First of all, as I was struggling with one of those analytical papers in my backpack while waiting for my RCC interview, I couldn’t help marveling at those people who seem to actually enjoy reading papers. To me even a very simple paper could be a tremendous amount of terror and pain to stomach. Should the author himself come sitting down and explain to me every single detail, I might feel slightly more worthy of my own precious youthful time. But in general little things in the papers could easily trip me up and despite the advice to skip over them and get the big picture, I just don’t feel secure enough to move on, and skip things more and more frequently. In the end I might have absorbed the words, but certainly not the mathematical contents. This has become a serious issue to me. I guess true mathematicians are supposed to be always ready to figure out little exercises embedded in these papers, and actually extract pleasure out of such challenge. But I am more down-to-earth and aspire a solid path of learning where I could be more passive. And it’s not that I am too lazy to force myself into more brain action. Sometimes I need to optimize my limited resources, which include foremost brain usage time.
Along the same line, I would also be thrilled to acquire the ability to switch between two diametrically different tasks, most notably the state of deep meditation as in reading a research paper, and the state of handling regular homework, which usually consists of hide and seek with textbooks, lecture notes or what have you. Such skill apparently is needed in pursuing a tenure track, and indeed if one wants to someday apply his knowledge to the world at large. But I figure one thing I really need to be good at is to decide when a paper is not suitable for me, and stop being greedy trying to read all of them at once. It’s much more gratifying to hanker down one single paper in its full ramified detail than browsing through a bunch in the hope for later use. One of my dad’s friends is famous (to me) for saying that researchers must focus on one thing at a time and not move from branch to branch too often. The migration must be vegatative, i.e., slowly. I completely agree. Otherwise there is no need for the type of philosophical training that we receive, and people might as well start their own little research laboratory at home, divorced from the great resesarch institutions.
Finally from the interview experience I had with the RCC selection committee, I noticed how unprepared I was when confronted with those seemingly innocent enough questions thrown at me. Take the following instance: the middle guy (guy sitting in the middle) asked me to describe five things that I want my constituent on-campus students to remember after I give my introductory session on residential computing assistance. I could only come up with three, namely that they are always supported while on campus on computing related issues, that they should not engage in illegal activities online (this one plucked my conscience a bit since I am a big fan of sharewares, emuling, and torrenting, but I guess they didn’t quite sesne my subtle guilt), and thirdly that they should feel free to discuss any issues related to computer usage or networking mechanism, in aniticipation for resolving future problems. Beyond that I truly ran out of ideas. And they jumped in at the right time to say I don’t have to name all five, but of course they expected me to fill in the rest of the blanks. When they prompted me to describe some instances where I used my ingenuity to resolve computer related issue, I also went blank for a while, and came up with a lame example of how I figured out how to imbed graphs in latex so that the size is customized. What I really should have bragged about, upon hindsight, is my constnat fiddling with the different configurations of printers, so that I could make it print out two pages per side, two side per sheet, with margins cut off, and create new pdf or ps files with similar properties, etc. I have spent literally hundreds of hours playing with it and it didn’t even ring a bell at that moment. Perhaps I was subconsciously ashamed of myself for wasting hours on that, when I could be doing a lot more productive things like reading research papers. Of course in reality the latter would be even less productive, let alone discouraging.