Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Intimidating questions

For one of my seminar classes this semester, I'm supposed to answer the questions:

1) If you were to write a single paper on your dissertation research, what would be the title?
2) What is the most important unresolved question in your field of research?

Panic mode! These are very important and cutting questions, that I need to think about... but which I feel vastly unprepared to answer. Given that I have no dissertation research yet, or even a dissertation topic. And given that I'm still learning more every day about my (broad) field of research. I've been procrastinating, but I only have an hour left so I'm about out of time.

I wrote down a bunch of keywords for the things I'm interested in, and did a google search. Just to see if any insane people have tried combining ALL of these topics at once with any success. Surprisingly, a paper by my advisor came up as the fourth hit. I guess that's a good sign, as I sometimes wonder if I'm in the right lab (probably not a unique worry).

Ok, time to hammer out some BS title using some of these words and picking a system.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

2010: Graduate Semester Two

*high five* if you get the subject line book reference...

One of my biggest "New Years" resolutions this year has got to be trying to implement regular, constructive evaluation of my work and progress. I need the self-awareness and motivation that I hope this will increase. In this spirit, I tried to put together a big big list of what my goals are for 2010, academically and personally. Things I would like to do. Things that I have to do, but hope to do well. Almost all of that list is here (it's long, no obligations to read it):

  1. Dissertation topic - I need one. Even in a vague incarnation. So that I can start directing my reading, and planning summer experiments.
  2. Graduate committee - this sort of has to happen after #1, but also has to happen before I know that I've finished my coursework.
  3. Publications - I'm currently sitting on 2-3 projects that, if written up appropriately, could almost certainly be published somewhere. I need to do this. I've been sucking at making headway, mostly due to procrastination, and this needs to change if I'm going to make this science thing work. I care less right now about where they get published than that they do get published somewhere, and that in the process I start figuring out a good system for writing. Maybe I need to schedule a weekly time for doing this.
  4. Finish coursework - after this fall's experience with classes, I've pretty much decided that there aren't anymore classes that are really important/useful for me to take, that I can't learn more efficiently and effectively on my own, if I'm disciplined enough. I wasted a lot of time. Now I want to finish off the bare bones requirements that I have remaining, and move on (there's some hope of actually accomplishing this by the end of this semester, subject to the dictates of the committee I need to assemble - see #2).
  5. Be selective about seminar attendance.
  6. Take better notes - when reading and in seminars. Things make sense at the time, but I don't remember them as well as I usually think I will. I also need to take notes in a more organized fashion so that I actually can find, and go back and look at the information I bothered to record.
  7. I need to start practicing generating ideas. I'm going to get a special notebook and write down all of my crazy ideas and questions. Maybe I'll keep track of how many I have each week.
  8. READ MORE - fewer classes for me this semester. I need to sit down and actually read through the stack of interesting books and reference materials I have fun picking out but rarely actually read. Same goes for journal articles. I'm good and finding and collecting them, I need to get better at internalizing them.
  9. Statistics - one of my old undergraduate bad habits reappeared this past fall. Despite loving my statistics course, I shirked on the reading from the assigned texts. I really need to go through this stuff, I know I would find it interesting and useful.
  10. Learn LaTeX - I'm auditing a seminar on this weekly.
  11. Spend less effort on classes and more on my own scientific interests - probably.
  12. Remember to be EXCITED about what I'm doing and the opportunities I have.
  13. Every time I read a theory paper, I need to try to think up a corresponding experiment. I've decided there's no one around here that's going to force me to think about this - I have to push myself to do it if it's going to happen. And this is a skill I dearly want to have, so I don't end up spending my life generating, but never empirically testing, theories.
  14. Table of Contents - I signed up to receive a lot of them. So I need to actually read them instead of letting them sit in my inbox for a few weeks and then deleting the backlogs.
  15. Learn about experimental opportunities at my field station - talk to people about what they're doing, and what resources, data sets and opportunities are available to me as I'm designing my own project.
  16. Hang out with more empiricists - I'm going to try to sit in on some lab meetings of another lab group that does a lot of good empirical work, again as part of trying to train my brain.
  17. Reading lists - I want to find a good way to compile them and actually make use of them, instead of just dumping reading material into folders from whence it rarely again sees the light of my LCD screen.
  18. Self evaluation - On a regular basis, look at my goals and evaluate my progress towards them.


  1. Regular exercise - this makes me better mentally and physically. I need to set up something regular here in the city; attending weekly soccer games on friday nights out at the Bio station didn't work well - by that time I was always just too tired mentally and physically to have the motivation to make it happen. I may join a different team here in the city; my cousin and I are also going to try to set regular racquetball matches.
  2. Break some habits - less TV, less eating out, a few other things
  3. Food - do a better job of eating regularly, more fruit, less processed stuff. I should do this to unwind instead of TV shows on hulu.
  4. Plan my garden - for this summer out at the station!!! very exciting
  5. Spend less time being stimulated - that probably sounds weird. What I mean is, not spending 12+ hours in front of a computer screen consuming random information and noise and visuals. I could use more regular, healthy doses of silence and existence, instead of information overload drowning out self reflection.
  6. Meet non-science people - I realized the other day that everyone I know here in the city, and actually the whole state, on anything like a friendship basis, is a scientist of one variety or another. While I love scientists, I really need more balance and diversity than this. Not sure how to go about it yet.
  7. Try attending the catholic graduate student group get-togethers - this might help with #5 and #6 if I stop chickening out.
  8. Sleep wake cycle - get up earlier, go to bed earlier, make both times more consistent. I'm a morning person, and I need to get that schedule back again, even though a lot of my friends are more night owls. I'll be happier and more productive.
  9. Correspondence - stay in touch with friends better.
  10. Say NO more often
  11. Do something creative and non-scientific
  12. Volunteer - I think I'd be happier if I were engaged in some fairly regular activity doing something with tangible, short term, realized positive results. Would make me feel less useless/pointless, and meet new people.
Might add more things as I think of them. This is a lot to do... but no one ever accused me of not being ambitious in my projects!!!

Happy New Years everyone!

Fall semester in review

The good, the bad, and the ugly (on fall semester academics):

  1. No one's kicked me out of graduate school yet, so I've still got them all fooled.
  2. I found myself more than capable of handling my coursework; frequently it felt downright easy.
  3. I had a great statistics class, learned some things, and did significant work on an interesting project.
  4. I've got a great labmate, and also a great cohort of first year students to muddle along with.
  5. Heard some really interesting and exciting talks given by various visiting seminar speakers
  6. Attended a neat, small conference and met some interesting people
  7. Gave my first lecture (~3 hours long, and technically at a graduate level!)

  1. I made no progress on writing up papers for either my undergraduate project (since August), or the project I completed prior to graduate school as a technician working with my advisor (and presented on at ESA in August). This is kind of inexcusable, since both of them are pretty much sitting around, results in hand, and crying out to be written up and published.
  2. My courses frequently felt too easy. My typical response to this is to get frustrated with the subject, unmotivated and rather apathetic. This didn't matter when the course in question was "Technical Theater" or some other course for my liberal arts undergrad degree. This matters a lot, and is harmful, when the course in question is directly related to my field of study for my graduate work. I spent a lot of time feeling frustrated that classes were too easy and I knew too much for them, and simultaneously feeling extremely overwhelmed about how much I don't know about my field, etc. Again, this didn't help much when it came to me getting stuff done. Something I need to rise above.
  3. Part way through the semester, I realized that I was attending far too many seminars because I felt obligated to do so, rather than because their content matter was interesting to me (there are a lot of seminars that happen at a university this big). Then, as a result, about halfway through the seminar my attention would wander, however caffienated I was, and I'd spend the next 30+ minutes with open, glazed over eyes, staring into space in the general direction of the speaker. In at least one instance, this unproductive stupor carried over into the rest of the afternoon following the seminar, and in my attempt to get home I took the wrong bus twice before it all wore off.
  4. Not enough critical (= useful) self evaluation and too much self criticism. I just sort of worked at whatever was on the top of my vaguely defined to-do pile, hoping stuff would get done, and drifting along, with the tensions mentioned above. I need to intentionally and constructively review my work and my progress towards defined goals on a regular basis and try to discipline myself more. If I can make myself do it, this will be much more useful and productive than maintaining a constant, diffuse, critical feeling of being inadequate.
  1. Deciding that because my classes felt too easy all semester long, I'd pick out very very challenging topics/projects/analyses for my various final projects and finally challenge myself. Challenging yourself is good. Challenging yourself on 3 different fronts simultaneously under a 2 week deadline is ugly.
  2. As my (more assertive) lab mate has observed and pointed out to me, I don't tell people 'no' often enough. I like being helpful, and am very loyal to my friends, but I need to set boundaries for myself so that I don't let these traits, and the interactions that result from them, consume all of my time and energy. I'm sure this is something I will face in the future when (if??? long story) I get a TA position, but there the official nature of my position will help me draw a line. With friends, fellow students, etc, it's a lot harder for me to say no. As I have fewer classes this semester, it'll help, as there will be fewer classmates asking for help. It's not my job to teach them - that's the professor's job (at one point this semester, the prof for one of my classes was very busy, and referred a few students to me to get questions answered. This is ok when I am established and know what I'm doing, but this past semester it became a significant time sink when I really need to be getting my own act together). I also need to place some restrictions on what sorts of collaborations I engage in. I have some ideas on this, but it's a topic for another post.

Fall semester was far from a disaster, there are a lot of good things going here, and I learned some stuff. I didn't accomplish a lot of what I wanted to, but I have some ideas why, and on how to do better this Spring. I've got some good friends, have handled living in a city and being more independent than ever. I haven't been kicked out, and I haven't lost my enthusiasm for the things I do.

Next blog post: Goals for 2010/New Year's resolutions.