Thursday, July 20, 2006

Mike Paterson's Secrets for Success

During the award ceremonies at ICALP 2006 in Venice, Mike Paterson, the recipient of the EATCS distinguished award for 2006, delivered a very witty talk in which he told the attendees his "secrets for success." Here is the short story for those amongst you who could not be in Venice to listen to Mike in person. (I apologize for any misrepresentation of Mike's message, and for being unable to match the wit and warmth in his presentation using this medium---or any other for what matters.)

Mike summarized the ingredients of his "success" as follows:
  1. Start early!
  2. Get lucky!
  3. Hang out with smart people!
  4. Enjoy what you do!
The first of these pieces of advice is probably the hardest to follow for many of us. What Mike meant was that at the beginning of a research field there are, I quote, "a lot of cherries ready for picking." These are problems whose solution is deemed to be important for the early development of the field and is not technically very hard. As a field matures, the open questions tend to get harder and harder, and the techniques that are brought to bear to their solutions are more and more sophisticated. Moreover, at the beginning of a research field, one can even try and steer the interests of the research community towards the problems one can actually solve.

The second point is that it does help to be in the "right place at the right time." A chat with the right person may open a lot of doors, and so can working with the right people and on a topic that is deemed to be hot at a given time. Mike gave some personal reminescences related to how he ended up working at MIT, and sharing an office, actually two offices, with Michael Fischer. Having said that, "Luck favours the prepared mind" (Pasteur), and so one should make one's own luck.

Having good collaborators is one of the most important factors in a research career. A look at our research landscape quickly reveals that more and more papers are multi-authored and are the result of a collaboration. I would recommend "hanging out with smart people" to any young researcher, no matter how smart he/she might be. There is so much to be learned in working with others!

Regarding the last point, Lance Fortnow wrote in this post that you must "Be sure to have fun doing your research because if you are not having fun you won't be successful and you can likely make more money doing something else that isn't fun." Judging from his presentations at ICALP, Mike Paterson is still having a lot of fun doing his research! Look at his recent work on the "overhang" problem with Uri Zwick to understand why. Uri Zwick is one of the "smart people" Mike likes to hang out with.

Mike's latest project is the Centre for Discrete Mathematics and its Applications. Check it out.

Thanks to Mike for setting such a good example for all of us to try and follow.

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