Research: It doesn't take a genius

What message do we want to send our young students about scientific research? I find it troubling that many students (at least, before they have performed any research) have the impression that it is something they cannot do. They envision research as consisting of Einsteinian leaps of knowledge attainable by only a few geniuses. I don't even like to use the word genius (even though I will in this post). I disagree with the fundamental framing it creates, and more practically, I think it's clear that genius is subjective and contextual. Think of all of the people who, over the course of history, have made the transition from crackpot to genius or, in reverse, genius to crackpot.

Regardless, I am not exactly sure of why many students have this view of research, but I can conjecture that it arises from 1) natural fear of the unknown, and 2) the attitudes of other people, including -- and perhaps especially -- students and professors in the academic world. I find many parts of academia have a somewhat elitist view of research. My opinion, to paraphrase the Chef Gusteau character in Ratatouille, is that "anyone can do research."

I think the view that research necessitates genius is a counterproductive and inaccurate. I worry that some students who might make meaningful contributions to the world through research (and of course, there are many other equally valuable ways besides research) are turned off by research-fear before they even start.

Here's what I think we need to tell students: 99.9% of research progress consists of teeny, tiny steps in knowledge rather than Einsteinian leaps. Even to take these tiny steps we must stand on the shoulders of the many people who have taken many tiny steps before us. And tiny steps are worthwhile. And research is a community effort, and it is satisfying to be part of a great community of past and future scholars who will take tiny steps to move forward our understanding of and appreciation for the universe. And still, even though we are taking only tiny steps, it's really hard. But very much worth it. And you can do it.

I advise a cohort of undergraduate research students every summer. I am lucky that I have well-prepared, motivated students. That said, my cohort this year has especially knocked my socks off. For example (and forgive the tech speak here) two of them have gone (in the span of two weeks) from not knowing what a partial differential equation (PDE) is to now: understanding how a particular PDE is derived as a model for biological swarming, solving the steady-state problem in 1-d, classifying the compactly-supported swarms that form, calculating the contact angle in the large-mass limit, and solving the full PDE on a computer. In case the tech speak means nothing to you, I can say: this is a lot for two inexperienced undergraduates in the span of two weeks.

In mathematics, we drastically overemphasize being really, really good at math. Being a math genius is neither necessary nor sufficient for doing meaningful mathematical research. I should know, because I am not a math genius and I do math research all the time. Some of it is even decent. I've been reflecting on why my students this summer have been such admirable and productive researchers (an outcome for which I take little or no credit). There are a few critical, basic attitudes and habits that they exhibit:

1. They believe they can make progress. For some reason, they lack the aforementioned research-fear. They have self-efficacy for the task. They are not put off by difficulty or failure. Sometimes they get stuck, and this does not seem to bother them, or make them think that they will not succeed in the end.

2. They put in the time to make progress. I see them in the lab for at least eight hours a day, and they are not on email or Facebook for most of that time. They are working. Still, they do take breaks to keep their heads from exploding, and this is very important too.

3. They are organized. They keep research logs in GoogleDocs and directories of files in Dropbox and "readme" files in those directories in order to organize everything, and to be able to retrace their steps days later when they forget what they did a few days in the past. Whenever they get new results, they write them up nicely in a manuscript file so that they retain in excruciating detail the most successful and relevant parts of the work they've done.

4. They collaborate. Each research project I am running this summer has two students on it. On a given team, sometimes both students do a task and check each other's results. Sometimes they sit down in front of the computer and code together. Sometimes they divide and conquer, and update each other on what has been done. I am convinced their collaborative habits have more than doubled the total productivity they would have as individuals working in isolation.

5. They take ownership. They act like the project is theirs, and not that it is some really hard homework assignment I have given them that they are required to complete. They understand that I don't have the answer to their problem.

6. Still, they are not afraid to ask me for help, guidance, and opinions.

I am sure there are more skills and attitudes I should mention, but this is what has jumped out at me thus far. They have been, in a word, inspirational.

4 thoughts on “Research: It doesn't take a genius

  1. Andy Rundquist

    Great post! I really like the characteristics you number for the things that good research students do. I'm really impressed with my students this summer, too, so this post really resonated with me. The mistake I made this year was to not really establish how they should be taking their (digital) notes, but we're coming up to speed on that now (we've only been working for a week).

    Last summer something amazing happened. I was gone for 2 weeks. When I came back I went into the lab and started trying to fix their mis-designed experiment. After about 5 minutes of this, they finally yelled at me to stop, because in fact their design had considered some things I wasn't thinking of. Basically, they kicked me out of the lab. Success!

  2. Sam Kennerly

    "Being a [math] genius is neither necessary nor sufficient for doing meaningful [mathematical] research."

    I'm fairly confident that this statement remains true if [math] is replaced by [physics], and I suspect it also holds for a wide variety of other academic subjects.

    Here's my personal favorite tactic for avoiding research-fear: Focus on solving problems, not on yourself. Questions like "Am I good enough?" or "Which of my colleagues are smarter than me?" often have no unique, falsifiable answer - and even if they do, that answer has approximately zero practical value for improving research. It's much more useful to ask questions like "What am I misunderstanding about problem X?" or "What book/person/website/paper can explain problem X to me?" I try to train myself to remember this, though it often seems that our entire academic culture is telling us the opposite.

    1. Chad Topaz Post author

      Completely agreed. It took me until midway through my third year of graduate school to realize this, and then I instituted a rule: no giving a crap about whatever any of my fellow students were accomplishing, or claiming to accomplish.

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