PhD

Riding the Grad School Motorcycle

From my journal, October 2013, about one month after I began grad school:

This morning when my alarm went off I was deep in a dream – a rare experience for me. I was learning to ride a motorcycle, and my learning method was just to go for a ride on the highway. As I was picking up speed on the ramp, I yelled to my dad’s friend, on a motorcycle beside me, “How do I shift gears?!” His reply: “With your hands.” That much I knew. If you know how to ride a motorcycle, maybe “with your hands” is an adequate explanation of how you shift gears. Since I’ve never driven one, just knowing I had to use my hands did not seem like useful information.

I was puzzled by where this dream was coming from until I remembered that today was my day to lead a seminar discussion on 120+ pages of material that I barely grasped. A little like learning to ride a motorcycle by just speeding ahead and giving it a try. The advice to shift “with my hands” is also pretty analogous to the advice I’ve gotten since I’ve started grad school. The answer may as well have been: “figure it out.” Luckily, the negative consequence of not figuring it out is much harsher in my dream than in real life.

Maybe this dream was some unconscious way of coping with my stress, or maybe it was just a coincidence. But almost 3 and a half years later, I still really like the analogy. The whole point of academic research is to uncover knowledge that is currently unknown by anyone. With that task, it’s often hard to give concrete advise on how to do things. People can give vague advice like shift with your hands (or find a work-life balance or communicate your science clearly), but those pieces of advice are often followed by the question how? and that answer is more elusive. That can be stressful.

But it can also make research so much fun.

Choose your own framing.

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Dear Future Grad Students

These next couple of days are Open House in the Cognitive Science department at UCSD. Prospective PhD students submitted applications in December, and a subset were invited to visit this weekend. A subset of those visitors will be invited to begin their PhDs in our department in the fall. The two days will include one-on-one interviews with faculty; department lunches, dinners and happy hour; lab, campus, and beach tours; and most likely, exhaustion.


Dear Future Grad Students,

I’ve been thinking about you all week. I vividly remember my own visit here 4 years ago, and each year as Open House approaches, I find it useful to reflect back.

I left snowy New York in February and was greeted by a typical San Diego sunny afternoon. It was my first time in California, which is basically a mystical land to lifelong New Englanders like me. Even before going to campus, I walked to La Jolla Cove. I was hangry because I didn’t have enough snacks for my cross-country flight, but as soon as I had a few bites of food, I realized I was in love with San Diego. And as soon as I realized I was in love, I started thinking, oh no. No, no, no. Don’t fall in love. You haven’t been accepted yet.

The next day on campus, we were told that the department was not just interviewing us, the candidates, but we were also interviewing them, deciding if this was the place we wanted to be. They’d be on their best behavior. Ah! Please don’t woo me, I haven’t been accepted yet!

It was a great weekend. I met interesting people, and one in particular ended up in a grad program elsewhere, but became a great friend. I heard about fascinating research that had never crossed my radar. I saw the beach, and I saw so much Cog Sci enthusiasm.

But I was also stressed. I wanted to come to UCSD. I wanted to be part of the community of researchers doing mind-blowing work on language and cognition. It didn’t feel like a want then, though. Definitely a need.

I’d like to think I handled those feelings maturely. I took a red-eye back to New York, and once back in my apartment, I called my mom bawling. What if I don’t get accepted? Can I possibly apply again next year? But could I face rejection twice? (This was the question on my mind before I had even been rejected once).

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After my teary phone call to my mom, I went to a formal at West Point with my then-boyfriend, now-husband Steven. Happy on the outside, frantic inside.

To state the obvious, I was accepted. Of course my reaction seems ludicrous now. And most of you are not going to feel or bawl like I did. But you’ll have your own stress, your own feelings, and your own reactions. And we, the current grad students (and likely the faculty), can relate. Four years ago, I wish I had been better able to acknowledge my stress and put it aside to savor the unique opportunity that just being at Open House provides. I fell a little short there, but you don’t have to.

I encourage you to take a moment to put your CV away, unclench your shoulders, and breathe. You’re here. No matter where you are in life, you have some direction of where you want to go. You have have solid, original ideas about Cognitive Science, and you successfully portrayed those in your application. Members of the UC San Diego Cognitive Science Department want to meet you. Whether you end up joining us here at UCSD or not, I hope you can enjoy these next couple of days. We are happy to have you.

Stay Curious,
Rose

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True. (This image and feature image: cogsci.ucsd.edu)

P.S. There are tons of resources with advice for choosing PhD programs. I take them all with more than a grain of salt — probably more like a McDonald’s super sized meal’s worth of salt. There are a few that really resonate with me though:

Slowing down

I recently had a (teary) conversation with a mentor about my dissertation. I’ve done a lot of research, much of which I’m not even planning to include in my dissertation, but I know (and my dissertation committee said) that my dissertation could use more depth. I was attempting to pitch a new experiment to add in, and I received feedback that I was probably trying to squeeze moisture from a rock that might give me a few drops, but that other projects would probably result in better bang for my buck (more important results for the time I’d have to put in). She suggested I might be sacrificing quality for speed.

My first reaction was to feel defensive. I’m pouring effort in, churning out experiments, grinding the data as quickly as possible, and drafting up the results. There’s not much validation in the PhD process: there are no gold stars and criticism far outweighs praise.

Further, academic work often feels like a race. You get credit for the number of publications you have and the impact factors of those publications. Early on a professor commented, “You are now in the paper business. Every activity you do in grad school should geared toward that end.” I’ve embraced my role in the paper business, assimilating academia’s publish or perish mentality into my work, allowing it to drive the papers I read, the experiments I run, and how I frame those experiments, creating new stories to explain unexpected results. I’m playing the game, and I think I’m playing it pretty well, and now she wants me to slow down?

As our conversation (is it still a conversation if one person is struggling to make sentences amidst tears?) continued, I started to come around to what she was saying: yes, I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself. Yes, I am hyper-focused on forward progress, and no, I haven’t thought too much about whether the work I’m doing is really the most impactful it can be. I’m staying busy and making sure I have things to show for that busy-ness. I cannot rest until I check something off a list, and at that point I’ve probably added a few more items to the list anyway.

But since I already have good research, and I’m not running out of funding, maybe it is time to take a step back. I need to pull away from the quest to find yet another p-value that’s less than .05, and think about bigger ideas: What important answers do we still not have about how metaphors shape cognition? And how can I work on those? As I started truly believing that I should slow down, I stumbled upon this great post on The Slow Grad Student – great affirmation.

One thing that helps me take a step back in evaluating my research is to truly take a step back from work. No one helps me do that quite like my best friend (whom I’m married to, coincidentally!), and I spent the past weekend visiting him (Steven lives in San Antonio and I live in San Diego).

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I hope some of the time we spent jogging, cooking dinner, and working on our jigsaw puzzle has helped me recharge and put publish-or-perish pressures on the back burner to do the best work I can.

WOOPing for my dissertation proposal

I’m going to advance to candidacy this week, which means I will propose my dissertation to my committee of five faculty members. I’ve already submitted a written proposal, but at the end of the week I’ll give a talk about my plans for about 45 minutes or an hour. I know all five of my committee members, and they all have a rough idea of the work I’m proposing. If they agree that my work is sufficient, I will be a PhD candidate, one step away from having a PhD (the size of that step varies though, so don’t be fooled). I’m not expecting intimidating interrogating or yelling or finger pointing, but it’s an event I’ve prepared thoroughly for, and things that require deep preparation are usually also at least a little anxiety-provoking. Normally when I have  events like this one, I picture myself excelling – if I tell myself that I can give a good talk, I will!

On my bus ride home one day recently, I was listening to The Hidden Brain podcast, and heard an episode called WOOP, There It Is. The psychologist being interviewed, Gabriele Oettingen, wrote a book called Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.

Oettingen’s main point was that positive thinking can backfire. What’s positive thinking? She gave an example (both in the podcast and in this article she wrote for aeon) of an experiment she actually ran. College students came to her lab and imagined that they saw their current crush at a party. The researchers asked the students to fill in the rest of the scenario: what happened at this imaginary party after you saw your crush? Some students gave very positive endings to the story, imagining the start of a wonderful relationship, while others gave less romantic endings, for example that the crush started talking to someone else. Five months later, the people who had given the less positive responses were actually more likely to have attempted to strike up a relationship with their crush than the uber-positive dreamers.

Across a range of studies with diverse participants, Oettingen and her colleagues have found that people who think more positively about achieving their goals are actually less likely to achieve those goals than those who think less positively (more realistically?). These findings hold for professional, health, academic, and relational goals (detailed examples can be found on this site, WOOP my life).

Why is positive thinking so bad? Oettingen claims that it relaxes us and tricks our brain into thinking we’ve achieved our goal. This decreases our likelihood of actually acting on those goals. This relaxation is evident physiologically, she notes:

After having participants in one study positively fantasise about the future for as little as a few minutes, we observed declines in systolic blood pressure, a standard measure of a person’s energy level. These declines were significant: whereas smoking a cigarette will typically raise a person’s blood pressure by five or 10 points, engaging in positive fantasies lowers it by about half as much. (via aeon)

Without digging extensively into her papers, I’m not sure that I buy her claim here about the “mechanism” – that lower blood pressure is a sign that thinking positively calms us too much and makes us think at some level we’ve achieved the thing we wanted to and now are less likely to act on it. I’m skeptical, but I do believe her claim that there’s a way to evade dooming yourself by positive thinking.

Oettingen notes that if people engage in a process that she and her team call WOOP, they’ll actually fare better on a range of health, interpersonal, and academic measures than people who don’t WOOP it up. Here’s an example of how I might engage in WOOP for my upcoming talk:

  • Wish: I hope that I will present my work to my dissertation committee clearly.
  • Outcome: I imagine myself focused but relaxed enough that my words flow, confident with my material but not over-practiced; my committee is clearly engaged in the presentation I’m delivering
  • Obstacle: Someone may ask me a question I don’t know how to respond to.
  • Plan: If someone asks me something that stumps me, I can do any or all of these things: ask them to rephrase it; take a second, a swig of water, a deep breath, and give it my best shot; or simply say, “That’s a really great question that I’ll have to find out.”
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My plan.

The researchers have tested WOOP against similar exercises, like stating your intentions to do something positive (for example, I intend to be calm, focused, and avoid getting flustered when I give the talk), and in contexts as different as low-income mothers’ likelihood of attending a vocational program and stroke patients losing weight, WOOP produces the best outcomes.

 

So throughout this week I’ll be running a mini-experiment on myself, WOOPing about my advancement as often as possible, and hoping at the end of the week I’ll have one more piece of positive evidence in favor of WOOP.

Remembered Lessons from James Watson

Reading a memoir often feels like holding an in-depth conversation with the author, albeit a largely one-sided conversation. When I finish, I feel like I’ve just spent hours with an accomplished person who has something valuable to share. What’s better, I’ve taken in the information at my own speed, on my own watch, and haven’t had to worry about things like exactly how much eye contact I should make while listening and when and what to interject. Humans’ thoughts and experiences are so often fascinating, and this is one of my favorite ways to learn about them.

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I was recently browsing the memoir section of the library and a book called Avoid Boring People caught my eye (how could it not?). It’s a memoir by James Watson, one the discoverers of the structure of DNA. The book chronicles Watson’s life, focusing on his path to scientific success. Each chapter discusses a phase of his life so far, and concludes with a list of Remembered Lessons, which are written as nuggets of advice to scientist readers.

The beginning of the book really captured me. Maybe Watson’s earliest days in science are the most interesting to me because I’m still near the beginning of my own scientific career. As I neared the midway point, though, Watson had already won his Nobel and I had to put the book down because I was getting bored of reading page after page about Watson’s elbow-rubbing with other famous scientists and the details of so many of his experiments. I realize the irony of my capitulation given the book’s title, but the latter half of the book just wasn’t for me. Maybe it was just to hard to identify with an older man who was a Nobel-prize winning scientist and seems to speak biochemistry as a second language.

I did, however, skim the book to read the rest of the Remembered Lessons, which I had been enjoying since the start. I’ve decided to share some that resonate with me. If you’re not up to reading Watson’s 320+ page magnum opus (actually, it’s just one of his three memoirs), here are some of my favorite takeaways:

  • College is for learning how to think.
  • Keep your intellectual curiosity much broader than your thesis objective. Especially timely advice for me, as I’m in the process of drilling deeply into one topic in order to formulate my dissertation proposal.
  • Banal thoughts necessarily also dominate clever minds. He comments that “most high-powered minds… mostly lie idle until the input of one or more new facts stimulates their neurons to resolve the conundrums that stump them.”
  • Exercise exorcises intellectual blahs. I’ve heard it has a few other benefits too…
  •  Read out loud your written words. 
    And of course…
  • Avoid boring people. Watson means this boring both its verb and adjective senses: Do not bore people and do not associate with people who bore you.

Amen to that!

Lab Girl: Review

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I discovered Hope Jahren’s new memoir Lab Girl because it’s listed under the genre of Environmental Science, a type of book I don’t usually gravitate to. It didn’t take me long to realize that the scientific world has been begging for this book to be written for a while. As I’ve continued to immerse myself more deeply into academia, I’ve realized that the massive rift separating the Ivory Tower from the rest of the world is not narrowing. Lab Girl is an account of one woman’s journey toward and through academic science, a glimpse of what a scientist might actually be like as a person and what it means to conduct scientific research as a career.

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Jahren’s story starts when she was a little girl, spending hours in her dad’s lab, and continues to cast glances into her life as a young adult, graduate student, assistant professor, and finally as a tenured professor. Her road was anything but smooth. While many features of her path were unique, so many were not. Financial struggles were a theme throughout a good portion of the book. First, she had to pay for her education as an undergraduate, and once she completed grad school, she had to apply for competitive grants to afford her lab, her right-hand man Bill’s salary, and her own. At one point she writes about buying a bunch of fast food burgers when they were on sale and freezing them for future lunches. She also writes about periods in which mental illness overcame her daily life and left her unable to function. Again, the Ivory Tower might seem like a utopia where everyone is happy and nobly working toward the pursuit of knowledge, but such struggles are not so rare among the ultra-driven academics who have never failed a test in their lives and are now pursuing PhDs or esteemed faculty positions. And she writes about the tedium, discomfort, and anxiety involved in doing science, like meticulously labeling vials and taking long road trips to dig up and study the earth in new (often desolate-seeming) locations.

Writing about these less glamorous moments and years sends the message to other academics, you are not alone. This shit is hard. And it sends a message to non-academics that the road to becoming a successful scientist is not paved with gold. Jahren adds even more value because she’s a female scientist, and although she doesn’t belabor the point, there are many stories that shed light on the extra hurdle that many females experience in science.

Jahren paints a clear picture of what doing science was like at different stages of her life, while also shedding light on what being she as a person was like at different stages and interspersing short chapters that expose trees’ beauty and complexity. Lab Girl is a love story between Hope Jahren and science, exposing their relationship’s joys and challenges and showing the readers that all along these two were meant to be together.

Do babies matter? A review

I was very excited to find this book by Mary Ann Mason, Nicholas Wolfinger, and Marc Goulden: Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower. The authors deal with the complex and multi-faceted relationship between families and academia in an organized and data-driven way. They use detailed survey information to present the beliefs and career decisions of academics (especially women) at different points of the academic “pipeline,” from graduate students through tenured faculty members and how these relate to two of the most typical milestones for family formation: marriage and childbearing.

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As a married female graduate student who loves much about academia and also hopes to raise kids eventually, this book’s agenda is important to me. After reading the book, there are a few undeniable takeaway points:

  • Women, especially at the earlier stages of academic careers (PhD students and postdocs), are more likely than men to perceive raising a family and obtaining a tenure-track faculty position as incompatible goals.
  • Academic institutions lack flexibility that exist in other professional fields like law and medicine like alternating between full- and part-time work or taking maternity and paternity leave after a birth. Even when academic institutions do have these policies, people often do not know about them or are hesitant to use them because of their associated stigma.
  • Women (and especially mothers) are underrepresented at the top of the academic career ladder.

There are lots of injustices in the world, and academia is not immune. Whether we want to or not, humans have subconscious biases, and these biases take a ton of work to overcome. Bringing awareness to discrepancies is a crucial step toward eliminating them, and this book does a great job of doing just that. There are a few recurrent underlying assumptions, though, that didn’t sit right with me as I was reading this book.

  • Tenured faculty is the ultimate goal. For many grad students, this is true. In fact it is a waste of a graduate education if the recipient is not going to remain a competitive academic researcher. In a paragraph about how “Many of our best and brightest young people are rejecting careers at research universities,” the authors write that “The United States cannot afford to lose many of its best researchers and thinkers, scholars who will eventually train the next generation. And these talented young scholars should not have to forsake careers for which they have already invested many years of their lives.” If PhDs take jobs outside academia, the United States is not losing them at all. Their training isn’t going to waste, it’s just going to a different use than many people assume it is “supposed” to go to. Not to mention, many people don’t look at getting a PhD to be career training in the sense that getting a Nursing Degree or even a Master’s Degree is. You do a PhD to gain experience, thinking, communicating, innovating, and answering nearly intractable questions. Academics love to say that you don’t get a PhD to get rich (though a job is pretty universally expected at the end).
  • Correlation and causation… There are times when the authors do remind us that statistics don’t allow us to make causal claims, but other times when the authors seem to forget that crucial notion. Comments like “Marriage also leads women to leave the labor force. Compared with an unwed woman, her married counterpart is 28 percent more likely to not work.” It may be true that marriage is the reason these women leave the labor force. Or perhaps women who leave the labor force have more time for dating and get married at higher rates (that’s fairly ridiculous, but technically possible based on the statistic). Or perhaps there’s some underlying personality difference between women who choose to get married and to stop working and those who don’t, a hidden variable responsible for the different work behaviors that isn’t marriage at all, but instead tracks with marriage. What if marriage is so fulfilling and stabilizing that women decide they don’t need to keep working at jobs they’ve hated?
  • Women and men have the same career goals and desires. This follows from the assumption above. Men and women are biologically different. It’s a good thing, too, because that keeps humans on the earth. These biological differences are pronounced in parenting. I don’t doubt that dads and moms can love their kids equally, but women carry the fetus for 9 months, give birth, and often feed the baby milk from their own body. As they’re raising a human being (or multiple humans, as is often the case), women may decide that their former jobs don’t provide the same meaning that parenting does. They may cut back on work or cut it out entirely, and this might be a great thing for many women. It is a luxury to be able to make this choice. And in some families, it may be the father who makes the choice and the mother who continues to work, but I don’t think that biology has set us up for that to be the majority choice. The statistics about women who remain in R1 (top research) faculty positions and those who take less demanding roles or stop working altogether are presented as proof enough that women are underachieving because of families. If it is a genuine choice that a woman makes to prioritize family over work, isn’t that quite an achievement?

Crucially, it needs to be possible for women to be successful researchers, wives, and mothers if that’s what they want. I believe that is the authors’ motivation, and they give suggestions for ensuring this possibility. But women who leave the pipeline shouldn’t be considered failures, and their decision should not necessarily be chalked up to injustice. It’s a really messy issue, but it won’t get better unless we keep talking about it as this book has successfully prompted many to do.