Feb 15, 2015

Terence’s Stuff: Why do we do research?

This sound like a question best answered via a survey conducted by a body such as Vitae, an international program “dedicated to realising the potential of researchers through transforming their professional and career development.” But no, it is just based on my general experience.

I tell all who ask me about PhDs or a research career afterwards that I think their motives for wanting to do research are incredibly important. That they should only embark on a PhD, or on research later, if they really want to do it, after having thought hard. Talking to others is important, especially those who have gone before. Exactly what they should think or talk about varies, but relevant topics include their personality, values, skills and experience, learning style, and what they are good at, and like doing.

Why are motives so important? The PhD experience and later research will have lots of ups and downs. Over the years it will typically combine material poverty with intellectual wealth, depression with elation, fear with assurance, listlessness with industriousness, loneliness with collegiality, and much else. It will be a roller-coaster ride, with many challenges, and my point is this: motivation needs to be maintained throughout. Also needed are the opportunity and the means, but in my view these are secondary to motivation.

I try not to show it, but my heart sinks when people tell me they want to do a PhD or research afterwards in order that they can be a professor. I would much prefer that they began with something about their desire to make a difference by teaching statistics, or by contributing to another field of science through their statistical research. Barring that, I prefer to hear first that they love learning, that they want to learn more about our subject, or that they have a great curiosity about some aspect of it, a desire to get to the bottom of something, or that they get real pleasure from solving probability or statistics problems, or analyzing data. Terms I like to hear early on include thirst for, passionate about, excited by, burning desire to, or love of, though I’m willing to accept synonyms. Terms I am not so fond of hearing include secure, comfortable or respected, these usually being aspects of the life of a successful researcher, rather than of doing (or trying to do) research. Recently, someone told me she wanted to do research so that she could publish papers in top journals and become famous and respected.

Of course I’m not totally naïve. I’ve always liked the fable about the young person who set out to do good, and ended up not doing good but doing well. Good intentions don’t always lead to good outcomes. Also, am I not being hypocritical? Here I am (or there I was) having a nice life at home, frequently travelling, seeing the world, meeting interesting people and occasionally collaborating with them: the modern academic life. If I have it, why does my heart sink when I meet someone else who would like to have a similar life? Why indeed?

This leads to my next question: Are there identifiable relationships between our motives for doing research and our success at research? For example, will the person who wants to do a PhD as the first step towards an academic career, and is qualified but does not admit any thirst, passion, excitement, desire or love for any aspect of statistics, do as well as one of my equally well-qualified, excited passionistas? I think probably not. I think that they will find it harder to maintain their motivation, but I confess to having no hard evidence on this, and I may be wrong. Perhaps the people at Vitae know the answer, but if so, a subscription seems necessary to learn it.

Most of what I have mentioned so far relates to people going directly to a PhD after a standard undergraduate experience. There are three other categories of beginning researchers who tend to have better than average prospects of success. There are people who (a) gained research experience as undergrads, liked it and did well at it; (b) have researchers in their family; and (c) finished first degrees, went out and worked for a while, and decided to come back to learn how to do research, so that they could be in charge. People in categories (a) and (b) have good direct or indirect knowledge of what research is, especially the ups and downs, while those in category (c) have made a big sacrifice: that alone makes them highly motivated.

How did I start research? My professor suggested it. I took his advice, asked no questions, got a scholarship and started research. Three months later I was depressed, frightened, lonely and listless. No means, weak motive, full opportunity. I threw it in and took a teaching job at another university…



  • Terry,
    Sometimes, in my experience, young people are not very articulate (or knowledgeable) about their motivations, and only know by trying it out.
    Jay Kadane

  • Nice article. Another piece I like that is related, but different – about *building* motivation:

  • My 2 cents: I would never ever in a million years use words like “burning desire” or all that stuff you say in any kind of conversation. I (as current phd student who am glad that I have gone) have much more sympathy for the practical nature of the responses you disparage. A phd is not a purely mystical experience- I would say that many people sign up for grad school without thinking about it, but in general they are much closer to the “burning desire” end of the spectrum than to the “I want to pick up skills and get on a job track” end. Love of learning is necessary but not sufficient.

  • […] Bulletin 链接:http://bulletin.imstat.org/2015/02/terences-stuff-why-do-we-do-research/ 。2011年6月 以来的 IMS Bulletin […]

  • seemly do not clearly say about professors’ own research start…

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