PhD: Lessons Learned From Research Not Yet Finished

I work a lot of things out on whiteboards or large sketchbooks, because the ideas are visual and ever-changing.

For the last decade or so, I’ve been engaged in graduate research, mostly in pursuit of a PhD. This was my choice, although the exact weight and scope of that choice wasn’t really apparent to me at the time I decided it and, arguably, still isn’t entirely grasped.

One of the things I wish I had realized sooner was that research isn’t a solitary game. Sure, I have a list of articles from other researchers as long as my arm (or several arms), but the real thing that I have come to realize has been missing is not yet another reference, but people.

I’ve worked on this stuff, largely alone and with only my own direction, for several years. Coming close to the end, I now regret not having told more people about the research. For the most part, I doubt there are that many people that I know who would really understand what I’m working on.

To be honest, many days I’m not sure I understand it either…

But without others to express my work to, I have neither been forced to explain it to others, nor have I benefited from the insights of others. I’ve questioned the papers I’ve read — many of which are poorly written and either too terse to explain things or too complicated to — but the papers don’t respond. They just sit there, glowing pixels or dead ink, not giving me any feedback on the many brilliant or utterly insane ideas I’ve just thrown at it.

So, firstly, a piece of advice to those who are going to do research: find colleagues.  These need not be rivals or even directly in the field you are considering, but they should be intelligent people with whom you can converse about your research — or bitch about it, or complain about the process, or speculate wildly. The only catch is: you have to do this for others, as well. If you are a good sounding board, you will find good sounding boards. And you will likely find that you have more in common than you had expected.

(That piece of advice comes to me out of a realization that the only times I’ve felt stress relief or been able to overcome any of the problems I’ve had is when I’ve talked to others about it. It also comes as I realize how much my loner, private, shy ways have cost me in what I’ve tried to do.)

A second item, this time one that will enlighten and amuse you, and may give you that solace that comes from knowing that you are not uniquely troubled, but are in fact amongst a tribe of similarly-distraught individuals: read the comic, Piled Higher and Deeper (PHD).

I came to this strip late in my career, and have been continually shocked by how unnervingly accurate many of the situations that Jorge Cham illustrates actually are.

And finally, the point of this post, and many more to come (I hope): publish or perish. This mantra has been used by many to describe the churn of writing papers, finding publications that might accept them, formatting them properly, getting them reviewed and either dealing with rejection or being elated that you are being published.

BUT.. I think that missed the point. And I am disappointed that either I did not spontaneously discover this, and that I was never given any real instruction or suggestion on what research really is. Only now, at the wrong end, do I have any clue.

Then again, as many are fond of saying: “If I knew what I were doing, it wouldn’t be research!”

The point, you see, is not to go through that churn, but to consider it an expression to a colleague! I think the entire system forgot that point some time ago, except for those cliques which exist within every research field which mutually identify and thus interact.

I suggest they are cliques not because they are intentionally or consciously snobbish, but because they naturally developed as separate groups. I came to recognize several of them within my field, and quickly realized that the field was dominated by a small number of labs. Into this I tried to thrust my ideas, but without the weight of a team beside and behind me, my arguments were weaker, less developed and ultimately, fruitless.

Now that the academic publishing world is deconstructing itself — it has been realized that the model was benefitting the publishers far more than the scientists! — there is still a notion that good research still needs to be published, and that it needs to be reviewed, although I might argue is that it really needs to be discussed and debated, more than simply published, reviewed and cited.

So, in another attempt to inspire myself to solve my research problems, and to further generate more energy to enable me to finish my PhD in short order, I’m going to attempt to write here, on my blog, the research elements I am wrestling with.

No, that is too conciliatory.. I will not attempt, but instead I will parrot Yoda and simply do

This forces me to explain everything that I am doing, but also reinforces the notion that there is an audience of real people. It also feels very strange, as I have both felt isolated in my research and nervous about it for so long, it feels as though I am supposed to keep it hidden, not to be presented until the final experiments are in, the last lines written, and so forth.

In fact, the biggest problem is that I am not done. I have reached an impasse between my coding skills and my theory, unable to produce proof because the code cannot execute fast enough (yet), and thus in a state of limbo..

I would encourage feedback and questions. I realize that the audience of this blog is limited and largely composed of people nowhere near my field of study, but ultimately many of these things should be approachable by non-experts.

I’m also going to keep these posts, where possible, to less than 1000 words. As this one has crested that number now, I’ll bring it to a close and in another post lay out the basics.

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