John Pearson






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Dear Undergrads: How to win at research (or at least get a good rec letter) Pt. 3

21 December 2014

Welcome to part 3 of my series on how to win at undergraduate research. Bottom line: I’ve been arguing that if you want to have a successful research project (or simply be remembered come recommendation letter time), you should consider not being a flake and spending time in lab. In this final installment, I’ll be focusing on the research side of the equation, dispensing all my accumulated wisdom on the process of scientific discovery.

In fact, the best single piece of advice I have on the topic I’m stealing from George Pólya:

The first rule of discovery is to have brains and good luck. The second rule of discovery is to sit tight and wait till you get a bright idea.

This from the entry Rules of Discovery in How to Solve It, a pretty good primer for anyone looking for advice on how to solve mathematical problems. As Pólya notes, only a few thinkers in history appear to have given systematic attention to formulating rules of discovery, what he calls the method of heuristic. And yet, as he also concedes, it takes a special kind of folly to believe that the process of discovery can be boiled down to a cookbook formula.

So is that the best I’ve got, telling you to be smart and sit tight? Is this just another, “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine?”

Not quite, but pretty much. At some point, the only way to solve the problem is to solve the problem. But lest we devolve into koans, here’s another thought from Pólya, this one a little more practical:

The open secret of real success is to throw your whole personality into your problem.

I would like to say there’s another way, but I haven’t seen it. And believe me, I’ve tried. In my experience, doing science is not a part-time endeavor. As I wrote last time, most of the problems we end up assigning undergraduates are too large, and when that happens, the problem just isn’t going to give way under the force of a few hours now and then. It’s going to take intense, sustained work, of the kind that commonly goes under the heading of “earning it.”

What does that mean in practical terms?:

Does all that sound hard? It is. But it’s also challenging, stimulating, engrossing work. And if done right, it can be the most meaningful educational experience of your undergraduate career.

So do it right. Throw your whole personality into the problem. Good luck.