Thoughts about my Research Philosophy

Tags: research, musings

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Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the forces driving my own research. There have been quite a few enlightening conversations with my group members and collaborators like Mathieu, which gave me the opportunity to come with something that encapsulates my philosophy quite well. Here we go!

Broadly speaking, I care about developing methods. I always like to use the term toolsmith for myself, echoing a great coinage by the late Fred Brooks. This means that, foremost, I am interested in developing new methods, new tools, or new ways of looking at things. At the same time—and here is where I sometimes fail—this development should never go at the expense of utility. With utility, I do not mean that everything has to have a direct application:1 A method can provide utility by solving a problem more elegantly and with fewer assumptions, for instance. Ideally, a new tool should enable new insights. What I want to avoid is research along the lines of ‘solving somebody else’s problem using somebody else’s method.’ That is not to say that I want to ignore existing literature or insist on always rolling my own solution,2 but solving new things by myself is my overarching goal.

Like any human being, I am sometimes better and sometimes worse at following these goals. I still find that navigating research requires some wisdom and a lot of reflection. A quick litmus test I still apply quite often is to ask myself the question ‘Why am I doing this?’ In the beginning of my own Ph.D. research , I sometimes could only answer ‘Because I can.’ This flippant answer is not a good motivation, and I like to believe that I am more mature now. While not entirely representing everything I stand for, I find that the dictum ’theory without practice is empty’ nicely sums up a large part of my views.

  1. You might also enjoy my views on the utility of mathematicians, In which I presumptuously criticise Hardy’s opus↩︎

  2. I am aware of the not invented here bias↩︎