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End of Year Post: 2020

By David Strohmaier

What has 2020 brought? In this post I want to offer a selective reflection on my research career and its developments in 2020. I will take a perspective that is at the same time deeply personal and highly abstract. From my personal heights, I’ll gesture at the turns I’ve taken this year, note a few outcomes, and point towards my future commitments.

Reorientations and Pivots

My 2020 was characterised by multiple research reorientations and pivots. Many of these pivots I made privately, barely discussing them with my closest friends. These changes resulted from my assessment of my career trajectory and the various research fields into which I have tipped my toes. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but I intend to work less on social ontology and more on natural language processing (NLP). Generally, the path I chose is indicated by my most recent blog posts, which focus on the semantic dimensions of natural language, including lexical semantics. That choice, however, came after much trepidation and pivoting and in the last quarter of this year.

Why the need for a pivot? All too often academia ends up tying intelligent people to a misguided path of research. Various aspects of academic institutions, such as the need to develop a publication record in a narrow subfield, incentivise researchers to stick with their research projects even when emerging evidence weighs against it. While sometimes sticking to one path pays off in the long run – the researchers who stuck to neural networks during the various AI winters are a prime example of success – in many cases it appears misallocation. Our human capacities are not well allocated for maximising the scientific progress of humanity, or much else of value.

The possibility of wasting my limited capacities on fruitless research endeavours frightens me greatly. Hence, I have a history of abandoning research directions with which I have become disillusioned. A few years ago, before the final stages of my PhD, I was working in the history of philosophy and specifically on German Idealism, but by now that seems far removed from my research interests. While I can still derive joy from picking up a book by Hegel and perusing it, I cannot see myself dedicating my life to it. Hegel does not appear in my philosophy PhD thesis and after finishing my thesis, I completed an MPhil in advanced computer science, moving into NLP.

The opposite worry of wasting my capacities on fruitless endeavours is that my endless pivoting will not lead to any lasting scientific contributions either. Scientific progress relies on risky up-front investments and other than sheer luck, there is no way around that fact. Given the advanced state of most scientific fields, researchers have to delve deep into a field to contribute. Accordingly, I also fear the prospect of my research career flailing endlessly. That being said, I hope that my decisions in the later part of 2020 put me on a promising research path. Directly or indirectly, my future blog posts will reveal whether my hope is misplaced.

Wrapping up Projects

While I kept pivoting between different research interests of mine, I also wrapped up some projects. Academically, these wrapping up events realised themselves as publications. I have published in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy and Synthese, both of which are fairly prestigious philosophy journals. Another philosophy paper has been accepted for publication and should appear in the next few months. These three papers are exploratory stepping stones in my research career. Although some of their insights will inform my future inquiries, I will abandon much of them. It would be a great joy to me if someone else would pick up the abandoned pieces and developed them into more than I have been able to. If you have any interest in that, feel free to drop me an email.

Perhaps I should do a better job of advertising and selling these papers – and since I put considerable time and effort into them, I hope that they are of value – but in this post I am trying to reflect on the overall development of my academic career, and I doubt that these papers will be the most remarkable ones of my career. In fact, I would be rather disappointed in myself if they turned out to form the pinnacle of my research. My ambitions have not been realised yet.

Forward into 2021

I go into 2021 with a renewed sense of commitment to furthering the scientific progress of humanity within the bounds of my limited capacities and interests. Over the last 10 years, I learned, read, and wrote without excessive regard for disciplinary boundaries. Towards the end of my PhD, I started to question my research trajectories – not that I was ever certain about them – and I explored how I might live up to my commitment of furthering scientific progress. As a result, I expanded into computer science in 2018, but I avoided decisions about my career until they become more pressing over the course of this year. In 2021, I hope to build upon the restructured foundations of my research career and start living up to my commitment. Maybe I will read some more for it in the last few hours of this year.

For the scientific progress of humanity!

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