Friday, December 14, 2007

Response to comment on last post- in defense of reading a lot.

Dear Anonymous,

In terms of getting a PhD whether you like reading or not, I think that we shouldn't abuse students who realize halfway through that they don't like reading. I'm in favor of terminal master's degrees (TMS) as per the discussion over on FSP's post about that. I think it's better for people to leave at that point than to try to finish "just because", or even worse, go and do a postdoc because they can't figure out what else to do with their lives.

But, I do think that a certain amount of reading (and of course, writing!) should be a requirement for a PhD.

So maybe if you don't like reading, you shouldn't have gotten a PhD in the sense that it was not the best use of your talents?

Did you think about quitting? How did you end up finishing? Do you mind telling us (however vaguely), what you do now?

For me, getting a PhD was not easy. In fact, it would have been easier to quit (and justify quitting) than to finish.

So I wouldn't give back my PhD, either, because I know I earned it.

Whether I would do it all over again, if I had the chance, is a different question.

So I'm curious about what got you through? In fact, I generally invite comments, for the benefit of our grad & younger student readers, on that topic.

But I digress. To me, reading papers is not so much about minutiae.

I think a lot more experiments work when you read a lot and plan carefully based on what's already been done. That might sound hopeless trite, but bear with me.

Even when no one has ever done what you're setting out to do, there are always common features to be found, and those things can make or break your experiments.

I can see how those details would be boring to some, but I really like having experiments work (as you say you do). So details of that sort matter a lot to me. To me, one of the worst feelings in the world is when you find out later that someone else got your difficult experiment to work using some little trick you didn't know about. I HATE that.

Reading a lot helps me avoid getting into situations where I have to feel like that! It's that same feeling like when you leave your wallet in the backseat of the taxi cab. ARGH!

Today I was thinking about how a couple of people in my lab missed something kind of critical because of just that sort of mistake- they didn't pay attention to common features and they didn't do enough reading.

It's not my project, so who's to say I wouldn't have also missed all the clues, too. But it's kind of sad, because in retrospect, it was all sitting there in pubmed if they had just bothered to read it.

But you know, you can only do so much. And everyone handles the 'down time' differently. I think that's as much about personality as anything else. I am always in a better mood when my experiments are working!

Sometimes reading is the only thing to get me out of an experimental rut- and actually in this case, it did. The only reason my experiments are working so well lately is because of a paper I read that gave me an idea for something to do, and how to do it.

I like ideas. But I like them even better when I can show why they're right.

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At 4:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm happy to answer your questions, as anonymously as possible of course. I'm, guess what, a postdoc just like you. I work in a high profile lab in a high profile institution, with a relatively high profile fellowship. I'm somewhat of an anomaly, as my work in grad school was highly independent (my advisor didn't believe my hypothesis until late in my studies when I proved it, or at least supported it strongly). I derived great pleasure from that, and from doing work that differed from everyone else in the lab. And I did read, but most of my reading was done during the writing of my thesis, at which point it all made sense to me. But I'm just not the type of person who likes to sit down and read papers for the fun of it. So I don't, unless I need to do it for a paper I'm writing. Anyway, when I say I don't like minutiae, I mean I'm just not a detail person by nature, I'm more of a big picture person. At the beginning of a project, or the end, I'm generally energized because there are specific goals to work toward. But in the middle, I tend to flounder, lose motivation, etc. If I don't get some kind of feedback from another human being, I get even more un-motivated. I just don't enjoy the hyper solitariness of most labs, with 10 people all working silently and pretending their co-workers don't exist unless they want something from them. Anyway, I also don't want to dedicate my life to protein X phosphorylating protein Y, which is a big reason why I don't want to be an academic PI. Any kindred souls out there?

At 5:23 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

Your post helped me to understand why I never seem to read for pleasure anymore: all I do all day is read, read, read! If I'm not reading through the textbook for office hours, I'm frantically catching up on literature!

Definitely on my to-do list for my week of vacation is to pick up a non-work book!!

At 11:43 AM, Blogger ChrisC said...

Reading a lot helps me avoid getting into situations where I have to feel like that! It's that same feeling like when you leave your wallet in the backseat of the taxi cab. ARGH!

Amen. My worst fear when looking at my data is: if it doesn't work, is it because I didn't look into prior art enough? Is it my fault, or the lab gods'?

As you say, there are always parallels with other work - major breakthroughs have been made by seeing these parallels**. Missing this because you don't read is a cardinal research sin, imnsho.

I seem to detect two (over-generalised) groups in my environment - those whose literature trawls are prompted by curiosity and wonder, and those who will read if they really have to. I've found that the former group is more successful, have a better handle on the relevance of their work, design more elegant and better experiments, and generally get more results. These people seem to become more successful PIs wrt research outcomes, too: they know what the state of the field is, the unanswered questions, their context. The latter group seem listless by comparison; their contributions are incremental and safe. (Yes, I'm aware of the irony that this group snags PI positions based on this safety).

Natch, ymmv, but if you're not driven by curiosity, why are you doing research?

** eg, Crick's knowledge of the implications of the cross-hatch X-ray diffraction pattern; not to diss Franklin, but it appears that it was Crick (not Watson) who realised the implication of the patten.

At 1:59 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Okay, I get it. I had a student like you. She was just a people person. I'm very solitary and that part doesn't bother me much. And I'm not a detail person by nature. I don't work on protein X phosphorylating protein Y and that kind of thing bores me most of the time, too. And bravo for proving your hypothesis even if your advisor didn't believe you.


Yes, read! I sometimes find that reading non-work books makes me procrastinate less about reading journal articles. I don't know how that happens, but it helps. Something about being in reading mode.


Yes, yes! Taking advantage of chance via the prepared mind.

I don't believe in lab gods, but what would they look like? Flasks with feet?

At 6:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't believe in lab gods, but what would they look like? Flasks with feet?

RNAi sequence of your choice...?

At 7:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ChrisC, what the hell does "wrt" and "ymmv" mean? Is this some kind of new text message shorthand? Also, I AM driven by curiousity, the problem for me is follow through. I answer a question, great, let's move on to the next question. Let's not spend 3-5 years doing intense research on something that may or may not ever be published, or even be relevant to anything in the real world.

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