Building on the Work of Others, or How to Ask for Help

No research is entirely original. New discoveries require vast amounts of existing work to be extended or combined, providing a framework or research method in the work ahead. These foundations are not always smooth and solid however, and researchers must do what they can to work with what they inherit.

When I started my project I knew that I would be working with an existing program, developed as part of a larger system that is designed and maintained by a leading research group in the field of Constraints Programming. What I did not realise was how complex the program would be and how much time I would spend trying to decipher its error messages, before emailing its author, who would come and fix it with a couple of keystrokes. For the first two and a half weeks, I felt like I spent more time asking for help than getting any work done.

xkcd comic of an overly complex and imaginary electric circuit

Sometimes the software I work with seems impossible to understand and to use.

With the idea in mind that I am leading my own research project, this did not feel right. How can I be a leader if I need to ask for help every step of the way? I quickly got out of that mindset and returned to sending another email about some part of the program that I didn’t understand. Although I need help with the tools I use and with the theory that my research builds upon, my own work is set to produce original results and to allow the research team to complete and submit a previously rejected paper.

An SOS signal is written into the sand on a sunny beach.

I feel as if I am constantly in need of help.

In leadership as in research, I will always need to ask questions to gain a better understanding of the methods in use, as there is such a vast knowledge held by others that one person can never have it all at once. We each do our own part and together it forms one large whole, from which we hope to draw meaningful results. Asking for help seemed counter-intuitive at first, but I soon came to realise that it allows me to focus on my own work, while others do what they are best at, and what we produce in the end is far better than what a single person could have done had they attempted to forge ahead alone and unaided.

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