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What does it mean to be a researcher?

I got a question via the anonymous suggestions box on the CCA portal asking what does it mean to be a researcher. I put this question to the CCA staff. Their responses are below along with the wording of the question I sent them.

The question: “How many working hours are necessary for a Mathematics PhD student to achieve excellence in their field? I found that I am struggling a lot with finding the right balance in my own work. I have the impression that working 9-5 is not enough but working too much can also destroy my creativity and motivation. Maybe [CCA staff] could post some ideas about this since I assume they have a lot of experience from their own careers and also from supervising PhD students. Obviously there is no general answer to this question but I think that some guidelines or just some remarks might be helpful for many CCA students.

Comment 1

And how long is a piece of string?

Seriously… Here is what I suggest.

[The question] ‘how many working hours are necessary for a Mathematics PhD student to achieve excellence in their field’ has no answer.

30 mins a day for some, while for others even 24 hours a day aren't enough. Quality, not quantity, is what matters – as long as there is plenty of it! However, my general guideline is:

  • If you are working less than six hours a day, five days a week, and yet manage to produce the right stream of "product", then probably you aren't working on sufficiently hard stuff.
  • If occasionally you don't think about your mathematical problems while in the shower/in bed/in a queue then you don't think about them hard enough.
  • If you are working 14-hours' days, no weekend, and still don't get the stuff done then either you are working on a problem which is way too hard or you should seek alternative employment.
  • If you can't stop thinking about mathematics ever, if it obsesses you during all your waking hours… Seek professional help. ("Professional" like in "psychiatry", not like in "algebraic geometry".)
  • Maths is a most wonderful experience but it is not the only wonderful experience for a rounded individual. Get life once in a while.

Comment 2

For me, it does not work 9-5. It is not a matter of the total amount of time.

I have to get totally into a problem, so it is always on my mind, fail a few times to solve it, then perhaps the solution dawns on me. Even the polishing up phase needs some obsession to have everything in mind at he same time, see the whole picture.

Maths is too hard, and success too rarely achieved, to give up just because it's 5pm.

On the other hand, taking some time off, going somewhere new, just talking to someone without any clear intent to work -- these are all effective in solving problems and, since pleasant in themselves, they compensate for the demanding nature of research at other times.

Comment 3

I am not sure it is possible to give a clear answer to this question. Research is a job which is very hard to "regulate" through normal schedules like 9-5. It goes through uneven periods with more or loss work, and it is based on passion rather than regulation. But certainly to achieve excellence a researcher has to work much more than 9-5 at least during some "peak" periods...

Comment 4

I think that the questions posed by one of our student is a very good one and warrants some answer. I have tried my best to relate my experience in the matter and the result is the following. I hope it is coherent enough, but would be happy to hear any remark.

I think the question presented here, about how many hours are necessary to achieve excellence in a field for a Ph.D candidate, is an excellent question, one that probably occupies a lot of the students. Let me start by saying that the answer to this question is exceptionally individual, each of us will have his/hers own method of optimisation. Instead of giving a definite guideline here, I would rather share my own experience and opinion about an efficient research programme.

As a Ph.D student, I often felt stressed about research (I don't think you can really avoid that!), and had a overwhelming feeling of guilt - the guilt associated with the feeling that I didn't read enough, didn't think enough, didn't ask enough. While I find these feelings very natural, I think that it is less than conductive to research, and to your general well being. Here are a few things I changed after my Ph.D was completed that help me research better today (I hope):

  1. To begin with you need to understand that your brain needs some rest from work too. I find that a separation of 'work time' and 'home/relaxation time' is very beneficial to smooth research. My way of doing it is the following: I work in the office from 9 to 5, and then when I am home I am home and don't do maths (well, try not too).
  2. Some days, even weeks, our mind might rebel and feel a bit… well, dense. At least mine does. What I think is important to understand is that it's ok for it to happen. Stressing about it won't make your mind suddenly alert and open to new ideas. Some days it's easier to potter about online, so that the next day will be productive.
  3. In order that mind numbness won't attack too often, I feel that sometimes, when reading becomes slower and computations become messy, you need to stop for a while and take a few minutes off. I always find that walking helps me sort things out - consciously or subconsciously. The fact that the town is so near to the department is a big bonus. Walking to do a small errand, or just to one of the pieces, might prove a fantastic way to unravel some mistake.
  4. Read. Read a lot. Even if you don't understand during the first try, some ideas will stick in your mind. The more you read, the more techniques you see, and possibly will employ later. The more you read the more experience you gain which means that when facing a question you will have some inkling, wrong as it may be, to what can be done. That inkling can be the difference between a widely cited paper, and a dead end. I am sure there are more things to do, but I think this answer is long enough as it is. As I said, it comes from my own personal experience and mostly pertains to it, so it may not reflect what you feel.