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I am in a reputed PhD Programme in Computer Science. In the prior part of my PhD I was focussed on applicative research but during the course of time I developed a keen interest in the theoretical reasoning behind algorithms and methods. I would have liked to prove the correctness of my work theoretically along with the experimental results. Since I didn't have a very strong fundamental background in mathematics, I developed a habit of asking "why" behind every assumption made in any topic. For example: I had a 15 minute long discussion with my lab mate on why the sample event space for calculating probability consists of a null set and what does it mean.

Our lab has weekly presentations by various students of my lab about their research topics or something else, focussed towards people who don't know anything. My obsession to understand the fundamentals have probably led me to be able to ask questions even upon topics not remotely concerned with my field of study. And I do ask questions (I don't know about the quality of questions since I am mostly not very well versed with the topics being presented). I somehow also have a habit of being able to relate things from various fields of study, so after or during the presentations I am usually able to find the connection between my and the other person's field.

Due to this, my advisor (occasionally and in a positive manner) and other people have started tagging me as overly curious. A few students make fun of me behind me, saying why the hell I can dive into discussions with people working in String theory when I don't have to work upon it.

Though I am producing results (coding, studying and teaching the same to my co-authors) and mostly the one who brings new ideas to the table, I am mostly taunted as being unfocussed by my lab mates when I just try to discuss about some random idea during coffee or lunch break or try to know about a new project initiated in other labs. Earlier I chose to address their concerns and accepted that maybe I have a problem, but with time people even question my focus when I just express my wish to attend an advanced Algebra lecture (an hour a week). This hasn't killed my curiosity but has led me to question my abilities and is affecting my self-confidence. I am an excellent team player, but due to continuous taunting I prefer working and hanging out alone (against my nature) since I think I am negatively impacting others' work.

My questions are:

  1. Does it make sense to attend these weekly presentations whose main aim in my view was to develop a habit of asking questions?

  2. Is wanting to know about other people's work, even from other domains, considered as lack of focus?

  3. Is there something called "overly curious" ?

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    "I am producing results(coding, studying and teaching the same to my co-authors)". Have you actually written any papers that were published in reputed journals or conferences? These are true results. Anything else is simply "beating around the bush". If your curiosity and your questions did not help you publish any papers they only derail you from getting your PHD on time (if at all). – Alexandros Jun 1 '15 at 8:18
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Answers to your questions are dependent on the culture you are in, and how you, personally, want to cope with the norms and values of that culture.

For example, in some cultures, it is possible to be labeled "overly ambitious" if one voices the ambition to be the "best X in the world", or even "the top X in our country". This doesn't apply to the US, where open ambition is rarely stigmatized.

Also, be aware that your class mates and lab mates may be taunting you and make fun of you as a way to cope with their own discomforts and insecurities. Such reactions are hardly useful or informative to you as you develop your skills and capabilities in a way that suits your disposition and inclinations.

Here are my answers to your questions:

  1. Does it make sense to attend these weekly presentations whose main aim in my view was to develop a habit of asking questions.

Yes, this is perfectly fine if it doesn't take away time or energy from your other work and doesn't delay progress in your PhD program. As my (well-regarded) adviser says: "Intellectual curiosity is very valuable in academic life. It is not widely distributed and it is hard to develop if you don't already have it".

  1. Does wanting to know about other people's work; even from other domains considered as lack of focus.

No, not in and of itself. This is the way of the "polymath". You might just start telling people: "I'm a polymath, or aspiring polymath. This is what I do." Also, you might read some biographies of polymaths. They will give you inspiration and insights.

  1. Is there something called "overly curious"

Curiosity is only excessive if it distracts from the focus necessary to develop depth in your specialty, or gets in the way of getting meaningful work done (courses passed, papers published, etc.). PhD is about depth, so if your curiosity keeps you hopping from question to question where you develop only a superficial understanding, then, yes, it is excessive.

  • I think this is a great answer. If what you're doing makes you "overly curious" then I was too, and while I don't remember anyone commenting on it when I was a student it's come in rather useful as a teacher. Looking back on my career I can't see how it's hurt me one little bit. Just as has been mentioned twice here, don't let it get in the way of what's expected of you! – Dave Kanter Jun 1 '15 at 21:40
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    One quibble on point 2. I wouldn't go around telling people I was a polymath. Like "genius", it is difficult to describe oneself as a "polymath" without seeming excessively arrogant. – Corvus Jun 2 '15 at 0:19
  • @Corvus I know this is a matter of personal taste and cultural norms. "Aspiring polymath" would be acceptable and not arrogant in the US. That said, I find the obsession with avoiding arrogance to be off-putting. I find it refreshing when someone says straight out: "I aim to do great things", if that is their true ambition. – MrMeritology Jun 2 '15 at 0:27
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    I disagree with the notion that "aspiring polymath" is acceptable in the US academic culture. The problem is that many people call themselves, and genuinely think they are, polymaths, when all they are is incompetent in many fields. It's great to be a polymath. It's best to show that you are one, rather than claiming to be one. However, most people who think they are polymaths, are not; the original poster should be very careful that they are not deluding themselves. – iayork Nov 19 '15 at 14:45
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    Just my 2 cents, but I think this answer itself is an example of why someone's cultural background is essential to this discussion: where I'm from, I believe most people wouldn't even describe "I want to be the best X in the world" as "ambition", they would probably use a word closer to "delusion". I don't think it's possible to meaningfully answer the question if OP doesn't elaborate on their background. – user9646 Jun 15 '16 at 8:48
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Since I didn't have a very strong fundamental background in mathematics, I developed a habit of asking "why" behind every assumption made in any topic. For example: I had a 15 minute long discussion with my lab mate on why the sample event space for calculating probability consists of a null set and what does it mean.

The weak background in mathematics is the thing to do something about. It can be a lot of fun, and productive, to ask questions. But you do need to get enough of a foundation to be able to tell, most of the time, whether a question you have asked, or are thinking about asking, is a good one.

It will take some time to build up your mathematical foundation. In the meantime, do me a favor. Carry around a notebook in which you jot down all your questions. Choose carefully the people you feel you trust enough to pose the more naïve questions to. And don't overload those people. I have a young friend who likes to interrupt whatever we are doing, to say, "A., may I ask you a question?" I have learned the hard way that there is no point in saying, "Not right now, my friend, let's just finish such-and-so up first" -- because this makes zero difference. He just asks me anyway, then and there. But he's ten years old. You can display a bit more self control than he can, I hope.

Here is a practical technique for keeping your number of questions down to a more manageable level: put three small, smooth stones in one pocket in the morning. Each time you ask one of those iffy questions, the type that you're not sure whether it's going to get on someone's nerves, like the sample event space question, transfer one stone to the other pocket. When you've transferred all three -- your quota is used up for the day.

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Most people are probably (much) more driven by prestige and other social drives than you are. Engaging with them with your never ending flow of curiosity (which seems to be one of your strongest drives to work hard) will probably be quite tiresome or even annoying to them at least in the long run.

Just try and learn that you will need to curb your enthusiasm and curiosity around this category of people and try and identify the ones you can speak more openly about such things with. Sometimes these people who are more happy to discus curiosities can be outside of work or formal studies.

Maybe it can be good to follow the advice by @aparente001 to write down your questions for yourself to indulge in later or to save for talking with someone more compatible with your curious personality later.

Oh I forgot at least one obvious great forum for your curiosity: the other stack exchange sites! Maybe especially math.stackexchange if it is usually mathematical questions which raise your curiosity. You will need to learn to formulate your curiosity into well defined questions or maybe if you are OK just surfing around lots of other peoples questions and answers.

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