On Becoming a Scientist

When it comes to science, my strategy has been: Fake it, until you make it

Every month, my friends over at INFORMS, blog about our field, Operations Research and Management Science. I decided to join them for this month and write a blog post about “Science, and Holidays”.  By now you may already know that as a Muslim born atheist, I do not celebrate Christmas. I mean I have nothing against Santa or Baby Jesus or any type of fictional character. I would like to celebrate it.  I just don’t have any relatives here to celebrate Christmas with. My girlfriend is Canadian, so for the last 4 years she has left me alone for Christmas to see her mom! This has developed a deep seeded hatred in me towards Christmas, Canada and quite possibly mothers! (Now that I am thinking about it I hate not only mothers but also fathers. At this point in life I hate everybody)

Dr Dre

Dr Dre. He is not a real doctor but his research has been mainly on studying the effects of cannabis on human creativity. He makes cool beats on the side as well.

For this post I thought I’d write about how I want to leave my hacker life and become a scientist. Not necessarily an uptight professor but more like someone who has principles to lead his life. One who refuses to blindly accept anything without scientific bases.  After all I am a PhD student in an institution that trained top scientists like Ted Kaczynski (unibomber) and Robert Oppenheimer (remember atomic bomb?) so at some point I will become a top scientist like them even if I don’t want to. Below are my new year’s resolution written on a lonely Christmas eve in San Fransisco airport.

1-  Use less hacks, More science (or act like a real scientist not an engineer)

I was raised an engineer. Got a degree in aerospace eng and a graduate degree in mechanical engineering. This was enough to spoil me for life and make me incapable of using science instead of shitty hacks. I confess, I am addicted to metahuristic methods, I use logistic regression for everything. I use off-the-shelf software to solve my problems in a quick and dirty way. And this habit sickens me.  The one that contaminates science with illegitimate hacks is me. But I am quitting. This year I will use more science and less hack. More blackboard and less computer. More brain, less ant colonies.


The more I stay in university the more I realize that those days that a lonely researcher could solve problems in his dark and humid basement office is over. Problems are becoming more and more multidisciplinary. We either come out of our shells and start moving and talking together or we will die in our own bubble, alone and stupid.

Fight for Modern Operations Research (OR)

There are two school of thoughts in OR. Classic OR that focuses on Optimization, Stochastic Processes and those things.  And Modern OR that is more focused on using more modern tools to solve problems in Management Science. These new tools include Machine Learning, Analytics and Data Visualization, Human Computation, Quantitative Psychology and so on. This year I want to join those brave scientists who fight to change the rusty definition of OR and still believe that OR is beautiful and young.

Kanye West

Kanye West who is highly regarded as "The Voice of a Generation" by himself. Came out as a proud non-reader. Many believe that his ignorance towards book contributed to his success in music. But his douchery comes naturally.

Read less, Do more

I spend a good amount of my time reading papers than actually generating papers. I am trying to reverse this trend this year. I feel I have read enough and haven’t written much.

Be more respectful to those who devote their lives to theory and don’t even give a crap about application

There are serious OR questions in real life that can benefit many human lives. AIDS in Africa can be a very challenging graph theoretical question. Middle East conflicts is an interesting game theoretical problem.  World hunger is a logistic problem. Yet many of smartest people in OR spend their lives on questions that have no clear application in the real world.  I used to think that these scientist are ignoring real humans for their fantasies.  After all there is no honor in saving one person’s life with science but you get shit load of publicity if you solve P=NP (I still don’t know whether or not it translates to advancements in real applications) But I am starting to believe we should respect and honor those who chose to ignore real OR problems and decide to immerse themselves in the pool of imaginary problems and solutions.

Partake in scientific activities

I have found out that scientific challenges can teach me a lot of stuff and dramatically deepen my current shallow knowledge. I am planning to participate more in online scientific challenges and science meetups (things like AI meetups, Kaggle challenges, and even more consulting projects). Last year I benefited from these activities and this year I will overdose on these.

Document more precisely

I believe I document my work well but I am trying to push for more. I have been using a personal wiki for my academic work and been very happy with it. LaTEX is also good but is hard to keep track of.

Put up with abuse if you love to learn

Here at Berkeley we have been lucky to have some of the smartest scientists in the world. Unfortunately a great scientist does not necessarily need to be a great teacher. Nowhere in tenure applications scientists need to prove that they are not total morons or are familiar with basic human social protocols [example] . I have learned to put up with the verbal abuse and humiliation when I want to learn something. My advice for younger generation is that never fear to ask even if the other person is an absolute jerk. The verbal abuse will end but the knowledge you gain will last for ever.

Use smart drugs

Provigil is shown to enhance brain performance with almost no permanent side effects. I have recently realized that it is widely used among my friends who are working on their PhDs. It is also legal. I’m planning to expand my Provigil use this year.

Stop giving a shit about politics, economy and people

I used to spend a lot of time on political and economy news. Specifically I used to believe we should not be neutral about issues that endanger human lives.  Issues like human rights and freedom especially women and gay rights are important issues. Recently, I have realized that the more you develop opinions about these issues the more you endanger your future career as a researcher. Other academics like to think you are a sharp person in your own field and a potato in every other serious issue. Screw people, I am planning to spend no time in politics.

God Hates

There is something about this photo that makes me very sad. I googled "God Hates" a couple of days ago and this was the first image.

[Disclaimer: this post is written by Mark S Alen for fun on a Christmas eve in the SFO airport. If you use this post against him on any case especially but not limited to job interviews you automatically agree to donate a fine of $100K to UN world food program]


~ by marksalen on December 25, 2010.

4 Responses to “On Becoming a Scientist”

  1. i am surprised you would suggest the extensive use of drugs. what do your colleagues say about the brain performance enhancement side of the drug? I have read quite a few times that it doesn’t increase brain performance by that much. Though I have never tried it.

  2. Mark – I had a good laugh at your post! Maybe it’s time to create your own end-of-December holiday, or observe Seinfeld’s Festivus.

    Thomas – it’s written at the bottom that the post was meant in jest. I’ve never met anybody who uses Provigil but I can imagine time pressure is an issue at some top graduate programs (I got my PhD from MIT and again I’m not aware of any Provigil use while I was there but I graduated 6 years ago – not sure when the drug became popular). It’s possible some students deal with the pressure by using medication to try to remain awake longer. I don’t think it’s about brain performance enhancement in itself. Provigil was initially developed to help people suffering from excessive drowsiness stay awake. You’ll notice that Mark also wrote “with almost no permanent side effects”, which might have been the most hilarious line of the whole post.

    One thing that worries me is that life as a grad student is actually *a lot* more relaxed than life as a professor, with lectures to prepare, grant proposals to write, committee meetings to attend, papers to edit and meetings to hold. In a nutshell, there are a lot more deadlines. Students who feel they need legal drugs to do all their work might not be cut out for academia, because time pressures keep on intensifying.

    On the other hand, profs who are great researchers but don’t bother being good teachers might not be cut out for academia either, and yet here they are.

    Best wishes for 2011!

  3. Amelie – I haven’t thought about the possibility that they want to remain awake longer. But I don’t know too many US PHD students either.

    about your worry, doesn’t relaxation mostly come from security — it doesn’t matter how busy you are and I would be surprised if a professor has less security than a PHD student. most of the things you mentioned are pretty mundane, where is the risk in sitting in a metting?
    more deadlines — maybe, but I would like to see a PHD telling a postdoc to F-off when he wants you to program something for him. besides professors are really good at piggybacking students and postdocs when it comes to conference papers 😉

    since it fits:

    disclaimer: i am not phd student 😉


  4. Hi Thomas,

    Assuming profs are relaxed because they have job security (after tenure) is a big assumption. Some profs might get relaxed after they become full professors (highest level in the hierarchy) – I am a tenured Associate Prof, which is the level below Full. Since I want to be promoted to Full some day, I’m definitely not relaxed.

    I’m expected to do a lot of different things, such as spending hours in committee meetings (some, such as faculty search committees, for which you have to do a lot of work and participate actively because it involves important decisions that can change someone’s career by giving him a job or not, but in the meantime my own work isn’t getting done), prepare grant proposals so that students get paid (students who sometimes waste hard-to-get funding money) and prepare lectures and other things for courses that are big time sinks.

    This is in addition to supervising grad students, which requires dealing with several distinct topics, checking proofs, editing papers, etc. I also supervise undergraduate and Master’s students. I find myself stretched very thin a lot of the time. Maybe I’m not the typical prof and maybe I help my students too much.

    I was sorry to read in the post that some Berkeley profs are jerks. Students deserve better, especially since their dissertation and the recommendation by their thesis advisor play such a big role in their job prospects. No one should put up with verbal abuse and/or humiliation. People who inflict that on students are petty, and not the great researchers they imagine themselves to be.

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