On being a researcher

I have been thinking a lot about what it entails to be a good researcher, more so than in academic context, but beyond that. I have always thought the first step to be a good researcher is to have some amount of curiosity, which I generously possess. I have been told that I am a strategic thinker by my friends, which often surfaces during one of those random online quizzes like which IKEA furniture are you (apparently I am a chest of 4 drawers), or which Hogwarts house you belong to (definitely Ravenclaw). Other criterias I could think of include being analytical (which means a healthy amount of overthinking), committed, diligent, disciplined (for without these three, one could crumble under the stress and uncertainties a research journey could bring), has the ability to communicate well (since researchers generally will need to document and present their research constantly), perceptive to the world around them, empathetic, and has the ability to be objective (note that I didn’t write unbiased, for it is almost impossible for everyone to lack of biases, but one is able to learn how to suspend them), and above all, truthful and reliable. It’s definitely a tall order, but it can be done.

There’s an article mentioned in Nadia Eghbal’s newsletter today on an oceanographer who had been helping a team of coast guards to devise ways to find out how people get lost at sea, so they could locate them faster. Eghbal mentioned that Art Allen’s, the oceanographer, career is one of a quintessential independent researcher, and I couldn’t agree more. “I’ve only thought about one problem in my life,” says Allen. “Which is how to improve Coast Guard search and rescue.” It is also an advantage that Allen is “gifted at finding things out. I could get good data out of the sea.” — which I believe is more attributed to his years of experience and sharpening his skills. Allen also said that as people came to him for help, he “had a talent for creating knowledge” — which, in academia context, could be linked to the section of research significance. Another thing that caught my attention was also when Allen was reminded of what his brother said, “a good scientist asks the right question and a good engineer solves the right problem.” In the intersection of his skills as a scientist and his aptitude to solve problems, Allen found out that he emerged as a researcher having to do both. Like Eghbal, I was also caught attention by Allen’s comments about “no one really knew”, and the part about his aunt who studies the genetics of mushrooms, “I don’t know why she finds mushroom genetics beautiful and fascinating, but she does.” Sometimes even the most experienced researchers also do not have all the answers, and by humbly admitting it, I find that’s really comforting.

Some related, some not:

  • “My desire to work is primarily motivated by my curiosity about a certain set of questions about the world.” Eghbal wrote about her 4-year project looking at how open source software is produced, from an economic and anthropological lens, reimagined as a PhD — not to be framed as an anti-PhD post — but to show that there are many other possibilities a research could be done beyond academia. Also check out her list of building blocks which can be adapted to anyone’s research project.
  • “Human brains are hard-wired to fill in blanks when they see them,” said Helen R. Friedman, a clinical psychologist in St. Louis. “In difficult times, when life begins to feel out of control or when faced with an emotional dilemma, working on something that has finite answers can provide a sense of security.” On crossword puzzles solving as a search for connections and answers.
  • “Any young writer who (isn’t) fully dominated by the algorithm is to me, godlike, because it’s so hard to resist. If you are under 30, and you are able to think for yourself right now, God bless you.” Zadie Smith on fighting the algorithm.
  • Surely the Greeks had a word for this.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s