Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Five years looking for learning

After my dissertation defense last August, my adviser Jay asked me to write down some reflections on being a graduate student. I am never one to pass up an invitation to pontificate (even if it is eight months late) so here goes. As implied by the title, I took five (and a-half) years to complete my PhD. True that was one year more than necessary, yes in Europe they do it in three, and I know that Jay did it in four (Tamara probably did too but I couldn't find her CV anywhere). I was not the ideal graduate student for this and many other reasons. However, I had a fabulous graduate experience. The counsel below is based on both successes and failures (both my own and others') but I'll let you guess which is which. Since this post is pretty dry, I've added some photos we took today in and around Saint Vitus cathedral in Prague. I don't see any direct connection with the text but maybe you'll find something.

Be thankful (and say thank you). Pursuing an advanced degree is a huge privilege. Feeling and expressing gratitude gives you perspective and peace. It will also make you easier to get along with. Feeling entitled makes you feel resentful and makes others resent you. Better to be grateful.

Take responsibility for your education. It is liberating (and scary) to realize that the content and quality of your experience depends above all on you. Sure, your advisor, program, university, and project play a role too, but I believe these are secondary factors. At the end of your five and a-half years (however long that is for you) you will be the one walking away with a degree. Decide what you want to learn and structure your work to acquire that knowledge and skills.

Figure out what your question is and why it matters. Science requires a painful amount of time and energy. Before putting yourself through that, make sure you have a meaningful hypothesis and that your experiment will actually test that hypothesis. Your work will probably not resolve the issue or question completely, but as a wise PhD advisor once said, "A weak test of a strong hypothesis is always better than a strong test of a weak hypothesis." To identify a meaningful question or problem you need to know the state of the science. Read the papers that are cited in the research proposal that funds your work and then read more. If you are like me, reading is difficult until you need it, and then reading is fun. Realize you need to read early so that it is fun.

Interpret criticism constructively. It’s easy to feel defensive and attacked when your work is criticized. You spent a lot of time thinking through your ideas and writing them down and it’s not comfortable to have someone pick them apart in a way that will likely require rethinking, reworking, and rewriting. Whether or not the criticism was intended constructively or given graciously, you can learn from it and it can improve your work. Along these lines, you will probably get more input from your adviser than anyone else during your graduate career (if this isn’t the case don’t complain). If you don't have the right perspective, all that correction can leave you feeling like your advisor is not your friend or not on your side. “If only she wouldn’t get in my way I would be done by now.” “He keeps on changing his mind!” In the vast majority of cases your advisor is your friend, even if you (or they) don't think they are. In the rare case that they are not your friend you can get a lot of mileage out of pretending they are.

Having a hard time getting along with your adviser? Does she or he sometimes really bother you? Guess what? Unless your adviser is Terry Chapin (who, as far as I can tell, loves everyone), there is probably something about you that bothers them too. It is easier to be patient and tolerant with your advisor when you remember that you surely will need their patience and tolerance.

Be a good citizen. Don't think exclusively about what you can get from this experience. Look around for opportunities to serve and help others. When the department head needs volunteers, volunteer. If your advisor is preparing for a site visit, offer to help. You shouldn't just give service to get something back, but it is undeniable that being a good citizen and saying yes when others ask for help or participation opens doors and smooths the path.

This point may not make me popular with the graduate student association, but I'm going to side with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on this one. Graduate school is a time “to defend not so much human rights as human obligations." Worry about fulfilling your responsibilities before getting caught up in asserting your rights. You can feel indignant about how you work 60 hours but only get paid for 20, or you can put those 60 hours to full effect and get a heck of a lot more than just salary for your effort. All people should be treated with respect and I am not saying to keep quiet if there is a real problem or abuse. I am, however, saying that being adversarial about real or perceived injustice rarely leads to a good place. If, after you have fulfilled your responsibility, there is still a problem, try to resolve it by talking individually with your advisor, committee, or appropriate administrator.

            You don’t really understand something until you have written it down. This is as true for a list of field supplies as it is for a hypo-deductive framework. Start writing as soon as you have an idea, not after you have all your data. Write the introduction to your papers before you do the experiment. Write when you read. Write every day. Writing a lot will help you order your thinking and be more comfortable with changing or cutting sections of text. It can be fun (I promise).

            Rethink your results. After you have discovered a significant relationship and have a nice story to explain it, stay skeptical and keep thinking. Alternative interpretations of your data should be welcomed, not suppressed. Could the relationship be an experimental artifact (Ioannidis 2005) or might you have reversed cause and effect (Gould and Lewontin 1994)? Think and write broadly when discussing your findings and invite others to give their opinions.

            Enjoy looking for learning. Like the Enterprise, good science goes where no-one has gone before. That usually involves lots of dead-ends, breakdowns, and Ctrl+Alt+Del. These hang-ups can distract you from the amazing experience of generating new understanding. You are seeing things in a way that no-one has before. The long walks down dead-ends contribute to your growth and increases your ability to effectively implement the scientific method. Start out early so you can enjoy getting lost and fully benefit from all the breakdowns. When you remember to breathe, this is a pretty rad job.

Gould, S. J., and R. C. Lewontin. 1994. The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: A critique of the adaptationist programme. Conceptual issues in evolutionary biology.

Ioannidis, J. P. A. 2005. Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. PLoS Med.

1 comment:

  1. it all makes sense as you describe some of my own experience with learning.
    did you know Goethe was the one who coined the word "morphology"?

    Ernst Cassierer put it this way:

    Goethe coined the word “morphology,” interested in the “formation and transformation of organic natures,” and with this created a “new ideal of knowledge.” A twentieth-century botanist, Adolf Hansen, wrote that the period of botany beginning with Goethe is related to the preceding one as chemistry to alchemy.” “To put it briefly and clearly,” Cassierer says, “Goethe completed the transition from the previous generic view to the modern genetic view of organic nature.” Rather than the rigid prevailing view that “nothing can come to be except what already is,” Goethe sought to “reveal the eternal in the transitory.”