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  • Destenie Nock

Rusty Tool Boxes vs Thor's Hammer

Updated: Nov 9, 2019

How do you determine research questions? First step is to recognize the problem.

By Destenie Nock October 22, 2019


While at the INFORMS conference someone asked me how I determined the research questions which drove my current presentations on sustainability trade offs and equity preferences in power system planning. I think there are two ways to look at picking research questions.

  1. You start with the tool and you want to make it better. Sometimes you want to build the ultimate hammer aka Thor's Hammer (for all of my Avengers/Marvel fans). In other words, you want to take the existing tools and make them better, faster, stronger.

  2. You start with the problem (i.e. the nail that needs to be hit into a board), and you are trying to figure out the least effort way to solve it. Sometimes you need to get the tool box with a bunch of basic tools. There is nothing too fancy or overly complicated about these tools, but you know that they work.

In general I think that more theoretical/methodological people fall into category 1, and the more applied people fall into category 2. Of course there is overlap, but that is where I believe the extremes lie.

So when determining your research question you need to ask your self what the underlying problem is. Is it that your current tools are not capable of solving in a reasonable amount of time or accuracy, or is it that you have a nail/screw you don't recognize (aka you need to try a wide variety of tools)?

Steps with questions to ask yourself to narrow in on the research question:

  1. What is the problem and why is this important? What do I care about?

  2. What is the reason it has not been solved before?

  3. What do I need to solve this problem? Is it a lack of data? Do people understand the data? Do we need to improve our tools so we can work with the data? Does the problem need to be contextualized or framed in a different way so we know what data to get?

Hopefully research goes a little more smoothly. To keep up to date on posts follow me on Linked In or twitter (@destenienock). You can also subscribe below.

Note about the author: Destenie Nock holds a PhD in Industrial Engineering an Operations Research from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is a Post-Doc in the Carnegie Mellon Engineering & Public Policy (EPP) Department for 2019, and in 2020 this will transfer to an Assistant Professor position in EPP and Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon. She earned a MSc in Leadership for Sustainable Development at Queen's University of Belfast, and two BS degrees in Electrical Engineering and Applied Math at North Carolina A&T State University. In her free time she likes to hit the gym, try a new dance class and cook with friends.

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