Introduction: am I fit for research? (Carlo Ghezzi)

Introduction: am I fit for research? (Carlo Ghezzi)


This lecture is an introduction to a series
that focuses on the researcher’s progress. The goal is to reflect on how and why one
may choose to do research, how one can learn the basic skills needed to become a researcher,
and how one can progress in his or her career as a researcher. As for any personal progress through life,
the process is not linear and one can choose at any time to leave research and move professionally
in other directions. Everybody should try to realize his or her
potential in best possible way, and possible changes of direction should never be viewed
as failures, but rather as moves towards better personal opportunities. In most cases, young people meet research
when they are in college. They meet research through their professors,
who often are active researchers. Sometimes students are lucky to get in touch
with professors who are enthusiastic about their work, and try instil in them an interest
to research. Sometimes professors offer opportunities to
students to participate in some research activities, for example through internships. Sometimes the opportunity is offered through
a project, a Bachelor or a Master thesis. It is very important that educational institutions
try to offer their students a portfolio of opportunities to challenge them on non-trivial,
open problems and raise a potential interest in research. Most young people often have no idea of what
research is all about and even ignore that becoming a researcher can be an option for
their professional life. Often students even have misconceptions about
research. They view research as an esoteric activity
and researchers as obsessed individuals, disconnected from reality and locked into an ivory tower. The best way to meet research is to engage
personally in a research activity and try it. It is in fact hard to understand what it means
and, in particular, realize whether one is fit for it. The question whether one is fit for research
merits some further discussion. Quite naturally, students ask themselves whether
they are fit before they may start engaging in research. Likewise, senior researchers who have an open
research position and need to select among applicants ask the same question. The track record as a student is of course
a relevant piece of information. Being an excellent student with excellent
grades, however, does not necessarily indicate that one is fit for research. This is a partial list of key abilities I
would consider: Intellectual curiosity; openness to new ideas; willingness to learn more; attraction by non-trivial problems; determination in finding a solution for an open problem; ability
to critically assess the apparently obvious answers; rigor; ability to abstract and formalize;
ability to collaborate. In an attempt to exemplify what characterizes
a potential researcher, in his book Advice to a Young Scientist, Peter Medawar gives
a test in logic based on the paintings of El Greco. A striking feature of many of El Greco’s
paintings is that figures and faces often look stretched, as we can see in this painting
of Saint Jerome as scholar. In trying to explain this distinctive feature,
apparently awkward style, an ophthalmologist proposed that El Greco suffered from a form
of astigmatism, which distorted his vision and led him to see people this way. Although such an explanation may initially seem reasonable, it does not stand up to logical scrutiny. Suppose, in fact, that El Greco did see the
world through a distorting lens. The same distortion would apply to what he
saw on his canvas! The only rationally plausible explanation
is that figures appear because this was El Greco’s intention. The El Greco test is used by Peter Medawar
to show what it means to be able to go beyond the seemingly obvious and use critical thinking
to validate an explanation: a skill that researchers should possess. I would like to stress another important ability
that should complement what the El Greco test indicates: the ability to collaborate. Contemporary research is seldom done in isolation. A researcher must be able to collaborate with
the students who are supervised and mentored. He or she must be able to collaborate with
colleagues on joint research projects. A researcher is part of a research community
within which research results are exchanged. He or she collaborates also by providing service
(for example, as a reviewer). A researcher may collaborate with external
stakeholders, for example industry. He or she engages with society in the identification
of research priorities. To conclude, a broad set of abilities contribute
to defining what it means to be fit for research. These abilities, however, are hard to assess
a-priori. They can only be assessed by engaging in a
research activity. If you have an interest in research and think
you can do it, try to do it. One can also strengthen these skills by enrolling
in a doctoral program (PhD), where one is educated for a career as a researcher. We will discuss PhD education in another lecture.

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