your own egotistical freedom.

    It is not that exciting to write obscur research papers that nobody will ever read. Most of us want to feel useful. Being useful is hard. It means accepting people’s requirements.

  • Tenure is overrated. Most folks in industry that have worked just as hard as tenured professors, have savings, reputation and skills that are in demand. But if you are risk averse, then a government job is also quite safe even if you don’t formally have tenure. And academics with tenure lose their jobs all the time. There is always a clause saying that under “financial hardship” management can dismiss professors. And even with tenure, you still have to justify your job, constantly. If you create trouble, people can make your life hell. If you fail, people can humiliate you publicly. If you get into a fight with a tenured colleague, the fight can last decades and be unpleasant.
  • It is a lot easier to move back and forth between these occupations that people make it out to be. So while you can’t go back in time per se, professors move to industry all the time, and vice versa. To a point, you can even do both. It is not difficult to get some kind of honorary position with a research institute when you work in industry.
  • Academic and government positions require you to work in a bureaucratic setting, maybe for the rest of your life. In industry, you can be a lone wolf if you want. In this sense, there is greater freedom in industry.

Note: this post first appeared on Quora.

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