Thursday, December 23, 2010

Learning to Question

There are many big and small incidents that happen in my 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.

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.



Anonymous said...

happened with me too :D .... it was like someone tossed my self confidence in the air and someone blew it not once but twice with his double barrel gun :) ... but this is how we learn and experience also counts. who knew someone like me would be in the committee of paper reviews. so buckle up and blast away some more papers :)

Ashutosh said...

You got a great advisor! Not everyone gets lucky with their PhD advisors. I am glad it is working out great for you. Keep it going, and enjoy the fun ride that a PhD is. :)

sunshine said...

Anonymous- So what kind of papers do you review?

Ashutosh- So far it seems it has been a good decision for me. Let's see :)

Padmanabhan said...

very nice!

Biddu said...

I couldn't but reminisce my "similar times". My advisor said, "every day you come up with a new idea to fine day i will show you a thumbs up (like a facebook 'like')...and you start working on that!" So I was reading papers and was telling my ideas to him...and everyday he used to say, "ask you want to create the wave, ride the wave or follow the wave....I want my students to create the wave or at least ride it"...i was becoming frustrated and was thinking that PhD was not my cup of tea...and suddenly one fine morning that einstein/newton/galileo or whatever in me woke up...i got the idea which got a thumbs up! my advisor said, "good to massimo (the post doc in my lab)"....and since then things got rolling...thanks to a very scholarly research group I was surrounded by :)

Rachna said...

Well, that was my biggest challenge too! I went crrrazy trying to find the right research questions.
And yes, at least your advisor told you directly this is the fisrt step. Mine did not even tell me and it took me 1.5 years to figure out that the first step was to find the right questions.
Of course, it took me another year to find reasonable questions- they were never perfect.

Your advisor sounds amazing, you are lucky in that respect. at least he told you that this is the first step- believe me, most advisor's would expect you to know. And THAT is even worse.

Anonymous said...

just some tech papers in communications field

The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

I had a very similar experience with my PhD Advisor in my earliest months of grad school..your post took me back to that day in her office, having my proposal shredded and feeling like scum of the earth. I also remember hating her for it. Later on, at my qualifying exam, I was so well prepared and was so unfazed and everything the committee threw at me. :) Thats when I stopped hating her for it. :)

sreejith thampi said...

That was very genuine.