Sunday October 3rd
Research is(n’t) for everyone
When you read that
- When you read the title, did you read “is” or “isn’t”? It’s something I’ve been pondering, since we also had a similar discussion about Mathematics this week.
- In particular, I was thinking about the phrase “Maths is for everyone”, when many of us admitted that we looked around and didn’t think it was for us, even though in our spare time we dreamt it, had a secret love affair with it. Maybe we didn’t think we could do Maths, but we could hmm..learn Haskell?
- Maybe doing a little data analysis could scratch that probability itch?
- My dad and I had a discussion about “filters” as he called it, when he was growing up, and how those changed over time. You see, he grew up in a fairly oil-rich area of my country, and his father was head of one of the first non-white families to live in that area. Over time, he grew to see spaces that he could not take his own friends become places that were for everyone.
- And it’s true; my dad mentioned that when he was growing up, banking in my home country was a job, but at the managerial level, roles were reserved for the children of certain families, often the children of expats. Today, that is not the case; many of those structures have dissipated (although some still exist).
I used to think that research was for anyone
- I’m not so sure anymore. Okay, let me rephrase that; it could be for anyone, but there are many “filters” one must overcome, some of which have been a result of archaic lineages that still perpetuate today. And when we talk about “broadening participation”, I think we are a little dishonest if we don’t acknowledge that some of these “filters” have been barriers to people having this sort of access to the opportunity to do research.
- Traditionally, not only have there been “filters”, but also ways to delegitimize the research of those deemed to not play by the rules (absurdly decided by a minute oligarchy that is hardly relevant in this age).
- I think back to my first semester, when a senior PhD student told me that “you do security; I do AI”. That is a first kind of filter, and it happened because I had dared to take “an AI class”. I call these filters that seek to maintain the structure in place; those that tell you (who has stepped out of line) to know your place. Often, these are illogical, almost absurd, but have been maintained by “useful idiots” who do not question its existence. I had a similar experience this summer when I asked about research at a lab and I was told that “it wasn’t for me”, and that I should try “after I completed my PhD” (which is circular logic, because an Academic would be looking for a position in Academia, and not at such a place by then. But of course, at this stage, we both know that I am being taken for a walk, and that any or all reasons are merely empty attempts at pleasantries). The researcher also gave me a copy of their thesis, as an example of what I should aspire to (lol). This was also after I had seen a showcase in which many of the mentors were alumni of the very schools the interns were from (and a handful of others with less publications than I, who, as a recruiter and others had mentioned “networked”), almost perpetuating research incest. I left early, with a well of disappointment at the bottom of my stomach, because I had idolized this lab for many years. Unfortunately, the culture was so stale that I might have seen a few vultures circling. Firstly, I’m sorry if you’re throwing up already by the audacity of the senior researcher’s move, but let me explain; it’s what people who have positions of power and not much else do to assert power. You see, anyone who has a real reputation would never resort to this kind of action; they have nothing to prove, especially to someone with less power than they do. You can usually tell because this sort of experience is an opportunity to help someone up, rather than push them down. At the time, I thought back to the dissonace of my experience, where before grad school, the filter was “you can only do research if you are in a PhD programme”, and how this also, proved to not be true. It was merely a filter.
- Many times, these filters are never an issue unless those who benefit from them cease to, or are filtered out. I saw such a post this week on a social media platform, whereby someone who would typically be on the top tier of a field saw the unfairness of the current system, through one of their PhD students who was producing their first first-author paper, with good work. You are otherwise asked to accept the status quo as is.
So why do I mention this?
- Going back to Mathematics and my own research community, I see all of this and I realize that these are remnants of an era where there was an unquestioned hierarchy of power. Things have changed a lot since then, and I really think that it’s up to this generation to make things better. The research generation before has failed. Our generation can be better at this, and I want to be a part of a positive culture that really promotes finding the best research, and of supporting those who want to have the opportunity to do the best research, rather than merely supporting those who were set up to do so.
- I think about these experiences now, and I’m writing them down, because years from now, I want to be reminded of mistakes I should never make.
- This is why I think I’m not as interested in Machine Learning research. Machine Learning research, in my humble opinion, has become corrupted by this very archaic hierarchy where it has become very difficult to find good research. However, my current community is small enough (in our last workshop, we had a maximum of 22 participants on zoom) that it matters less what schools you went to, and more about whether you want to be a part of and contribute to solving a problem. And something about that is very exciting, especially to a young researcher. Basically, the world is your oyster. That’s all I have to say about that, I think.
- Oh, in any case, you should do what you love, or find a way, regardless. If that’s ML, that’s great (and I wish you the best!).
Other than that
- This week, I went to my Combinatorics seminar, where I saw a talk on the
1/3-2/3 conjectureand Coxeter groups, went to an Extremal Graph Theory group where apparently one of the problems was solved, and this solution was presented in our other meeting, where we were taught a bit more about Extremal Graph Theory.
- I also attended another Combinatorics event that was more applied, a workshop on Post quantum networks (networks as in protocols), and did some interviews.
- This week, there is also an additional Number Theory seminar, and I’m very much looking forward to that, too!
- Already, I’ve compared the openness of this current research and field with what I was doing, and it’s a lot more positive for me. So many people have expressed a willingness to collaborate and work on papers together. As someone who enjoys research, I have to state humbly and gratefully that this is where I want to be. I changed my Google Scholar this week to reflect the change, and silently wished a good riddance to chasing down a spot in the pecking order.
So I had a great week
- I’m looking forward to all the events this week. I know that there will be ups and downs, but I’ve never felt happier. I feel like I’ve made the right decision.
And that’s it.
Written on October 3, 2021