otherwise mundane PhD life that I am going to remember years down the line. I am taking my preliminary exam in a month. It’s not a big deal really, but for the fact that I will need to do a couple of things to clear this next hurdle learning opportunity. For one, I need to critique a paper written by the stalwarts of the field. Now the problem with that is, a paper is not like a Facebook wall post that you can “like”, or write something clichéd like “very nice”, “ kewl cool”, or “ ossum awesome”. Every research paper I read seems great to me, and I do end up saying very nice, cool, or awesome in my head. I read the ideas of these stalwarts and go, “Wow, I couldn’t have thought of a better idea myself, in fact, I couldn’t even come up with so cool an idea”. But when I critique it in front of a panel of professors, I am expected to tear the ideas apart and talk about every little thing that could have been done differently, even though I personally believe nothing should have been done differently. Therein lies my plight.
There are many big and small incidents that happen in my
The next part of the preliminary exam involves writing a 15-20 page paper on any particular topic that fascinates me. When I met with my advisor last week to discuss a possible topic, he asked me to think of 10 research ideas, and come up with 10 questions specific to those ideas. I thought it was easy. I was so wrong. I thought of a topic, scratched my head, thought harder, and wrote down 10 questions. I thought I was done. I printed out my questions on a paper and showed it to my advisor.
He never went past the first question. For every two words he read about the question, he had a question for me. “What do you mean?” “How would you measure this?” “What is the predictor variable?” “What is the outcome variable?” “What population are we talking here?” “What are the controlling factors?” “What would be the research instrument?” He had so many questions about my first question that we never made it to the rest. It was clear that I had been unable to frame my research questions properly, the very basis and first step of research. I had never felt so unsure of myself, unable to write something as basic as a research question. It was then that he made me sit with him and gave me the most valuable advice.
“I am not judging you, and everyone has been in the stage you are in right now. You must be very frustrated and in self-doubt. But remember, there is no successful PhD student whose research questions weren't torn apart the first day they sat with their advisor. It happened to me too. Researchers are different from others because we have the skill to come up with unique questions, and design a solution for them. Remember, the research question should be extremely specific. You cannot be throwing broad questions at the universe. I will tell you how to write a research question. You will come up with your questions again.”
With his advice, I started working on the questions again. This time I saw the difference his advice made to my questions. With more than five years of writing experience, and a US masters degree, I was surprised that I could not even frame good research questions. I worked hard that night, keeping in mind every possible rule he had told me about while doing so. The next day, I went to him with my new draft. This time, he found more flaws. But he at least went past the first question. He told me that my significant improvement was evident since he moved past the first question, and he was at least thinking about my research ideas and not just looking at the way my questions were worded. There were more edits for me this time too, but he looked at some of my questions and said, “Here is a paper, another paper, and yes another paper”. It seemed some of my research ideas could actually be written into a paper worth publishing. I went back and looked at my first draft of questions from the previous day. He was right. They did look very unpromising compared to my new draft.
I always assumed that I would do great in something as trivial as coming up with good research questions. I was wrong. Framing a good research question is an art, something that I am yet to master. For every idea of mine my advisor liked, the satisfaction was immense. Seems I am here to design and build a house. And right now I am learning how to rightly pick up the bricks in the first place.