Saturday, January 21, 2012

Research = Work?

So I was listening to Car Talk, the NPR show with the two old mechanics from the Boston area who take phone calls about car trouble.  They were talking to a woman from Palo Alto who was having problems with a noise in her tire.  Eventually, they asked her what she did for a living.  She answered, "I'm a graduate student."  Of course, they asked what she studied, and she responded, "Italian literature." They tried to make that into pleasant "small talk," and something came up about "at least you get to go to Italy."  She said, "Yes, for research," and one of the hosts said, "sounds like a lot of work."

My first thought was, "what the heck are you talking about?"

My second thought was, "you must not be someone who enjoys research."

I was putting myself in her place.  I was thinking about what it feels like, to finally dig into the topic to try to create your own original work, your own take on the issues that stir your field.  To step forward and assume the mantle of the professional scholar, diving into the topic to discover and explain something new.  An intellectual astronaut, as it were.  If you are the kind of person who is lucky enough to have found a field that you can be passionate about, this is a dream come true.  This is akin to meeting your childhood hero and getting his/her autograph and then sitting down for dinner with that person.  It's a chance to drive your dream car, go on a date with your dream girl/boy, sleep in your dream house, and so on.  It's a GOOD thing, not work.  It's a chance to play in the "big show," the audition for the lead on Broadway, and so on.  It's not a bad thing.  It's not work.

There's lots of ways to think about this.  I know that not everyone likes research, and not everyone gets a chance or a reason to conduct research on a topic that they love.  But it's the kind of skill that everyone needs and that everyone wants.  It might be work to do research for something you hate, but hopefully a graduate student is not someone who hates to do research.  Hopefully, it's the opposite.

My point is this: research doesn't have to be work.  It doesn't have to be painful and soul-crushing.

That's not to say that it isn't difficult or sometimes time-consuming or even expensive (like flying to Italy).  But my own research experience was not really work, or not always work.  True, there were a lot of difficult nights with piles of dense, seemingly irrelevant text to wade through.  But there were great moments and the pleasure of discovery.  There were times when I could make sense of things, and I could explain something new.  That's a great feeling.  I feel like I learned something and made something, and that has helped me in ways that are hard to explain sometimes.  Perhaps it's like the kid who can be successful in sports, so he/she feels more confident off the playing field because of success on it.  I don't know if that's adequate.  But research is a chance to make something new, building things from the knowledge and experience of others.  It's important now because of the vast opportunity to conduct research via the Internet and other electronic tools.

This is an ongoing concern, and I don't think I've adequately expressed it here.  I'm going to think about the research process and post again when I'm ready to try to explain it again.
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