Reflections on being a researcher

A career in research did not come naturally to me. No one in the family that I knew at the time ever went far enough in their studies, although perhaps one or two briefly considered such distant possibility, more in dreams than in any very concrete way. In my case, in part for this reason, I cannot say that the decision to enter such a career was ever fully consciously taken. The first time I remember discussing this with someone was a doctor treating me for a severe health problem very deeply related to a lack of confidence that there was anything I could really be good for, including life. This doctor discouraged me from getting into research. His argument was that this was not a good profession for someone desperately in need of acquiring self-confidence.

I got into it nevertheless by a succession of chance meetings, and almost random opportunities. Perhaps, probably, at the very depth of my mind, there was also a will driving me towards this, but I do not really know. Certainly that doctor was right: this is not a good profession if you lack in self-confidence, or need to feel you are in control of the situation and competent in what you are doing. In that sense, I have wished many times I had taken another path, and still often consider doing so. This is of course becoming more difficult as time passes, but time also increases the feeling of inadequacy, hence an almost constant sensation of discomfort, not to say downright pain. Part of the feeling of inadequacy may be a misperception of my own capacities, but another part – a greater one? – certainly is not. Do not misunderstand me: this is not modesty, it is realism.

The feeling is also one that I find is shared by a number of persons; how many really is hard to know. Willingly or not, it is not a feeling we often confess to.

This to me brings a number of issues. One is: what are really the qualities that are important in research? Intelligence certainly, but what type of intelligence? Is there only one type? And what other qualities are essential? The second issue is whether indeed there are not far more people with the same feeling of inadequacy as mine, and if yes, why this is not expressed more openly? The third issue is: does it matter? Suppose that I am indeed inadequate for research. Should I give up?

Many books have been written on what is intelligence. What is said about it in those books may not be immediately adaptable to the question of what type(s) of intelligence is important in research. Quickness of mind should probably not be a determining factor although it may enable to get ahead in the profession by giving a good impression of oneself to the persons who can help in the career, by possibly allowing also to publish more. Although being a slow thinker should not be a handicap, our work is measured by its output in terms of papers, and slowness may result in too few publications. Higher quality could balance a lesser production, but slow thinkers are not necessarily better thinkers either. This raises more in general the accessory question of what is the expected output of a “good” research, that is of a research deserving to be paid for in any of our research institutions? Too many papers could be here considered as bad as too few, and then the content of those papers would also matter. This is an important question but trying to address it, and even more the general issue of what type of intelligence, and what other qualities are essential in research, would get me too far for this (first) time. I’ll attempt to do it later in the future.

Clearly I cannot address the second issue. As I said, I just do not know how many people are there who might share a same feeling of inadequacy or of lack of self-confidence. Of course, I have had over the years a few of my students, not all, express such feelings. Strangely perhaps, I do not discourage them in being open about it. This is not only because, as some may think, it makes me feel better, less lonely. It does, clearly, I cannot hide this. There is however a more important reason: I really believe too much confidence, both its existence and its exhibition, is counter-productive in research. This belief should not be mistaken as saying that there are not qualities and capacities that are absolutely necessary for a career in research. The belief is just that lack of self-confidence, painful as it may be, could well be one such essential quality! It is in my view necessary, but it is not sufficient.

Again, I’ll not try this time to directly address the question of what else would be necessary but instead tackle the third issue: does it matter if one feels inadequate? Should one in that case give up on a career in research?

Trying to answer to this question from the only perspective I know well enough, let me reiterate the fact that I really cannot say whether I have whatever other capacities are also necessary for doing research. In fact, I spent the 20 years I have now accumulated in the career despairing because I felt I did not have them: I am slow in thinking by myself as well as in following others, I have little memory for the things that are important in research, I never had the impression that I grasped any very deep concepts in the fields that are mine. Of course, I can say that, because of illness, I had to catch with time, I have been catching with time since coming back to life, but this does not explain all. And now, I have to do even more catching for other reasons, because research is not just thinking, it is also a lot of other activities, in particular of administration and of management at different levels, that do not seem to have much to do with research but consume a lot of energy, and having energy is important to keep the brain working. Again though, this does not really answer the question.

Once more, the question for now only is: because of this feeling of inadequacy, should I give up? Should I have given up many years ago? Let me first say that I do not feel that the papers that I managed to produce with the years provide me with an answer to this question. Yes, I did produce a number of papers, not in what are considered the “best journals” (whatever that is) but it has been an “honourable” production. Whatever that is again… Indeed, I have participated in enough journal and conference reviewing procedures and selection processes not to have such clear-cut idea of what this really means as people generally seem to have.

However, there is one more characteristic that I do know I have besides lack of self-confidence. This has also come as a slow realisation, but is now a clear feeling: I love what I do. Whenever I can stay for a sufficiently long period of time alone, or with people who accept me as I am, with all my shortcomings, I love that I am in this field called research, I love what I do, I can even come to love the moments of uncertainty and doubt, and also, all the more surprisingly, those of defeat. Because defeat can sometimes be a step towards deeper understanding.

In that sense then, I feel that I am at the right place as a researcher. Not always: lack of self confidence destroys as much as it builds. However, it can build more than it destroys in a right environment. This is one with people well chosen not just for being understanding, but also for sharing the same feelings of inadequacy, and for being honest about such feelings. Finding such an environment has been crucial for my career. I believe it would be crucial for many more people. More importantly, I believe it would be crucial for research in general, but this may require a revolution in our way of perceiving a number of things, our relation to research but also our relation to ourselves. More on this later.

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