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A while ago I got a job as a theoretical interdisciplinary modeler in a purely experimental lab of a different field from my own. It was an experiment for the lab and a big change for myself. It was risky for both, but also potentially a great opportunity.

Unfortunately I ended up feeling professionally isolated. Most people here know little math, some very little. There isn't anyone I can discuss the details of my work with, only the "big picture" and results. It turns out that I am the kind of person for whom discussions and interaction is essential. Without them my thought seem to gradually slow down and stop. When trying to solve a mathematical problem, I find myself unable to see obvious things and can barely make any progress. Yet when I get the opportunity to discuss it with others, suddenly everything becomes obvious. It's often not even necessary to get feedback from someone, it's sufficient to explain what I am doing, to put it into clear terms, and the solution just pops out.

The big question: How can I work efficiently and maintain my creativity and productivity when working in isolation?

I have tried several things. I tried to maintain contact with former colleagues through VOIP, though this is not too practical. Then I noticed that sometimes it is sufficient to just think about how to explain a question to someone, and the solution comes to me before even calling them. Purely imaginary discussions help too. I think this is where the solution to my difficulties should lie, but after realizing this, I am still struggling. I also tried writing down the problem to force myself to articulate it better, but this turned out to be ineffective and extremely time consuming.

Has anyone else encountered similar difficulties? Is it a common problem? There are famous scientists like Ramanujan who are said to have worked as hermits and still made great leaps. I imagine that what works best differs from individual to individual. I suspect that I am particularly susceptible to grinding to a halt once I find myself in isolation, despite being an introvert. But I do believe that there should be a way to improve the situation.

I have already decided that in the future I must avoid such situations. But until then I must find a way to be more productive while working alone.

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    Is there a different job someplace else you would like better? A friend who was a therapist (not mine :) once remarked to me that people tend to avoid making changes until the pain of staying where they are is worse than the pain of changing. Could this be one of those times? – Nicole Hamilton Sep 12 '16 at 19:32
  • Why was writing down ineffective? I am surprised since keeping a research journal is, in my experience, essential not only for self-articulation but also for long-term preservation of ideas. – Boris Bukh Sep 12 '16 at 20:49
  • @BorisBukh Partly because it takes too much time, partly because I have the difficulty with writing itself (although to a smaller extent). I fully agree that writing is essential, but I prefer to do it only when I have already found a solution to a (sub)problem, not while trying to solve it. After trying to substitute writing for discussion, I ended up writing much more and throwing much of it away (replacing with something better in the end). – Hermit Sep 12 '16 at 21:38
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    "Then I noticed that sometimes it is sufficient to just think about how to explain a question to someone, and the solution comes to me before even calling them." Among software developers, that's often called rubber duck debugging: "Many programmers have had the experience of explaining a programming problem to someone else, possibly even to someone who knows nothing about programming, and then hitting upon the solution in the process of explaining the problem." – Joshua Taylor Sep 12 '16 at 22:09
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    @JoshuaTaylor You should make an answer. Rubber duck debugging was the very first thing that came to my mind as well. There are so many cool rubber ducks out there, everybody can find such a little buddy that sits on the desk. – Johannes_B Sep 13 '16 at 7:53
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I was in a pretty similar situation, so I can sympathize. Although, personally I found it less critical for me to have these interactions. Don't get me wrong - it was not easy to work this way, but I saw it as an opportunity/challenge to develop my independence as a researcher.

However, I was able to get some ideas and interactions in the following ways:

  1. Presenting my work at various forums - any size, from group/lab meetings to seminars and conferences.
  2. By establishing a collaboration/semi-collaboration with relevant people at a different institution.
  3. In terms of ideas - sometimes just reading a lot of literature helped (but this can be field-dependent).
  4. By interacting with the "mathematically unskilled" people at my lab - might sound surprising, but sometimes you just need someone to interact with and ask basic questions even if they are not knowledgeable.

Personally I also found that I don't need these interactions to be very frequent, sometimes it is enough to interact, get a seed of an idea, and then go work on it for a month on my own.

Good luck, for me it worked out very well in the end and I can say I developed significantly as a scientist, and both sides benefited.

One more piece of advice - while you are dealing with the math, don't forget to keep in close contact with the experimentalists so you don't drift away trying to solve some problem which is not relevant.

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    (+1) for point 4. I found this indeed useful throughout the academic life. – Ébe Isaac Sep 12 '16 at 19:41
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Similar problems have been discussed before in the following Stack Exchange sites.

These posts ought to be able to provide you with suggestions that would assist you to help yourself through this situation. But none of which could be a black and white solution for the problem. It depends on the individual.

From your description, you share qualities of both an introvert and that of an extrovert. It seems like you could be more of an ambivert (as I am). I was in a similar condition before during my first semester of research -- research in total isolation, being the only human in the room, but never complained. In such situations, you ought to understand to what extent you could control your environment and make it suitable for your purpose. Whenever a little extroversion was needed, I just meet my peers and then get back to work. It did take a little practice. My supervisor was also of great support as I frequently report my progress too. I'm in a more of an extrovert's environment now and still making progress at the same comfortable rate.

Sometimes the constraints that you are put through could make you better. Take the change of environment positively and make do with what you have.

Hope this helps, all the best.

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You mentioned one thing about part of the social process involved that particularly stood out:

Then I noticed that sometimes it is sufficient to just think about how to explain a question to someone, and the solution comes to me before even calling them.

Among software developers, that's often called rubber duck debugging:

Many programmers have had the experience of explaining a programming problem to someone else, possibly even to someone who knows nothing about programming, and then hitting upon the solution in the process of explaining the problem.

Rubber duck debugging doesn't address all the issues that you've described. I've solved plenty of problems with rubber duck debugging, but I haven't had the same kind of inspiration and collaboration with a rubber duck on my desk that I've had with colleagues at a whiteboard, so this isn't a complete solution, but it's definitely part of the "working remotely" or "working in isolation" picture.

  • Thank you. On TeX.SE we like ducks. Feel free to join chat some day. :-) – Johannes_B Sep 13 '16 at 20:08
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I'm in a very similar situation myself. I work as a software engineer in a non-software company, and so there is almost no one with the knowledge/skills to solve the types of problems I run into. I too find that talking out problems helps me immensely, even when the person I'm talking to has no idea what I'm going on about. It's hard to be on your own, so don't feel bad about struggling with it! There are a few strategies that have worked for me, though.

If I just need a minute or two to chat about it at a high level, I'll go to the break room and catch somebody refilling their coffee or heating up their lunch. I'll ask them what they've been working on, and their response will let me know how receptive they are to chatting. Usually they will reciprocate and ask me the same, which gives me an opportunity to work out the problem verbally. Most people will be happy to do this if you open by asking about their work first. If you randomly approach people and start jabbering about stuff they don't understand, then they're going to feel that their time is being wasted.

If I need to talk more in-depth, then I save it for after I get off work. I'll generally use my husband as a sounding board, but friends work just as well. You could even go to a bar and chat up random strangers if you are comfortable with that. Again, ask people about themselves first,0 and they are generally happy to converse about anything!

If you use the above two strategies for when you just need someone (anyone) to listen, then you can save your expert contacts for when you are truly stuck and need their expertise to get you unstuck. This will allow you to grow your work relationships, not waste anyone's time, and get the type of help you need when you need it.

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Maybe you can find one of your new coworkers is interested in your work. Even if they don't know the high-level math, they might understand or at least be interested in the process, the outcomes, or just be looking for conversation.

Maybe some or one of the people who don't know the math just don't remember or are into that level or type. E.g. an Engineer (or any STEM person) may have done 40 hours of Calc and higher, 20 years ago, and wouldn't know how to do some, but would be happy to talk about it in words.

You can also post questions to stackexchange. Just formulating the question might help as you stated.

What about your supervisor? Maybe talk to them.

Maybe hire another person in the lab.

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I'm not quite in the same situation myself, but I sympathize - I travel enough that I often find myself similarly isolated. You said that sometimes just explaining your ideas clearly does the trick, without needing actual feedback - I'm exactly the same way. What I've found works surprisingly well is talking to a friend who's completely outside the field. Since she's a layperson as far as the material I work on is concerned, neither of us expect her to actually understand what I'm talking about - but an interested expression and a couple of nods go a long way. It's immensely helpful to just get the opportunity to organize my thoughts verbally like that. Also, occasionally she'll ask a question - nothing deep, but almost always something I never would have thought to ask myself. Things like "Is that related to this other thing you were talking about earlier?" Questions like that are really good for pushing me out of whatever rut I'm stuck in lately.

Also, going to conferences and talks is helpful. I'm in mathematics, not physics, so I'm not sure how this works in your field; but math conferences happen all the time, all over the place, so it's easy to find one to go to. Even if you're not presenting, the environment does wonders.

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