Labor of Love

New blog, first post, beginnings can be so exhilarating! But it also means another commitment and more work. So, why do it? The normative answer seems clear: Science is to a large extent about communication. Writing a blog can be conducive to research just like writing a paper, giving a talk or teaching a class. But is it only for the sake of science? How about fun? How about plain ego? I have been inspecting my motivations as a scientist throughout the years and my first blog post (especially on Valentine’s day) seems like a good place to share some of those thoughts (not to worry, more technical posts will follow).

I mentioned several motivations for what we do, but after all research is also our job, so how about money? As a graduate student I used to test my commitment to research by asking “would I continue doing the same if I win the lottery?” At the start, I answered with a naïve and resounding YES. This attitude kept me in school during those happy .com days. But over the years, the answer cycled between `yes’ and `maybe’ and `probably no’ (and was correlated with various other changes in my life).

If getting paid is not the main motivation, to what extent are we here mainly for fun? It reminds me that as a grad student I had a streak of (modest) results that turned out to be already known. I surprised myself by not being too upset about it. I guess that knowing I am able to produce ideas that were publishable was already very reassuring. I also enjoyed the joy of creativity and discovery. But still, I would undoubtedly not have knowingly worked on problems that were already solved …

In that case, perhaps we are here to get some well-earned hand clapping (figurative and literal).  If this is the case, we are probably in the wrong occupation. Though our community is extremely supportive, the ratio is quite low between effort and those brief moments under its very modest spot light. This is, by the way, one of the reasons I always preferred collaborating over working by myself. Who else will share your excitement over some local breakthrough (which is quite likely to turn up false the next day)? Perhaps of course the real audience we would like to impress is ourselves. Perhaps we are trying to prove to ourselves that we are the success we always hoped to be or the failures we always feared we were.

Each one of us has his/her own motivation. I personally find myself more and more drawn to the human connections (perhaps in a next life I’ll be a social worker). I cherish so many relationships and experiences with my colleagues, my mentors, and of course my mentees and students. No matter what my original motivation was, noble, wise or childish, I usually feel very lucky to have chosen this path. I hope that starting a blog would also survive the test of time. And for some reason, at this very moment, the voice of Billie Holiday is playing in my head: “ … nice work if you can get it. And you can get it — if you try.”

12 thoughts on “Labor of Love

  1. “As a graduate student I used to test my commitment to research by asking “would I continue doing the same if I win the lottery?” ”

    It’s funny that this is the test of your commitment. My test would be “would I continue doing the same if I were unemployed, i.e. wasn’t paid for doing theory or wasn’t being paid at all?” So far, the answer has been yes.

    1. Good for you! If your comment suggests that you are currently unemployed, then I wish you would find somebody to pay for your passion, and that this admirable level of commitment will stick with you for a long, long time.

    2. I think Omer’s original question is more human, whereas the alternative seems tailored for saints. What people may do under harsh conditions (e.g., of unemployment) may serve as indication to their deep moral commitments, but may not shed light on the life choices that are the subject of this post. I read Omer’s question as asking “are you truly interested in the contents of TOC and/or in the process of doing research in it”? The test that he suggests seems adequate for that. The alternative test of unemployment (or other forms of torture) goes far beyond that question.

  2. Congrats on your new blog!

    My reason for being a researcher, among others, is that I think it is important. I.e., it is not about the fun (actually, I don’t think being a researcher is fun at all), but a matter of value.

    1. Many thanks!

      It’s an important perspective that you are adding, which is unfortunately missing from my post. I do believe that the research community as a whole is extremely important. But how significant and long lasting is the impact of any of us on science, computer science or even just on theory? On a day to day basis, I do try to work on problems that are relevant and have potential for impact (even more so now than in the past). But this is not my only consideration (enjoyment and esthetics play a major role for me too). And perhaps my work would have been more important in a different research field altogether. Perhaps I could have done more good as a social worker, an elementary school teacher, a writer, a firefighter, or some other profession. Could it be that selecting a profession that you enjoy and are passionate about is a good way to have impact?

  3. I am in research because I love to learn/read and be around books. It can then be argued that a librarian, in all probability, would have been a better profession. But then again a librarian does not add to the growth of knowledge which is contained in the books he/she herds. So, that seems to be be my main motivation for taking up research.

    But if I had not been paid, would I do it ? Probably, not and the job of a librarian would have been infinitely more inviting.

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