Bravery in Research

Nathan Schneider
Jun 9, 2018 · 3 min read
“If I only had the nerve…to do research!”

This post was inspired by Charles Sutton’s commentary on the toll that comes from being emotionally invested in our research, allowing our scientific successes and failures to influence our sense of self-worth. It also relates to the much-discussed topic of imposter syndrome.

As has been noted, being a researcher means living with the fear of not being good enough. Even if I’ve been successful so far, there’s always the possibility that I’ll run out of ideas, waste time on dead ends, or fail the next milestone of my career. Or the research community may simply stop caring about the things that interest me.

When faced with nagging doubts, I try to answer my inner critic by flipping the framing: research requires bravery, I tell myself, so to the extent that I am still a researcher, I am brave.

Brave. This is not a word we hear very much at conferences, is it? We usually say “so-and-so is such a great researcher, look at this amazing paper they published” instead of “so-and-so was brave to turn down a lucrative job offer to pursue a Ph.D.” or “so-and-so was brave to work on such a challenging problem.”

Yet being a scientist or scholar takes guts. You have to first confront your ignorance on some question, then establish that the ignorance is universal. And you have to be willing to risk exploring new ideas that may go nowhere or may be ignored.

In other words, doing research amounts to saying: “I believe that I can discover things that NOBODY IN HISTORY has before, AND these discoveries will be exciting enough that experts who are trained to be skeptical will pay attention.”

Obviously, one’s ability to say this with confidence develops over time. As a novice, when the ideas themselves are not yet in focus, you have to trust that your interests, training, unique experience, creativity, and dedication will, by some alchemy, produce research gold.

And once you’ve gained some expertise in your field, you realize how many other clever people are working on the same problems, and will surely solve them before you can. (After 8 years of publishing papers, it still feels like I have conjured a magic trick whenever a colleague says nice things about my work.) Maybe this is why I love teaming up with others on projects: the journey into the unknown feels less intimidating when I have brilliant collaborators at my side.

Being smart and talented and hard-working is no guarantee for success in research — a certain amount of luck is required, too. But if you have an intellectual itch to scratch, I hope you can find within yourself the courage to follow the yellow-brick road of discovery.


Addendum, Jul 24 2019: The excellent essay “Technology and Courage” by Ivan Sutherland touches on a similar theme. Thanks to Vivek Srikumar for the pointer.

Nathan Schneider

Written by

Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Computer Science, Georgetown University ▪ http://nathan.cl

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