10

Doing research requires exploring a tree of different ideas and then, upon failures, tracking back to some extent, up to giving up on the whole project and changing topics (or even quitting your PhD). You might err on both sides: change approach too much, give up too early, or too late. (See for instance this answer or Half good and some not good results in a research paper?). Most importantly, though, often you won't know that you'll actually succeed until you did, and things might look bleak until then.

Does some degree of stubbornness help being a researcher (I couldn't extract an answer so easily from 2)? Lacking that, do you know any metaheuristics to approach this decision?

EDIT: I read this idea off the mention of "stubbornness and self-delusion" in this rant - and I've observed this trait in at least some researchers.

EDIT 2: an answer suggested that I talk about persistence instead. And probably that's the right compromise and what you actually should have. But I prefer the more provocative phrasing, also because I've anecdotical experiences of stubbornness as a "professional risk" of the profession.

  • 6
    It certainly helps me. – JeffE Oct 12 '13 at 1:21
  • Nowadays, even working in a dead-end job needs some degree of stubbornness. – user4511 Oct 12 '13 at 10:39
10

Although I understand what you are getting at, I would like to say that stubbornness is perhaps not a good trait for a scientist. My dictionary provides the following: Stubborn: Having or showing dogged determination not to change one's attitude or position on something, esp. in spite of good arguments or reasons.

Clearly a scientist needs doggedness and stamina to endure long and hard experiments, field work, often monotonous work on data and theory, as well as other issues met in the workplace. To be able to change footing in light of new evidence is, however, an important trait. So being stubborn, in the sense of the definition, would be very counter productive in our effort to have science progress. Persistence and perseverance are perhaps synonyms that better reflect the traits you aim for.

So, yes it is important to be able to endure. Being a scientist is usually based on a deep appreciation for the subject and the research, which is why it is possible to endure the pressures that exist. It is a bit like being a top athlete, very few will excel without a deep love for what they do. As soon as you lose the drive it is difficult to continue because of the demands. Maintaining the drive is therefore a very important aspect of academia and the workplace in which you act.

  • You're right, "stubbornness" might be too provocative. That's why I emphasized that you can change tactics too early or too late. – Blaisorblade Oct 12 '13 at 13:14
  • I've revised a bit the question, though not exactly in the way you suggest (although I agree with your conclusion). Overall, stubbornness helps to avoid changing (too much) your position because of seemingly good arguments. But probably, it's enough to not lose confidence (whichever way you manage) and simply analyze the arguments. – Blaisorblade Oct 12 '13 at 13:25
  • ✓ determination. ✓ skepticism. ✗ stubbornness. – Trylks Oct 12 '13 at 21:04
4

Yes, you've got to be stubborn in order to get results, because everyone encounters failures and roadblocks. Giving up too early can withhold good results, but aimlessly slogging towards a dead end can be a waste of time.

I only give up on something when I can justify why I should give up.

  1. Identify the cause of the difficulty.
  2. Find out what you need to do to solve the roadblock.
  3. Assess whether it is feasible to solve the problem with the available time and resources.

Most failures are still useful to you, because you can usually find out why those ideas did not work. Learn from your mistakes, and (if appropriate) publish why a method did not work as expected (as a prelude to a subsequent method that did) so that others can learn as well.

2

As @Peter Jansson makes clear in his answer, stubbornness may not be a good quality to have, but tenacity and perseverance certainly are. See this post by Matt Might for an insightful look at why PhD students need persistence and tenacity in order to survive and thrive in what can be an exercise in long-term frustration and failure before reaching success.

  • 2
    Thanks for the great link, I'm perusing Matt Might's blog now. – Blaisorblade Oct 13 '13 at 19:58

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