Maximizing your impact as a researcher (guest post)

The greatest challenge for a researcher is to choose projects that have a good chance of delivering impact. Alain Désilets from NRC—co-author of VoiceGrip, Webitext and the Cross Lingual Wiki Engine—shared his strategies with me:

  • Look at how many workdays per week you can dedicate to research and make that be the number of projects you can work on in parallel. In other words, if you are one of the lucky few who can dedicate 5 days per week doing research, then you have room for 5 projects.
  • Invest your energy proportionally to the amount of positive feedback you receive for each project. This includes collaboration offers, grants, potential users, and so on.
  • Never work alone on a project for too long. It’s OK to start exploring a compelling idea on your own for a couple of months, but if you can’t convince someone else to work with you on it, maybe it’s not such a great idea after all. Maybe it’s technically infeasible, maybe there is no need or market for it, or maybe it’s just too much ahead of its time. Don’t completely give up on the idea yet. Put it on the ice for now and keep sharing that idea with people until you meet the right people to make it happen with you.
  • Instead of looking for partnership money which will require you to spend months drafting and revising agreements (who wants to deal with lawyers anyway), look for talented people who have control over their own time, and are willing to invest some of that precious resource working with you on an idea. Don’t worry about who will own the baby before it’s actually born (that usually ensures that the work relationship will never get off the ground). Just make sure everyone keeps a lab book documenting who did what so that you will have a basis to argue in a friendly and civilised manner about who owns what share of the baby, if you ever have that nice problem.
  • Talk to lots of different people from different walks of life about your idea. You never know who will give you the insight or contact you need to advance to the next level on a given project. Of course if you do this, you pretty much give up on the idea of patenting your idea.
  • Make sure you collocate in time and space as much as you can with your collaborators. There was a time when I had 5 projects (those were the happy days of 5 days of research per week), and I had scheduled things so that on Mondays I would work with Joe on project X, Tuesdays were dedicated to working on project Y with Jane, and so on.
  • Find and organisation or a type of end users with an interesting problem that you think you could solve using some bleeding edge technology. Become very intimate with the problem, maybe even pretending to do these people’s job for a day. Once you understand their problem well, don’t jump right away to the hi-tech solution. Instead, start with the Simplest Thing That Could Possibly Work, and only add complex technology where and when it is needed. This may not get you a publication in a first tier journal, but it greatly increases your odds of developing a system that will actually be used. Plus, when you DO find that you need sophisticated technology, you know exactly why, and what the actual value added is.
  • Use Agile Development practices which allow you to advance your projects in short, highly focused bursts of a few days (1-day burst are even possible). Write lots of short “stories” that describe things you can accomplish in a day or less, and keep re-prioritizing them so that the ones that currently add the most value to your target users are always at the top. Use Test Driven Development to ensure that your system is always stable and that you can put it aside for a few days or months, yet pick up right from where you left. These kinds of techniques are essential if you want to be able to quickly reallocate your effort depending on how hot your different projects are.

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Daniel Lemire

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

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