Science questions

I met with my advisor after we got back from the Bioacoustics workshop last week. I was really excited about all of the techniques and methods that I had learned about and wanted to try them all. Well, my plans weren’t exactly dismissed, but they were mostly relegated to back-burner status. After momentarily indulging in a little self-pity, I realized that, as usual, he was giving me useful advice and guidance. Given free reign, I will invariably get caught up in the excitement of writing code and solving immediate puzzles (fun for a nerd like me!). Rarely do I step back and ponder the bigger picture – which is exactly what I’m now being asked to do.

I like developing techniques. I like working out problems, and finding the best solution that I can. And the satisfaction of getting the code to work after hours of debugging has got to be one of the greatest feelings. But it turns out that in a PhD program (at least in oceanography) you’re actually supposed to answer SCIENCE QUESTIONS (dun-dun).

So, WHAT IS A SCIENE/RESEARCH QUESTION? And how do you find the right ones? I’m clueless here, so I thought I’d make a list (I like lists). So here’s my list of things to consider when formulating a Science Question:

  •  What data do I have, or can I obtain, over the next 2-4 years?
  •  What can this data tell me?
  •  What are others in the field doing? What is already known?
  •  What are the big questions that other researchers are trying to answer?
  •  What type of research is being funded, or could realistically get funding in the future?

WHAT IS NOT A RESEARCH QUESTION? (for me. In other programs the techniques themselves may be the question and the goal)

  •  How do you implement that python extension for Antelope?
  •  What’s the most efficient way to compute the intersection of an arc through a grid cell?
  •  Etc

Here’s to dedicating at least a portion of my limited brainpower to reading, writing, and thinking about possible research questions.

Advice is welcome!


A comment from Mark on Facebook:

“Well, Michelle, what would YOU like to answer in your field of choice using the techniques you have available?”

He makes a good point.  I forgot to add to the list the requirement that I find something that I’m actually interested in investigating.  Because I can likely find several possible paths to follow, but I need to choose one that I can stomach for several years.

4 thoughts on “Science questions

  1. I’m with you, the techniques are loads of fun to learn and implement, but that pesky science thing always gets in the way 🙂 Then again, if I wanted to do just techniques, then I would have had to commit myself to a life of austerity in the ivory tower of applied mathematics o_O

    In all seriousness, I think the only way that we can come up with our PhD thesis topic is to do what we’ve done in our first year: take classes, read through literature, and attend conferences to figure out what the state of our respective field is. What I’ve been doing is keeping a running list of questions that papers/talks have answered and reading them over every now and then to see if my brain can come up with a pattern that represents the “big picture.” (No real word yet on that score) Also, I’ve found it somewhat useful to think about how to frame my topic so that someone outside of oceanography could say “Oh yeah, I see how that could be useful.” Good luck!

    BTW, are you giving a second-year talk? and if so when is it (so I can hold up a big sign and cheer you on)?

    1. Thanks for the advice – I really like the idea of keeping a running list of answered or unanswered questions. I hope to do a second-year talk, but haven’t got one scheduled or anything. Is that actually a thing? Does everyone do a “second-year” talk? Are you doing one? I could also hold a sign and cheer! woo hoo!

      1. Maybe it’s just a PO thing, but yeah I’m doing one. Currently it’s scheduled for October 26. It’s either going to be on the Fukushima radiation or modeling surface saturations of CFC-11, CFC-12, and SF6.

Leave a Reply to Andrew Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *