The Research Question

How do you choose a good research question? This is something I have thought about and discussed with my students. It helped that I offered the course Research Methodology while at WCC, for this is the course where I really got a chance to go deep into my own perceptions of research.

The two primary criteria that I remember discussing with the students in answer to that opening question are: interest and feasibility.

Interest – well, that’s self-explanatory. You need to have your heart in the research that you do. Otherwise, it becomes a drudgery and you are better off without it.

Feasibility. Yes! You need to know whether what interests you is really doable.

And to think about the do-ability, you must ideally be thinking about the time and resources at your disposal.

And to arrive at this intersection of interest and feasibility, a good researcher would rely on literature review.

When one says ‘literature review’, I understand that the tacit assumption is that along with reading, one is continually thinking and planning how to implement one’s own research. And by the time the literature review is ‘done’, the protocol at hand would most likely be very different from what one had when the review had just begun. It’s a good sign. This all makes sense, but the reason why I am writing this post is because I chanced upon this article in Molecular Cell titled How to Choose a Good Scientific Problem. There are two things I especially liked in this piece, and thought I should make a record of it for anyone who’d be interested, but more so for myself.

Uri Alon in writing this piece is being straightforward and practical, but I sense a depth in his writing as he takes a grounded view of things. Humane, that was the word that sprung to my mind when I read the article first.

So. The first thing:
The literature review phase, when one is apparently reading and thinking things through takes a philosophical bent in Alon’s mind.

In my lab, we have a rule for new students and postdocs: Do not commit to a problem before 3 months have elapsed. In these 3 months the new student or postdoc reads, discusses, and plans. The state of mind is focused on being rather than doing.

Being rather than doing. It is an essential clarion call for the times we live in, more so in academia. Personally, I have been besieged with temptation to rush ahead and do things, so I do understand the gravity in just being. In a culture that beseeches us to ‘Just do it!’, it is refreshing to be asked to just be.

I suppose in a certain sense, we all do sit with our ideas. But perhaps the question here is do we give those ideas sufficient time and space to germinate?

The second thing. Alon writes:

Starting Point: Choosing a Problem Is an Act of Nurturing

What is the goal of starting a lab? It is sometimes easy to pick up a default value, common in current culture, such as “The goal of my lab is to publish the maximum number of papers of the highest quality.”

However, in this essay, we will frame the goal differently: “A lab is a nurturing environment that aims to maximize the potential of students as scientists and as human beings.”

Choices such as these are crucial. From values—even if they are not consciously stated—flow all of the decisions made in the lab, big and small.

Nurturing and Values. Those are big words. Words with heft. And when one is using such words to describe what one does, I am certain there’s something very right happening there.

This was essential reading for me!

Please read the article in its entirety; it is freely available. It is good food for thought.


One Comment on “The Research Question”

  1. preya92 says:

    This is so refreshing.. Something that i really needed. I’m impressed with the 3 months rule. I was always with the impression that I should rush forward and always be doing something or the other. But, the author gives a sense of relaxation with his re-assuring words. Maybe YES, it is okay to be working in the mind.

    And, its so true that this topic requires a good discussion. ‘Choosing a research topic’ – how to do it – a must discuss topic.

    I am very happy that I got to read the article.

    Thank you very much maam for sharing this piece of information:)


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