The art of asking questions

February 1, 2023 | 03:48 pm PT
Nga Than Researcher
I took German as my third language when I was 22 years old. By definition I was an adult language learner, but I believed I was not disadvantaged by my age.

I learned pronunciation and grammar fine. But because German was such a hard language when it came to cases, vocabulary and colloquial usage, I had to learn daily for four years when I lived in Germany for a few months in a year.

The point at which I felt I started using it properly was when I knew how to form a question.

As a high school student, I went to a gifted school, in a small northern Vietnamese town where students were taught to compete in local and national competitions.

They were taught to get admission with high scores in university entrance examinations. Two of my classmates got into university with near perfect scores and topped there.

In essence, during my high school years, and by extension my entire grade school years, I learned to take tests, to answer questions, but never learned to ask questions.

I repeated the same method of acing exams in college though I went to a liberal arts college in the U.S. I took safe courses such as mathematics and economics because they did not push me to ask questions about ambiguous situations: There was always one right answer for every question asked.

It was by chance that I minored in history. I did well in it not because I asked very creative questions; I simply had an excellent memory, and, thanks to the rote memorization skill that my high school prepared me well for, I could memorize almost all the texts I read.

Then I went to Germany as a research assistant to a couple of cultural anthropologists. The colleagues that I worked with taught me the first time in my life that asking questions was the first step to becoming a researcher. They encouraged me to ask questions from very simple ones such as "what is the definition of XYZ?" and"how does a particular process work in the context of XYZ?" to very complicated questions which took paragraphs to fully describe what one meant.

I paid attention to how my colleagues asked questions at seminars and workshops. Then I accompanied my mentors into the field, took notes, and wrote down my reflections and questions. My thoughts and questions were poured into the field notes, which sometimes took hours or even days to write.

Those two formative years in Germany and learning how to ask questions propelled me into pursuing a doctoral education in sociology where I studied social phenomena such as public opinion on immigration, social media reactions to tragic events and the formation of social platforms for social movements.

By that time I had fully embraced my identity as a researcher. I was not a graduate student but a doctoral student researcher who was trying to make sense of complex situations by asking one question at a time.

The skill of being able to formulate questions helped me through my graduate school and transition into the workplace. I decided to not pursue an academic career as a professor but to become a data scientist. It took me about three years to learn the necessary skills for the career pivot. I believed I was able to make the switch by asking the simplest questions: What is the definition of this term? How do I calculate cosine similarities? How could I apply this particular methodology in an industry context? Those questions helped me understand things well, document them well and eventually teach and mentor others.

Now as a full-time data scientist, my job is to build technical solutions to business problems. 90% of my time is dedicated to communicating with others what my technical solutions mean to the business, and what I need technically to my technical colleagues. Communication is key in my line of work. Ambiguity is the nature of the job and being able to ask questions is the first step in giving clarity to anything at work.

In my free time, I mentor and meet up with at least two students every week through Techsphere, a platform built by Vietnam Tech Society, which connects Vietnamese students with mentors who work in tech.

Most of the time students come to me with very specific questions such as "Can you fix my resume?","Can you help me do a mock interview for an upcoming interview?", or how do I become a data scientist like you?"

Sometimes students also just simply want to network. But there is an art to doing these things. I would argue that it starts from knowing how to ask a question.

Sometimes a 30-minute session turns into a ramble about my experience because a student was interested in learning about my experience but was not sure where to start.

To make sure I am not wasting those 30 minutes by telling them something about my background that is completely irrelevant to them, I often preface our meeting by saying: "We only have 30 minutes together, and please let me know what your burning question is, and how I can help you with that."

I wish someone had told them that before going to such a mentor-mentee meeting, they should prepare a list of questions and organize them into 2-3 themes.

They should be prepared to make the most of those 30 precious minutes, and be proactive in the conversation. And, they should do the same in job interviews. A job interview is not just a chance for the company to ask them questions, but also a chance for them to interview their interviewers by asking questions.

I learned the art of asking questions through trial and error, by going for fieldwork in graduate school, and by interviewing a lot of job candidates at work.

In each of them, the contents of the questions might differ, but the way one asks a question remains the same: starting with something simple, then asking follow-up questions. By asking a good question, one is also forced to be a good listener in order to ask follow-up questions.

This skill is particularly important at work because work is full of ambiguity. There is no one right or wrong answer to anything. One must get more clarity out of any situation by constantly engaging in a dialogue with others around them, and with themselves.

I wish I had learned this skill earlier in life such as at home, in grade school or even in college.

*Nga Than is a senior data scientist, living in New York City.

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