Research Requires Imagination

Research = thinking out of the box

Research Requires Imagination
Photo by J. Balla Photography / Unsplash

When you use the word "research", people automatically think of someone wearing a lab coat with test tubes and Bunsen burners around them. Well, most of the research in the modern day does not involve Bunsen burners and test tubes. It is made up of piles of equations and books and research papers and the monotony of reading day in and day out until your eyes go red. But most of all, it involves imagination.

Beyond Textbooks

In this post, my focus is on India. Perhaps due to the culture of JEE, CAT, GMAT, GRE etc, or perhaps because we Indians develop an obsession for marks since childhood, the learning process in India seems to be entirely, completely geared only towards the score on a test or exam. I am not saying that you should not score well on exams. But the part where education becomes a way of exploring everyday life and solving problems which have not even been recognized yet, is not actualized in this test-driven environment. But if this system of education were limited to undergraduate studies, I would not gripe. But it gets worse.

When it comes to research-oriented studying, textbooks are meant as an aid to help you develop a solid understanding of the foundations. They are not a replacement for your own creativity, imagination and exploration of the subject you have chosen to study! Much of research happens by "playing with" concepts, theorems, methodologies, principles which you learn in the classroom or in textbooks. This playful, "what happens if we apply this to ___ situation" attitude is where a new research idea is born.

For example, (as I will illustrate in the next few posts) game theory applies to every single thing in life: from how you treat your peers to how much you should study for an exam, to whether it is worthwhile to learn a new language to which jobs you should apply for! Everything is game theory once you understand and "model" the "game." But if you only study the 2x2 matrix of the Prisoner's Dilemma and study the classical games only as classical games, you will never think about, for instance, how game theory applies to your decision-making process in life, and, by extension, the decision-making process of firms, organizations, governments and consumers.

These ideas require imagination. They require you to think beyond the box. Research needs to be taught as research, and learnt as research. The fault lies more in the learners than the instructors when they reduce "education" only to the textbook ideas.

The Myth of Great Ideas Landing On Your Head

A lot of people start a PhD without ever thinking about what it means to do a PhD. How do you come up with ideas for research? What makes a good research idea in the first place?

They rely on their predecessors or instructors to tell them what to do. No original thinking. They wait for others to give them the problem, and the solution. They think they are like draftsmen--they will just draft what others have already sketched out for them. This is why research in India is not growing at the rate or pace at which it potentially can. The approach is upside down. Great ideas for research do not land on your head. It is a relentless pursuit.

Think, Think, Think

To be a researcher is to be an overthinker.

The hatred or resistance to thinking that most scholars have is the very reason why they are ill-fitted for their job profile. If you are superficial in your thinking, you can never be a great researcher. To be a researcher means to go into the depths of your field of study, to the point of sometimes losing yourself in it. The societal stigma associated with "overthinking" needs to die a speedy death. You cannot be a researcher if you have a problem with spending hours sitting with a concept, a problem, an idea. You have to develop the mental stamina for accommodating a LOT in your brain and finally processing it to create the original piece of work. Imagination is nothing but allowing your mind to wander unfettered. How can your mind wander if you cannot even spend time in thinking?

Group Projects Suck

The tendency of scholars to move in herds may help them here and there but it is really not something that can help them become better researchers. In some ways, research is the opposite of entrepreneurship, even though both try to solve problems in original ways. Research means spending time on sometimes abstract, sometimes abstruse ideas for days, weeks, months, years. This cannot be done in a "group." Groups are good when there is great synergy and different people add different skill sets to the table. Entrepreneurship is group effort. Research is not.

Research forces you, the researcher, to develop a high level of super-specialized expertise in your field. You cannot get away with using someone else's skills because the product is not the sum of its parts. You cannot get someone else to write your code for you because they don't know what the heck you are talking about! You have to learn coding. You cannot get someone else to solve certain equations for you, while you solve other equations, because they don't understand the philosophy behind the equations, even if they know the maths! Which is why, those who are good with group projects are seldom good with research. It is a different mindset. It does not mean that as a researcher you are bad at dealing with or working with people. It just means that if you are incapable of sailing your ship entirely on your own, you are unfit for research. You could still be successful as an entrepreneur.

Yes, after having achieved a certain level of mastery, and working on gigantic projects, it does become group effort where different specialists are required for the project to make sense. But that is not what I am referring to. I am talking about what moulds someone into a good researcher. A dependency on other people does not make one a good researcher.

Love What You Do, Do What You Love

All this leads to a natural conclusion: you cannot do justice to research in some field unless you absolutely, illogically love it. When you love something beyond all reasoning, you will be able to spend years thinking over it without feeling a bit sick. To quote a famous sonnet,

"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace."

~ Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Perhaps poetry captures the sentiment better than prose here. To be a researcher requires you to really love what you do, and let it become a part of you, let it bring out the best of you.