Mentor Spotlight | May 2015
Describe your research/creative work in a few sentences that we can all understand: I am researching the manner in which and the extent to which it is possible to use ideas from one science—evolutionary biology—in another—psychology and economics. So, for example, I am trying to answer questions like the following: is it possible to study animal decision making with the same tools that we use in economics to understand human consumer behavior? Why or why not? What about the reverse—can we study human consumer behavior by using what we know about animal decision making? Why or why not?
Q: How did you first get interested in doing research/creative work?
A: I don’t quite remember; I think I have been interested in doing research since I was a child. I actually think that something like this is true for many people—we as humans want to know how things work, and are willing to put quite some effort into finding it out.
Q: What do students in your discipline learn by doing research that they wouldn’t learn by just taking classes?
A: I think students can learn two main things by doing research in philosophy. Firstly and most obviously, they get to know a particular issue in a lot of depth. This is different from what is going on in most classes, where normally many issues are covered, and students are expected to know a bit about each of them. When students do research, by contrast, breadth does not matter much—it’s all about depth. In fact, one of the major challenges in doing research is figuring out all the things that are NOT relevant to the topic that is being researched, and then going into detail about the one thing that is at stake. Secondly, by doing research, students learn a vast array of skills that are useful in many different contexts—inside and outside of the university. For example, doing research requires being independently motivated (you need to be able to be productive even in the absence of short deadlines or immediate goals), intellectually humble (you need to be able to change your mind if this is what is required by the arguments), and persistent (don’t give up until you have found a satisfactory answer to the issue you are investigating). These are all skills that are useful to have in a wide variety of different circumstances—at work, when playing sports, in other classes, as voters, etc.
Q: What do you find to be the most exciting part of doing research/creative work? What makes this line of work meaningful and interesting to you?
A: There are many parts of doing research, and they are all exciting in different ways. I enjoy getting the nitty-gritty of the research done, as I can see my ideas starting to take shape. Writing up the research is exciting, too, as it is like putting a fuzzy picture into focus. Finally, I like publishing and presenting my research, as I often get great feedback that enables me to work out my ideas even more clearly. Also, it is very exciting and meaningful if my research seems useful for other people’s work.
Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates interested in doing research in your field?
A: I think probably the most important and useful thing to keep in mind when doing research in philosophy is to pick a narrow question, and discuss it in depth. Don’t think you need to solve every problem in the field! Just pick one such problem, and try to make some progress in solving that one problem.
Q: For many students, doing research is the first time they have done work that routinely involves setbacks and the need to troubleshoot problems. Can you tell us about a time that your research didn’t go as expected? Have you developed any tricks or habits that help you to stay resilient in the face of obstacles?
A: I think it often happens that research does not go as expected, but the major obstacle that it is important to learn how to deal with is criticism. Invariably, after spending much time and effort researching something, someone—a supervisor, colleague, friend, etc.—raises worries about what is done. This is not always easy to deal with (even if the criticism is very constructive and friendly—it is harder to deal with when the criticism is less constructive and somewhat hostile!). I think a good strategy with which to handle this sort of case is to remain as emotionally detached from the situation as possible, and just ask yourself: is the criticism compelling or not? How can it be addressed? That way, your research can take on whatever is useful about the criticism, and leave behind whatever is not.
Q: How do you spend your time outside of work?
A: I mostly spend time with my family (my wife and two young kids). That keeps me quite busy! However, I also try to go running a few times a week, and, if there is still some time left (a very rare occasion), I like to play and listen to all kinds of music.