Friday, April 09, 2010

Analogy between Research and The Oregon Trail

I don't actually agree with what I am about to say---in fact, I think that for most researchers it wouldn't be a good idea at all---but at the recent networks conference, a couple of us came up with an analogy between research and The Oregon Trail that I really dig and which has a bit of truth to it: When hunting, we learned that one should ignore the rabbits and go after the buffalo. (Remember that the rabbits provided so little meat that it wasn't worth the time it took to catch them.)


Jon said...

"Rabbits travel single file to hide their numbers."

Seriously though, how do you know when you're chasing a rabbit? Its not like it leaves smaller tracks. I agree that you shouldn't pick a research direction that is clearly a rabbit hole.

But then isn't it a matter of timing and luck - bring the right tools, to the right problem, at the right time, don't get scooped, be sure you have sufficient understanding of the problem to begin with so you don't miss the obvious, have all the controls and validations come back unambiguous.

If you don't fire on all cylinders, then you (or your student) still needs to get a paper or two out of those years when you were following buffalo or wildebeast and ended up with rabbits.

Mason said...

I completely agree. The analogy massively oversimplifies things, and the fact that people need jobs, promotion, etc. is a major part of that.

An additional point where the analogy fails is that in the research world, buffalo are build on top of many, many rabbits. It's a very good thing that they have convenient breeding properties...

I still find the analogy amusing, though.