Olympics and graduate research

I want to talk about an interesting parallel between Olympics and research in graduate school. You are probably thinking: “What on Earth is he talking about now?”…

I follow the updates from Sochi and, once in a while, tune in to see some of the events. The athletes do mind-boggling tricks and I constantly hear about medal counts. I respectfully disagree with the notion that getting a medal is the only way to evaluate a given athlete’s success. I think that the concept of personal best is equally important, especially in the events where execution over a defined period of time counts for success. When I look at athletes who do not end up reaching the podium, I catch myself thinking that they often demonstrate tenacity and hunger to improve over their past accomplishments. To me, this is what Olympics should be all about, but personal best metrics of success are not often mentioned.

I also think that in graduate research, each student should strive to achieve his or her personal best. This is naturally accomplished by improving on the number and quality of papers compared to what he or she had published the year before. Striving for a paper in NatureScience, or other type of high impact journal, is probably akin to getting some sort of a medal. These are great goals to have, but we all know that such papers are rare and are not entirely under student control due to a number of complicating factors (politics, etc). On the other hand, if a student publishes a couple of papers in a given year, the following year should be an improvement: how about three papers, or two papers in the same level of journal and one in a higher impact journal? This way one’s personal best is established and there is definite progress.

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