Thriving while PhDing, Part 2: Personal Resources

Doing a PhD is not only difficult on an academic level, but on a personal one as well. In a previous post, I discussed guides and resources that helped me thrive academically in grad school, and here I’ll discuss resources that have been central to my well-being during that time.

  • People. I am incredibly fortunate to have a solid support network, especially supportive parents, loving siblings, and a stalwart spouse. The more you can surround yourself with people who have their act together and respect your PhD work, the better off you’ll be.
  • Exercise. Of course, an appreciation of the benefits of exercise is hardly unique, but consistent exercising has helped my physical and mental health. In research, sometimes you’re stuck or you run a whole experiment and realize it was fatally flawed. In exercise, every single time you go for a run or pick up a hand weight, you are making positive progress, and that reliability should not be underestimated. I’ve also found that training for a half marathon in my first year of grad school gave me the opportunity for contemplating my research, but maybe more importantly, it helped me develop goals that were outside my PhD, and to build my self esteem and feeling of accomplishment.
  • Related to exercise… an exercise community. For me, this has partly taken the form of going on runs with another friend in my PhD programs — these runs are often as therapeutic as they are physically taxing. I’ve also found a community at my local YMCA, which has incredibly reasonable membership rates and fitness classes that have encouraged me to try new things in a welcoming environment.
  • Camp Calm. This 30-day meditation program has helped me reframe anxiety and stress. The program includes short readings and meditation instructions every day for 30 days, and I’ve repeated the program at times when it’s felt necessary. It’s been incredibly useful to practice observing my thoughts without judging them.
  • Science communication, especially ComSciCon. I’ve always been interested in communicating, but grad school really ignited my interest in communicating science. I attended ComSciCon, a national workshop that helps grad students build science communication leadership skills, at the end of my second year of grad school. The following year, I was on the program organizing team, and founded a local ComSciCon in San Diego. The next year, I chaired the national conference’s program organizing team. I experienced the SciComm community at ComSciCon and was hooked. It has been especially gratifying to feel that I’m contributing positively to society through science communication work, and SciComm has provided an intellectual outlet that still gives me a break from my own research.

I can’t thrive academically if I’m not thriving personally. These are a few of the resources that have been central to my physical and mental well-being during grad school.

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Thriving while PhDing, Part 1: Academic Resources

As I’m wrapping up my PhD, I’ve been reflecting a lot (my alternative is to write my dissertation, so…). How have I gotten where I am? What are the ingredients that have helped me develop a research program on the relationship between metaphor and cognition, to present and publish this work? What wisdom have I absorbed as I’ve woven eleven experiments into a behemoth of a thesis?

I credit much of my own success to many resources that other people have been generous enough to create and share. Here I’ve compiled a list of my favorites — those that provided ideas or skills that I latched onto and others that I wish I had discovered earlier.

General Guides & PhD Advice

  • Philip Guo’s (free!) PhD memoir: It’s awesome to read about someone else’s experience doing a PhD, even though much of the PhD process differs greatly from one person to the next.
  • So long, and thanks for the Ph.D.! by Ronald Azuma: Discussing many of the most important traits for success in a PhD program, including initiative, tenacity, flexibility, interpersonal skills, organization skills, and communication skills. Azuma also includes insights on choosing an advisor and committee, keeping perspective while in grad school, and seeking a job after.
  • Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students by Stephen Stearns: This one has some points and that I especially appreciate now, at the tail end of my PhD, like psychological problems are the biggest barriers and avoid taking lectures — they’re usually inefficient.
  • Ten types of PhD supervisor relationships – which is yours? by Susanna Chamberlain. Every advisor is unique, so might not actually fit into these 10 types, but your relationship with them is crucial for your mental help and academic success. Put in the effort to figure out the dos and don’ts of working with your supervisor, and take managing that relationship very seriously.
  • How to manage your PhD supervisor by Kevin O’Gorman & Robert MacIntosh. This topic is seriously really important. This piece includes concrete recommendations.
  • Five things successful PhD students refuse to do by Dr. Isaiah Hankel. Because what you don’t do is sometimes just as important as what you do.
  • Deliberate Grad School by Andrew Critch. The point is simple, yet something that’s really hard to remember when you’re entrenched in a PhD: “you have to be deliberate to get the most out of a PhD program, rather than passively expecting it to make you into anything in particular.” This article is focused on the ways you can actually make the world a better place while working on your PhD, which I find a really productive way to think about the process.
  • A survival guide to starting and finishing a PhD by Nathan Yau. A post in which the author reflects on what he’d tell his pre-PhD self if he could go back in time. His heartening conclusion: “A PhD can be fun if you let it.”
  • The N=1 guide to grad school (and hopefully, knowledge work) by Adam Marcus, with friends. Some of the advice here applies mainly to computer science, but it’s a thorough and interesting read with plenty more links contained within for those who want to go down the grad school rabbit hole.

Intangibles

  • Academic “older siblings”: These people don’t need to actually be older than you, they just need to have some wisdom and background in your field that you admire. Ideally, they’re not faculty, but are instead grad students or post docs, since they’ll be much more likely to have time to walk you through that new analysis or might be better at identifying with your grad school troubles. My academic older sibs were not in my lab, but our research areas were similar. It was always a morale boost to be able to learn from and emulate people a few steps ahead of me in their academic careers.
  • Talks and questions: Go to as many talks as you can in your first couple of years. Pay attention to the way the speaker frames their topic — what kinds of information are they telling the audience? How do they weave theory and experiments together? How do they present their findings? What kinds of questions do people in the audience ask? This will provide implicit learning opportunities. Before you can do great research, you have to truly internalize what great research in your field is. Reading papers is another way to do so, but I found the in-person observation experiences to be irreplaceable.
  • Contribute to the academic community: It’s important to pull yourself out of your own work and participate in your intellectual community. You can pick up beer for happy hour, cook a dish for the department holiday party, or volunteer more regularly. I spent one year as the grad student rep at faculty meetings, which taught me tons about the dynamics of the department and allowed me to make sure grad student voices were heard when topics of interest to us were discussed. I also spent two years as the larger Cognitive Science Society’s grad student rep, and contributed to the society website and social media, served on a committee to assist scientists who couldn’t come to our annual conference because of the travel ban, and created an event at the conference to offer a professional development opportunity to grad students. It’s important to do things like this because we depend on our departments and societies to support and promote our work, and it sometimes has unexpected personal benefits too, since influential people in your field now know who you are and that you can get stuff done.

Specific Skill Resources

If you’re in a science field, there will probably be technical skills you need to learn or improve for your research. For me, that was mainly programming: I had to figure out efficient ways to implement experiments on the computer, often online, and to analyze the data they generated.

  • Data Science courses from Johns Hopkins on Coursera. I did a handful of these courses, and they were helpful for learning to use R for statistical analyses. A strength of these courses was that they gave a good sense of context, so I could actually apply the principles they discussed to my own data. Importantly, you do not need to pay for these. You can audit every class in the series.
  • R Resources. Dan Mirman’s Cheat Sheet here is extremely helpful. It’s well-organized so that even when you’re not quite sure what function you’re looking for, you have a sense of where on the sheet to look. Once you find the function, the sheet tells you how to use it.
  • How much statistics do psychological scientists need to know? Also, a reading list by Xenia Schmalz. Her answer to “how much statistics…?” is “As much as possible,” which resonates with my experience. I actually just recently found this guide so haven’t taken advantage of many of the resources suggested, but they look great.
  • Statistics Tutorials by Bodo Winter. Linear models and mixed models have become extremely popular in my field, because they allow you to model your data and understand how much variance your factors (as main effects and interactions) explain, while also taking individual participants and stimuli into account. Because they’re so powerful, they’re also a bit complicated to learn, but I’ve returned to Bodo Winter’s tutorials many times because they describe what’s really going on when you use these models and include detailed examples.
  • jsPsych by Josh de Leeuw. jsPsych is a “JavaScript library for creating and running behavioral experiments in a web browser,” which is incredibly useful for making experiments available to a broader audience than the typical participant pool (undergraduates who can participate in person) and for collecting data quickly. There’s thorough documentation, a tutorial for getting started, and a Google group for getting help when you hit snags. I used jsPsych for at least half of the experiments that have made it into my dissertation.
  • Research Digest: Thinking about Statistics by Christopher Madan. A great reading list covering statistics concepts to actually help you understand what all your numbers and analyses mean.

These lists just scratch the surface of resources that have helped me thrive academically while working on my PhD. Please let me know if you have other favorites I should consider adding.

In my next post, I’ll continue to share resources that have been crucial to my success in grad school, but this time I’ll focus on my top personal resources — things that helped me stay healthy, both physically and mentally, and motivated to do my work.

You think you want to do a PhD… Where to start?

Five years ago, as I began my final year as an undergraduate, I had taken the GRE, crafted a list of cognitive science and psychology faculty whose work fascinated me, and started drafting my personal statement to apply to PhD programs. I wanted to be a professor, so I knew a PhD was a step I would take.

But honestly, at a small liberal arts college, I had had little exposure to graduate students at that point (though I had spent a summer volunteering in a lab with some phenomenal grad student role models). My work study “research assistant” jobs had included reading sentence after sentence and tagging each part of speech (computer science), “helping” a professor design a survey about college students’ study habits (psychology), and fetching books from the library (religion). So I wasn’t super versed in what it meant to do research.

Nonetheless, I wanted to do a PhD. Maybe you’re in a similar boat as an undergraduate, or maybe you’ve already graduated and gotten a job, and you feel called back to grad school. This guide reflects what I’ve learned from my own experience and from observing others applying to PhD programs. My experience is specifically in cognitive science, officially considered a “social science,” so this advice may not pertain to others in very different fields.

Reasons to do a PhD

As Craig Ferguson said about comedy, I’m convinced you should only do a PhD “because you can’t not do it.”

Research is the defining feature of a PhD. Most of your time in grad school is centered around completing research (which can be slow at times, since you’re often learning the necessary skills as you go). PhD courses are often focused on synthesizing existing research, and conferences are for sharing new research.

You know you’re called to do research if you have questions about how the world works that you don’t think have been addressed yet. In my case, I had read cool papers about how language seems to shape thought, but I still needed to know really, how does that work?!

These points probably make it clear why a Andy Greenspon points out: “A PhD program is not simply a continuation of your undergraduate program.” A love of taking classes, of being a student in the way most of us think of it, is not on its own a good reason to do a PhD. If you’re still a little fuzzy on what life in graduate school is actually like, talk to as many grad students as you can, and search for more info online to try to learn more about their experiences. One piece I especially like is by Richard Gao, another grad student in my department, at the end of his first year.

Grad students are eager to share.

Prerequisites

Do you need a Master’s to get into a PhD program? No. Definitely no. Master’s programs are usually focused on coursework, and they often teach very different things than are required for a PhD. You’ll take courses in the process of getting a PhD, and you will technically acquire a Master’s degree along the way.

You will be a great candidate for a PhD program if you have research experience and questions that drive you, not if you have an extra degree on your CV.

Where to apply

Resist the urge to add all the Ivies to your application list as a default. A GradHacker post On the Art of Selecting a Graduate Program tells readers, “the reputation of a university as a whole does not equal the reputation of a university’s departments.” People in your field are not necessarily wooed by seeing that you earned a PhD from Harvard if Harvard is not actually a leader in your field. A generally prestigious university can have mediocre departments, and a less prestigious university can have some top-notch departments. It’s crucial to focus on where the great research in your field is taking place.

“Good” departments are determined by the faculty who work in them. This means that your search should be researcher-driven. Whose work are you excited by? Make this list. This it your dream team.

Then, what other researchers have those researchers collaborated with? Whose work do they tend to cite in their papers? And who often cites the dream team? Add those researchers to your list, and look up everyone’s affiliations. You now have a first draft list that likely includes the best institutions for you and your interests. And since your search is researcher-focused, the next appropriate step is to look up the other researchers in the same program.

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An article by Joan E. Strassmann has more Q&As about choosing your program that will likely also be helpful.

Actually applying

By now, you have a good sense of the importance of research for the PhD process. Your application should reflect that understanding. You should be comfortable talking about the research you’ve been a part of (both in writing and in person, should you get an in-person interview). What was your role? What methods were used, and why? What were the findings, and what do they mean? What questions remain?

Why do you want to pursue a PhD? What are your long-term goals? What skills do you hope to gain from the process, and what research questions do you want to work on?These are questions you should be able to answer for yourself before you apply, but you also need to be ready to articulate them for others when you do. You won’t be accepted to a PhD program if your application doesn’t make it clear that your goals and research interests fit with those of the people already in the program you’re applying to.

Applying for a PhD requires a lot of intellectual self-reflection. It’s not easy. But it’s necessary to do this work before jumping head-first into a multi-year commitment (4-7 years is within the normal range from my experience). Once you start working on a PhD, you might realize that the questions and goals that initially drove you to start have changed. That’s ok, of course, and maybe even common. But the more self-reflection you do and information you gather about your field ahead of time, the more you will be set up for success once you actually begin grad school.

Crowdsourced questions and answers about doing a PhD

About once a week, I receive an email notification that someone has added a new PhD-related question to Quora. Sometimes I read the question and notice that I’ve often wondered the same, and other times I read it and realize I never even thought to ask the question.

What are the benefits of getting a PhD?

I’d be seriously misguided if I hadn’t thought a lot about this. The most obvious answer is that in the course of earning a PhD, you gain research skills that can be applied in your career after grad school. Many people still think of a PhD as training for a life in academia — and while achieving a PhD is the only route towards becoming a university professor and researcher, becoming a professor and researcher is not the only productive use of a PhD.

The range of responses to this question on Quora demonstrates that there are lots of non-obvious benefits of earning a PhD. Fahad Ali points out that working towards a PhD can be intellectually satisfying, can help build confidence, and “[y]ou’ll learn how to be tough (mentally tough that is) from all the grilling, criticizing, and second guessing you will have to endure…” Abhinav Varshney added that you will cultivate patience and the habit of observing things closely, since good research and breakthroughs are built on many small things.

What are some skills that every Ph.D student should have?

So many suggestions! A few on this thread that especially resonate with me:

  • Independence
  • Critical thinking
  • Attention to detail
  • Thoroughness
  • Humility
  • Ability to collaborate

Some of these may come naturally, but in my experience, even if they don’t, they can be cultivated.

How can a graduate student make the best out of his/her PhD experience?

My own advice stems from something I often struggle with: just be present. Try not to think of a PhD as a means to an end, but instead as an experience in which much of the benefit is in the process itself. Immerse yourself in your field, your work, and building relationships with the people around you.

Scott Fahlman, a Quora responder, similarly advocates for focusing on the aspects of a PhD experience — like the ability to delve into a topic you’ve chosen — and considering ways to maximize those unique aspects. He notes that working with a PhD advisor is an opportunity to learn from someone at the top of their field, and that other graduate students present opportunities for learning from brilliant and interesting peers.

If you’re ambitious (and most of us are), a lot of the stress you feel will be self-inflicted. So try to modulate your ambitions and not try to solve the most cosmic problems in the 3 or so years available for PhD research. There is an after-life for most students, so try to save something to work on during the rest of your career. (Do as I say, not as I did.) -Scott Fahlman

Similar advice reminds people that to receive a PhD, you don’t need to be the smartest… PhDs are earned through hard work. But on the flip side, perseveration on a dissertation isn’t the path to success: “The best type of dissertation is a completed dissertation.” Joseph Perazzo sums a lot of the advice up well: “Making the best out of the PhD experience, in my opinion, requires stepping out of one’s comfort zone. You can’t be afraid to meet people, ask questions, and learn learn learn!”

I’ll leave off with one of my favorite question-and-answer combos:

How did Ph.D students become so good at writing? 

  • “Uh, they didn’t. From talking with many of my academic colleagues, it’s clear that the large majority of graduate students do not become good at writing even when they graduate and defend their PhD.” -Ben Zhao
  • “Your question is worded (grammatically) to imply that they are good at writing. Which I disagree with.” -Maxine Power
  • They didn’t… PhDs learn how to research topics. (And, frankly, they often don’t do that well, either.) Their writing often lumbers and lurches along—inelegant and often unfocused.” -Donald Tepper

The assertion that PhD students, by and large, are not very good at writing is a recurring theme in the responses to this question. I love this in part because I know I’m not nearly as good at academic writing as many people I collaborate with. But I also love it because it reminds us that achieving a PhD doesn’t necessarily mean mastering research skills in your field (I consider writing about research to be a research skill). When you earn your PhD, you’ve contributed at least a drop of knowledge to a much larger pool, and you’ve massively improved and honed your research skills. But the PhD is not a magical transition from apprentice to master researcher — all throughout your career, you’ll continue to improve. The PhD is a first step of many.


You can find more curated questions and answers about the PhD experience in an earlier post.

By teaching, we learn: A retrospective on teaching about blogging

On the surface, teaching and learning have a pretty straightforward relationship: we learn something, and then we teach it, so that others can learn it (and maybe even teach it themselves). This does happen, but the learning-teaching relationship is far less linear than this might imply.

First, teachers and professors learn a topic well enough that they decide they can teach it. Sometimes they’re an expert in the topic, and other times they know the gist of a topic and (more importantly) where they can learn more.

Then they plan the course, during this phase, they often realize how much they don’t know. So they learn more. As they continue planning, they’ll put together lectures. This is another crucial part of the learning-teaching relationship, since teachers start distilling information from other sources into their own words to fit with their own course structure. Now they’re really learning.

Then comes the day of the lecture. The students might assume the professor knows all there is to know about the topic, and the professor hopefully feels prepared. During the lecture, hopefully students will ask questions. Some the professor will be able to answer — she’s already learned this stuff! But other questions might be more challenging. They might make apparent to the teacher what she doesn’t yet know. Hopefully she then tries to find the answer (if an answer exists). She learns again, and maybe communicates what she learned to the student who asked the question — so she teaches again.

This is a classroom example of how learning and teaching are inseparable — they often must happen simultaneously, since each supports the other.

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Teaching BlogSci

This quarter, I was fortunate to experience this tangle of teaching and learning for science blogging. I co-taught a seminar with Prof. Seana Coulson to introduce students to science blogging and guide them toward creating their own blog posts about Cognitive Science Research.

I’ve blogged for a few years and have paid some attention to other science blogs, implicitly gaining an understanding of the topics and strategies that make for the most engaging posts. But planning the class drove me to find and synthesize new science communication resources. Then I shared what I’ve learned with the class, and they asked great questions. Often these questions sparked the realization for me that I didn’t know the answer — and until they asked it, I didn’t know I didn’t know it.

Those moments can be unsettling (isn’t the instructor supposed to know the answer to topic-related questions?), or we can embrace them. For example, students wanted to know what makes for a good blog post title. For the final class, I asked around and looked up what other bloggers believe makes a good title, which we discussed as a class, but then we just experimented. We listed potential titles, shared them with the group, and got input on which were most compelling. We did some background research, and then we experimented.

Although I was one of the instructors, I didn’t know the answer to the post title question ahead of time. The seminar provided an opportunity for me to discover topics I didn’t know, and then work with the group to learn more. This is one example of many that show that I learned in order to teach the group, then learned while teaching the group, and in many cases, learned after formally teaching, once I realized how much was left to learn.

I’m grateful for the bright, curious students who fueled this process.

Seneca purportedly said Docendo discimus: By teaching, we learn. So my experience of learning while teaching is not novel. Instead, it’s an application of a timeless concept to a very modern one — blogging about science.

To learn more about our seminar and read the students’ polished products, check out our class blog: UCSDBlogSci.

Questions you never knew you had about doing a PhD

A few times a month, I receive an email from Quora, a site where people ask questions and people with background on that topic weigh in. My Quora digest has questions they suspect I might be interested in. They’re almost always about doing a PhD. Here are some of the most intriguing ones. The responses are often thorough (long), so I’ve linked to them and included pieces from my favorites here.

Is pursuing a PhD as stressful as a full time job? Or more?

TLDR: It depends.

Ravi Santo noted that a PhD is likely a different kind of stress than a typical 9-to-5 job, and the stress varies based on which phase of the PhD you’re in. He describes a whirlwind phase (coursework), followed by a crunch (qualifying exam, or whatever the program requires to count as having achieved a Master’s degree), the plan (proposing the dissertation), and finally discovery (analyzing and writing the thesis).

Kyle Niemeyer pointed out that unlike many 9-to-5s, PhD students (or academics more generally) don’t usually leave work at work. They don’t stop what they’re doing because it’s 5:00 or Friday, and having your work follow you everywhere can be stressful. But on the flip side, academics often enjoy more flexibility in their schedules. The virtue is also the vice.

Some people weighed in saying a PhD is definitely more stressful, while others said they miss the glorious days of writing a PhD, when they had a single primary objective, as opposed to life in their post-PhD jobs with many responsibilities. We’ll agree to disagree and move on.

What is a depressing fact you’ve realized after/during your PhD?

TLDR: There are a lot. I’ll list some that seem to recur.

It’s been said that writing a dissertation is like giving birth— French feminist Helene Cixous even posited that men write as way of replacing reproduction.

But there’s a big difference between the two. After you have a baby, people want to see the baby and ask about it, and think it’s cute; whereas after you’ve slaved over your dissertation and defended it, no one will ever want to see it or hear about it.
-Ken Eckert

Other responders mentioned competition, starting to hate the subject you once loved, and, maybe most commonly, that it’s incredibly hard to obtain a tenure-track job afterward. In some cases, hard work isn’t enough to achieve success, whether because you need to rely on other people (especially advisors), or because you’re not at a prestigious university, or simply because experiments and lines of research are just sometimes not fruitful.

This segues well into another question:

Why is it so difficult to do a PhD?

TLDR: Research

Leading to grad school, education is based on a model where students are taught information, and are subsequently given questions about that information to answer. Once you start a PhD, however, you have to first find the problem, then figure out the best way to address it, and then actually do it.

  • You may find a problem, but it may not be solvable, so you will need to iterate through multiple attempts to find a problem
  • The problem may be solved by someone else while you work on it! (so, you need to start from scratch)
  • There is a solution, but it is hard to find and you have to make a call: do I keep trying or do I give up?
    -Konstantinos Konstantinides

Others pointed out that successful PhD students need to be patient, courageous, focused, and persistent. Come on, that’s not that much to ask for…

How do top/successful PhD students lead their lives?

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They drink coffee and write blog posts, obviously.

The responses to this question share a common theme — successful PhD students are thoughtful about their research. They don’t rush into a project, but carefully consider a topic first. And when they design studies, they focus on those that measure a lot of things (collect a lot of data), to increase the chances that they’ll have usable results, no matter how the data turn out.

What happens after a PhD?

TLDR: It depends.

“I think also, once you’ve seen the sausage being made, you see how arbitrary the point at which you get a Ph.D. is” -Ben Webster

It’s often anti-climactic. Some people report their minds going blank, or their parents celebrating more than they themselves did, or making sure the first thing they did was pick up a fiction book. Ultimately, Krishna KumariChalla comments that what happens after a PhD is “Simple: What you decide would happen!”

I have some experience with the topics of all of these questions except this last one. I believe there might be such a thing as post-PhD life, but it’s hard to picture right now as I’m deep in my fourth year. For now, I’ll rely on these Quora contributors and will report back later.

What other important PhD questions do you have? Let’s ask the Internet!

What is research? Implicit learning during a PhD

Each spring, UCSD requires all MFA and PhD students to undergo an annual evaluation. The department and university’s graduate division make sure we’re making adequate progress toward our degree. This includes coursework, but also requires each student and advisor to reflect on progress in the last year, plus strengths and weaknesses. It’s a formality and we can get away with writing very little of substance, but for me it’s a great reminder to stop what I’m doing and reflect on the past year. What have I done well? What would I like to improve? How will I do so in the next year? This is a time to reflect on how I’ve developed as a researcher, teacher, thinker, and person.

From my progress report, May 2014, at the end of my first academic year in grad school:

I have engaged in a lot of implicit learning during my first year of graduate school. Undoubtedly, I’ve also learned a lot explicitly – the theoretical foundations for cognitive science, an overview of systems neuroscience, and how to program an experiment in Matlab are a few examples. Though more difficult to quantify and articulate, the knowledge I’ve learned implicitly may be what best characterizes the progress I’ve made this year.

I’ve had the opportunity to observe many successful cognitive scientists, ranging from grad students who are only one year ahead of me to tenured faculty and distinguished speakers. As a result of this exposure, I’ve not only learned more about the field, but have also gained a better understanding of what constitutes a good research question and solid research methods. I’ve also realized that collaboration and community are essential for conducting good research, and that sharing ideas with others, whether informally over lunch or more formally at a CRL [Center for Research on Language] talk, is beneficial to both sharer and listeners. I’ve learned when to ask for help and whom to approach with different types of questions. By doing this, the phrase “it takes a village” has taken on a new importance for me – the idea of doing research in a vat is nearly as unrealistic as expecting cognition to manifest from brain in one.

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Community… by Kamaljith K V. CC BY

My research projects this year may best demonstrate the implicit learning I did. I only ran a few pilot studies, and I certainly have no significant findings to show for my work. However, I learned what working on a relatively nebulous (and intriguing) question entails. It includes defining a question, thinking creatively about how to investigate it, and doing exploratory work.

I wrote more, but I’ll spare my loyal readers from what I aptly referred to in this progress report as “academic soul searching.” I took a lot in that year, and it didn’t feel like I put out nearly as much. In hindsight, I’m comfortable with that investment of time to deepen my understanding of the world I was joining. Grad school is really different from undergrad.

Here’s how I summed up my first year in that same reflection: During my first year, I have recognized the importance of communities and communication for success in graduate school and academia. I still believe that communities and communication are some of the most important pillars in my grad school and professional career, so maybe all that implicit learning wasn’t quite as implicit as I believed it to be.

Only one eye on the prize

From my journal, November 2015, my third year in grad school:

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That gray silhouette is my mom. I call her most days, but sometimes we text instead. We probably spend half our time talking about daily life — yoga, work, what we’re cooking for dinner — and the other half of our time talking about our thoughts. My thoughts are often future-oriented. For example, I talk about trips that are scheduled for 6 months out as if they’re tomorrow because the future just always feels so imminent. I also talk a lot about my professional future, even though I’m not even sure what my professional goals are. I’m constantly asking myself (internally and aloud), what I can do to secure that all-fulfilling (and elusive) job that’ll allow me to positively impact the world, stay challenged, and help pay the bills for a comfortable home in a stimulating city.

My mom listens so much (thanks, Mom!). She validates my ideas, suggests other things to consider, and maybe most importantly, reminds me that the present is pretty great too. Goals are crucial, and we attain them by having our “eye on the prize.” But luckily we have two eyes. Our biological eyes may not be able to focus on two different things, but our metaphorical ones can. We can keep one eye on the prize while focusing the other on the present. When I do that, I remember that this current stage of my life — 4th year of my PhD, exploring different ways that metaphor shapes thought, in a mind-blowing Cognitive Science department in America’s Finest City — is pretty darn amazing.

For a while, this was the prize that I kept my eye on. When I was an undergrad at Vassar, as I started to learn more about language and cognitive science and more about research, I set my eye on graduate school, and soon after set my eye on THIS graduate school. I wanted to be accepted so much that I cried. Then I was accepted. I came to UCSD and started grad school. In typical human fashion, as the former prize became the present, I looked forward again to the next prize. Even though that next prize is still foggy in my mind, I know there must be a prize there, and I know I want to position myself as best as possible to attain it. So one eye will stay there. But as for the other…

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Ocean Beach Pier, San Diego, CA. Photos By Clark. CC BY-NC

Just start

From my journal, halfway through my third year, April, 2016. On beginning my dissertation proposal.

For many people, a dissertation only encompasses a piece of your grad school work. Knowing that, how do I know what the right scope is for a dissertation proposal?

Feelings of paralysis, which I’m not very familiar with.

My advisor says, just start. Write an outline. Write a second one, trying something different. Keep trying things.

Less than a year later, I’ve been starting to talk and think about breaking ground on my actual dissertation. Quickly, I start to feel similar feelings: but where do I start? 

I really enjoy Alain de Botton‘s website The Book of Life. While wondering what projects to write about for my dissertation proposal, I came across a helpful post: How to dare to begin. He points out: “In general, we can only start working when the fear of not doing anything finally exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”

He advises people to visit the studio, not the gallery. The gallery houses polished works, while the studio houses those in progress. This is hard to do for academic writing because people keep their unpolished work hidden, but it’s important to remember that when you’re reading the published work, you’re seeing the gallery products. But they all began in a studio.

de Botton also reminds readers that “the imperfect can still be very good, noble and admirable. For something to be loved and valued, it really isn’t necessary for it to be perfect.” This especially resonates with me right now because I often hear that “the best dissertation is a done dissertation.” 

Next, remember that in the grand scheme of things, like all human life on this planet, the thing you’re afraid to start is pretty darn small in scope. Actually, it basically doesn’t matter at all. And finally, scrutinize your fears. If you’ve taken his advice up to here, you’ll probably realize that your fears don’t have a leg to stand on.

Once you start, you just have to make sure you Keep Going.

First year, through the eyes of a baby bird

From my journal, April 2014, 6 months into my first year of grad school.

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Baby bird by Ryan Keene. CC

This is what I feel like. Vulnerable, awkward, feeling tentative about leaving the comfort of my nest, beak wide open hoping to consume as much as possible.

I still feel like that sometimes. I think baby birds usually learn how to fly pretty quickly, but becoming a researcher is not so quick. I spent a while early in my grad career flapping my wings frantically – I was doing the activities that I saw everyone else doing, but I felt like I still wasn’t getting it in the way that they were. They’d flap and fly. I’d flap and stay grounded.

But gradually, my flapping started to lift me off the ground. Initially, I’d be airborne only briefly. Over time, I spent longer in the air. I’m still on the ground flapping some days, but I now spend much more time actually flying. I probably couldn’t yet withstand a full-blown winter migration, but I can get from place to place. The real miraculous thing is that some days I don’t even have to flap my wings so hard to fly. I flap a little, and with way less effort than I used to expend, I can soar.

But we all start as baby birds.