Assessing One's Worth

By cjohnson | October 23, 2005 9:05 pm

I do research. In fact, I consider it to be my primary activity in my job and lifestyle as a scientist (not the least because I hardly ever switch off that part of my brain), closely followed by teaching (my employer is also an educational institution), and then “other”, the latter encompassing a wide variety of things described (and to be described) on this blog, and including this blog itself.

I don’t get paid to do all of the above, but I certainly get paid to do research. The Department of Energy is the primary supporter of my research activities, and so every now and again I have to tell them what I’m up to and why, and what has come out of my activities. All such supported individuals have to do this from time to time, and it is part and parcel of an active researcher’s life. It also ensures helps to ensure not just support for oneself, but for the young people in the group who may also be supported on the grant, such as students and postdocs.

Well, it’s that time of year. I have to contribute to a report. It came up rather by surprise, in fact, since it was only earlier this year that the funds from the group’s recently renewed grant began to flow again. I’ve been busily writing a paper this weekend, and so I had to drag myself away from this, break the mood, and try to create a more reflective mood. Basically, I had to sit and think about the following:

“What have I been doing over the last year?”


“What was the outcome of these efforts?”


“Where is this all going?”


“How does it fit into the program of research that my agency supports?”

Well, these are rather heavy questions (there are several subsidiary ones), and so to get into the mood, I relocated, as I often do when I want to change my mood. The sun came out (finally) and I so decided to pop over to the Huntington Botanical Gardens for a bit of a think and a scribble of the first draft of what I’lll write in my report. This involves driving to San Marino and being gently reminded of how the other half lives (it’s a very very very posh neighbourhood/city (forget Beverly Hills)- median household income is something like $134K, I saw in the newspaper today), and then arriving at the lovely grounds, housing the gardens, the Library (Newton exhibition on now, by the way), and galleries. Have a look at their website.

huntington benchI’m actually a member there -merely a “sustaining” one, not a “sponsoring”, or a “supporting” one, nor a “patron” or “benefactor” (names of their membership levels!)- which means that for $100 per year, I can walk in for free and don’t even have to wait in line with the “great unwashed” (I reluctantly admit that this is not their name for non-members!), and I can even get in one guest -my mum this time- for free too. Given that it is $15 per visit for a non-member, and that I like to regularly pop into nice gardens for a look around or just to think, and that I have several visitors per year come by who will want to be taken there, the amount of money I save this way is clear, even by the reputed standards of string theorist’s computations of real numbers.

huntington view So I sat there for a while and reflected about how to answer the DOE’s question “what have you done for me lately?”. Of course, I left the card for my camera in my computer at home, and so could not take the pictures of the remarkable variety of palms I wanted to show you (see earlier post), but I did have my mediocre phone camera, and so you can see a bit of my view, and one of the benches on which I might have sat.

Well, best get back to writing about my raison d’etre. I know I’m still to do a post about what it is I’m up to in research. I’ve not forgotten.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Science
  • D R Lunsford

    How can you write such self-serving crap?


  • Mark

    I don’t see that it is self-serving in the slightest. I think this is a nice post by Clifford, showing what physicists’ lives are like, and what types of work they need to do beyond the obvious things that people know about.

    If you don’t like this type of post, then either stop reading, or don’t visit our site. But don’t leave silly, insulting nonsense as a comment.

    I don’t think any of us appreciate it when the typically high level and polite nature of the discourse in our comments section is brought down by this type of behavior.

  • Arun

    Huntington Park is indeed a nice place to gather one’s thoughts. San Marino is quite beautiful, too. However, walking through San Marino used to cause a police car to play tag with me. Used to wonder if it is because I’m dark-skinned.

  • Clifford

    No mystery there, Arun.


  • citrine

    Insightful, well-written post with lovely photos! This is the modern-day version of Newton in his country home or Hamilton and cohorts in the German forests. I can picture you surrounded by all that greenery reflecting on the great mysteries of the universe and how you justify your contribution to the scheme of things to DOE folk.

    As I was reading your post I DID wonder about you being bothered by … ahem … strange people in the park. I love this time of the year and longingly look at parks ablaze with Fall colors. I would love to linger in one of them, admiring the scenery and getting some clear thinking done as well. But I’m always leery of some weirdo either running away with my purse while my focus is elsewhere or pestering me with unwanted attention.

  • Clifford

    Thanks citrine. I must say that once you’re inside Huntington, there is very little chance of being bothered by weirdos. The fact that I was sitting there and scribbling on a pad with a pen and staring into space from time to time may have been the weirdest behaviour in the park that day. It’s pretty much a haven of “good behaviour” for better or worse. It is really an excellent place to go and visit regulalry – as are any such gardens that can be found in most large cities.

    Arun: I do agree that one can be made to feel uncomfortable in neighbourhoods like San Marino in a way that is not unconnected to one’s sckin colour. Happens all the time. But I should say that I’ve never been given any reason to say the same thing about Hunutington. Although I seldom see people of colour in there, the staff are all nevertheless very polite, friendly, and welcoming. I’m sure some of the other visitors might harbour some less than welcoming feelings, but that’s (so far) their problem, not mine.

    Overall it is an excellent place. Another great Los Angeles (county) resource that is underused by the locals. Consider visiting there if you’re on holiday here or out for a business trip. And if you live anywhere near it, go over some time and check it out. If you’re at Caltech, PCC, or other nearby institution….. it’s in your back yard – buy a basic annual membership for $100 and visit regularly!



  • rpl

    While the feeling of being under a microscope (with one’s future funding possibly at stake, no less) might be uncomfortable, all of the questions you list except, perhaps, the last one are ones that as a scientist you should be asking yourself from time to time anyhow. I’ve seen too many scientists slip into a comfortable rut, in which they perform endless variations on a single theme year after year, without really accomplishing anything in the way of scientific advancement. Questions like “What have I accomplished this year?” and “Where are we going with this?” help to combat that sort of complacency.

    I think it’s a mistake to think of this sort of exercise as “assessing your worth” because that casts it in the light of passing judgement on your past year’s work. Instead, you should look at this sort of assessment as an opportunity to keep your research agenda sharp and focused, to winnow any parts of your research effort that are getting stale, and to avoid complacency.

    Anyway, good luck with your report.


  • Clifford

    rpl:- I completely agree that such exercises are of value. I hope I did not give you reason to think otherwise.

    Whether I like it or not, however, it is *also* accompanied by passing judgement. There’s not enough money in the system to go around. Someone has to judge whether research output is “worth it” or not. This is not a bad thing either… as long as the judging is fair, and done in context.

    So I welcome having these thoughts, and asking those questions, and this is why I highlighted them in the post.

    Cheers, and thanks.


  • JoAnne


    Where’s the circumflex-e in “raison d’être”? I think it’s time for some lessons in pointing and clicking…

  • Elliot

    Ah a flashback…. When I was an undergrad at Caltech, we (the cross country team) used to regularly run through San Marino. Thanks for bringing back the memory.


  • Clifford

    JoAnne. I’m way down on the technology food chain in that regard. You’ll have to teach me. I’m basically a very old-fashioned sort.



  • Arun

    Ê – if that shows up as a capital E with a circumflex, then using the Windows accessory “Character Map” works.

    BTW, this kind of introspection is said to be necessary in the “real world” as well – as in “what useful addition to my resumé did I make in the last six months?”, “am I bringing in my employer at least twice as much revenue as I cost?” and so on. If you don’t have good answers, you may be in for a “force management event”, and your prospects for the next job may not be very good.

  • Clifford

    “force management event”

    This sounds rather like those new-fangled things 100-level physics textbook writers invent every now and again as whole new ways of learning classical mechanics (because for some reason people neve explain the old ways keep going bad). :-D


  • citrine

    Maybe you can introduce it as a new term in String Theory. ;)

    Q: What causes a string to break and re-configure?
    A: A force management event

  • Amanda

    I’m going to display my youthful ignorance here and ask: why does a theoretical physicist need a grant? I thought that was mainly for experimentalists. Would I be right in guessing that virtually all of it is for attending conferences? But shouldn’t your employer cover that?

  • Clifford

    Hi Amanda,

    This is a good questiion and not borne of ignorance. Thanks for asking. Here’s a rough answer off the top of my head:

    Well, we theorists need to live and breathe and pay the bills just like experimentalists. So we need support for that. (Our employers typically pay us to teach and do service-type tasks, not research… least in the USA’s way of doing things.) Then we must support the salaries of students and postdocs. Most places also try to have a healthy stream of visitors in the form of a seminar program. Then even tough many of us are turning to macs, our computers still break down, even the regular ones used for admin and preparation of documents, small computations, etc…..and some of us also need more high-end machines for intense computations, simulations, etc. The there are all sorts of incidental things related to facilities, etc that can cost real money too a research programme. Attending conferences are actually quite a way down the list….. and I’m sure I’m forgetting something.



  • luolin

    Delurking…my mother used to take us to the Huntington Gardens, and I’ve been a few times as an adult when I’m back in If that is a picture of the Japanese garden, I once watched a visitor lose their camera when it got dropped and rolled down the slope into the pond. Maybe you were better off without your camera.

  • Clifford

    That *is* a picture of the Japanese garden! There was a lovely copse of bamboos just on the edge of the pond, from where I took that photograph. There was a pair of drakes harrassing a duck who was singularly unimpressed. The trio doesn’t show up in the photo, unfortunately. They were beyond the phone camera’s resolution.



  • Amanda

    Well, we theorists need to live and breathe and pay the bills just like experimentalists. So we need support for that. (Our employers typically pay us to teach and do service-type tasks, not research…..

    Oh no. You mean that this pays a large chunk of your salary?! But that’s barbarous — how can you buy a house or anything on such an uncertain income stream? I’m not saying of course that there is any question about the worth of your work, I just mean that anything in the control of bureaucrats is bound to be uncertain. Isn’t it incredibly stressful? It’s like not knowing where your next meal is coming from. Or is it perhaps the case that at universities like yours, grants are in practice almost never discontinued?

  • Clifford

    Amanda – nothing is certain in life. Except death, taxes, and budget cuts for fundamental research.

    Or is it perhaps the case that at universities like yours, grants are in practice almost never discontinued?

    As it should be, it is nothing whatsoever to do with the university, and everything to do with the quality of what I -the individual researcher- do. Sure it’s stressful, but yes, if I don’t perform/produce, why should I continue to be paid?


  • Amanda

    Sure it’s stressful, but yes, if I don’t perform/produce, why should I continue to be paid?

    So that you WILL perform/produce! Surely it’s obvious that people will do better research if they have peace of mind? And what about rewarding older people for a lifetime of effort, instead of kicking them in the ass the moment the creative juices start to flow less freely? Sorry, this is not directed at you, cvj, but this system really sucks. And all that is under the highly dubious assumption that it is administered fairly!


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