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Raf Van Gestel (March 2018)


In the fall of 2017 I finished my PhD and started as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Erasmus University Rotterdam. These transitions marked the end of a period filled with freedom, friendships, uncertainties and challenges. In this column I would like to look back on the nice time at the University of Antwerp through some quotes by Amos Tversky that someone recently brought to my attention.

“People live under uncertainty whether they like it or not.”

A PhD, and I believe research in general, involves quite some uncertainties. Starting a new research project means that the research question, methods and results are still uncertain. Whether you like it or not, these uncertainties need to be dealt with.

”The difference between being very smart and very foolish is often very small.”

One of the major, and to me most important, uncertainties was deciding on an idea and a research question. This regularly involved asking myself whether the idea was plain stupid or genius. Most likely the answer lies somewhere in between, but hopefully you decide to work on ideas that are (close to) genius.

“The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.”

During the PhD, I was faced with a lot of freedom. This freedom was inspiring and could be brought into use by wasting some hours, because sometimes wasting hours can save years. This is especially true if you decide that your idea is genius while it is foolish instead.

Now again at the start of a new position, I face these uncertainties. I now try to make decisions under uncertainty by gaining more information to turn the uncertainty into manageable risk. Maybe you noticed, at the moment I am deciding whether my research ideas on policy making under risk are worth investing in.