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October 9, 2005
Needs and Wants
Last week's question about whether the best people are going into this line of work brings up quite a few other related topics. For example, what motivates people to do research in the first place?
I've seen that question answered in a lot of different ways. At one end of the scale, I've had colleagues whose main motivation was Not To Fail. You see more lab assistants with that mentality than lab heads, but it's not unknown at any level. People in this category duck when they see something tricky coming their way, because those things have too high a chance of failure. They'd much rather be on a grind-it-out part of the project, cranking away on a bunch of analogs that everyone already knows have some activity. One step above that, they'd rather be on a project that everyone thinks will be a success.
I live the opposite stereotype. I'd much rather be on a project that people don't think has a good chance of working, because then you get a chance to be a hero. If it fails, hey, that's what people thought it would do anyway. (And as for those can't-miss projects, no thanks. They miss just about as often as everything else, and someone might need to be blamed for it). The best way to motivate my species is to come in and say "You know, nobody thinks that this can be done. Want to prove them wrong?" I'm not (necessarily) making a claim of superiority for this mindset. You don't want a department top-heavy with either type.
Then there are people whose motivations are outside the scientific realm. Most of those folks want to move up the ladder. If being a good scientist is the way to do that, they're willing to give it a try. If laughing at all the boss's jokes works better, that's fine, too. Whatever it takes. One thing about these people - they tend to stay focused. Someone with scientific interests can cause trouble by flitting from topic to topic as their fancy takes them, but a person who wants a promotion more than anything sticks to that task. The trick is to make the needs of the research organization match up reasonably well with what a person like this needs to have to advance. Then, everyone's happy. When those agendas start to diverge, you summon trouble.
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