Stress in Research. Part III: The Trouble about Freedom

By Charles Sutton on May 5, 2018

The third post in what is becoming an increasingly long series on stress in research.

I joked before that there’s no reason researchers should feel stress: how stressful can a job be if you’re not expected to roll in to work until 10 o’clock in the morning? But more seriously, this flexibility is itself a source of stress.

Academics don’t really have bosses, despite what our senior leadership sometimes seem to think. We do have a head of department, of course, but the relationship isn’t like having a supervisor. I don’t have weekly meetings with my department head to report my progress on my current projects. And I would never go to my head of department and say I’ve got too much to do, can she tell me how I should prioritize my workload so that I focus on tasks that are most important to the University. The very idea is laughable.

Instead of having a boss, we have sources of work. Students from our own university and around the world ask us if we can supervise their research projects. We review and comment on reports from our own students. We are asked to evaluate finished PhD theses from students at other universities, in our own country and worldwide. Funding agencies from our country and others ask us to review proposals for multi-million pound research projects. Representatives from the government ask us to discuss connections with problems of national interest. We organize workshops and conferences. We meet researchers in other universities and governments to learn about their work and explore potential collaborations. The great thing about the blog I just linked to — it is actually called why academics feel overworked — is that it tries to make a complete list of where academic work comes from. My list just above is incomplete because I’m only mentioning things that I can remember happening in the past week. (And this, with me on sabbatical; I’m not teaching this year.) All of these sources of work are people who are asking politely for our help on important work of their own. None of these sources of work know about each other.

To be successful, of course it is important to learn to say “no”, and to learn to say “no” often. There are tricks about how to say “no” better, in a way that helps the person who have asked. Many other blogs talk about that, so I won’t go further now. It’s enough to say that even if you say “no” a lot, you will still have a lot to do.

Instead, I want to talk about flexibility. It’s no surprise that having a lot to do creates stress. But having the flexibility to choose what to do also creates stress. The problem is that flexibility creates guilt. Suppose I have tasks A, B, C, and D to do — too many — and my boss instructs me to prioritize C, even though I think A is more important. I might be annoyed or dismayed by a poor decision being made, but I’m not responsible for the poor decision.

When I prioritize, I am responsible. When I choose to do one thing, I’m keenly aware that there are many other things that I could be doing, behind each a person who would like a few minutes (or a few hours) of my help. For every thing I choose to do, there are other people that I feel like I am letting down. I am never quite sure if the thing I have chosen to do is the right one. Sometimes I’m quite sure that the thing that I’m doing is not the most important, but maybe simply the most important that I have enough energy for.

Why is the flexibility necessary? Why couldn’t academic work and research work be managed more directly, like other types of work? Our situation is not as unusual as it may seem — in any career, the more senior you become, the more you are expected to set the agenda rather than follow an agenda that is given to you. In academia and research specifically, there are two forces that mandate flexibility for good work.

The first: If you do not have freedom to prioritize, you do not have intellectual freedom, because part of intellectual freedom is deciding what to think about.

The second: The job of a researcher is about creating positive externalities. Our work is to perpetuate and create a large portion of human knowledge. When we succeed, the value of our work is enjoyed by society as a whole, rather than the institution that employs us. This is why the idea of going to my department head for advice on prioritizing is so laughable. We cannot ask the institution what is most valuable, because so much of the value that we create does not return to the institution. You become an academic because you believe the specialized knowledge that fascinates you has, in some small sense, importance to society as a whole. Another responsibility, and another stressor!

Stress in Research. Part II: Research Worth and Self-Worth

By Charles Sutton on April 7, 2018

The second post in what is perhaps a series on stress in research.

It might be surprising, but one of the main sources of stress in research is self-esteem. It’s so common and tempting to think of career success as a measure of one’s moral worth as a person. Stated so bluntly, it sounds like the silliest thing in the world to believe, yet I expect that we have all, at least at times, at least unconsciously, fallen into this trap.

The source of this trap is cognitive dissonance, and the danger of the trap is that research is a roller coaster. Every researcher has days when they’ve had some good success, and they feel on top of the world. To resolve the cognitive dissonance, you feel that because you’re happy about one thing, you’re happy about everything. Your career is going well, your personal life is going well, you’re just a good person all around.

But you know what they say about what goes up. There will always be weeks and months when experiments don’t work, when paper submissions and job applications are rejected, several in a row. Then the emotional effects can hit hard. Nobody likes having a frustrating time in their research. But if you conflate research worth with self-worth, if you tell yourself that the main way that your life will contribute to the world is by your groundbreaking work, then when your research is going poorly, you feel like a failure in life. Not for nothing has it been observed that academics face relatively high mental health risk.

So how do we avoid the trap of conflating your colleagues’ respect for you as a researcher with your own self-respect as a human being? For what it’s worth, I’d expect that this trap occurs in all of the creative professions. Indeed, as much as academics like to think of ourselves as unique creatures, none of the sources of stress in research are unique to the job of research. Perhaps that is a topic for another time, but it does not help us here: Knowing that our stress is shared is not alone enough to relieve it.

Another blog might tell you: Keep a professional distance. The way to avoid conflating your research success to your self-worth is to think of research as a job rather than a calling. But that’s not the advice that I will give, because if you want to do good work, sometimes you need to take things personally. As the great Captain says, sometimes you need your pain. So I’ll ask the question differently. How do we keep our passion for research without harming our mental health?

The mental tricks that work a bit for me, may not work for you. So I’ll list a few different mental strategies, strategies for self-talk — those who know me will know that I am a big fan of talking to myself — that you can experiment with.

One strategy is to focus on the fun, for example, by treating a tenure-track faculty job like a seven-year postdoc. Richard Feynman has a wonderful story about recapturing fun in his research. One always wonders if Feynman’s stories are exaggerated, but the principle of countering stress by fun is surely sound.

Another good strategy is to have backup sources of self-worth. Academic jobs are naturally set up this way. Even if no one reads my papers the minute after I die, or frankly, the minute after they’re written, I’ve still taught hundreds of students about fundamental knowledge that has helped them, if only a little. That’s another source of professional self-worth. Or of course, one can seek self-worth from being a good child, parent, spouse, sibling, and friend. Both of these — teaching and family — are instances of a more general point. We should find worth in our relationships with other people.

Another strategy is simply to have truly excessive reserves of self-confidence, so that whenever the roller coaster goes down, you can tell yourself with absolute conviction that the roller coaster will go up again, because by god you are brilliant enough to push it up again all by yourself. I know I’m making this sound ridiculous, but I’ve read an interview with a Nobelist who basically said that lots of other people doubted him, but he never doubted himself. Whether it was bravado or truth I don’t know, but hey, if it works for him.

A final strategy of which I’m personally fond. I firmly believe that one of the most important mental abilities in life, one that to the great detriment of our world few people master, is to learn to believe contradictory things. One of the many lovely details of the Kingkiller Chronicles is that there is a type of magic that depends on having a will strong enough to believe contradictory things simultaneously. Back in this world, almost all statements are sometimes true and sometimes false. The same is true in research.

An example of embracing a noble contradiction: I do believe that, if you want to be effective as a researcher, work needs to be the most important thing to you during the time that you are working. Creative work really does require complete focus. But there is no need to maintain this belief while you are not working. During those times, you can understand that most research work comes to nothing, and that is no waste as long as some small fraction of the research in the world makes a large enough difference.

Another example: Because our careers require so much time and passion, it’s natural that professional colleagues sometimes become personal friends. This means that I think it’s important to be able to value someone as a friend, even if you do not particularly care for their research. Stated plainly, this is obvious — how could it be otherwise? — but it’s so easy to be confused into thinking that once you admire one aspect of someone, that you like everything about them. Again, this is a confusion that arises from cognitive dissonance. It requires conscious effort to be able to separate your admiration or criticism of someone’s work with your admiration (or lack thereof!) of them as a trustworthy, loyal friend.

Once I’ve learned to do that, perhaps I can extend the same courtesy to myself.

Stress in Research. Part I: The Tournament and the Axe

By Charles Sutton on March 3, 2018

Perhaps the first post in a series.

From one point of view, research is the best job in the world. You get to be creative and follow your curiosity. You are always learning; if you ever stop, you have stopped doing research. You can collaborate with brilliant people, and help young smart people to find the frontiers of knowledge.

And for all that, I think research will never stop causing me heartache and stress. If you have any capacity in your psyche for self-doubt, you will find that capacity nurtured and magnified during your career in research. But why should this be? The requirements of the job are blessedly open-ended, and we are granted substantial flexibility in how we manage our work. I mean, come on, how stressful can a job be if you’re not expected to roll in to work until 10 o’clock in the morning?

In this series, I will try to isolate and understand the sources of stress and in research, and how we might cope. I say “isolate”, “cope”, and not “eliminate” — I suspect that top-quality work is not possible without accepting some stress. But maybe there’s a way to get by accepting a little bit less.

The first triggers of stress that I want to talk about arise as a consequence of how people get jobs in research, and how the research community is structured. These are the Tournament and the Axe.

First, the Tournament. The research community is structured around an series of increasingly more selective, and more difficult, international tournaments. Most undergraduate students choose to focus their work elsewhere, but of those that choose to do a PhD, most — including your humble author — are not admitted to their first-choice school. Of those who start a PhD, many do not complete it. Of those who complete their PhD, many do not go on to another research position. Of those who become assistant professors in the US, some do not receive tenure. Finally, even of the top researchers, those who have a large group and regularly publish well-received papers, only a small number of them can honestly say that they have ever in their career achieved a groundbreaking new result.

And now let’s consider your competition in the Tournament, your international colleagues in the research community. When you first join a research community, usually by attending your first workshop or conference, it’s overwhelming to meet so many new interesting people, who are fascinated by the same arcane technology as you, and who all seem smarter than you. This is partly an illusion: all these people have been around the community longer than you, so they simply have more background and experience, not more raw power.

But there’s truth in the illusion too: There really are lots of people smarter than you. That is no insult. I’ll explain. For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that you are a unique genius, a special talent, one in a million. Even if you are one in a million, that means there are 7600 people in the world who are smarter than you. And the organizations of the research community are specifically designed to help you to meet them.

What’s more, the outcome of the Tournament is public. The papers we publish, the prestigious jobs that we accept, the awards that we win, these are all public. The people stronger than you, or luckier, you can see the evidence of their success. And you suspect that others, your colleagues and friends, can see where you stand as well.

And then, the Axe. Many levels of the Tournament are up or out. You either succeed in a competition to move the next level, or you move to a career outside of research. The tenure system for assistant professors in the United States is famously up or out, but all earlier levels of your career path are, too. For example, I thought being a postdoctoral researcher was the best job in the world. I loved coming in to work every day. But I also knew there was the Axe over my head. If I hadn’t made enough progress in the two years that I had, I might not be able to remain in a research active position.

All this together causes a lot of stress, or at least it has for me. I like to think that there are attitudes and habits of mind that can reduce the stress of the Tournament, at least a little bit:

  • Understand that every Tournament is also a game. Success in the Tournament is not solely a reflection of your intelligence or your skill, but also your ability to play. It’s so easy to conflate your success in your career with your self-worth, but to do so too strongly is destructive. Disconnect your self-worth and your regard for others from performance in the Tournament.

  • Appreciate that winning the Tournament is not always the right move. The trap of the Tournament is that because it is a game, we naturally feel that winning a game is better than losing it. Not so. Choosing to leave a game is better than winning, when the game is not worth playing — when you enjoy other careers more than research, or if another career provides a better path for you to contribute professionally to the world. It would be almost a cliche to say “there is no shame” in leaving research, but it would also be a grave disservice, the language already buying into the bogus narrative that the competitions are there to be won. So I say instead: To start down one career path, recognize that it is not the best way for you to contribute, and choose another — I salute and admire the strength and self-knowledge that is needed to do this.

  • The Tournament is not the core of research. I’ve been describing the research community as a competitive, perhaps even unfriendly, place. And it is competitive. But I’ve not found it to be unfriendly. I’ve met so many colleagues who have helped me by collaborating with me, explaining their work, graciously helping me to understand the field better. This creates the cognitive dissonance, how can the community be both competitive and helpful at the same time? I reconcile these views by viewing competition as a type of collaboration. We have, together, decided to build a competition for attention, in the hope that it will help all of us to reach our full potential and teach each other as much as we can. So it is not the competition that is central to research, but learning.

  • To paraphrase the philosopher Marsellus Wallace, jealously only hurts. It never helps. You meet someone smarter than you, someone who has accomplished more than you despite being ten years younger, it’s all right to be impressed or amazed, but not jealous. You need to train yourself to think instead: hey, what a great person to learn from!

  • Accept the existence of the Axe. Perhaps not helpful advice, because it is too easily said, but still important. There is nothing to be gained by spending too much time staring at the Axe above you. You know it’s there and you know it’s sharp. You still need to get on with what you have to do, if you intend to stay in the game.

Travel a lot? Here's how to stay organized, like professors do

By Charles Sutton on December 2, 2017

We had a fun time on the professors’ Facebook the other day, swapping stories of the dumbest travel mistakes that we’ve made. You know, booking flights to the wrong country, forgetting to book a hotel, registering for the conference twice, and other such hilarity.

Let’s face it, professors travel a lot. We are also very bad at remembering things. This is a combination that makes for comedy, unless you’re the poor sod who has to live through it. (That’s Professor Sod, to you.)

What this means is, from long and painful experience, I’ve learned how to not to forget things as often when I travel. And now I will tell you my secrets, if I can remember them.

I keep a packing list (shocker!) that I reuse every time I pack my bags. I have a master list that I keep electronically and make a copy of for each trip. The important part is: Every time I arrive somewhere and forget something (toothpaste, underwear, etc), I add it to the master packing list for next time. After many years of this, I am now convinced that this list now contains everything I could possibly want to bring, and now I will never forget to pack something ever again. Well, hardly ever.

For toiletries I have an additional system, as they are too easy to forget. I keep a separate complete set of toiletries in a drawer, for travelling only. When I pack, I just unload the drawer into my luggage, and I know I have everything. When I return, I return the toiletries to the drawer, checking to see if anything needs to be replenished. This includes medicines; I always travel with paracetamol, just in case, except when I travel to the US, in which case I bring acetaminophen instead.

But the packing list can’t keep track of everything. For example, if you try to list “make sure hotel is booked” or “tell wife that I’m travelling” on your list of what to pack, it turns out that you see that a little bit too late to be useful. Or that’s what my wife says, anyway.

So now I have a “travel prep list” as well, which lists the things I need to do weeks in advance, or after I return. I have a document that keeps track of the lists for all of my upcoming trips: book flights, book hotel, register for conference, submit travel reimbursement, etc. This dramatically reduces the chance that I will book two hotel rooms for the same conference.

And finally, there is TripIt. TripIt is an amazing service that I have used for over a decade. Every time you get a confirmation email from an airline, hotel, travel agent, etc, you forward it to a special email address TripIt parses all these emails and collects them into a single itinerary, using the dates to figure out which emails belong to the same trip. You never have to root around looking for a confirmation number again. It’s great! Especially clever: to sign up, just forward your first confirmation email to

Now this leaves one more question. Why are professors always so forgetful in the first place? There’s a very good reason for that, actually. But that’s a different post…

To PhD applicants: A word about department rankings

By Charles Sutton on November 12, 2017

When I was applying for my PhD, I used rankings of computer science departments to help me decide where to apply. Rankings are never perfect, but I didn’t have access to detailed knowledge of the research landscape, and the rankings helped to steer me in the right direction. In retrospect, I can see that the rankings were not perfect, and I made one or two silly mistakes about where to apply, but I would have made even more silly mistakes without them.

I’m saying this to give you this context: I’m not anti-ranking. Very possibly rankings have had a negative effect on higher education overall, but they can be useful if done right, and if you read them in the right way.

The Computing Research Association has just released a statement urging everyone to ignore the new rankings of global computer science departments from US News and World Report. I’m sorry to see this, because I found the US News rankings helpful when I was an undergraduate. But I’ve read the new US News rankings, and I have to agree with the CRA.

These US News rankings are absurd. They are garbage. No one should read them, and I won’t even link to them. You can find them easily via a search engine. Please don’t. The ranking methodology is flawed, for a simple reason that any computer science researcher could tell them immediately. And we did. Influential researchers in computer science pointed out the flaws directly to editors at US News; they were ignored. I don’t know why the editors of US News would ignore this feedback, unless they cared a lot about creating a controversy that would generate page views, and not at all about helping students who are applying for their PhD.

I’ll repeat: Please do not read these rankings at all, not even if you intend take my advice and ignore them. If you click on them, even to laugh at them, you are spending advertisers’ money to support this magazine in misleading PhD applicants who are not as well informed as you.

My advice: If you need rankings, instead go to This is a fully open ranking from Prof Emery Berger at UMass Amherst that ranks global computer science departments directly by the amount of research they produce. You can filter the rankings by geographic area and research area. No ranking is perfect, but this is defensible and open.

I mentioned that rankings are only useful if you read them correctly. Here are some thoughts about how to do that:

  • Overall ranking is not the same as subject specific ranking. The department ranked #50 isn’t ranked that way because its research is #50 in every area of CS. Instead, it will have some research areas that are #50 — which is still pretty damn good — but a few groups that are in the top five. If you are in one of those top groups, then you are in a top group, with all the same excitement and opportunity as the top groups at a bigger name school.

  • Disregard small differences in ranking. Ranking is an ill-defined problem, so you can’t take small differences seriously. As far as overall strength goes, the school ranked #1 is exactly the same as the school ranked #5. Exactly the same. But #1 is going to be overall stronger than #18.

  • For your PhD, what matters most is your supervisor and their group, rather than the department overall. This relates to what I said above, and is probably worth a blog post of its own.

  • Rankings are not life. The distinctions that we are talking about here are small distinctions at the very top. The school ranked #100 — I haven’t looked up what it is — is a fine university with brilliant researchers where you will learn a lot. Here’s an analogy. The weakest football player in the English Premier League, who spends most of his time on the bench, is still a prodigiously talented football player who would run circles around anyone who you and I have ever met. The difference between Lionel Messi and that guy — that’s the level of difference we’re talking about here.

The key point: Use rankings as a way to discover departments you didn’t know about that are strong in your area. Don’t use them as a way to decide between departments: For that, you should be reading the work of potential supervisors that interest you. Doing a PhD is about learning to do research. What types of papers do you want to write?