Triage

Triage has always been a medical term for me. It referred to prioritizing aid to wounded on the battlefield or the sick and injured in other medical emergencies. Today, my wife used the word triage to describe her mental mindset as she and the school she works for get ready to kick off the 2019 school year. Caroline has to set up a new class room, prepare a syllabus and coursework, complete CPR and earthquake safety training, attend new teacher orientation and professional development courses, and much more. This usage of triage made so much sense

In hindsight, I can think of no better word than triage to describe battling through the PhD process in experimental high energy physics at CERN. Graduate students regularly have requests for studies and analyses coming at them from multiple directions along with operations, maintenance, and development work for the detectors that must be juggled along with writing papers and pushing them through the review process. Inevitably tasks are left incomplete, some progress to an admirable 80% finished, and others are forgotten and never started. I’m sure my experience is similar to those in other fields and across all walks of life.

Triage is something I want in my academic life. Some people thrive on being continuously over-committed and rely on impending deadlines to prioritize work. This method worked for graduate school and I hope to not return to this style academically. I do not desire a triage of obligations, but instead a triage of ideas.

I want to have more interesting ideas to pursue than time to pursue them allowing me to prioritize and choose the best of the best for attention. If we were clairvoyant and could see how interesting and beneficial pursuing an idea would be before embarking down a path of study, every thing would be simpler. In contrast, most of us are left starting projects to test the waters. And later, with more insight, we sometimes find ourself weighing the costs and benefits of scraping a few weeks of work to abandon a less than amazing idea, or a good idea which is not fun to research. This is something I need to practice, stepping back, reflecting on a project, and choosing a next thoughtful step. I hope that being able to walk away from some projects will allow me to focus on triaging ideas versus triaging obligations.

Abandoning invested resources is never easy whether it is time, effort, emotions, money, or a combination. However, research should be fun, interesting, and useful. If any of those criteria are missing for you, it probably is not worth your time. There are thousands of questions that would be useful to humanity if answered, which I do not find interesting. Luckily, there are dozens of questions which are useful, interesting, and, as of now, look like they will be fun. This is why I am in energy research at the confluence of renewable and sustainable energies, computational modeling, and data analysis.

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