On becoming a better researcher

“Only passions, great passions can elevate the soul to great things.” – Denis Diderot, Pensées Philosophiques

I believe the ways we become better researchers only come through self-reflection and meditating upon the arguments and principles behind what we do – not the simple acts of doing those things themselves. What makes good work that we find satisfying, engaging, morally clear, and even effective for whatever purpose or value we put forward can only come as we contemplate and fully realize the effects of what we’re doing.

As French philosopher Denis Diderot sought to learn about a variety of fields, from philosophy to art to religion, he advocated strongly for the emancipatory power of philosophy. Overturning our previously held convictions of the 1700s, Diderot’s Encyclopédie showed philosophy should trample underfoot prejudice, tradition, antiquity, shared covenants, authority, and everything that controls the mind of the common heard. Much the same way I fell in love with philosophy as an undergraduate student, I took these challenges upon myself. I wanted to figure out what it meant to be a good researcher no matter the field. 

Being a good researcher, whether it’s in science, philosophy, mathematics, or anything, requires taking apart our notions of skills, talents, abilities, and all other arguments and claims we put forward about what we do and re-framing them in appropriate ways to address the solutions in ways we decide. I’ve always believed that success requires nurturing these values and virtues in such a way that I can not only prepare for the next step in my life, but I can address the issues I want to address. This is how I search for a purpose. As I look for these purposes, I attach motives, intentions, and other moral characteristics to them. I don’t only use simple purposes like getting into a good graduate school. because I know that’s not the most effective way to work. I need to understand what it means to be good at my craft in general and apply that to what I do. 

When Diderot condemned asceticism, he argued for lifestyles in search of pleasure by cultivating passions. In response to the abstinence or celibacy of priesthood, Diderot argued those passions our body experiences cause us to achieve great things. I believe these methods of understanding the passion inherently tie into becoming a good researcher, but as Diderot sought to restructure knowledge itself and attack fundamental beliefs of his society, he was thrown in prison.

Because this task of taking apart what it means to be a good researcher is so arduous and complex, even simple things I do on a day-to-day basis can be incredibly difficult. My methods of thinking through these problems and becoming the best researcher I can possibly be don’t align so perfectly with the tasks I’m assigned to do on a day-to-day basis. It simply doesn’t make sense to me that, if I want to become the best researcher I can possibly be, I need to follow the simple directions that are put forward in front of me every day. It also doesn’t make sense that other factors such as how many hours I work should be relevant to success when there are far more certain, nuanced factors such as what effect my work has had on the world. Instead, I absolutely need to take apart arguments and claims about these notions such that I can figure out what it means to be a good researcher. 

I notice minute differences in the way we reason to become better researchers. These little things can be as small as the difference between asking the question “What would the best researcher possible do in this situation?” vs. “What can I do in this situation to become the best researcher possible?” We can see this difference in running a protocol that hasn’t been used before on the grounds that the best researcher possible would do that or running a new protocol because it will make me a better researcher. The former shows courage and audacity in trying new things because the best researcher already has those traits established and would do that. The latter implies we’re not the best researcher, but, if we value the willpower in carrying out the task, performing it would make us the best researcher possible. Each method of reasoning is suited for different purposes and goals in what we do. That’s why it’s essential we understand these methods of reasoning for the purpose of becoming a better researcher. 

If my boss tells me, “Do this because you need to do it to get a good recommendation for graduate school,” it’s very difficult for me to convince myself to do that thing. I see that sort of motive as empty, selfish, and even contrary to how researchers should perform. Besides, it becomes trivial and almost nonsensical to reason that “If I do X, Y, and Z, then I’ll get a good recommendation.” A good recommendation cannot be made by performing actions for the sake of getting a good recommendation. There needs to be authenticity and genuine moral agreement in it. Even if it were true that my boss would have the action itself to write about my actions in my recommendation, this still doesn’t show much as my actions are things that I myself can write about in my graduate school applications themselves. There’s no deeper meaning or theoretical idea my boss puts forward. As a result of the way I reason through these issues, it’s often incredibly difficult for me to follow simple, straightforward directions because I’m so busy taking apart the justification, validity, and other characteristics of anything we do in a way that I can figure out what they should mean. 

The way I discern these differences in attempts to address these questions have caused me to become confused about what I should do in the present moment. It shows that, even though I’m always trying to be the best researcher I can possibly be, that doesn’t mean that what I do in the present moment is a direct statement on how good of a researcher I am. What I do in the present moment is a mixture of all of these thoughts about what it means to be a good researcher burning within me. 

Not having these methods of discerning these issues took its toll on me. When I was an undergraduate student at Indiana University-Bloomington, I could barely see the purpose in much of my work to the point where I nearly dropped out. I had faced so many obstacles from other individuals in my attempts to address these issues, and I was so discouraged by almost no other individual posing these questions to begin with. My justification and motivations for doing things in the present moment are complicated, as I’ve explained due to my interest in these issues. 

Challenging the very notion of knowledge itself, Diderot worked with mathematician-philosopher Jean le Rond d’Alembert to create the Encyclopédie, which they described as a theater of war in which Enlightenment intellectuals desiring social change rallied against the French Church and state. Allowing free thought, especially through atheism, the scholars laid down the fundamentals of fields such as mathematics, physics, and philosophy themselves. By reasoning through the inquiry and scope of these fields, d’Alembert wrote that memory gives rise to history, imagination to poetry, and reason to philosophy. I continue to turn to philosophy for finding truth in science as I work. 

The truth is I’ve been struggling with these issues for maybe four years now, and I still struggle with them. They affect me in ways that I detect through everything I do. When I wake up, go to work, contemplate my actions, and even dream while I sleep, I find these questions on my purpose shaking me in ways I can barely articulate. 

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