Attributes of good research

Paul Graham gives a list of attributes characterizing start-ups. It strikes me that many of these attributes could describe research projects as well:

  1. Good research projects fail. If there is no risk of failure, you are doing unoriginal research. (Except that out of my biggest failures have come out some of my best papers…)
  2. Good research directions change frequently. Otherwise, how can you be following the truth where it must lead you? (Except that if you keep changing direction, you’ll never get anything done.)
  3. It takes little money. While some research projects are expensive, Einstein changed Physics forever without a research grant. (Except that if you are worrying about your next pay check, you can hardly worry about research.)
  4. Good research is threatening. If your research never upsets anyone, maybe you are not pushing hard enough? (Except that you should not be bold just for boldness sake.)
  5. Research is a solitary task. Ultimately, all research projects involve many hours working alone. (Except that research is fundamentally social!)

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

9 thoughts on “Attributes of good research”

  1. Hmm. Substitute “art” for “research” and it still works. Substitute “athletic achievement” and it still works. What’s the most abstract term that subsumes these special cases? “Excelling”?

  2. @Turney I’m well aware that “doing research” is just an instance of “design/excelling”, at least the way I do it.

    @Meagher Thanks for the link. I did not know about this essay. It is an excellent one. Paul screws them up sometimes, but this was one of his best ones.

    @Rivest Well. I don’t think you can write a Ph.D. thesis collaboratively. It was never meant to work that way.

  3. @Daniel: But a PhD Thesis is supposed to be solitary. I find that since then, my best work comes when I’m actively banging my head against the objections of my colleagues, and they’re actively firing back their own ideas, until we collectively come up with something to test. Then we test it. Then we move on to another round of Hegelian dialectic.

    It seems to work.

  4. @Daniel: Right, and I think this leads to bad habits (such as solitary work). Although it may seems quite solitary in computer science… I think there are a lot of interdisciplinary work that would benifit from more team work. Moreover, science is NOT just about writing a PhD thesis. (You are still doing research, aren’t you?) Finally, if you write a thesis with publications, you will certainly have co-authors, possibly including some that are not your supervisor.
    @Jeremy: I agree with you.

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