Here is an observation that may both horrify and empower graduate students: it doesn’t get easier. Just over a decade ago when I finished my PhD, I figured that I was still on the steep part of the learning curve, and that mastering a few more tricks of the trade would have me churning out Ecology papers in my sleep. I’ve learned those tricks, and they have made me faster and helped me to avoid some dead-ends, but getting a first-authored paper written and accepted in a good journal, or putting together a winning proposal, still requires tremendous time, effort, and determination.
Perhaps I’m an outlier? It’s possible that I peaked early or that my development stalled, but I don’t think that I’m alone. Over the last few months I’ve been asking other researchers in my cohort about their experience and they generally agree with me. Sure, with a little seniority comes more collaborations and more publications, which look nice on a CV, but doing really good science is just as hard for us now as it was when we were graduate students. I have three explanations for why it doesn’t get any easier.
1. Making anything really good is hard
I remember hearing Ira Glass on This American Life say that raising anything above mediocrity requires “a tremendous force of will.” This applies to any field, art, literature, radio, sports, or science. Mediocrity is a powerful attractor: no one wants to do bad work, and often elevating bad to decent isn’t so hard. But the motivation to turn decent into excellent is more elusive and the challenge much more difficult. Doing something that no one else has done before requires creativity, persistence, and often some luck. There are no short cuts.
2. Fragmented time
If wisdom accumulates with experience, time dissipates. Some of the demands on my time are important and well-justified, like teaching and mentoring. Other demands aren’t so welcome (administrative minutia, committee meetings, annual reports). The net effect is a decrease in time available for research, and fragmentation of the time that remains. I think that I have gotten more efficient, but those gains are offset by the loss of those big chunks of time essential for creative thinking. And for reading, which brings me to the most important explanation.
3. All that matters is good ideas
I’ve written enough papers now to be amazed at how a few seem to write themselves while many feel like beating my head against a wall. The difference is simple: the rare papers that wrote themselves were about good ideas, the ones that were a struggle were about not-so-good ideas. The good ideas are novel and simple, easy to explain and to test and, ultimately, (relatively) easy to publish. The not-so-good ideas lead to constant re-framing of the original research question, re-analysis of the data, and re-submission and revision of the manuscript. By the time one of these papers makes it through the peer review mauling and into print it has chunks of rotting flesh falling off. So where do the good ideas come from and how can we make more of them? If only we really knew. But in my experience, and from my casual tracking of research on creativity, reading is the key. It’s as simple as that. I certainly don’t read nearly as much as I used to, despite the folder of reprints I carry with me to waiting rooms, airports, and family vacations. I still enjoy reading ecology, I just don’t have the time or the drive to do it in the same volume. So the steady trickle of good ideas slows to a drip. Hopefully a steady drip, into a super-efficient production system.
I’m interested to hear your point of view. If you have had your PhD for a decade or more, has doing good research gotten easier? If you are a student or recently finished your PhD, does this message strike you as empowering or depressing? Have I missed important explanations for why this game doesn’t get easier?