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.

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.

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On top of Trinity Mt at 300ft by Craig Howell. CC

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.