One of the tasks a doctoral student cannot avoid is finding the delta, unless it is given. I think, it was Avi who first pointed out this to me. He also stressed that we must know “why should we care” about that delta. The delta is often called a “contribution to knowledge”. No matter how big, or small, it ought to be novel, based on previous research, and relevant. At least.
It might be an idiosyncrasy of the beginner to think “I’m going to affect the world with my research”. Perhaps this is exactly what motivates some to embark on postgraduate research studies. Accordingly, during a recent postgraduate school course, quite a few presentations felt just like that, and someone explicitly pointed out “my goal is to make the world a better place”. Accordingly, in my first year I have mainly discarded a range of ideas that started big and became ever smaller. My first was to study the environmental and socio-economic effects of consumption, analyse the correlation between personal consumption and having information about it, and provide software for what I used to call the democratization of consumption data. I argued that to give people more information on personal consumption might directly affect human impact in Ehrlich and Holdren’s IPAT. How is rational human action possible with little awareness of our personal raw materials throughput? After flirting with those thoughts for some time I figured the odds that I would fail on this were too high.
There are perhaps many ways to find a delta. The visionary among us might dream them while asleep. Others might read dozens of books, to learn the basics, and papers, to get up to date, and notice a delta. Some might be pointed at one in a coffee-break discussion. Others are more likely to find one by mixing some vision, related work, pointers, and whatever else sounds useful.
I fall into the last category, and I need to add “hands-on experience”. Granted, my visionary moments are more likely to occur in the shower or while walking (I just don’t recall my night dreams). I’m usually a careful listener and absorb anything interesting in discussions. However, what drives ideas the most, for me, are practical problems I have worked on and I have a concrete experience of.
Set aside one might be more prolific in the genesis of ideas if uncoupled with hands-on experience, time and again I have come to realize that my mode of functioning is problematic insofar as a delta seems to be so only as long as I have not shared it, either with real people or the people behind papers. It’s not a delta outside my head. To make sense of previous work, and for enough imaginative space to generate ideas, I need hands-on experience. This takes awhile, or two, and sometimes along the way later in the process I generate an idea. That’s a delta in my head. I share it and, typically, I discover that was only a delta in my head.
At least it might be relevant.