Monday, June 25, 2007

Advice? From me?

“Aren’t you a good little research scientist?” Ken asked after I said I had worked most of the weekend. “You should teach me how to do that sometime.”

“You,” I replied with a smile, “have big problems if you’re looking to me as an example.”

I said much the same to M when I read doc-in-training’s post about how to keep up with the literature. She received a comment that pretty much hit the high points of how one could try to stay on top of relevant work. Though Ian had excellent points, they wouldn’t have applied to me when I was starting out.

I talked to M last night for a little while. She’s going to begin a PhD project having finished her Masters a few years ago. Having some basic questions about how research works while obtaining a doctorate, she turned to me. And I said a lot of “um…,” and “well…,” and “I don’t know.”

My opinion is that research is pretty personal. Since the work tends to be independent, finding a style that suits you seems important to me. For example, I tend to dive in, make mistakes then fix them to do the real work. I struggle to see a situation clearly if I haven’t actually tried something.

“Let’s get some data.” I begged Boss about 6 months ago. “I’ve been planning and planning and I don’t know how to solve any more problems without having seen some results! I need to do experiments. Please? Soon?”

So what I’d tell anyone is to be open to what works for her. It doesn’t have to look like what you’ve seen others do. If it feels better to plan and read and be completely meticulous, then do that and find an environment that values it. If you’re more of a ‘let’s get this going’ type, find somewhere that doesn’t mind you wasting a bit of money so that you can play around while you learn. I don’t know that there is an ideal way to make progress. So I advocate finding a method that allows productivity and contentment when doing research.

The same could be said for reading, I think.

If one seeks to be incredibly well read, it’s going to take some time at first. Do you want to cover the most cited papers in the field – start with older research and work your way forward? Or is it better to start with the most recent stuff and read in reverse chronological order until you gain some true understanding? I personally read bits and pieces while I did the work – wrote code and analyzed data and looked at graphs and tables and maps. Eventually, things started to click. When I read a software paper, I thought, “Oh! That’s what happens when I press that button!” and it meant something to me.

But rather than offering general advice, what I try to do is remember what I did. So when talking to M or responding to another blogger, I can offer an example and let you know I think that it’s a little different for everyone. If you can use part of what I do, great. If not, that’s really OK too. It’s not like I’m such a stunning success that my methods are superior to all others.

There’s one journal in my field that is very specific to what I do. It’s a really good journal (or so I tell myself because they’ve rejected 2 of my papers. Whores.), so when I joined the major society, I paid the extra money to have a copy mailed to my apartment. When it would arrive during my first 2 years of grad school, I would make an evening of reading it.

I had bath products I saved especially for the occasion and would clean the tub, run water and take a bubble bath while reading the latest copy of the journal. I enjoyed the baths, but didn’t understand most of what was in the journal. So I would emerge, sleepy from warm water and boring pages of text, but not much more informed about work in my field.

The strategy that works best for me is to read like I’m writing. At my peak of knowledge, I was writing my dissertation. I had read and highlighted and written notes. I looked up relevant references and pored over them. I was searching through tables of contents and doing daily Medline searches on different keywords that I’d thought of on the trip to campus. It was awesome, but I was working very little and reading all the time. I couldn’t maintain that.

So I guess I take an all or nothing approach (well, all or little). When I’m writing something, I tend to do a lot of reading to make sure what I compose makes sense. It pushes reading up the priority scale for me. And, honestly? Getting my attention is half the battle for any work-related project. So I try to write a lot of abstracts and hope for posters and talks to come about so that I’m informed. Reading is how I know what to expect, which analysis methods to try, what questions people might ask, etc. So I do it.

If you’ll remember, writing my chapter freaked me out because I knew very little about the topic in question. There were 5 sections in the document I sent off – I had prior knowledge about 2 of them. The thought that I was starting from scratch and trying to write something reasonable about 3 techniques was daunting. I was so intimidated (and inherently lazy) that I wouldn’t have done all the reading and note-taking and thinking had I not received some credit for it.

Journal clubs follow the same reasoning for me. If I have to present a paper, I’ll read it carefully. Likewise, it offers exposure to literature I might not have read myself. If in a good group, people will often remember me when they’re doing their own reading and pass along relevant papers. I try to immediately write down papers that professors mention to me in meetings or as we pass in the hallway. I did set up RSS feeds for searches I do often.

Other than that, I’m still figuring it out. I’ve found there are days where I feel knowledgeable and those where I realize I know a teeny-tiny percentage of what’s out there. And they let me have a PhD anyway. Because apparently I can successfully trick myself into learning sometimes. I personally think doc-in-training is doing a lovely job of thinking and asking questions and trying to define what might work on a personal level. Though if you have helpful suggestions, feel free to leave them here or there.


The Contessa said...

there you go again - calling them whores.

Makes me laugh and smile each time.

It's just not what I expect to see in print and I laugh out loud each time.

Alethea said...

Another great way of motivating yourself to understand and read the literature on a new technique is to write a major grant on it. That will come.

Meanwhile, I find that when I hit on an article that grabs my attention because the title interests me (be it my field or not) then I will peruse it, and usually I will follow up on a couple of the articles they cite. It spreads out from there. NCBI's Pubmed now suggests related papers, which works pretty well overall, and Google Scholar can give you the web of "who cited this paper" and you can branch out like that, too.

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