Something rotten in Denmark

Columbia Lake, Waterloo, Ontario. A beautiful, if windy, Autumn afternoon. I took the opportunity of my adviser being half way across the globe to also head out of Erlangen and spend a week with my girlfriend, working from home during my stay.

I actually had the intention of attending a conference in Los Angeles in the beginning of December, which would have brought me to Waterloo a few weeks later. But that didn't follow through, and as I walked back in that sunny afternoon, I figured the reasons, or lack thereof, were worth writing about.

As some of you know - and this is all largely irrelevant to the story at hand, but helps better situate those unfamiliar with my research - my Ph.D. revolves around quantum information theory, with an emphasis on possible quantum optical implementations. One long-standing question in the field is, "what are the minimal resources needed to accomplish a certain task?" - which has different answers depending on which task is being considered. I'm working at answering this question with some particular assumptions on the resources, where the 'task' is error correction - in other words, safeguarding the information being transmitted through a potentially lossy or noisy channel. Anyway. I'm trying to generalise a certain previous result, lifting some assumptions on the resources to better match what is currently experimentally achievable. At first, we thought this would be a fairly straightforward deal - maybe so simple as to have been overlooked by the original authors. As we progressed, we identified a number of roadblocks, and as usual, overcoming them involves developing new tools, or, as we have it, expanding an existing method to other classes of systems. Simply put, I want to expand the result of A. et al, using a generalisation of the method developed by B. et al.

As of this moment, the formal proof is still pending, but I have a fairly good idea of how the structure of the result looks like - and this is what, a few months ago, I intended to submit to the conference. By the time the event came around, I thought, maybe I'd have managed to find the missing pieces of the puzzle; if not, A., B., and other experts on the previous results and methods I'm working with, would be in the audience, and could eventually provide insightful comments helping me put together the definitive solution. How naive of me.

My adviser vetoed the submission. He believes that presenting an incomplete work could give rival groups (more on that in a second) an edge, and they, being experts in the subject matter at hand, could end up arriving at the intended result before we managed to get ours ready for publishing. I countered, saying they could be brought as co-authors in an eventual paper reporting the findings. Nope. "It's probably best not to bring additional people on board the project at this time", his words. As most people in Academia will agree, this is a simple case of protecting our investment, just as any industry will not reveal a new product before its patent is applied for.

All would be well, but for the fact that we're not a for-profit research company. See, my scholarship is funded by the German Research Association (DFG, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) - which, in turn, is mostly funded by the State, which, as we all know, is kept by taxpayers' money. One could argue that the goal behind sponsoring my research is to deliver some contribution to the people - of the state of Bavaria, of the Federal Republic of Germany, or even of the whole European Community - however indirect this contribution may be. Now, one of the "rival" groups turns out to be from another university distant maybe 400km from ours, and, alas!, they are also sponsored by public-funded agencies - in fact, we have even collaborated in writing some grant proposals together. The other rival group comes indeed from a different continent, but once more, they are also funded by taxpayers' money, and, again, are our 'partners' when it comes to applying to joint European-North American research projects. Am I the only one seeing the irony here?

As I entertained thoughts of throwing the towel a few weeks ago - an activity I engage in, for now, for entertainment purposes only - I contemplated releasing all my unpublished - and sometimes unfinished - results into the public domain. Who knows, there may be another Ph.D. student somewhere, also stuck on similar points, who could learn from my mistakes and, if not arriving at the correct result, at least avoid getting stuck for months in the same issues that I spent so much time on. My loss could be your gain.
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I love sharing my training logs, workouts and power numbers - besides technical and tactical advice - out in the open, fully knowing that my competitors may be reading it all as well (and no, I don't think I warrant such level of attention by my adversaries, but that's another story). If I am to be beaten, it's because the other man was indeed stronger. If I am to win, hopefully it will be in a race made as hard as possible by all other competitors - and that includes my, hopefully positive, contribution to their performance.

Funny how so many parallels can be drawn between cycling and academia. Supply - of both aspiring amateur cyclists and graduate wanna-be scientists - is ample, whereas demand - for research professors, or professional cyclists - is stagnant at best. That a competitive environment should result is not in the least questioned. But still, and specially so when such environment ceases to be healthy and stimulating, and acquires a crippled, poisonous stance, one must be able to realise that, sometimes, winning at all costs isn't winning at all.
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Yet another whinny post to justify stepping down from my goals? Far from it. As I've said time and again, I believe in an extricate life-work-sport combination which, in its balance, includes a healthy dose of insanely unbalanced acts. Somehow, striving in adverse conditions has a very appealing factor - and even more so if it can be associated with "fighting the good fight", a perspective through which I can see both my sportive and academic endeavours.

Now, if you were to ask me whether it's possible for one to nurture a meaningful relationship while simultaneously defending a Ph.D. and attempting to make it in the highest sporting level? Hmmm... challenge accepted.

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