More on choosing problems to work on: advice from John H. Conway

March 6, 2010

1. Work at several problems at a time. If you only work on one problem and get stuck, you might get depressed. It is nice to have an easier back-up problem. The back-up problem will work as an anti-depressant and will allow you to go back to your difficult problem in a better mood. John told me that for him the best approach is to juggle six problems at a time.

2. Pick your problems with specific goals in mind. The problems you work on shouldn’t be picked at random. They should balance each other. Here is the list of projects he suggests you have:

  • Big problem. One problem should be both difficult and important. It should be your personal equivalent to the Riemann hypothesis. It is not wise to put all your time into such a problem. It most probably will make you depressed without making you successful. But it is nice to get back to your big problem from time to time. What if you do stumble on a productive idea? That may lead you to become famous without having sacrificed everything.
  • Workable problem. You should have one problem where it’s clear what to do. It’s best if this problem requires a lot of tedious work. As soon as you get stuck on other problems, you can go back to this problem and move forward on the next steps. This will revive your sense of accomplishment. It is great to have a problem around that can be advanced when you do not feel creative or when you are tired.
  • Book problem. Consider the book you are working on as one of your problems. If you’re always writing a book, you’ll write many of them. If you’re not in the mood to be writing prose, then work on math problems that will be in your book.
  • Fun problem. Life is hardly worth living if you are not having fun. You should always have at least one problem that you do for fun.

3. Enjoy your life. Important problems should never interfere with having fun.

This advice from J.H. Conway is excerpted from the blog post of Tanya Khovanova

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The Three Golden Rules for Successful Scientific Research by E.W. Dijkstra

January 6, 2010

1. Raise your quality standards as high as you can live with, avoid wasting your time on routine problems, and always try to work as closely as possible at the boundary of your abilities. Do this, because it is the only way of discovering how that boundary should be moved forward.

2. We all like our work to be socially relevant and scientifically sound. If we can find a topic satisfying both desires, we are lucky; if the two targets are in conflict with each other, let the requirement of scientific soundness prevail.

3. Never tackle a problem of which you can be pretty sure that (now or in the near future) it will be tackled by others who are, in relation to that problem, at least as competent and well-equipped as you.

The original text of the rules together with the author’s comments can be found here (HTML) or here (PDF).

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Grantsmanship Revisited

November 13, 2009

An important addition to my earlier post on writing grant applications: there is a series of articles on science funding in Science Careers. The author is someone going — quite appropriately 🙂 —  by the name of  Grant Doctor.

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The Top Ten Open Problems in Physics

November 12, 2009

A list by Dmitry Podolsky

Update: another such list (this time of 24 problems) by Sean Carroll, the three most important open problems in physics by the Nobel Prize winner Vitaly Ginzburg, and a more extensive list (see also the updated book version of this list)  by the same author.

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Israel Gelfand (1913-2009). R.I.P.

October 6, 2009

Israel Gelfand (September 2, 1913October 5, 2009). R.I.P.

To learn more about him, see e.g. the excellent post by Terence Tao.

How Much Passion Do You Need to Succeed in Science?

May 24, 2009

This very interesting and very controversial issue is discussed here, here and here. The discussion was triggered by this post at the YFS blog on the all not-too-nice kinds of people one encounters in science and on losing one’s illusions down the road into the academe (see also here for a related post at the RS blog); for a kind of alternative point of view see here.

Academia or Industry?

May 23, 2009

See this article from the Science Careers (hat tip: ZapperZ)

Update: on the broader issue of leaving academia see also here, here, here, and here. There also is a fair number of blogs and web sites addressing this issue, for instance:

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