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.


How to Choose a Research Topic

May 9, 2009

Choosing a research problem to work on is a tough decision to make, and the relevant advice is rather scarce.

So far I have found only a handful of reasonably looking tips:

  • work on important problems (R. Hamming, You and Your Research)
  • go for the messes, i.e., for the areas far from being crystal clear
    (S. Weinberg, Scientist: Four golden lessons)
  • look for an unoccupied niche that has potential (this and some other good tips can be found in the paper Picking a research problem — the critical decision which is primarily addressed to the researchers in biology and medicine but can be of interest to the other scientists too)
  • keep several (if possible, not too closely related) problems of varying difficulty to work on, so that you can switch to another problem when you get stuck (for more on this see e.g. here)
  • try to move beyond the subject of your Ph.D. thesis (if you have already defended one, indeed) or your postdoc (or your postdoctoral mentor, for that matter); more broadly, beyond your current area of research (see e.g. this post of Terence Tao). This has an extra benefit of reducing the risk of being scooped as discussed here.
  • regularly attend the conferences and join (or run) a seminar and/or a journal club: the talks can be an important source of inspiration
  • do something you will enjoy doing and what you feel you can do
  • your work should rather open the way to new breakthroughs than close the whole subject down

The last three tips are somewhat of a common wisdom and can be found in a number of places; see e.g. the article Choosing a research topic by Richard Reis, which contains some further interesting thoughts on the subject.

See also:


How to Write a Really Good Research Paper

April 29, 2009

Here are the slides and the video of a nice talk by Simon Peyton Jones with some general advice on the subject.

Some excellent advice on writing (primarily for mathematicians) can be found at the blog of Terence Tao;  see also  this post at the blog of Daniel Lemire for some important (especially for beginners) technicalities, and Six Rules for Rewriting by Michael Nielsen. More writing tips can be found here.

Some tips on avoiding the writer’s block can be found here at the Tomorrow’s Professor blog. Another possibly helpful trick is the writing microschedule by Gina Hiatt.

Having right coauthors can greatly improve the quality of your paper; for interesting discussions on scientific collaboration go here, here and here (these three posts deal with collaboration in mathematics but can be of interest for other scientists too) at the Secret Blogging Seminar, here and here at the blog of Michael Nielsen; see also this post at the Backreaction blog, and this article by Richard Reis.

Mathematicians can also make use of the classical text How to write mathematics by Paul R. Halmos. Another potentially very promising tool for mathematicians is Tricki (the wiki of  math tricks and techniques) whose aims and scope are discussed at the blogs of the Fields medalists Tim Gowers and Terence Tao, see e.g. here and here.

Update: some advice on dealing with the paper rejection can be found here.

Update 2: A very interesting story on turning potential competitors into collaborators is discussed here, here, here and here.  See also these two posts and these two discussions on the caveats of peer review and possible danger of scooping (with focus on the life sciences and physics), and this post on the catch 22 of publishing in the top journals.

Update 3: Google has recently produced a demo for a new online collaboration tool, Google Wave; see the post of Terence Tao for more details and a broader discussion of various collaboration tools at the Secret Blogging Seminar.


Academic Time Management

April 5, 2009

As usual, there is a great advice on the subject from Terence Tao. See also a paper in the Science Careers. The comments with further suggestions and links are welcome!

Another useful tip from the Lifelong Scholar’s blog: whenever you take a break, make you sure you have a specific task to do when you get back to work.

Update: there are many more resources on the academic productivity. To list a few,

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Advice for the (Would-Be) Graduate Students

March 28, 2009

A great collection of advice and links on the subject is here. For the (prospective) graduate students in mathematics, Terence Tao provides excellent advice here, and there is a whole new blog on the subject. As for the physics students, go here and here. See also my earlier posts, especially here and here. Some interesting material can be also found here and here.

Update (via ZapperZ blog): More advice from the Science Careers: here, here, and here.

Update 2: excellent advice for the graduate students in math is available at the Secret Blogging Seminar, here and here.

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How to Maximize Citations

March 23, 2009

I have just found some great advice on how to boost your citation count, i.e., get more citations for your publications (which may, as you well know, increase your visibility in the science world and your chances of getting tenure) . An interesting discussion of the so-called Matthew effect in science (to start, see the classical papers by Robert K. Merton here, here, and here) and its influence on the citation patterns can be found here.

Update: I also found some interesting tips on how to get your papers cited here and here.

As for the general advice on writing research papers, see excellent writing tips from the blog of Terence Tao.

Update 2: making your work available online (e.g. at the arXiv; see this post of Terence Tao for further details) can significantly increase its chances to be cited (but be careful with the copyright issues when making available the work you have already published).

Update 3: Also, quite obviously, publishing your paper in a high-impact journal may increase its chances of getting cited. But submitting your papers to the journals perceived as prestigious has plenty of caveats — see e.g. this post by Terence Tao and this post by Massimo.

Update 4: see this post about the citation trading at


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