Ask the right questions

Zhe Zhang, Ph.D. of Environment and Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan

After the five-year journey of struggles, happiness, and achievement, I finally defended my Ph.D. thesis in Oct 2021. When all excitements, thrills, nerves, and anxieties faded away in the next few days, I started to reflect on this journey and asked myself: what did I really learn – obvious apart from the academic research in the 200+ pages of thesis? Is there anything that is more general and worth sharing with new grad students? The thought leads to this small piece of writing, summarizing the most important three things I learned from my own experience (which I hope to know when I started my PhD) and I hope they can benefit those who are newly entering the graduate study and hope to strive for research career too.

What did I really learn from my Ph.D. journey?

I find that there are only three grand questions that are ultimately important in any research project and the entire research processes are to address them through our speculations and experiments: 

  1. What is your research about?
  2. Why is it important to us?
  3. What is the uniqueness of your research?

Straightforward and plain as they seemed, thoroughly speculating and addressing these three grand questions ultimately leads to the basic framework of a scientific paper.

what is your research about?

We may all have a stuck moment when being encountered by this question in a new semester orientation session. The answer seems very simple and straightforward from the description of the project proposal, but it’s actually hard to address at the beginning. I was admitted to the grad school under my supervisor’s project funding to do research on the land surface model and crop growth model – which I didn’t know much about. So far, the whole impression of this topic is from others’ descriptions, not my own experience or learning. I knew so little about my own research – a frustrating feeling that makes everyone small 

On the other hand, if I googled the keywords, there would be thousands of results popped up – vast, extensive information overwhelmed me. Reading these articles is time-consuming, very difficult to grasp the key points and I can easily lose focus, and found more doubts and confusion than answers to my original questions. “There are too many of them, where do I start? Can I just follow one of these studies and construct mine? But they all deal with different questions than mine. One is using A model with B parameters in C region, but I am using C model and D parameters in E region, would that make some big difference?” This is exactly my first struggle – I was so used to listening to other people’s answers and just merely following them – without thinking independently and asking my own questions.

Why is it important to us?

I was situated in an interdisciplinary institute – the school of environment and sustainability, which has two branches – the environment side dealing with natural science and the sustainability side with social science. So I constantly have this question in mind when I was talking or listening to students from the other branch. What I think as granted or self-assuring facts may not be as obvious from others’ perspectives. This requires an always take-a-step-back attitude towards whatever we are working on when trying to communicate with others. 

I always have the “barbershop conversations” in mind when trying to explain it to the general audience. Barbers like to make conversations with customers about their job, where they come from, the weather, etc. Once I told my barber in Saskatoon I was working on climate change research, and the lady sitting next to me burst into laughter – “Are we doomed?” I understand this situation – of course, there is no way to “argue” or “defend” with scientific data or diagrams, or even take it seriously. I have to bring the reasoning to its “roots on the ground”.

So my reply would be – “Maybe not at the moment – you might notice this year we have less snow on the ground and more fire to the northern forests. There might be some connections to climate change and further impacts on crop production too” (This may be a bold link to make between climate and weather, though) My point is, when introducing the research, don’t forget to make connections with others, not only to those who care enough to read your work, but also, especially, to those who you may meet and talk to in day-to-day life. Building connections between my work and people’s life is the strongest articulation asserting the importance of my research. 

What is the uniqueness of your research?

Instead of pure repetition from previous studies – I have struggled with this question myself very occasionally, but finding a convincing answer to it is large – if not all – the whole process of research (If you can answer it, you are pretty much done) 

New grad students like reading others’ studies into each detail – small “knots” and “ties” (the assumption of X, the parameter of Y, or the condition to Z, etc.) Eventually, one will discover that tracking down other research is useful in the first place when entering into a new field from a broad perspective. What’s more important is not in those trivial minutiae, but in gaps and holes, where real key opportunities await. 

There are millions of papers published each year, and one can easily find papers covering similar topics to theirs. To begin with, very little understanding of one’s own research, while faced with vast, immense waves of “literature ocean” – this feeling makes one small and frustrating. At the same time, it makes people humble and curious – how much I want to establish my own theory – just the way I desire climbing up to a fourteener or running a marathon race! Believe me, you will enjoy this learning and thinking process and the never-satisfied desire to ask questions. 

One response to “Ask the right questions”

  1. Keep the good effort

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