Ever since I started my professional program in Energy and Environmental Management, from time to time, I can’t help but ask myself: how on earth can I master so many different topics?
Although I am still as confused as ever when trying to understand such a fast changing world and those fabulously complicated consulting problems (Alors, c’est la vie), I am not as lost as I was before I learned some new reading habits.
Lack of specialized knowledge
Recently, some friends of mine were anxiously preparing their PhD and MPhil applications for the UK G5 (the country’s top five universities), and I happened to help edit some of their research proposals.
LJ, one of my friends, has a background in international relations and is trying to change her pathway to geopolitics.
In her list of prior work, I could see a lot of things: a general overview of the economic and security implications of Arctic melting, proposed ideas on a multilateral Arctic treaty, Asia’s Arctic interests, Russia and Canada’s positions on China’s Arctic moves, as well as documents and analytical essays on China’s Arctic diplomacy and development projects.
And then, her four parallel research questions:
- how should China establish its political position in Arctic affairs?
- how have China’s state-owned oil and gas giants influenced what China wanted and did in the Arctic region?
- how does the international community view China’s behavior in the Arctic region?
- what is the current status of legal institutions responsible for the Arctic region?
Overall, I understood that LJ wanted to study China’s Arctic strategies for her Polar Studies program at a prestigious UK university. However, her proposed research questions only seemed to show that she lacked experience in this area.
In other words, the proposal was not convincing at all. The reader probably would not believe that it would lead to a worthwhile research project.
Lack of specialized knowledge. Sound familiar?
When management consultants provide their business advice to a world-class company, which side possesses more relevant experience? Most of the time, you guessed right, it is the client.
However, LJ’s questions didn’t show me that she understood all of the available facts. I couldn’t tell exactly which one was her leading research question.
Had she read enough? Definitely yes.
So, how much information do you need before you can provide advice on a real-world business problem?
The answer is, you will probably never know exactly. How long is a piece of string?
But, you can always structure your questions based on the facts you have analyzed.
A strong question will give your audience confidence that you actually understand what is going on.
And this very same question can guide you to your next step of exploration.
Developing your knowledge as a professional
I asked LJ:
You’d better tell me why you have arranged the four questions in such a sequence. Is the answer to the first question a prerequisite for the next one? Or, is the first one THE big question with the following ones being supporting elements of the first leading question?
After commenting on LJ’s proposal, I couldn’t help but wonder: How can we read more effectively, engaged in whatever we read, and then really make use of those readings?
I bet most people who read know that they should open a book or report with questions. However, not many people take the next step: to always renew your questions based on new information.
Be aware of why you are asking certain questions, that is, be aware of your goals; and then break down the questions you have into key components.
Always keep an eye on the assumptions and arguments. It’s not the book or report that is teaching you. Rather, it is a series of conversations between you and the facts and opinions presented.
Ever since I started my program, I really haven’t had much time to just sit down for casual reading. But I do desperately need to read more about the energy industry and the business world. As I am from an International Politics background, and trying to break into the energy sector, I need to convince people that I am qualified, competent, and able to hit the ground running.
So, one more reading habit that I have found useful is not to read every single word. Scan the keywords, find out the outline of the big ideas, and gather the factual information that will allow you to achieve your goal, test your case hypothesis, or provide an informed opinion.
The reading test
As we have just come back from the long winter break in the northern hemisphere, from time to time, you might encounter such a conversation: “Hey, did you have fun back home? … Oh, yeah, have you read anything interesting during the break?”
Now you are facing a challenge to give a short “elevator pitch” of what you learned from your reading. Are you able to give an engaging “executive summary” of what you have been reading?
If you are able to do so, and you can convince the other person to buy the book, or download the report, then congratulations! You have passed the reading test!
Emma Manfei He is a first year Master of Environmental Management student at Duke University Nicholas School. Her study focuses on renewable energy and clean energy technology, low carbon policy and energy access in developing countries. She enjoys learning new languages, creating new recipes that incorporate Western and Asian cooking, and traveling. She has lived in China, Switzerland and the United States.