The Motivation for doing Science

I find your lack of faith disturbing.
Darth Vader, Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope

For better and for worse, I consider myself to be some scientist. Not a lab scientist of course, but someone who tries to apply computer innovations to the biomedical field. There’s nothing wrong with this (obviously!). However, sometimes, finding the right motivation for doing science can be quite challenging.

It was effortless to find the right motivation for starting a PhD instead of going to a private company. Luckily, I had the opportunity to join a bioinformatics group that was growing steadily every year and where I was able to make my own research path on new interesting subjects (service composition, semantic web, data integration…). More importantly (at least for the control freak in me), I was in charge of the entire development cycle of new products. Requirements analysis, architecture planning, data modelling, implementation, testing, marketing and publishing. Rinse and repeat. Whereas in any company I could’ve joined I would be doing just one of these tasks 5 days a week, in my PhD work I was responsible for everything: from choosing the programming language to aligning the buttons in the UI up to writing the final publications.
A few months before finishing my PhD, I started sending my resume to a few companies in my area. I also sent a couple ones to international companies and research groups (but I admit I wasn’t very keen on going to another country). I got some replies really fast and did some interviews. From there on, it was pretty clear that there were two types of companies offering something compelling.
First, there were some huge companies where having a PhD meant precisely nothing. If you want a position there, you start from scratch. A few months or a year in a trainee academy and then, if you are outstanding, you might get a more stable (and better paid) position. These are the type of companies that are entirely closed to outsiders, especially in a higher administration level. If you want in, you start at the bottom of the pyramid, whatever your degree.
Second, there are smaller companies, more significant than startups but not yet large SMEs, that are willing to take the risk and hire you to a position in the middle of the pyramid. You won’t start at the top, but your past research work is valued and your (ability to give great) future contributions recognized. Despite their shorter margins, these companies are more prone to risk in hiring something with a past on research, even if their business experience is nil (or null).
I honestly thought it would be the other way around. Why do large companies add so many roadblocks to hiring more qualified personnel? (This still worries me today…)

As I mentioned in previous posts, I did not leave academia. And although I felt like leaving for a long time, I managed to turn it around, fill in the void, and find the right motivation to continue pursuing my research work.
I find my motivation in three simple areas: (1) research and apply state of the art technologies and ideas from one domain to an entirely distinct one, in my case, from computer science to biomedicine; (2) be part of more prominent research efforts; (3) translate research work to other fields.
Although this may not be true about some more modern startups, in the majority of classic businesses the freedom (or lack, thereof) employees have to explore new things is very… limited. When you’re doing research, especially in fields that require some kind of computer engineering involvement, you have the freedom to explore the latest technology trends and ideas. And I’m not just talking about programming languages. In most research groups I’ve seen, PhD students and other random researchers can try distinct technologies, distinct lab protocols or analysis algorithms. In fact, they are encouraged to do it. And this “out-of-the-box” thinking ultimately results in more significant innovation and, in the long run, better scientific results. For me, the ability to use (and improve) “state-of-the-art” technologies are very enticing.
This is also directly related to the second point. For better or worse, national and international research projects provide the fuel (i.e., money) that keeps the research engine running. Being able to participate in these kinds of significant endeavours is immensely attractive. And not just on the soft skills side. These projects validate the work you are doing. If you keep writing useful publications and delivering outstanding products, the probabilities of leading and being invited for new projects grow. What better motivation can we have than working on solving actual problems for a broad science community? These projects also foster new collaborations amongst distinct teams and environments. This may not have esoteric serendipitous meaning, but the outcomes of these collaborations can bring significant value.
As for the last point, it is related to the previous two. Just look at Google. They have managed to exploit their (published) research algorithms and turn them into a successful business model. Combine relevant research work with the validation from international peers, and you’re one step closer to a successful product. Measuring the metrics of success can be complicated, especially in science. But this also opens the door to go beyond the scientific scope. This does not apply to all research areas, but for computer science research, the odds are definitely in our favour.
A few ideas are missing, the teaching experience, the ability to be continuously learning… However, the line “innovative research - peer validation - publish product” clearly defines what keeps me motivated for doing research. And in spite of being in an excellent position at the moment, I hope that improving on each of the elements in this trifecta can lead me to even better places.

Pedro Lopes
Aveiro, Portugal