Why we research

Geoffroy Couteau

Sharing our strengths to navigate scientific uncertainties

The primary reason why I do research is out of passion. I enjoy the slow process of approaching a problem that has yet to be solved, getting to really understand it, letting it grow on me, and waiting patiently for a crucial insight, an original thought. This is one of many good reasons to be a researcher. Though, as I hope to convey here, this is far from a necessary reason.

There are many ways to be a researcher. Some people will be particularly efficient at solving mathematical problems, others will be brilliant experimentalists. I would say that what works best for me is finding creative ideas: I might not be the best problem-solver or the fastest at handling hard calculations, and I don't stick that well to complex procedures (in particular, I easily make mistakes), but I enjoy playing with new concepts, combining techniques that have not been combined, and sometimes, a new result emerges from this process. The most exciting moment in the course of a project is when, after struggling for weeks, months, or sometimes years with a mathematical proof, or an algorithm that is not sufficiently efficient, the idea suddenly comes up (typically in the middle of the night). Of course, more often than not, the idea does not work -- but the next one just might!

I want to stress, however, that this is not at all the way to be a researcher. On a few occasions, I had students feeling like they might never become strong researchers, because they did not have the exact strength that I have (some ability to come up with new or different approaches for approaching a question). In the process, they typically overlook all the abilities that they have (and I don't) that can also make someone a great researcher! Some of these students are much stronger mathematicians or problem-solvers than I am, for example. On other occasions, I have seen students feeling almost guilty, or thinking that they could not become researchers because research was not a passion for them, not something they would stay awake at night for. But this is also fine: a research career is, well, a career. If it was reserved for geniuses, or people whose main passion is their work, there would simply not be enough researchers in the world to tackle all the problems that need to be tackled. Rather, if the process of thinking about open problems is something that feels interesting to you, or if you care deeply about some societal or technological issues, that is a great reason to consider a research career. If, in addition, you handle well the uncertainty of working on projects that might not have a clear path or a clear outcome, then this is a career that might be enjoyable to you. Eventually, if in the process of your PhD (or after), you end up identifying some strengths you have, and finding collaborators who can compensate for your weaknesses and benefit from your strengths, then you might just become a great researcher!

At the time of writing, Geoffroy Couteau is a permanent research scientists at the CNRS working at IRIF (Institut de recherche en informatique fondamentale).