Six months ago I joined a small, informal research group. It has been a profoundly positive experience for me that I want to share with you. My hope is that you will join us.
When I first joined the research group, I wasn’t entirely sure what a research group meant. It sounds intellectual and auspicious, but for me it turned out to be more about establishing a safe place to discuss ideas, set goals, and ask questions. To me it shares many of the positives of a mentorship, and avoids the key difficulties of a mentorship.
Benefits of a research group over a mentorship are:
- Making a 1:1 connection with the right mentor is tough! Joining a research group is much easier. Forming a research group is valuable to you and everyone who joins.
- Some workplaces attempt to provide mentor matching, but it is rare that people get matched up just right. In a research group, you naturally find matches where you can benefit or share from a wider selection of learning opportunities.
- Often a workplace mentorship can be a little awkward when it comes to personal development and interests. There is a component of privacy that is preserved in a research group.
- In a research group you get several mentors for the same effort as one, and are able to contribute as a mentor to an expanded audience. You are able to contribute more fully by having a selection of questions, one of which you probably know something about.
As a member of a research group you will play both the role of mentor, someone who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge with a less experienced colleague, and mentee, the receiver of ideas and guidance. If this seems daunting then let me just say that yes, it is daunting. I was very hesitant to commit to writing something every week because it is hard to make a coherent, informative digest of the things you are learning and questioning every week. But I am glad that I did join the group because they are very welcoming and there is no expectation that the digests be coherent or crafted. The expectation is only that you are spending 1-2 hours a week learning or exploring, and sharing with the group. Committing to this helped me overcome a fear of ‘this is half baked’ and just move forward. I discovered a great deal more interesting things this way.
How much time do you spend thinking? A research group is a great way to tighten the feedback loop on thought. Don’t rely on evolution, that’s the slowest REPL out there. People who spend too much time thinking ended up missing obvious opportunities, people who don’t think are missing out on consciousness and non-obvious opportunities. So how much time do you spend thinking? How did you arrive at that amount? Was it a conscious decision? Is it the right amount? Is there room for improvement? A research group will help you form thoughtful habits.
For me those habits were:
- Maintaining a list of interesting things discovered during the week. I use Workflowy.
- Reading a book a fortnight. Keeping some notes.
- Paying more attention, trying things.
- Less browsing funny gifs, more focused deep diving interesting topics.
- Posing a question every week, and planning to spend at least an hour researching or developing it. This forces me to be more thoughtful. I’m spending some time setting personal goals.
- Contributing relevant information on questions posed by the group. I don’t always have an answer, but I can always join the conversation. Sometimes I do have the answer, or have read something relevant.
We want a diverse group. If you are nothing like me, that’s a bonus. Why do we want diversity? Diversity has tangible benefits for creativity, resilience, prosperity. Diversity is uncomfortable but produces better results. (See Reinventing Discovery -- Nielsen, or Messy -- Harford). Why is mentorship something that women and minorities should especially pursue? Reshma Saujani has plenty to say on this topic. She is the founder of Girls Who Code, an organization providing young women with the resources and education to pursue careers in technology. She is the author of the book Women Who Don't Wait in Line.
[This caricature of Reshma Saujani was drawn using Napkindo, an idea from the research group.]
We want to connect on shared interests, but are very open to expanding or changing our focus. If none of our interests align, we will help you find a group that does have aligned interests.
Our current nominated interests are:
- Graphs; drawing, layout, data structures and algorithms
- Teaching Clojure
- SVG manipulation with Reagent
- Natural Language Processing
- Text Parsing
- Design -- UI and of Systems
- IPFS / Content Addressable Storage
- Old ideas
- Concepts, Techniques, and Models of Computer Programming
- Writing Macros
- Machine Learning
As you can see we don’t have a tight focus. We are exploring a wide range of topics and ideas.
Clubs and similar groups tend to fall apart if some folks take it seriously and others are less committed, so we want a shared understanding of what we expect from each other. Each member makes some commitment to research a topic and share findings. 1-2 hours per week. We do regular communication via a google group, and occasional video chats.
Our method is:
1. Each Member sends the group one question or problem they're planning on working on during the next week by Sunday night.
2. Everyone writes a short response responding to the questions, including their own. These can be suggestions, solutions, related questions, some code that might help, a library suggestion, book or article recommendation, another way to approach the problem, links, quotes, a collection of haikus, whatever.
3. By Friday everyone shares a short digest one or more cool thing(s) they discovered that week.
If you want to join us, please send me an email! (firstname.lastname@example.org) Even if you don’t want to join us, I’d love to hear from you, we can help you find a similar experience with another group.