3

I am looking to apply for research programmes after I complete my undergraduate degree. While I thoroughly enjoy research, I'm worried about whether this is the best field for me to pursue.

What qualities would one say are necessary to become a researcher - which of these are innate and which can be learned?

What are the things one should know about a career in academia?

  • 3
    You will not make a ton of money in general compared to standard jobs that will bring in a lot more revenue. At the same time a higher competence and creativity will be required than in standard industry jobs. If you are lucky, you will get to work in a field, and on a topic that you enjoy. On the negative side, sooner or later you will learn of the politics in science, and on various occasions you may get your results stolen. If you do too well, you have to be careful - the people above you may feel their positions threatened. Source: my parents', and later on my anecdotal experience. – lightxbulb Oct 4 '19 at 15:24
  • 2
    The academic job market is extremely tight and most tenure track job offers get hundreds of applicants (at least in my field, math). Many undergrads envision their future lives as academics as being pretty similar to that of their profs. The truth is that many people don't wind up at places nearly as cushy / prestigious / etc as their undergraduate institutions and will spend more time teaching and less time doing research than did their undergrad profs. Similarly, good jobs are scarce enough that most people have to be extremely flexible about where they're willing to live geographically. – user109454 Oct 4 '19 at 16:03
  • 2
    I think this question is far too broad to get good answers. – JeffE Oct 4 '19 at 18:29
  • Persistence and dedicatedness... – Poidah Oct 4 '19 at 21:38
  • All of this is helpful, thank you so much! – tacendus Oct 5 '19 at 7:32
4

Required is a very strong word. There are a wide variety of people in academia, generally believed to be a good thing.

But some things are valued and more useful:

A love of ideas is usually preeminent. If you don't value ideas over money or status or material things, then you would probably be frustrated in academia.

An ability to think long term, rather than short. This is especially true in research fields, where results may take a long time to mature, or even to originate. Likewise a minimal, at least, tolerance for frustration when things don't go as planned in a research program.

Some minimal comfort in dealing with people in a cooperative way. Some, of course, can do without this, but collaboration is pretty highly valued today. But those with conditions such as autism can also do well, provided that they can learn to work with others effectively, even if not comfortably.

A work ethic that you can sustain. Reading, Reading, Reading. Making notes. Discussions with colleagues about ill-formed ideas. Long hours. Irregular hours. Dealing with interruptions.

Speaking ability is a big plus, and for many it needs to be learned as it may not come naturally. Along with it is an ability to organize ideas so that others can grasp what we want to convey.

Sensitivity for the fact that others, especially students, probably aren't like you and don't learn in the same way that you do. Undergraduate students, especially, are often less engaged and especially less engaged in the ideas you feel are most important. So, patience.

An ability to accept setbacks without losing hope or direction. Research often doesn't pan out. If it always did, it wouldn't be research. And then flexibility in finding new ways to truth when the ones you tried are failing.

In many fields, an ability to value nuance and the fact that others hold contrary opinions just as strongly as you do and the fact that the truth may fall outside your strongly held opinions. This is less needed, of course, in fields like mathematics where the standards of truth are clear. Philosophy, Literary Criticism, ... Nuance rules.

(Stopping for now. Some other ideas may induce me to extend this.)

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    "Even" in mathematics, tastes about "what is good mathematics" vary wildly and violently... – paul garrett Oct 4 '19 at 17:23
  • @paulgarrett, I thought about that, actually. What is "best" to study can elicit strong arguments. But I was limiting my answer to the standards of truth. – Buffy Oct 4 '19 at 17:44
  • "Even" in mathematics, "standards of (convincing) truth" vary wildly and violently. – JeffE Oct 4 '19 at 18:30
  • 1
    Hmmm, you and @paulgarrett run in a rougher crowd that I ever did. – Buffy Oct 4 '19 at 19:13

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.