Gavin, I thought I replied here earlier (particularly with respect to scale modeling) but I guess I had not, so here’s a delayed reply.
The USPTO’s patent training academy has some weeks where it’s basically impossible to do 8 hours each day because they don’t allow you to work on certain Fridays. (I don’t know why that is.) I’ve tried 8, 9, and 10 hour days in the past two months. So far, for me, working 10 hour days has not had any perceptible negative effects for me, aside from increasing the probability that I stay up later than I should doing chores or whatnot because “it has to be done before tomorrow”. I’ve slowly gotten better at streamlining or eliminating my chores to avoid that. I am practically unable to do any research on days when I have a 10 hour schedule, aside from jotting down random ideas I have to do later. I doubt I could do a 13 hour 20 minute day simply from a logistical standpoint. Also, more practically, as I recall, the USPTO does not allow one to work more than 12 hours a day (3 day weeks are against the rules), and while I’m in the patent training academy I am not allowed to work more than 10 hours per day.
Can you recommend any good introductory material for scale modelling? Do you usually scale down or up?
Any decent introductory fluid mechanics textbook will have a good introduction to scale modeling. This is the book I used as an undergraduate. You can buy old used versions for far cheaper than the latest version. Chapter 7 is on scale modeling.
So far I’ve only scaled down because of space and cost limitations (can’t do full scale). But there can be good reasons to scale up. If the phenomena is too small to properly interrogate or fabricate a model then scaling up can be a big advantage. The Russian research you linked to suggests there were issues fabricating a true scale eye model, so they scaled up instead. This also apparently required scaling the “light source” so that it now is microwaves instead of visible light.
In terms of mental compartmentalization, one thing I like about working for the USPTO is that at the end of the day I don’t think about my paid work much at all. I’ll talk about it sometimes during dinner but beyond that, it doesn’t cut into my time. I also don’t have to spend time finding clients, etc., as my work is assigned to me automatically and there’s no shortage.
So now that I’ve worked for the USPTO for nearly two months, I have a much better idea about how the job could work for independent researchers. Here are some comments and observations:
It’s important to keep perspective. If I were a full professor, the statistics I’ve seen suggest I’d get only about 10 hours per week of my own research done:
That’s while working a roughly 60 hour week. By working 40 hours a week and doing 10 hours a week of research, in some sense that would be doing better than an average full professor. (I recognize that a large fraction of the time spent by a professor is directing the research of others, but I don’t want to be a manager. I want to do the research myself.)
In the past two months I actually have done some good research. I’ve kept track of approximately how many hours of research I’ve done since starting, and it’s about 36 hours’ worth so far. While not that impressive on its face, I was far more efficient than normal during this time as measured by my own subjective evaluation of the progress made and also more objective measures like the number of pages I wrote down in my theory notebook. Judging by notebook pages, September was one of my most productive months of all time! I recall going through my records and I probably worked roughly an order of magnitude more on research in terms of hours on every month where I was similarly or more productive. I attribute this partly to luck — I’ve hit a “rich vein” of research so-to-speak — and also to effective management of a part time schedule. I’ve read a fair bit about “creative incubation” and I think I made very effective use of this in September. Basically, I accepted that I would not be able to work continuously and I designed my research schedule around this. Typically I would work until I get stuck on a problem that I don’t know how to move forward on. Then I carefully document what the problem is. So far I’ve frequently had either an epiphany that solved the problem or (more common) by the time I returned to the research, the answer seemed obvious (i.e., there was no epiphany). There’s a lot written in the creativity literature on this under the title of “incubation”. Now, this strategy only works when one is bound by creativity. It won’t work on “grunt” work, like the reprogramming of something that I’ve been planning for a long time. I know what I need to do there, but I’m waiting for the right opportunity (e.g., I run out of creative ideas).
In terms of library resources, the USPTO does decently. The USPTO has subscriptions to many journals, including some that I did not have access to at the University of Texas at Austin. But in general the coverage is limited to technology-related areas, and also more limited than a university’s coverage. This page lists many of the resources they have. I should note that this is not up-to-date, e.g., contrary to what is claimed on that page they do not have access to any American Institute of Physics publications to my knowledge. The USPTO also does have interlibrary loan, however it is strictly for work purposes only. Realistically, I’ll be making a lot of trips to the Library of Congress once they open again to get papers that the USPTO has no access to. And I will be trying the interlibrary loan service of a local public library, probably at cost, to get whatever the Library of Congress doesn’t have that can’t be purchased. I recall a discussion I had with gwern on Hacker News about public library interlibrary loan, and he seemed skeptical that it would deliver here, but I don’t see any reason why not.
During the USPTO training I got the impression that you need to ask for permission from the USPTO to publish. I asked and got the impression the process was a formality. They don’t seem too concerned that you publish as long as no one thinks that the work is endorsed by the USPTO or the US government. They didn’t even seem concerned that I publish something which could possibly be patentable; they made it clear during the training that I can’t own the rights to a patent (one of the downsides of the job), but I apparently can make a “defensive disclosure” that would prevent anyone from getting a patent on an invention. This is good because one advantage of the USPTO is that I get the keep my own IP rights. If you are a paid employee of most universities, government agencies, and companies, you probably sign away the rights to practically whatever you think of on work time or even your own time.
In terms of schedules, I previously mentioned that you could do a compressed schedule of 4 days per week. What I didn’t know is that the USPTO also has a part-time option that maintains full benefits (though you’ll pay more out of pocket for the benefits). You can work a minimum of 16 hours per week. At present I intend to try to switch to part time as soon as I’m able.; you can only make the request once you’re a GS-11. I’m frugal enough that that a 50% pay cut would be acceptable to me. There are a limited number of part-time positions available but I’m not certain that they’re all taken at present.
I’d be interested in a discussion of possible part-time jobs one could take if they want more time to dedicate to research. I think the USPTO would be a good option here given the pay and benefits.
Also, while not of particular interest to me, after a certain amount of time you can go remote while working for the USPTO. I know this would be a big motivating factor for many people. If I stay at the USPTO long enough, I might use the remote option temporarily to visit collaborators for longer periods. I’ve talked to one guy who moved more permanently to collaborate more closely with a previous research colleague of his, so this sort of thing already is happening.
Two months ago I was not particularly enthusiastic about working for the USPTO, but after getting some perspective about the “right” choice (becoming a professor) not being that great in terms of time, learning about the option to go part-time at the USPTO, and a bunch of other smaller things (benefits, location, on-site conveniences, etc.), I’m more confident about working for the USPTO long-term now. It’s not perfect but I think it’s doable, and it might be a better deal than academia for most.