Welcome to part 3 of my series on how to win at undergraduate research. Bottom line: I’ve been arguing that if you want to have a successful research project (or simply be remembered come recommendation letter time), you should consider not being a flake and spending time in lab. In this final installment, I’ll be focusing on the research side of the equation, dispensing all my accumulated wisdom on the process of scientific discovery.
In fact, the best single piece of advice I have on the topic I’m stealing from George Pólya:
The first rule of discovery is to have brains and good luck. The second rule of discovery is to sit tight and wait till you get a bright idea.
This from the entry Rules of Discovery in How to Solve It, a pretty good primer for anyone looking for advice on how to solve mathematical problems. As Pólya notes, only a few thinkers in history appear to have given systematic attention to formulating rules of discovery, what he calls the method of heuristic. And yet, as he also concedes, it takes a special kind of folly to believe that the process of discovery can be boiled down to a cookbook formula.
So is that the best I’ve got, telling you to be smart and sit tight? Is this just another, “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine?”
Not quite, but pretty much. At some point, the only way to solve the problem is to solve the problem. But lest we devolve into koans, here’s another thought from Pólya, this one a little more practical:
The open secret of real success is to throw your whole personality into your problem.
I would like to say there’s another way, but I haven’t seen it. And believe me, I’ve tried. In my experience, doing science is not a part-time endeavor. As I wrote last time, most of the problems we end up assigning undergraduates are too large, and when that happens, the problem just isn’t going to give way under the force of a few hours now and then. It’s going to take intense, sustained work, of the kind that commonly goes under the heading of “earning it.”
What does that mean in practical terms?:
Can you find time, even just an hour, to think about your problem every day? For many problems, especially where an idea is required, small amounts of regular effort beat marathon sessions. I had a friend in graduate school who insisted that few people could do more than four hours of good theoretical physics in a day. Your job, in that case, is to protect and exploit those four hours. If you’re an undergraduate, one is good, and two will do.
Do you know why you’re doing what you’re doing? It’s amazing how many students trust my godlike powers of science to select for them a well-chosen problem, when in fact I’m often as lost as they are. My very first undergraduate student had an infuriating/wonderful habit of asking, “Now why are we doing it this way?” that forced me to explain my own thought process and revealed a lot of shortcomings in project design. She ended up with a much better outcome than if she had simply nodded her head and assumed I was right. Suffice it to say, it’s pretty difficult to solve a problem you can’t state following an approach you don’t understand.
Do you really care about the problem? Now I am not suggesting here that every research project needs to be tailored to you, the unique and beautiful snowflake. On the contrary, as a young researcher, your problem will likely be chosen for you. Even so, as a student, you can often choose your mentor, and a good mentor will get you excited about the problem. This is provided, of course, that you have determined to go far enough down the rabbit hole to understand why your research matters. The open secret here is that most problems only become interesting once you’re fully invested. Or, as the Tiger Mother teaches us, “Nothing’s fun until you’re good at it.”
Are you taking in new ideas? Are you formulating ideas of your own? Your mentor may suggest reading for you, but Google Scholar is embarrassingly easy to use, and it won’t take long to find half a dozen papers on any subject with a decent citation count. Beginning research on a new topic is like drafting a a map: you start with a small circle of knowledge where you are and explore from there. Bonus points if you can connect what you’re doing with a class you’ve taken. Chances are you’ll learn both better.
Along the same lines, you should be writing down your ideas and questions. Not only because writing your ideas down will make them clearer and more precise, but more importantly, having written them down, you can discuss them with your mentor. Sure, most of your ideas will be wrong (most of everyone’s are wrong), but part of what you are learning here is how to distinguish good ideas from bad ones, and as a side benefit, you’re getting past the stigma of looking stupid, which is perhaps the single biggest obstacle to progress for student researchers.
Are you okay with being confused? The only time I feel like I understand a research problem is once I’ve solved it and the paper is written. Sometimes not even then. This is simply the price we pay for making our living on the outskirts of knowledge.
Does all that sound hard? It is. But it’s also challenging, stimulating, engrossing work. And if done right, it can be the most meaningful educational experience of your undergraduate career.
So do it right. Throw your whole personality into the problem. Good luck.