After many mentor lunches, doctoral consortiums and interviewing professors for this blog, I have come across a common theme: many professors actually regret a lot.
Though the “Research Heroes” series on this blog has been full of interviews of professors saying more or less “I regret nothing,” this sentiment is not shared by many in our field. Since, it is unlikely that even 2% of the people reading this post will be as successful as the Research Heroes we have previously interviewed, it may be useful for us to listen to what other professors are saying (many who are also very successful).
So why do so many professors regret how they spent their time? It comes down to one phrase: All research is valuable, but some research is more valuable. Many professors regret working on projects that had little impact theoretically or substantively, but were safe publications. Today those publications have few cites and no practitioner has ever lifted an eyebrow at the findings.
For anonymity’s sake I will not reference the specific projects professors deemed as their “unimportant projects” but the projects they mentioned shared a number of qualities. These qualities are: 1) the findings were idiosyncratic to a domain, 2) it was difficult or pointless to apply the findings in a practical way, and 3) the findings neither answered nor stimulated any interesting questions. Oddly enough, these weaknesses could have been identified before starting the project.
Literature, parents, and religion have taught us to spend our limited time on Earth wisely. And though we may apply this wisdom to how we live our lives, we are not always good at applying it to how we do research, often chasing an idea because we think “it will work” rather than thinking, “does it matter if it works.”
Maybe try this test next time you have an idea. First tell a decision researcher and see if they think is theoretically interesting and distinct. Second, go tell a friend, significant other, or parent about your idea and see if they think it is interesting. If they don’t, you may want to reconsider the idea.