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Lindsey Kuper

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Spit and chicken wire [Oct. 10th, 2011|07:16 pm]
Lindsey Kuper

Looking at the list of POPL 2012 accepted papers has me feeling unexpectedly grim. I feel about a million years away from ever being able to publish something at POPL because my so-called research has been a random mishmash of things -- I haven't been able to sustain a single coherent line of inquiry. (Edited to add: That is to say, I think the individual projects I've worked on have been (more or less) coherent unto themselves, but the set of projects I've worked on doesn't cohere.) In fact, my whole career feels like a random mishmash. I don't feel like an expert at anything.

I asked "Does the 'my career is held together with spit and chicken wire' feeling ever stop?" on Twitter a month ago, and the responses I got from a bunch of people I respect -- Jim Blandy, Peter Boothe, Mike Shaver, Jason Reed, and Tim Chevalier -- were, respectively, "no", "no", "not if you're doing it right", "when the spit is replaced by duct tape", and "sure; sometimes it catches on fire". But surely not everyone feels that way. There's one POPL author in particular who's younger than me, yet much further along in their career; they seem to keep on racking up first-author conference papers while still having time to blog about fun diversions. I know that jealousy is self-indulgent and unproductive, so I try not to be jealous (especially since I happen to like this person), but that still leaves me wondering just how the hell they manage to do it.


From: (Anonymous)
2011-10-11 02:08 am (UTC)

...just how the hell they manage to do it...

Well, I have learned as an adult who is making a life in a path I want that there's an adage that is mostly true:
You can do anything, but you can't do everything.
OK, truthfully "you" can't do ANYthing but you can do a great many things. In order to do them, though, "you" have to give up other paths that might be interesting. In committing time and energy and other such precious resources, you cut off other possibilities from those resources.
So, the first-author-publishing fun-diversion-doing folks probably have giant limitations in other areas of their lives that they don't write about and don't publish. Not necessarily because they're unhappy with them or embarrassed about them or regret their lack... maybe just because they have chosen to do these other things that they do write about.
Or maybe they do have secret regret and sadness. The outcome is the same.

Really, though, you still have time to launch a career and enter a field until you're dead. Are you dead? I didn't think so. So, don't worry about it too much!
~Electra (who doesn't want to let LiveJournal manage my Google accounts, whatever that means)
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From: puzzlement
2011-10-11 02:10 am (UTC)
The younger author may simply be lucky or extremely talented or both, it's true, but my experience suggests that that tends to happen when (perhaps in addition to luck and talent) they have a very hands-on supervisor who has given them a very clearly defined project that the supervisor understands extremely well. Students in that situation tend to have less research meanderings because their supervisor will quickly redirect them to productive lines of enquiry.

As an extreme kind of example, there's someone in my department who spent a long time wandering in the wilderness looking for a topic, and at some point their supervisor said "it's OK, if the wandering in the wilderness doesn't work for you I have a nice solid question I've been meaning to work on for years so you can knock it up into a PhD in six months if all else fails." (I think he viewed this as a threat and went and found something that personally interested him!)

It's tempting to say that such closely managed students will get what's coming to them somehow (eg that because they tend not to exercise much initiative they won't have learned how to exercise it) but that isn't always true, and it certainly has payoffs in terms of a nice padding of publication going into a postdoc. But in terms of viewing your own work's progress, it's worth keeping in mind that a student's early research success can often although obviously not always reflect a pretty directed supervison model.
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[User Picture]From: arcticfidelity
2011-10-11 04:06 pm (UTC)
I'm right in the boat with you. I tend to be pretty meandering throughout. :-) On the other hand, I've always had the feeling that this leads to better results personally, unless you already know that one thing you want to do first, and in that case you wouldn't be in this case. I appreciate those people who have either already found their focus or are just put into focus by some external force, but I think we can't have a world of just one or the other.

On the other hand, it is a bit envy inducing when you see all those around you with all those papers....*grr* :-)
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[User Picture]From: ssaiscps
2011-10-12 02:30 am (UTC)
I did all sorts of weird stuff before I figured out what I eventually did my PhD on. My first three years maybe were pretty unrelated to anything in my actual dissertation.
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[User Picture]From: pmb
2011-10-14 12:18 am (UTC)
You can't let that crap eat you up. Some people are good, some are lucky, some are both, and some are neither. You mostly just have to find the zen of "doing your damndest" and stop caring too much about the other stuff.

Either you could be doing more (while still maintaining mental/physical/social health), or you can't do more. Either way, the flowchart looks like:

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