Research idealism VS real world

Have you ever had the experience of a kid who asks you a candid and simple question, that has a complicated answer? The kind of question like "Why we have so much and there are kids starving in India?", where you think "I wish the world was so simple and fair, like the spirit with which you are asking this".

Today I gave a talk to an audience of master students about the state of my research on dynamic X-ray tomography (find the talk here) and I found many of them puzzled by the fact we often do not test our algorithms with real medical data. One even asked me why I would not contact a doctor and ask for a medical scan to use for my tests. I tried to explain that research is not that simple.

Creating such contact would require that:

  • I find someone who is interested to engage in a complete new, challenging and long project.
  • That someone is easy to communicate with, even if we speak different technical languages.
  • I would have complete freedom (not to mention experience!) to work without thinking of the number or frequency of publications.
  • Finally, I should have free access to anonymised medical data.

Also, students do not have a clear idea of how long research takes. I do not blame them, it was a shock to me as well. I used to think that you magically get an idea, you contact experts and - BOOYAH - here is something new in the name of science and progress. Half an year, at most. It blew my mind away when I was explained that even just starting a collaboration in industrial mathematics can take a year, during which people communicate and explain to each other a problem from their own perspective. I have the feeling that I was not the only one thinking in such naive way, since almost all Ph. D. students I know have spent their first year panicking for their lack of results and understanding of what was going on, feeling like impostors.

This is exactly how it goes. Courtesy of
This is exactly how it goes.
All rights to

I feel lucky because I have two advisors who listen to what I have to say but are not afraid to tell me "No, I don't think this is the right way to go for you"; in this sense, I have a good degree of freedom, for someone in my position of small expertise. On the other hand, truth is that whenever you apply for an academic position you get evaluated on the number and quality of your publications, not to mention that you are supposed to finish your Ph. D. studies in about 4 years, so you have to be humble with your expectations. I am not arguing against anything here, just explaining the facts.

Nevertheless, I cannot help dreaming of starting my own projects, winning Nobel Prizes and maybe conquering the world ;P... But I guess you have to never stop dreaming and believing if you work in research.

Paola Elefante

Digital Scaling Project Manager at Plan International. Proud mother & wife. Shameless nerd&geek. Feminist. Undercover gourmet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.