Wednesday, August 24, 2011
How To Choose a Good Scientific Problem
Uri Alon, How to choose a good scientific problem, Molecular Cell 35, 2009.
Abstract: Choosing good problems is essential for being a good scientist. But what is a good problem, and how do you choose one? The subject is not usually discussed explicitly within our profession. Scientists are expected to be smart enough to figure it out on their own and through the observation of their teachers. This lack of explicit discussion leaves a vacuum that can lead to approaches such as choosing problems that can give results that merit publication in valued journals, resulting in a job and tenure.
This paper gives several suggestions to both the students/post-docs and the mentors (especially those young assistant professors, who start to build their labs). Although the paper was written for people in the biology field, it is helpful to people in any fields.
There are several good suggestions for students and young professors. I pick up three of them:
(1) Thinking over a topic for enough time (e.g. 3 months) before starting to do it. Fully consider the feasibility and the interests of the topic.
(2) Listen to inner voice, not the voice of those who are around you or around the conferences. Namely, choose the topic that you are really interested in, not the one others are interested in.
(3) A research road is not a straight line from the beginning to the destination. There are many loops and circles (the author called it 'cloud') between your beginning and the destination (as shown in the figure). And most probably, your destination is not the original destination; you find another more interesting problem and start to solve it.