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.

Advertisements

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.

coffee-2608864_1920

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.

Is my research me-search?

I recently listened to the inaugural episode of a new academic psychology podcast called The Black Goat (the podcast is great, by the way!). During the show, the hosts (Sanjay Srivastava, Alexa Tullett, and Simine Vazire) answered a question from an anonymous letter-writer who commented: I’ve been wondering how important it is to feel personally invested in what you study, like if it needs to be related to a part of you or your life that you care deeply about. The question was: should my research be me-search?

Me-search… I’d never heard of that term before. From the question and the hosts’ discussion, it seems that me-search is research driven by the researcher’s identity. It’s research that reflects something about the person doing it. Maybe it’s something you feel personally invested in for some reason beyond the typical reasons people are invested in their work: intellectual curiosity and because research progress means career progress.

On the one hand, it seems like it would be beneficial to be deeply passionate about the topic you research. That passion is more likely to lead to long-term motivation, which is crucial for academic research. Plus one for me-search.

But on the other hand, being personally invested in your research can be dangerous. If you really want a specific outcome, there’s a good chance you’ll get that outcome – whether that outcome actually reflects the state of the world or not. This doesn’t need to be intentional misconduct, either. For example, confirmation bias (which has been enjoying quite a bit of media spotlight lately) takes place when we (unintentionally) discount evidence that contradicts our prior belief, trust evidence that supports it, and even interpret neutral evidence as supporting that initial belief we held. (For more info, I have some past posts (1) (2)  that describe confirmation bias in more detail.) Minus one for me-search?

The hosts didn’t come to a conclusion, but instead weighed pros and cons of me-search, suggesting to me that moderate me-search (something you feel connected to, but maybe not on a life-or-death level) might be a happy medium.

So I asked myself: is my work me-search? It does incorporate things I love: I’ve always been fascinated with humans — observing them, describing them, analyzing how they work. I grew up with younger sisters who were identical twins, and they made great study subjects — I took ample advantage of this situation.

IMG_0587
This is me with the world’s most fascinating study subjects

I’ve also always been interested in language. My hobbies have always been reading and writing, and I was practically salivating when I got to take my first foreign language class (French) in high school. Humans and language are my jamz.

I study how language, especially metaphor, shapes the way we think. This work definitely incorporates, and probably stems from, some things I love, but is it my identity? Not really. More obvious examples of me-search might be bench science that could contribute to a cure for a disease someone I love has. Or researching the personality traits of people who grew up with younger siblings who were identical twins (because that would be a fascinating line of research — at least to me!). But I don’t do those things. Even though I do believe that language shapes the way we think and perceive the world, and of course I want my findings to be interesting because research careers require interesting findings, I don’t have any identity-driven motivation to find any particular outcomes.

But after working on a line of work for years (only 4, in my case), how can it not be a part of you?

I’ve created a variety of different me-search definitions for myself, and the one I use at any given moment influences whether I think my current work is me-search.

I’m curious about other researchers’ ideas of me-search: do you think your work should be classified this way, and do you think it’s more of an advantage or a disadvantage to think of your work as me-search?

Cognition at Work: A Celebration of CogSci Designed & Executed by Undergrads

This past weekend I was invited to present at UCSD’s Cognitive Science Student Association‘s annual conference. The undergraduate CSSA leaders pulled off a polished and fascinating conference, focusing on the role of cognitive science in all kinds of work, from design, to mental health, to academic research.

In the first half of the workshop I gave, they asked me to talk about my journey to cognitive science: how did I discover I wanted to pursue CogSci, how did I end up at UCSD, and what might lie ahead? This is a fun story to tell. It includes growing up in a tiny Massachusetts town with fascinating identical twin sisters and supportive parents. It also includes my undergraduate years at Vassar College, where I accidentally found Cognitive Science and took classes that truly nurtured my intellectual side and inspired me to learn more. I discovered UCSD’s unique Cognitive Science program and was dead set on getting in — and somehow I did. I’ve been having a blast researching the relationship between language and the mind, working with brilliant people, and exploring other intellectual interests. I talked about the essential skills for doing a PhD, and in response to the question: “what next?” I was honest: I don’t know! But I expect it’ll be exciting. Here are the slides from that portion of the workshop.

The second half of the workshop was focused on my Cognitive Science research. The two Research Assistants who have helped me collect data on the projects I wanted to share (David and Yahan) also helped me give the talk. I’m SO proud of the work they put into this project and the presentation, and I’m confident they inspired other undergrads in the audience. David and Yahan showed them that undergraduates can do great research AND communicate about it (which can be just as hard as the research itself!).

IMG_1669
David, Yahan, and I show our work.

Here’s a more legible version of our poster.

I left the conference feeling energized, and I hope many of the attendees did as well. It was a unique conference since most attendees were not there to promote their own work (since they were mainly undergrads). Of course there’s nothing wrong with academic conferences where promoting one’s work is a goal, but at this conference, attendees’ primary objectives were to learn, be inspired, and think about CogSci outside their classes. To me, it was a celebration of CogSci, and a great reminder of why I work in this really cool field at this really cool university.

Notes from The Undoing Project

Michael Lewis’s recent book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed our Minds, has received a lot of positive reviews. Others have written (and podcasted) extensively about the contents and merit of Lewis’s book (I especially like the NYT’s focus on the author and Kate Vane’s focus on the interwoven features of the story). There are plenty of places to find a great synopsis or commentary on the book, so I’ll just share some reflections on a few of my favorite quotes from this chronicle of the lives and collaboration of two scientists who introduced to the world many fundamental ideas about how humans think.

undoing

Danny would tell his students: “When someone says something, don’t ask yourself if it is true. Ask what it might be true of.” That was his intellectual instinct, his natural first step to the mental hoop: to take whatever someone had just said to him and try not to tear it down but to make sense of it.

This strikes me as excellent advice for so many of us. In particular researchers often set out to evaluate a hypothesis, design and carry out an experiment to test it, and end up with data that don’t really speak to the hypothesis. They’re messy, but there seems to be some signal in the noise… they tell you something, but not what you had intended. Maybe this is especially true when you study humans. Either way, this is the point to step back and ask what you can learn, even if it’s not what you wanted to learn. I’m still working on this.

Danny’s advice to ask what it might be true of also seems to be good advice for communicating science more broadly. When communicating to someone with different background experiences and beliefs, if they express a concern like scientists are still uncertain about global warming, communicators will probably be tempted to quickly react: That’s false! It’s not true on the whole, but you can find the truth in it by recalling that there is actually uncertainty about details of the consequences — when, where, and what kinds of catastrophes will strike. There is not uncertainty among scientists that global warming, if left inadequately addressed, will be catastrophic. It’s just the catastrophic details that are unclear. Acknowledging the specifics of uncertainty in this case seems likely to help communicate the falseness of the claim that scientists are uncertain about global warming without alienating an audience.

The only way to understand a mechanism such as the eye, [Danny] thought, was by studying the mistakes it made. Error wasn’t merely instructive; it was the key that might unlock the deep nature of the mechanism. “How do you understand memory?” he asked. “You don’t study memory. You study forgetting.”

Isn’t this how we all come to understand ourselves better? Introspecting about the unideal — Why did my heart rate and breathing speed up during that conversation? Why was I rude to that person on the phone? Why do I want to be somewhere other than where I am right now? — I have come to know myself much better than by dwelling on picture-perfect moments.

The point of bothering to discover this was unclear, even to Danny, except that there was a demand for such stuff in psychology journals, and he thought that the measuring was itself good training for him. “I was doing science,” he said. “And I was being very deliberate about what I was doing. I consciously viewed what I was doing as filling a gap in my education, something I needed to do to become a serious scientist.”

My dissertation in a nutshell: I’m not always sure why I’m investigating the things I am, but I am always confident that doing so is helping me become a better scientist and a better thinker.

3240500871_bd1a2d300e_z.jpg
Danny Kahneman in 2009, Image by Eirik Solheim. CC

“The idea that everyone is entitled to his/her opinion was a California thing—that’s not how we did things in Jerusalem.”

Lol.

The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.

Good research can happen when you have time and space to think. Cramming your life full of meetings and obligations may feel productive, but is more likely to lead to incremental progress, not true impactful work. I am still working to internalize this advice.

“Because metaphors are vivid and memorable, and because they are not readily subjected to critical analysis, they can have considerable impact on human judgment even when they are inappropriate, useless, or misleading,” said Amos. “They replace genuine uncertainty about the world with semantic ambiguity. A metaphor is a coverup.”

Yes, yes, yes, but I’m unconvinced about the use of a coverup as a metaphor for a metaphor (meta, I know). Metaphor is a pervasive and unavoidable feature of human language and thought.

And with that comment, I have just engaged in confirmation bias and justified my own line of research. Back to research!

First year, through the eyes of a baby bird

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

1520362404_8d93ec1490_z
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.

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.

2615333078_a897f00336_z
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.

A grad student’s perspective on piecing together a stellar research team

This week I wrote for Quartzy’s blog, The Q, which focuses on “Life, Science, and Stories for Labs.” I hope I hit on all three with my post on cultivating a stellar research team. As a PhD student, I’m far from the position of putting together an entire lab research team, but my research does require that I assemble a microcosm of a larger lab group. The Research Assistants I work with are invaluable contributors to my research, so I’ve put a lot of thought into what’s important for a research team and what I can do to ensure we stay stellar.

Interested to hear thoughts on what other people find important for their research teams, and best practices for creating the ideal ethos for your team.

Here’s the post!

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?

2911067936_0869ef7be4_z
Slow Down by Arti Sandhu, CC

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).

img_1076

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.