I'd like to continue my new series in response to Matt DeStefano's recent plea for more autobiography with another post on research. In today's post, I'd like to share some tips on research that I've found useful. Some of them are tips I was given by very successful people; others I just sort of happened upon myself. Here they are:
1. Habits that foster a positive daily attitude and emotional well-being are of paramount importance.
I've found over a long period of time that the quantity and quality of my research output depend a great deal on how I'm doing emotionally. It's easy to do research, and to be motivated to work hard to do it well, if you wake up in the morning feeling good and positive about it. On the flip-side, if you feel terrible about yourself, and getting up out of bed to work on research seems like a terrible chore, you're likely to sit in front of your computer all day getting nothing done, panicking about what a poor philosopher you are. But how, you ask, does one cultivate a positive attitude? This brings me to my next several tips...
2. Write first thing in the morning, without any form of self-censorship, setting a firm 3-5 page requirment for yourself, which you assiduously keep to and do not go over.
I got this one from a free book on finishing a dissertation that I received in the mail when I was a graduate student. It is perhaps the single most important set of tips I've ever received, and every person I've passed them on to has reported excellent results as well. The argument given in the book for this set of practices was simple: they generate a positive daily attitude. The thought is: these tips ensure that you move forward a little bit every single day. After all, every day you can look back and say to yourself, "I wrote 3-5 pages today." What you write won't always be good, but every day you can feel productive -- and, often, you'll surprise yourself with some pretty decent stuff. When this happens, you'll wake up the next day "chomping at the bit" to do research. You'll be excited, and your excitement will carry over into your day's work. A few important points:
- Write first thing in the morning: before I received the book in question, I was a late-afternoon/evening worker. Writing first thing in the morning, though, has a number of benefits. First, your head will be relatively clear: you won't be stressing over stuff you've just read in a journal article (because you haven't just read anything; more on this momentarily). Second, even if you're not a morning person (I'm not), research has shown that people are actually the most creative when they're tired. Third, once you get done with your writing in the morning, you can move on to other things (reading, etc.) with a good attitude, feeling as though you've been productive in the morning.
- Set a reasonable, 3-5 page daily requirement, never deviate: in particular, don't go over your page limit. You may be tempted to continue writing if you're on a roll. But don't do it. The 3-5 page daily writing requirment exists in large part to ensure that you don't exhaust yourself, so that you wake up tomorrow just excited to write as you are today. Trust me, even if you're on a roll, you'll remember tomorrow what you wanted to write today. Stick to your page limit and don't go over.
- Don't edit/self-censor: this is probably one of the most important things I've learned too. When I was in graduate school, I literally spent days on paragraphs or particular pages. The practice of writing without self-censorship helps make you far more efficient. A lot of what you write will be garbage -- but still, don't edit. You can go back and clean up later on. Further, over time, you'll become a better, more efficient writer by practicing efficiency. For instance, whereas I used to spend days, even weeks, on particular pages of papers, trying to get everything right, now I surprise myself how quickly and cleanly I can get things out of my brain and onto paper (it often takes me just a week or so now to write a full paper draft).
3. Give yourself a couple hours a day of "alone time" outside away from the computer if you can.
I teach all day on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so those days are out. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays though, I spend approximately the hours from 4-6pm out with my dog. I jog with him to the dog park, throw the ball for him, then go on another jog with him, all with my headphones on. You might think this is terribly unproductive (think of all the work I could be getting done!). But actually, it's very productive. I used to spend hours in front of my computer trying to figure out problems. Usually, I'd leave the office having got nowhere. There's something about being in front of a computer working at a problem that tightens up your brain, making it hard to solve problems. In contrast, when you're out in a more relaxing atmosphere, letting your mind wander, you'll be surprised how many times the solution to the problems you're struggling with will just hit you out of the blue. Strange, but it works.
4. Send stuff out; don't sit on your work.
Your work will never be "good enough." Once you get a piece in decent shape, send it to conferences and to a journal. If it's decent at all, you'll get to present it at conferences. Even if it's awesome, it'll probably get rejected from the journal you send it to (rejection rates are usually upwards of 90%). Assuming the piece isn't utter crap, it's better to play the journal lottery sooner rather than later. At least you'll be likely to get reviewer comments that can help you improve the paper.
5. When your work gets rejected, send it out again immediately.
Journal rejections are hard, especially when reviewers are cruel (and they often are, making it crystal clear just how stupid they think you are). I've heard from "top people" that they often suffer the same fate, so just try to get over it (rejections do get easier the more of them you get!). Anyway, even if the reviewer comments are helpful, if you can't revise the paper in a week or two to correct any reasonable* problem(s) they raised, just send the paper out again and revise the paper while it's out. The reason for this is simple: if you send the paper out again, you may just get lucky, and you can still revise the paper. Every minute your paper isn't under review is wasted time (unless, that is, a reviewer points out something that really, really needs fixing, in which case do it, and do it quick). [*note: not all reviewer complaints are reasonable. If you think a reviewer is an uncharitable jerk, chalk it up to that; you'll never be able to respond to every objection under the sun, at least not without your paper becoming 60-70 pages. Raise and respond briefly to unreasonable objections in a footnote, if possible]
6. Don't work "in secret", but don't seek out so much feedback that you begin to doubt yourself.
This is a tough one. Many of us are philosophically insecure, and we try to avoid sharing our work to avoid criticism. Don't. It's okay to work in secret sometimes, but not as a habit. Sharing your work is critical, as other people will help you see genuine problems with your work that will help you improve it. At the same time, it's good to be judicious. If you share your work with too many people, the sheer amount of criticism you get can be depressing, leading you to doubt yourself as a philosopher, which can lead in turn to a debilitating lack of self-confidence.
7. Follow every "rule of publishing" as a rule of thumb, but only a rule of thumb.
Try to find out the "rules of publishing" from those in the know (btw: anyone want to write a post on this?). Among the rules are these: (a) shorter is better (20-page papers have a greater likelihood of publication than 30-page papers, 30-page papers a greater likelihood than 40-pagers, etc.); (b) argue one, and only one, major point per paper (the more "targeted" a paper, the better); (c) engage the literature (even if you think a theory/argument is beside the point, reviewers like to see that you are aware of and have "mastered" the literature); etc.
However, while it's generally good to follow these rules, they can be broken. An example: when I was writing my paper on free will, just about everyone I asked to read it said I had to shorten it (it was 78-pages double-spaced, 11.5-size font). I refused to shorten it, though, because I felt the piece had to be that long to be "done right", and I wanted to do it right. Although I knew it was highly unlikely that any journal would consider a piece that long, I weighed my option. Since I figured it was even more unlikely for a journal to accept a shorter version of the paper -- as anything shorter would have failed to "make the case" for the view the paper defends -- I just took a chance on the full-length version. I'm glad I did. Rules are there for a reason, but sometimes it can also be reasonable to break them.
8. The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.
Whenever I have what take to be a halfway promising idea, I write it up -- usually as a 3,000 conference piece to begin. This is not only fun; it also increases your chances of happening upon something really good. Also, don't be afraid to write something up out of your AOS. In the past year, I've written several articles well outside of my AOS: in philosophy of mind, religion, language, and metaphysics. Many of these papers haven't panned out. But some have!
9. Only work on weekdays--take weekends off.
I used to work all the time in grad school. I've now found I'm more effective if I work my tail off during the weekdays and take the weekend to recharge. My wife appreciates it too! ;)
Hope some of you find these strategies helpful! Anyone else have research strategies to share?