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What is research all about?

Distilling it to the absolute essence that can be formulated in a few words, it's about asking questions. It's not about having answers - creative or mundane, correct or otherwise. It's about asking non-trivial questions. Looking at something trivial, seeing the paradox inside, and having the ability or the talent to verbalize it.

This realization is far from original. Albert Szent-Györgyi, Nobel prize winner in Medicine and Physiology for discovering insulin, said Research is to see what everybody else has seen and to think what nobody else has thought. I would paraphrase his words: Research is to see what everybody else has seen and to ask what nobody else has asked.

Original or not, it sort of really hit me today as I was thinking about graduate students, supervising, doctorates, quitting them, and the inflation of grades in grad school. I realized, that every grad.student needs to be pulled, to some extent, to the level of passing the doctoral exam. The difference is in the amount and direction of force that needs to be applied, and the time (age, maturity level) at which it has to be applied. Some become ready for grad.school in second year undergrad, others never. How does one, as a supervisor, decide, whom to pull, and whom to cut loose? What is the crucial difference?

Is it independence? Curiosity? Creativity? What skills can be taught? What skills can't be taught? What is too late to teach in graduate school? These are questions I find myself struggling with on a daily basis. I have to say, I've been pretty stringent with respect to the level of performance needed to stay in my group - which is why my group has been rather small. I am not a very tolerant person. Most of my mishaps with the students and postdocs I tend to ascribe to my own hiring mistakes; in the end, however, there is no pride to take in a student quitting or in firing a student; "I didn't let someone I consider inferior to get a degree" is not the most impressive thing to put on one's resume. The only potential sources of pride are students publishing, presenting, and graduating.

Continuing this line of thought to its logical conclusion I came to the realization that the first and foremost criterion, for me, would be the student's curiosity, and second, perseverance to satisfy it. Which brought me to the reformulation of Szent-Györgyi's famous words.

Now I just have to find a way to test for it at the interviews.


"What makes the engine go? Desire, desire, desire."