The Secret of Academic Success – or fun filled failure if you prefer

Bill Wadge:

In my research career I’ve discovered many things, including the secret of academic success (too late to help my own career). I’m  going to share the secret  with  you.

The obvious way to succeed is to do something impressive, like prove a theorem or invent some new technology. This might be helpful, but could get you into trouble if you’re not careful.

Here’s the problem: say you’re a young researcher starting out. You’ve made some progress attacking problem P. Researchers A, B, C, … have also worked on P but you think your work  puts theirs to shame (which it may or may not do in reality).

The temptation is to write papers proclaiming the superiority of your work and the pathetic inadequacy of the contributions of A, B, C, …

Well, doing so is a huge Career Limiting Move (CLM). I know because I did exactly that, in the notorious ‘Cowboys’ section of the 1985 Lucid Book I wrote with the late Ed Ashcroft (he had nothing to do with the notorious section). In a companion post I  present an annotated version of the Cowboys section.

Anyway, what should you do instead? The exact opposite. Write a paper which says, “P is an important problem and many talented researchers have made significant progress. A has done X, and it is good; B has done Y and it is also good;  C has done Z and it too is good; …”