PhD

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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).

Version 2

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.

PhD Smoothie

I woke up yesterday morning feeling reluctant to tackle the day. The class I TA had a final exam at 11:30, which meant that my office would likely be overflowing all morning with panicked students wanting to cram at the last minute. Then, I’d get to stare at them take a test for 3 hours, followed by a few more hours of fighting with copiers and grading software so I could turn the grades in. At some point during the day, I’d start analyzing a recent experiment that my gut tells me is a heap of noise, and turn in a seminar paper, thinking “if only I had one more day to polish this up…”

Right away, I knew that this day was going to call for a PhD smoothie. Here’s the recipe:

Start with a base of mystery fruit. Pick something that you have no idea what its name is or what it’ll taste like. The important part is that you’re curious about its taste, and you’re going to find out.

Next, add in a generous cup of grits. There are going to be lots of setbacks, and grit is the best predictor of success.

Then add in two handfuls of kale – because it’s good for you!

If the color is brownish, you’re doing it right. This is the time to add a couple tablespoons of Trader Joe’s Soyaki sauce because it’s anything but conventional and keeps things interesting.

Continuing with the ethnic theme, add in some wasabi. You’ll have to titrate the amount to your own threshold. The goal is to have just enough to make you cry a little, but not on every sip – just on a few. After opening your tear ducts, the wasabi will help you feel fresh and ready for the next taste.

Then, add a scoop of protein powder. The importance of physical strength is not to be underestimated, and your gym time will likely be limited.

And for the final touch, three spoonfuls of sugar, because sugar is satisfying. You should know that it’ll make you addicted, though, and may even contribute to high blood pressure (more research is needed).

Put all this in a blender and mix it at high speed – like, as fast as your blender will go. Keep at it for anywhere between 4 and 8 years – you can’t put a timer on masterpieces like this one. When your gut tells you it’s done (there will be no other indicator) or whenever you get too impatient – whichever comes first – gulp it down and head to the lab before you have any second thoughts. Bon appétit!

Quitting the 9 to 5 before starting it

I recently stumbled upon a blog post at raptitude titled “The frightening thing you learn when you quit the 9 to 5.” I’m not sure why I was so drawn to it, since I’ve never actually worked a traditional 9 to 5 job. Maybe I was trying to mentally prepare for the day I quit a job I will most likely never have. Regardless, I was curious.

David Cain, the author, is 32 years old and recently left an unfulfilling 9-5 job to pursue writing. Although bizarre curiosity might have led me to click the link in the first place, I was soon captivated by the parallels between his situation and the one I’ve found myself in after beginning work on my PhD, and especially this summer, a time when much of the structure I was used to has temporarily died down.

Cain writes, “before I quit my job at 32, I had never really experienced a self-directed period of my life in which I was actually trying to accomplish something.” Oddly enough, this is probably true for most of us. We might have side projects that are self-directed and goal-oriented, but how rare is it for your everyday life to be this way? It sounds a little fantastical, the sort of thing we might wish for: no boss, doing work we love, when and how we want to do it. Cain’s reflections suggest that it’s not the walk in the park it might seem to be at first. It’s great in a lot of ways, but it’s far from intuitive. Although the post has nothing to do with academia, I recognize that thriving in this situation is what needs to be done to earn a PhD.

 

A few other quotes that really hit the nail on the head for me:

“If I chose not to work, it was my loss and only mine. When you’re self-employed, every day is Wednesday.”

“Each day is a blank page with no outline indicating where the crayons go. I have to decide what to draw, how ambitious or humble it’s going to be, and what it’s all going to add up to over time.”

Is The Office what 9 to 5 jobs are like?!

Is The Office what 9 to 5 jobs are like?!

Cain came face-to-face with the sudden need to be his own boss and define his own career path at age 32, after an average of 10 post-college years characterized by the having-a-boss experience. I wonder if it’s more jarring at that point in life than at 22 when you’re inexperienced and naive, but haven’t had the 9-5 routine grounded into you yet? In some ways, college seems like an intermediate step between school years when children are micromanaged and this self-directed state that Cain writes about. It seems like the traditional 9-5 path is a step in the opposite direction, though, so maybe the freedom is less dumbfounding for me than it might be if I had become accustomed to a more traditional work scenario.

The goal of Cain’s post is to urge all people, from those currently employed in a 9-5 job to children still in school, to think about their escape from the resignation to trudge through 5/7 of your life to earn a paycheck. “Much better than resignation is to make a long-term plan to find work that is valuable enough to you that your typical day is a fulfilling one, and valuable enough to others that people will pay you for doing it.” It’s a pretty romantic prospect, but a pretty cool one to aim for nonetheless.

Exponential Learning

We toss around the  phrase, “learn something new everyday” jokingly, but in reality, we learn so much more than one thing per day. Many of these things are implicit, so we don’t realize we’re learning, but each experience we have is making its mark on our cognition. Many other things we learn, though, are explicit – we’re consciously learning in an effort to get better at something. Before we can master a skill or knowledge set, we often have to learn how to learn that thing. What strategies facilitate optimal learning? Which are ineffective? A recent NYT column by David Brooks highlights some overarching differences in the learning processes in different domains.

In some domains, progress is logarithmic. This means that for every small increase in x (input, or effort), there is a disproportionately large increase in y (output, or skill) early on. Over time, the same increases in x will no longer yield the same return, and progress will slow. Running and learning a language are two examples of skills that show logarithmic learning processes.

logarithmic

Other domains have exponential learning processes. Early on, large increases in effort are needed to see even minimal progress. Eventually, though, progress accelerates and might continue to do so without substantial additional effort.

Mastering an academic discipline is an exponential domain. You have to learn the basics over years of graduate school before you internalize the structures of the field and can begin to play creatively with the concepts.

My advisor has also told me a version of this story. She’s said that working hard in grad school (specifically I think she phrased it as “tipping the work-life balance in favor of work”) is an investment in my career. Just as monetary investments become exponentially more valuable over time, intense work early in my career will be exponentially more valuable in the long run than trying to compensate by working extra later on.

exponential_graph

Even in my first year of grad school, I developed a clear sense that even learning how the field works and what are good questions to ask takes time. When I wrote my progress report for my first year, I concluded that most of what I learned this year has been implicit. I can’t point to much technical knowledge that I’ve acquired, but I can say that I’ve gained a much better idea of what cognitive science is about as a field. I’ve gained this by talking (and especially by listening) to others’ ideas, by attending talks, and by reading as much as I could. This implicit knowledge doesn’t necessarily advance my “PhD Progress Meter” (a meter that exists only in my mind), but it is also necessary to at least start to acquire before I’ll see any real progress on that meter. Once the PhD meter is complete, I will merely have built the foundation for my career, but will probably still have much learning to do before I reach the steepest and most gratifying part of the learning curve.

Brooks points out that many people quit the exponential domains early on. He uses the word “bullheaded” as a requirement for someone who wants to stick with one of these domains, since you must be able to continually put in work while receiving no glory. I think that understanding where you are on the curve at any given time is crucial for sticking with one of these fields, so that you can recognize that eventually, the return on effort will accelerate, and the many hours (tears, complaints, whatever) that went into mastering the domain early on were not in vain. Where I stand right now, progress is pretty flat… so I must be doing something right.

Rethinking a metaphor for grad school

I’ve suggested that grad school is a marathon: a long and demanding process requiring endurance, determination, and discipline to reach the end. Recently it occurred to me that the last few words of that marathon definition, “the end,” detract from the parallelism between the two processes (marathon and grad school). Successfully defending a dissertation and adding the letters “Ph.D.” to the end of your name mark the end of a process, but not nearly as conclusive as the finish line. Really, the end of grad school marks the start of the true marathon – a career.

If that’s the case, then a Ph.D. program is maybe more accurately described as training for a marathon. Just as a serious runner trains rigorously to learn and practice the skills needed to complete the marathon, a Ph.D. program provides a serious student an opportunity to learn and practice the necessary skills