Do what you think is fun
Ahmed Ali-Eldin, HLF15 participant. This week, I am in Heidelberg, a lovely city in Germany, home to the oldest University in Germany, and the fifth oldest in Europe. I have been one of a few lucky young researchers selected to attend the Heidelberg Laureate Forum, a one of a kind event which I encourage all young researchers to apply to in the coming years.
Today I had the chance to talk to two very inspiring and pioneering computer scientists, Turing Award winner Leslie Lamport and Turing award winner Ivan Sutherland. Leslie is known to be the pioneer of distributed systems, while Ivan is known to be one of the pioneers of computer graphics. Both are legends and have inspired and created the world as we know today. I asked both of them roughly the same question, how should a young researcher pick a research problem?
Both answers were very similar. Leslie said that you should pick a problem that is fun to solve. If you end up successful, then you will have gained both success and having fun. If you fail, then you will still have the fun. Ivan told us that he never cared if the problem was important, but rather if it was interesting. He said that as a researcher, you should go in a direction different from where everyone is going. He gave some examples of things that people claimed to be the “next big thing” during his life, but have just died. He said “I was there when electrostatic memory was the next big thing” :). He gave other examples of things very popular now which he does not believe in.
This is a very interesting perspective, quite different from the ones I as a young researcher got from my discussions with, e.g., people in some industries. As a young researcher, one is tempted to go in directions where everyone is going because after all, this is where all the money and the grants are. Many available funding schemes do not encourage this kind of “go where no one else is going” research or “do what you think is fun”. I understand that funding agencies can not start funding “go where no one else is going” research projects until a researcher is well established in his field since after all, this is tax-payers money. A young scientist is then torn between doing things where his passion really is versus things that will end rapidly published and/or funded.
This catch-22 situation can be demoralizing and at times depressing. There are no clear solutions, but one temporary solution that I can see is to make sure that young researchers. specially those doing a Postdoc, can get some time where they work on their own projects besides their mentor’s projects. This will allow them to benefit a lot from learning from their mentor while also “having fun”.
For more on the state of young researchers in CS:
2- Jones, Anita. “The explosive growth of postdocs in computer science.” Communications of the ACM 56.2 (2013): 37-39.
This blog posts originates from Ahmed’s own blog.
Ahmed Ali-Eldin is a last year CS PhD student (defending in 5 weeks) at Umeå university, Sweden. He is interested in the question of how to make young researchers more efficient and how to increase the impact of research funding. When he is not in his full time job of being a father, he does research on automating datacenter management systems, workload analysis and server modeling, mostly using control theory and probability theory.