February 6, 2009

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Researcher

Nice Idea by Libby MillerDespite what some people think (see “the myth of the lone inventor” in [1]) most scientists are usually pretty sociable people. Science is an inherently social activity [2], just take a look around you. Most laboratories are full of like-minded people working on related problems, our lab is no exception. Outside the lab, there are all the conferences, workshops, seminars, trips to the pub, coffee breaks and other meetings where scientists meet and exchange ideas and results. Finally, note the peer in peer-review – another essentially social activity, even when it is anonymous.

But in between these gregarious social activities there is a long, lonely and pretty unsociable road where you need to spend lots of time thinking, reading, writing and experimenting. Essentially you are alone, like a modern day hermit, especially at the earlier stages of a career. Solitary confinement in your ivory tower of choice needs to be balanced with various kinds of socialising. Talking about and watching what other people are doing, as well as publicising your own work are an essential part of the mix. But you still need to put the hours in on the road. It isn’t always easy to get it right, so how do you strike a balance between the social and the solitary activities to establish yourself as an independent research scientist?

Professor Alan Bundy (and friends) at the University of Edinburgh describe loneliness as one of the many “psychological hurdles” [3] that you need to overcome in order to be a successful long distance runner researcher [4]:

“You are going to need all the enthusiasm you can muster to give you the perseverance and motivation to see you through what will be a hard, lonely and unstructured period. It will help if you choose to tackle a problem you consider of central importance (though you cannot expect to bite off more than a small chunk of it). It will also help if you choose an area which utilizes your already proven abilities, e.g. theoretical computing for mathematicians; computational linguistics for linguists. Beware of choosing an area new to you because of its superficial appeal. The gloss will soon wear off when you are faced with the hard grind necessary to get a basic grounding in it. ” [3]

Which means you need to pick problems that you can stay motivated and enthusiastic about for long periods of time. This is easier said than done. One way to do this, and help strike the right balance between the social and the solitary activities is to start or join a local Journal Club. These tend to be pretty informal, a small bunch of people select a paper or two and get together to discuss them. We’ve just started one in our lab, where we reviewed a couple papers [5,6] in systems biology. Journal clubs are a good way to interact in more informal ways and meet new people who you might not normally work with. Thanks to MCISB members Kieran Smallbone, Natalie Stanford and Neil Swainston and for organising it – drop them a line if you’re in the Manchester area and would like to join in on the next systems biology journal clubbing session. We like to give interesting papers a good beating!

This particular club helped me to make some new contacts and stay motivated to put more miles in on the road [7]. Now, where did I put my running shoes? The road is beckoning again…


  1. Scott Berkun (2007). The Myths of Innovation, Myth Number 5: The Lone Inventor O’Reilly ISBN:0596527055 (see also the myth of the lone genius)
  2. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid (2000). The Social Life of Information Harvard Business School Press ISBN:0875847625
  3. Alan Bundy, Ben du Boulay, Jim Howe and Gordon Plotkin (1985). The Researcher’s Bible repackaged in short presentation format as How to Get a PhD in Informatics: The loneliness of the long distance researcher, University of Edinburgh Informatics Research Methodologies Lectures
  4. Allan Sillitoe (1958). The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner Harper Collins ISBN:0007255608 (see also If Science was an Olympic Sport)
  5. Yuri Lazebnik (2002). Can a biologist fix a radio? or, what I learned while studying apoptosis. Cancer Cell 2 (3), 179-182. DOI:10.1016/S1535-6108(02)00133-2 (see also Rod Carvalho’s reasonable deviations)
  6. Monica Mo and Bernhard Palsson (2008). Understanding human metabolic physiology: a genome-to-systems approach. Trends in Biotechnology 7(1):37-44. Epub 2008 Nov 17. DOI:10.1016/j.tibtech.2008.09.007
  7. Max Martin (1999). My Loneliness is Killing Me as performed by Britney Spears, Travis and many others.

[CC-licensed Nice idea picture by Libby Miller]

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.


  1. Hi Duncan,

    I’m probably only around in Manchester for a few more months, but I’m for journal club.

    Comment by Mike — February 6, 2009 @ 3:24 pm | Reply

  2. I’ve always liked journal clubs that are on the edge of what the group generally knows about or that go against accepted wisdom (hence my suggestions at http://fistful.wordpress.com/2009/01/29/can-a-biologist-fix-a-radio/).

    I used to be in a group that did Friday Science, which was even better than JC because every Friday afternoon was dedicated to talking about and trying out new ideas (part of the reason why I never shut up in the lab). Some of these ideas became grant applications, some we played with for the afternoon and then forgot about. The whole point was to establish a culture of setting aside time to generate and discuss ideas. We had a massive blackboard and an endless supply of chalk. Every week someone would suggest a short idea or question (often totally obscure in nature) like…
    “What might we use Gödel numbers for?” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godel_number)
    “How could you detect life on extra-solar planets?”
    “What is Loplop drawing?” (http://www.abcgallery.com/E/ernst/ernst49.html)
    …but these were only to get the group used to talking over ideas with each other – fear of looking stupid can be very stifling.

    Here’s a question for you. If a new idea is generated at Journal Club and it sounds like a good’un, but nobody declares any intention of ever doing anything about it, would we post it on the blog for the World to see?

    Comment by Paul Dobson — February 8, 2009 @ 10:05 pm | Reply

    • Hi Paul, generally, I think a journal club should be a safe environment to discuss ideas without recrimination. If people knew that the ongoing discussion might be blogged, it might discourage them from saying “this paper is sh*te because bla bla bla” – so I think Chatham House Rules should apply by default. However, if consent is given by all people present, then it sounds like a good idea to post it on the blog for all the interweb to see…

      Comment by Duncan — February 8, 2009 @ 11:52 pm | Reply

  3. Hi Ducan Hull,

    For nearly 15 years now I have been studying an alternative cosmology and while the are nice people around me it is still a very lonely road. There are no journals in my area and no conferences so I rely on the phone internet and local cafe for human contact.



    Comment by Robert Davidson — December 20, 2009 @ 2:26 am | Reply

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