When thinking about a research problem, what is in your opinion the question that will help you most to get “a higher view” and will ultimately be the most useful to make you progress? This was the question that Alexandre asked our research group members a week ago. The answer could be “What”, “Where”, “When”, “Who”, “Why”, “How”, “How much”.

The interest of the poll (as described by Alexandre) was to compare answer distribution for PhD students and for staff.

Here are the results of the poll for 11 participants.

  • Why : 45%
  • How : 45%
  • What : 9%
  • Where, When, Who, How much  : 0%

“Why” and “How” have equally obtained the highest percentages. To be more specific, for staff (4 participants), the distribution is “Why”: 75% and “What”: 25% and for PhD students (7 participants), the distribution is “How”: 71.5% and “Why” 28.5%. We observe that experienced people ask “Why”, and young ones ask “How”. To be more clear, note that for PhD students in the first or second year, “How” is 100%!

This “How” approach comes from an engineering point of view. In school, you are given a set of tools to solve problems, and are evaluated on your good use of these tools to solve exam problems. The difficult part in research is that problems have no answer yet!

The “Why” question helps to take some distance with the problem, and ultimately helps to choose a branch into which to dive.

PS: Statements and justifications are written by Alexandre.