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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Commitment

Quick quiz
  1. Can you submit a paper to a conference that you are not sure you can attend?
  2. You have agreed to give an invited talk at a conference. But you find yourself traveling too much. Can you cancel your talk?
  3. You have accepted a tenure-track job at a good school but then you get an offer at a more desirable place? Can you take back your acceptance at the first place?
  4. You promised to referee a paper by a specific date. But life gets busy. Can you let the deadline slide?
Of the correct answers to all of the above is "No!" When you submit a paper to a conference, agree to give a talk, accept a job or promise to referee you make a commitment and you should, as a responsible member of the scientific community, honor your commitments.

Many members of our community treat such commitments quite seriously but unfortunately too many of us don't. For the latter group put yourself on the other side. Think of the editor dealing with referees who aren't refereeing and the author not getting his paper reviewed in a reasonable amount of time. Think of the department that has stopped their job search believing they have filled their opening. Think of the conference organizers having to reshuffle their program for talks not given.

Sometimes you have extenuating circumstances, like an illness, that do give you reasonable excuse. And you could always ask; people will often modify or let you out of your commitments if you make a polite request. But you must make every effort to honor your commitments. If you don't think you can then you shouldn't commit in the first place.

The ultimate commitment you make is the commitment to research. Once you start graduate school you make a promise to focus on science and your research as your main objectives. Only by keeping that commitment can you truly succeed as a scientist.

How much commitment do you need? In a ham and cheese omelet the chicken and the cow are involved but the pig is committed.

20 comments:

  1. What about the following:

    "You have accepted a tenure-track job at a crappy school (which you had to take because there was nothing else), but then you get an offer at a more desirable place? Can you take back your acceptance at the first place?"

    That is, should you stay committed and miserable?

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  2. Well, half of learning to honor commitments is learning when not to commit...

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  3. Regarding question 4 in the quiz: life often
    gets busy because one has taken too many
    commitments (for instance to reviewing,
    supervision of grad students, teaching,
    administration...). In this case the question is, which of your commitments are
    you not going to honor ?
    There is no easy answer to that question.

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  4. "The ultimate commitment you make is the commitment to research. Once you start graduate school you make a promise to focus on science and your research as your main objectives. "

    That's a great and noble statement.
    Unfortunately, my impression is that in our current cultural environment many (if not most) researchers have a prior commitment to the success of their careers. The dominant outcome of which is scientific-opportunism: finding trendy subjects that lead to maximal and immediate success.
    That's not science. That's business.

    Others, mostly younger researchers, growing in this environment, have already internalized such behavior; and view this kind of opportunism as "the natural scientific process".

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  5. Anonymous #4: With all due respect, your comment is exactly the kind of BS that almost kept this particular young researcher out of grad school.

    We don't need any more people perpetuating the idiotic notion that a career as a scientist entails a life of ascetiscism in the service of Science as some kind of abstract, spiritual ideal.

    Scientists, young and old, are human beings, and it infuriates me that people like anonymous #4 would accuse someone of being an unprincipled scientist just because that person refuses to renounce all worldly concerns, like making a genuine impact on scientific and academic institutions, or (god forbid) providing for his or her family.

    This kind of attitude is medieval, hypocritical, and destructive to the advancement of /real/ science.

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  6. Comments of both anon 4 & 5 are pretty extreme.

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  7. "it infuriates me that people like anonymous #4 would accuse someone of being an unprincipled
    scientist just because that person refuses to renounce all worldly concerns..."

    Sorry, I don't get your point. Do you say that the ideal of a scientist who "lives for his science", so to speak, is wrong in itself, as this sort of scientists are in some sense "bad scientists", or don't contribute to "real science"; and therefore we should not even aspire to become closer in some sense to this ideal?
    In this case I can't see why is that so.

    Or were you intending to say that this is a decent ideal, but in real life we should make compromises? In this case I probably agree with you. But I don't agree with your fury, as I was merely stating that this kind of extreme ideal is diminished in our days (and maybe even
    before), when science is becoming something that is evaluated mainly by its "practical applications".

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  8. Issues 1,2,4 are relatively small issues, and I agree that almost always a person should just suck up and commit to them. This question is different:

    "3. You have accepted a tenure-track job at a good school but then you get an offer at a more desirable place? Can you take back your acceptance at the first place?"

    If the difference between the place you accepted and the more desirable place are quite small, then perhaps you should honor the commitment. But if the difference is large, you need to admit you made a mistake by accepting the first job, and take the better offer.

    The problem is that a committing to a tenure-track job is a huge commitment. If you made a mistake and realized you accepted a job at the wrong place, you need to fix that mistake as soon as possible. It seems far better to quit the job before starting, rather than 1-3 years down the road, after having already moved, found grad. students, etc. The people at the university you committed to will not be happy, but that's better than making the initial mistake to commit to the wrong university worse by actually working there.

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  9. 5. You asked someone to marry you when you were drunk. She was also drunk and said yes. Should you marry after you both sober up?

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  10. So how are grad students and those from 3rd world countries supposed to follow #1 if they are uncertain of travel funding?

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  11. For #1, why can't you ask someone else who will be at the conference to give your talk?

    For #4, so does that make Luca Trevisan a bad person (who said on his weblog that he was at Columbia for a year and then went to Berkeley)?

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  12. Just to clarify(?) Lance's number 3. If you get a better offer, you can (of course) leave your current job. But you must give sufficient notice, and given how universitites work this is typically (at least) one semester.

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  13. Which of the following is worse?
    1. You decide to let a deadline slide due to time constraints.
    2. You review all papers you have committed to reviewing within their deadlines but don't check the proofs carefully because you don't have time.

    In the first you may let down the editor for whom you agreed to do the review but in the second case you may let incorrect results into the proceeding of a reputable conference.

    Does #3 hold for graduate students? If you receive a better offer (better university or potential for more interesting PhD topic) is it considered irresponsible to turn down a place at another University you have already accepted?

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  14. #5 here. To respond (in case anyone is still reading this), I suppose I would agree with your second interpretation more than your first, but I personally find nothing wrong with the fact that this ideal is less strongly felt in our time.

    This notion simply has nothing to do with how science really works (with, I guess, a few shining exceptions like Grisha Perelman), and pretending otherwise is just dishonest and counterproductive.

    In my defense you mentioned nothing in your post about how the hunt for "practical applications" is corrupting science. You were instead complaining about young researchers focusing on "trendy subjects" in their consuming drive to succeed.

    There's nothing wrong with a drive to succeed, nor is there anything wrong with working in an area that is receiving much attention and in which you have a good chance of making some real impact. Only posterity can judge which current areas of research will turn out to have really been worthwhile.

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  15. About #3:
    You get engaged to a person, promising to marry her, then you have second thoughts. Should you just honor your commitment and get married, or should you take back the commitment which you made when you got engaged?

    About commitment to research in general: It means that when you work on a problem and get an idea, start gaining understanding, get excited, and think that you're going to make progress if you get immersed completely in the problem; that's the time when you stop honoring most of your other commitments: you let papers sit on your desk unreviewed, lectures be taught with little preparation, email boxes fill up without being checked, grant deadlines slip by without proposals being submitted, meal times go by unnoticed, resolutions to exercise vanish, dishes pile up in the sink, and bills at home go unpaid. Only higher priority items still get some of your attention during that period (avoiding accidents while driving for example.) That's what a commitment to research means: the willingness to occasionally, at somewhat unpredictable times, put the rest of your life on hold for a few hours or days or weeks.

    We all like to think that we honor our commitments: the truth is that
    it's primarily a matter of priorities...

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  16. thank you claire for bringing some sense to this blog.

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  17. I am totally with you Claire. A researcher's mind sometimes simply goes out of control on a random walk. I think creativity is a random walk through the forest of ideas. In such situations, I would prefer the researchers to show bigger commitment to research than to deadlines etc.

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  18. Just to clarify(?) Lance's number 3. If you get a better offer, you can (of course) leave your current job. But you must give sufficient notice, and given how universitites work this is typically (at least) one semester.

    Paul Halmos got a job at Reed College as an assistant professor and never even showed up! Here is an excerpt from MacTutor:


    In February 1939 Halmos was successful in obtaining a post at Reed College in Oregon. He accepted but in April his friend Warren Ambrose was offered a scholarship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Halmos wrote ([1] or [2]):-

    "That made me mad. I wanted to go, too! I resigned my job, making the department head, whom I had never met, very unhappy, of course. I ... went to my father and asked to borrow a thousand dollars ... I wrote to Veblen and asked if I could become a member of the Institute for Advanced Study even though I had no fellowship. ... I moved to Princeton."

    After six months Halmos was offered a fellowship, and in his second year at Princeton he became von Neumann's assistant. Ambrose writes in [1]:

    "This was wonderful for Paul because he ... idolised von Neumann ... This seemed to have been the first time in Paul's career when he received what he deserved and I think it must have been one of the happiest times in his life."


    So, the point is that if he had accepted the job at Reed he wouldn't have worked with von Neumann and probably wouldn't have had as successful a career.

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  19. =============================
    Anonymous 10 says:

    So how are grad students and those from 3rd world countries supposed to follow #1 if they are uncertain of travel funding?
    =============================
    Anonymous 11 says:

    For #1, why can't you ask someone else who will be at the conference to give your talk?
    =============================
    My confusion:
    The travel fee is really a big obstacle to our students in developing countries.
    And it is hard for us to know someone else who is willing to help us and give our talk at the conference.
    What can we do?

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  20. I'm not sure what point anonymous 18 is trying to make: that any actions (no matter whether morally correct or not) are ok as long as they advance one's career?

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