Ask Your Friendly Neighborhood Ph.D.

Ask Your Friendly Neighborhood Ph.D.

One of my relatives IM’d me earlier today to chat about productivity tools. By coincidence, I was about to IM her about a bunch of questions I had regarding research in motivation and learning; she happens to have a Ph.D. in those areas.

So I asked, “If I wanted to get an overview of what the current theories / categories are in this field, who should I read?” In about 2 minutes she gave me the names of seminal researchers and some papers, no doubt saving me from weeks of floundering on the Internet. I should contact scholarly friends and relations to get the “101” on their fields, just for the hell of it.

Getting that high-level, guided introduction to a topic is invaluable. I am reminded of an old project to collect Tables of Contents and Curricula. The theory is that you can actually learn something abou the field from the way its education is structured:

  • The Table of Contents is the first thing I scan when evaluating non-fiction books in the bookstore. While a casual flip through a book itself tells you something about the writing style, level of detail, and technical level, it’s the Table of Contents that tells you how the author’s mind is organized. You can think of it as a powerpoint presentation of the book, what the author considers important. I think of it as getting a good look at a roller coaster before you decide to get in line: even from a distance you can get a good idea of what you’re in store for, like what parts will be tame and which will scare the living bejesus out of you. You’ll know whether it’s worth riding at all.

  • There are a lot of fields of study that I wish I’d known about when I was in college: industrial design and cognitive science are two that I found out about only after I graduated. I’ve been thinking that by collecting curricula for the courses, I might get an idea of the “shape” of what they learn. The content of a course tends to follow certain patterns: there is foundation, theory, both quantitative and qualitiative components, hands-on, presentation, and some kind of crowning project. While you might not gain much practical knowledge from identifying these parts, you may learn enough to ask the right questions, or to frame the materials you are reading in the right mental context. When I was in college, I wasn’t aware that mental context was the key to getting through a lot of what I thought was lame; I just couldn’t make the connection with what we were studying with something tangible and useful in the real world, so my interest waned. Studying the curriculum, from the list of required courses to the course descriptions down to the reading lists and course outlines will tell you a lot about the meta-patterns around the field, without bogging your mind down with the little details. Understand the grand arc of the field, and maybe the busywork will make more sense. That’s my theory, anyway.


p>If you can’t tell, I’ve been in a mood to learn something new. It strikes every few years, but I am not in the mood for any more grad school at this time. Subjects I’m interested in:

  • psychology
  • education & learning
  • cognitive science
  • mathematics (never really clicked with me, but I am feeling lucky this year :-)
  • industrial design
  • music composition

Maybe continuing education is an option…no idea how it works, but there’s LOTS of it all around. On the other hand, I want to avoid situations like this, despite how hiliarious it sounds when it’s not my money being wasted.