In the previous posts, I discussed (or tried to discuss) how one goes about selecting a research problem. Having selected a research problem, one must work on it. “Working on a problem” has a specific flavour to it that I’ll come to in the next post. As warm-up, I’ll ponder about the kind of responsibilities a researcher has and how he/she seeks to fulfil them. My pondering here is largely uninformed, considering that I am still a B.Sc. student, and I welcome feedback from others on how things really are.
When I first entered CMI, I was quite astounded to see the extent to which mundane administrative and procedural responsibilities tended to consume the time and energy even for full-time researchers. When I saw people in other jobs working every day from early morning to late night, I wondered: what kind of a distracted life do people in the research world live, working only Mondays to Fridays, that too, often having to do a number of last-minute things that don’t directly pertain to their research responsibilities? Indeed, in my very first post, I had said: “Fun and inactivity accompany us wherever we go, but it’s the serious work we do in between that counts” to indicate that much of research is, at least apparently, inactivity (as far as research output is concerned). In this post, I plan to explore the reasons for this and what can possibly be done about it.
I begin with the distinction between primary responsibility, secondary responsibility, and others.
(i) A primary responsibility of a person in a role is a responsibility directly linked with the that role, such that the better the responsibility is fulfilled, the better. For instance, the primary responsibility of a person in his/her role as a parent is to support and take care of the child and help him/her grow. The primary responsibility of a student is to study and acquire mastery over the subject. The primary responsibility of a person as a waiter is to serve customers effectively.
The more effectively a person fulfils his/her primary responsibilities, the better. Thus, primary responsibilities are the areas where one needs to strive towards excellence.
(ii) A secondary responsibility of a person in a role is a responsibility that is needed or desirable for better fulfilment of primary responsibilities, but is not a goal in itself. For a parent, the primary responsibility of feeding the child may translate to the secondary responsibility of cooking a certain kind of meal everyday. For a person living in “clean” society, wearing clean clothes everyday is a primary responsibility, but washing them is a secondary responsibility. It is my primary responsibility is to get into a good university to study mathematics, it is my secondary responsibility to perform well on the GRE and TOEFL.
A person may exempt him/herself from a secondary responsibility by seeking another way to fulfil a primary responsibility. The parent may, instead of cooking the meal, decide to hire a cook. A person may, instead of washing his/her clothes, give them to the laundry or use a washing machine. I may on deliberation realize that preparing for the GRE and TOEFL is not so critical to admissions if I instead concentrate more on my grade point average.
Now, some questions:
(i) Do people often confuse between primary responsibilities and secondary responsibilities? How often do we take up relatively inessential tasks and treat them as primary responsibilities? How often do we ignore our most important and long-ranging objectives?
(ii) Does every job define a primary responsibility or is the primary responsibility determined more by the individual? For instance, do all mathematics researchers have the same primary responsibilities as researchers? Do all parents have the same primary responsibilities as parents? Do all school teachers have the same primary responsibilities as teachers?
(iii) What are the primary responsibilities of researchers, and more specifically, of mathematics researchers? What are the secondary responsibilities?
In this post, I try to explore (iii). Here are the usual responsibilities of a “mathematics researcher”:
(i) Working on (a) problems (b) theory building, both individually and collaboratively
(ii) Helping others work on their problems, by acting as a sounding board
(iii) Reading, learning and attending seminars in order to keep track of latest developments in the field and related fields
(iv) Guiding younger students at various levels
I believe that these are all “primary responsibilities” of the researcher, though the mix between them varies with the researcher’s seniority. For instance, a Ph.D. student may be expected to concentrate largely on (i)(a) and (iii) and possibly a bit on (ii) and (iv). A senior researcher may be expected to concentrate on (i)(b), (ii) and (iv). Nonetheless, everybody has some responsibilities of each kind.
Let’s examine more closely the life of a Ph.D. student. The primary responsibility of a research student is to work on his/her research problem, and also to learn/pick up skills. This may translate to any number of secondary responsibilities: meeting the advisor, preparing write-ups on portions of the research material, giving presentations to others, going for conferences, attending lectures, doing lecture assignments, discussing the problems on online fora.
A Ph.D. student affiliated to a college also has responsibilities to the college: responsibilities to participate in college events, to uphold the college name, to promote awareness of the college.
A Ph.D. student who is part of a regional community within a college has responsibilities towards that community as well.
(i) What is the balance between primary and secondary responsibilities for the Ph.D. student?
(ii) Does the student wake up in the morning and say: “Hey! I’m moving closer towards my primary goals and fulfiling my primary responsibilities” or does he/she say every morning: “I have to do such-and-such for this secondary responsibility, such-and-such for this secondary responsibility….”
I’d like people actively doing research to post comments on what they perceive as their primary and secondary responsibilities, and how they manage to stay focussed on primary responsibilities while also taking out time for secondary responsibilities.