On the essentials of a research deliverable
One of the most influential people in my life was my clarinet teacher, with whom I studied when I was in my teenage years. He was a man of high wisdom and originality who could convey important ideas through humor and amusing stories from his vast past experiences as an orchestral musician of great acclaim. Even though I shifted my professional career away from music almost 20 years ago, I still find the lessons of my old clarinet teacher timely and applicable in domains vastly different from music.
My teacher used to say: “A good musician is a combination of three things: a warm heart, a cold head, and a hard behind.” Indeed, every good musician possesses these three essentials. “A warm heart” refers to the ability to feel the music and interpret it in an expressive and interesting way that can touch the listener’s emotions. Without a warm heart, a performance would be uninteresting and boring. “A cold head” refers to the ability to precisely strategize how to practice a musical piece to the point when you can be sufficiently expressive but without losing control. A musician who cannot plan an effective practicing strategy and who gets completely carried away by one’s emotions during the performance is unlikely to achieve much. Finally, “a hard behind” refers to the ability to practice systematically and overcome all the technical difficulties through perseverance and consistency.
It occurred to me that every research deliverable, such as a research publication accepted to a top tier conference, requires the same three essentials. However, in research they are defined slightly differently. Every research deliverable requires an inspiring idea–“a warm heart.” However, an idea alone is never enough, as one must devise an effective strategy to develop the idea to a publication–“a cold head.” Finally, someone has to do the leg work (implement the system, run the experiments, etc.)–” a hard behind.”
The fascinating thing about research is that unlike in music these essentials can be contributed by separate researchers collaborating on a research project. It is totally possible for one person to come up with a research idea, for another person to find a strategy how this idea can be developed, thinking through all the technical hurdles, and finally yet for another person to simply follow the instructions of the first two collaborators doing all the required leg work. In fact, that what makes the world of research so versatile.
When it comes to academic research, it is appropriate to play different roles at various stages of your research training. It is totally acceptable and even beneficial to start as “a behind” in some project that was initiated and thought through by some other people. This experience can give a student an immediate exposure to a real research problem. To graduate someone with an M.S. thesis, I expect them to at least to play the role of a brain (i.e., “stop being an ass and work your way up to a brain.”). To graduate someone with a Ph.D., I fully expect them to become the heart of a research project, as the ability to generate original ideas that can be publishable is the main purpose of doctoral training.
In my experience, the transition from “a behind” to “a brain” is fairly straightforward, and I have not witnessed many students who had difficulties with this transition. In fact, I was impressed with several of my students who immediately started playing the role of a brain in non-trivial projects. However, becoming a heart is something with which many students tend to struggle very hard. Finding a good research problem requires that a researcher has good answers to the following three questions: (1) which problems remain unsolved? (2) which problems are worth solving? (3) which problems are solvable? A good research problem must lie on the intersection of the answers to these questions. Being the heart of a research problem is a big honor and even bigger responsibility if other people depend on you to identify new ideas that are worthy of their time and efforts. And that’s why research is so hard.