Lack of steady trajectories and failure

A common advice given out to young researchers is to find a niche. (See Michael’s Branding Your Research). That is certainly good advice. Instead of being another young researcher, you can be the new guy working on topic X. But it always seems to happen no matter what: most Ph.D. thesis address a narrow topic. I believe that the real advice people would like to give is: find yourself a nice topic, and make sure this topic becomes fashionable. Of course, this implies that you can somehow predict the future, or have a thesis supervisor with enough clout that he can either initiate new trends, or have inside knowledge regarding the upcoming trends.

A more interesting question is what you should do with the rest of your career, assuming you landed a research job, somehow. Should you find yourself one or two niche topics and stay there for the rest of your life? That is a common strategy. You save precious time: instead of having to skim 100 research articles a year, you may get by with 20 or 30 research articles, or even less. Moreover, because you are the leading authority on one or two topics, you can never be caught unaware. You never have to worry about finding new topics: you just keep on iteratively improving whatever you are doing right now. With some luck, you can reuse your funding proposals year after year. Finally, you can quickly get to know everyone that matters regarding these narrow topics. And that is a perfectly good strategy.

The problems begin when we associate the lack of a steady trajectory with failure. Encouraging static research topics leads to conservatism. Meanwhile, some of the most innovative researchers have cultivated varied interests. Von Neumann was a set theorist, but he wrote 20 papers in Physics, and even in Mathematics, he covered a wide range of topics (set theory, logic, topological groups, measure theory, ergodic theory, operator theory, and continuous geometry). Would we have been better off had von Neumann remained a pure set theorist?

And I tend to have more trust in researchers who have their eggs in different baskets. They can afford to be a bit more critical.

Warning: I am not urging Ph.D. students to change topic repeatedly while writing up their thesis. Finish whatever you start. And be aware that approaching a new research topic can be costly.

10 thoughts on “Lack of steady trajectories and failure”

  1. The expression “you are the leading authority on one or two topics” implies that the topic must be narrow enough. Nobody is the “leading authority on Computer Science” or the “leading authority on Information Retrieval”. You might be “the leading authority on the application of Bayes Networks to ranking problems in Information Retrieval”.

    Presumably, the granularity level depends on the popularity of the field. If you are one of the last two remaining Physicists in the world, then maybe you could be the leading authority on Quantum Mechanics.

    For very popular fields, you need to be very narrow to be an authority.

  2. @jeremy It is awfully difficult to define “diversity”. I know, I tried.

    There is nothing wrong with doing Information Retrieval for 30 years.

    What I’m saying is that if you can both contribute something to Information Retrieval, and also to a different field, you might have a better appreciation of both fields.

    Can you do Philosophy and AI? Medicine and Psychology? Physics and Algorithms? I think that true scholars can contribute to multiple fields, not just multiple topics.

  3. Some topic -> more specific of the topic -> “narrow” topic. When you go along the way, how would you filter out topics in second stage, which not necessarily is a single step?

  4. My question was more along the lines of encouraging non-static research topics. What does it mean to be diverse?

    For example, I’ve gone fairly deep in both text (recall-oriented) information retrieval, as well as music information retrieval. Not to mention explicitly collaborative information retrieval. On the one hand, it’s not diverse at all: It’s still just information retrieval. On the other hand, each facet involves some fairly specialized knowledge.

    So are all my eggs in one basket (IR)? Or in multiple baskets (text IR, music IR, collaborative IR)? And how does that relate to others that I know who have their eggs both in the physics and text IR baskets — is that more diverse or less diverse?

  5. Excellent idea – but it seems to me in practice diversifying one’s research is possible only for tenured faculty like yourself!

    I don’t see how a young researcher (untenured yet) can afford to diversify, at the same time keep up with the need to publish, teach, obtain grants, serve on committees, advise graduate students, do administrative duties,…etc.

    I am not complaining about the ideal – it is indeed something I would aspire for, but I am questioning the practicality of it.

  6. @Kevembuangga von Neumann was probably a workaholic. He worked continuously. And he started his research career quite young. Also, he got access to extraordinary ressources. So it may not be practical for most people to match von Neumann.

    @Srikanta I think that the incentive to stick with what you know may become even stronger as you advance in your career. But I don’t deny that diversifying is costly.

    I suspect, however, that a diversified research expertise may offer more opportunities later on. But I’m not sure.

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