Friday, February 25, 2011

Out of Question

A few months ago, I talked about how my advisor taught me to write good research questions. When I got better at it, other interesting adventures happened. First, he sent me a research proposal he wrote, and asked me to comment on it. Second, he initiated a conference call with a big shot in the field, and I happened to be a part of the conference call.

The basic problem I have with stalwarts in my field is that I like everything that they propose, suggest, write, or do. That happens for movies or books as well. I do not enjoy writing reviews for movies or books because I realize I have nothing to write except the fact that it was great. If I lived through a 500 page book or a 2.5 hour movie, the reason is that I liked what I saw or read. What it there to talk about that? Who am I to say that the movie could have had a different ending or the book could have had the old woman dying in the beginning and not at the end? First, I inherently believe that authors, directors, researchers, etc. are artists. They have a certain way of seeing life, which is reflected in their work. Who am I to tear it apart and critique it? Second, I am inherently a peace-loving, easy going person. Now many of my friends might jump at this and give references of incidents to prove me a liar. They can vouch for how ill-tempered, cranky, and difficult I can be, but ignore the rippers. Generally, I don’t like to get into conflicts. That explains why debates, politics, and social activism isn’t my forte.

Naturally when the advisor asked me for my comments, I went wow for the millionth time in my head and sent him an honest reply, “This is great”. I genuinely meant it. The document looked similar to the orange and black Kanjivaram sari mom showed me a few years ago and asked for my opinion. Since I didn’t understand much of it, all I had mumbled was the standard, “Wow, looks great!”. I emailed the same thing to the advisor.

Also during a conference call with one of the stalwarts of our field, my advisor kept constantly asking me, “Do you have questions for her?” I looked up the person we were talking to, and went “Holy Shit!!!”. A female Indian rocket scientist!! I was sold. I read with fascination about the work she did on the angular momentum of space bodies. I was shaken out of my reverie when the advisor asked me, “So do you have any questions for her?”

“Of course”, I thought. I want to know how is she so smart, cool, impressive, and had it all figured out in life. Did you honestly want me to ask questions to reinstate my ignorance? It would be like asking Einstein, “Hey dude, what do you think of Physics?” I decided to nod no and keep mum.

This led to another one-on-one session with the man. I am so beginning to be wary of these “We need to talk” sessions. This is what he said:

“You know the difference between any PhD student and a first year PhD student? A first year student is always overwhelmed, afraid to ask questions, comment, jump at debates, critique someone’s work, or voice her opinions. I don’t want you to live like a first year PhD student. The next time I send you some document, I want your critique, and not write a a “This looks great!” The next time we talk to someone in the field, jump in with your questions. I understand you don’t want to say something out of place and look stupid, but you will not. I don’t care what your questions or comments are, but the next time you will not sit quietly and stay mum!”

Sighs. This has been my new exercise ever since. These days, I ask, suggest, critique, argue, debate, and question. I don’t think I do a super impressive job, but the man looks really happy, and I’d rather have him happy than listen to the “We need to talk” conversations. I am surprised at how I am undoing 25 years of programming and training where I was grew up hearing, “Don’t question me, what I say is authority”, from people in various positions of power. I realize not questioning might be a peaceful option in places, but if I am to earn a PhD in his group, nodding a yes and complying is out of question.



Calvin said...

Works to some extent in corporate world as well - the junior guys are too reluctant to ask questions and over-whelmed with star traders (in my trade at least). However, over the long run, the more easily you can talk to big people, the easier it becomes for you to rise...

nightflier said...

Yeah! Sometimes its pretty difficult to un-learn something and then re-learn in a totally new fashion. Specially after 25 years!
Happy re-learning though and all the best :)

rgb said...

I came to this blog following the next post about muscle fatigue, but this is something I can relate to much more. For a fair amount of time, I found it difficult to grapple with the concept that having studied only a few papers and books, I should even attempt to write papers suggesting improvements over the current standard stuff, all of which has been laid out by the field leaders. Surely, if I did do it in a different way, it would be an inferior way compared to the current standards? Particularly, because I was not thinking of some radical change that would be new and unthinkable ... so others must have thought about it too, and chosen the best method: the published version! To think otherwise felt extremely arrogant to me. Luckily, my advisor, slowly managed to convince me to think differently. Being in science (or other academic disciplines too I suppose) means making (small for us mortals) additions to the body of current work. So, if the thought that one can improve upon current work is arrogant, then being arrogant is very much a part of the job description.

I am sure you will get over this as well. And perhaps conclude that, even though generally well explored, every different method has not been thought of in every single context, even by the stalwarts, if only for the lack of time.

arbitthoughts said...

My Masters advisor was the same. She would insist on each of us having to ask atleast one question in each and every conference that we attended. No matter how stupid the question was. It made me realise that I had started listening more carefully and critically to presentations just so that I could find out something I could ask about ;)