Monday, October 27, 2008

O Learned One

It's not often that I'm approached with the words "O learned One, please share your knowledge."  So, I'm understandably a little taken aback when it does happen.
   An undergrad here is doing a report on life in grad school, and I just got done with an interview with him.  One of the questions he asked was what were the biggest stresses in my life as a graduate student.  This was like handing a compulsive gambler a blank check. 
   First off, I did give him a positive.  This is my first semester without TAing, and I have been incredibly relieved to be able to focus on research without the distractions of TAing or working through my own courses. 
   Then I hit on the rest.  I told him that this experience is full of uncertainty.  Your work causes you to question the fundamental idea that "if I do the same thing twice, I should get the same result."  You begin to view success and failure with uncertainty.  If you don't exactly know why experiment A failed, do you exactly know why experiment B worked?  Sometimes you feel like you'd be at the same point if you try 10 experiments that fail, or if you don't try any experiments at all, but you sit and stare at your lab book.  But then you rethink it, and realize that's all wrong. 
    The beauty of the process is also the ugliness of it: that there is no prescribed path.  You're constantly trying paths, hoping that one will bring you to success, but there are no guarantees.  Time spent does not by any stretch translate into good results on a regular basis.  You're always asking yourself "am I compotent or incompotent?"  There is no such thing as "working late."  What is "late"?  7PM?  12PM?  2AM?  Even though you're living and working in the midst of uncertainty, you're often feel like others expect you to be constantly at peak performance.  There's always the constant pressure to succeed.  But succeed by whose standards?  Ah!  That's the question.  Your own?  Your advisor's?  Your parents'?  Your committee's?  God's?
   You find that even if one unit of success is the number of papers you've published, another (smaller but important) unit is the day-to-day, unglorious learning that nobody but you cares about that carries you to where you want to go.  Success is when you find out how to run ImageQuant on your Mac so you can actually process your data.  Success is counting the number of mistakes you've made in a week, because those are the true signs of effort.  Success is finding a fixed width font that allows you to rapidly compare DNA sequences and determine their hybridization.  Yeah, that's success.  Those units keep on adding up, and can be translated into other units of success.  But it's like grams and kilograms: how sensitive is your and your evaluator's balance?  If someone else can only measure kilograms, it's going to take a lot of your grams of learning to register on their scale of success.
   Your life is an ocean of failure with a few seahorses of success.  If you only look at the ocean, you feel like throwing yourself in.  But if you can find the seahorses, you rack up points, your advisor can talk about you results, and *ding, ding, ding* you graduate -- and move on to the next level of purgatory.
   Of course I didn't go into all that during that interview.  I didn't want to scare the poor guy.  But in the midst of my opining, I did stop and say that I wasn't sure how the process could be improved.  After all, even though I was describing this place as purgatory and "an ongoing hazing process," how else are you supposed to learn all this stuff?

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