The struggle of finding the right words

A recurring challenge since the beginning of my PhD studies has been finding the right words to describe my research domain and interests. It seemed straightforward enough in the beginning, but quickly proved trickier than I had anticipated.

The first problem was that, as soon as I tried to operationalize what I was working with, a multitude of clarifying questions popped into mind, giving me pause. I realized I needed to be more specific, but that I actually did not understand my research focus well enough to be able to do so (after all, you only can explain what you truly understand, right?). Though I had thought that I had a good grasp on my research topic, this failed attempt at putting my research questions into words made me aware of a (seemingly endless) list of questions I still had to find an answer to before going further.

(Funnily enough, I came across this episode of David McRaney’s “You are not so smart” podcast a short time later. It explains how, although we may feel we understand in depth certain things – for example, how a bicycle works – we really do not. This apparently is called “the illusion of knowledge”. The experiment at the core of this finding revolved around random people being asked how familiar they were with bicycles, and then being requested to draw an actual bike. It turned out that most of the people having presented themselves as being familiar with bicycles were unable to draw a functional bike. I could not help drawing a parallel between this outcome and my struggle with describing my research topic.)

A second problem I was unaware of a few months ago is that in research, almost all terms you can think of have a certain meaning within one field, and a very different connotation within another domain. Of course, a Bachelor in Information Science behind me, I already knew that you just have to define all the key terms you use in order to avoid problems. But it seems that in science, this particular matter takes on a whole new dimension, as many terms come with their lot of implicit assumptions and values (tell me the words you use, I’ll tell you what kind of researcher you are). Determining which those assumptions are is, as I have been told,  a mandatory step if you do not want to be, at best, extremely embarrassed during your defense (I have heard some real horror stories on the subject), or, in a maybe even worse case scenario, be completely misunderstood by your research community. As one of my colleagues told me some time ago: make sure you can explain the use of every word in your thesis. I’ll get right back to my books.