Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Where's the fire?

Usually my favorite part about science is when I get excited about an idea or an experiment and I just have to know.

Not having much of that this week, and I need it.

I have some techniques for finding things to get excited about. I read papers, I do open-ended experiments, I talk to people about my work and see what kinds of questions they ask.

Sometimes other people's questions are good ones, sometimes they just spark better questions for me or remind me of old pet ideas of mine that need to be revisited.

I'm trying all those things this week, hoping to get excited. Because right now it all feels like WORK. Drudgery would not be an overstatement.

Think long dirt road in the middle of nowhere, add a slow drizzling rain and you get: slogging through mud. A long, muddy road in the middle of nowhere.

Sometimes research is like that.

And I have thought about getting a student. I usually find this really inspiring, but for various reasons I don't have one right now. I'm not sure if I should, except for this one temptation to borrow that quality of inquiring minds want to know.

I did take some time off the last couple of weekends, and while that can be rejuvenating, it doesn't get me fired up to come back and start pipetting madly.

And I have lots of questions I could try to answer with my research, but right now none of them are burning brightly.

I think part of the problem is this nagging feeling of Who Cares?

This is often a problem in basic research, where the public doesn't know what we do and usually our findings take decades to reach some kind of useful application. We don't really get to see the effect of our labor on any aspect of daily life.

Sometimes it's really nice just to have other researchers tell me they think my work is exciting. And that does happen from time to time. Ideally I would like it to happen at least once a week. In fact I heard it yesterday.


But ultimately I'm pretty bad at caring what other people think.

And ultimately I'm the one who has to be excited enough to come in every day and get things going. ME. I have to be convinced that it's supercool stuff I'm doing.

Even if not all of the actual doing is actually fun. That's why they call it work.

So I'm here, and things are going, but I'm running on fake excitement right now.

I'm thinking I will have to resort to my most time-honored method of making drudgery more fun: plugging something upbeat into the iPod, and reminding myself that no matter how tedious the pipetting might be today, it would be a lot worse to work in the fast food industry or on an assembly line. Or in a cubicle with nothing but spreadsheets and TPS reports.

Hey, it got me through grad school, so there must be something to it.

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At 1:17 PM, Blogger Nicole said...

Woo hoo! Go music and fake excitement.

Let's face it, even if the overall project is *really freaking cool* the day to day problems can wear you down.

Thanks for the inspiration to keep plugging away... that being the reminder that it's not "Office Space"...

At 10:21 PM, Blogger ScientistMother said...

A question: If a current PhD student asked you whether she should quit science or find another supervisor (after explaining all that crap that is going on) would you advise her to quit? Would the advice be based solely on her crappy experience or would it be colored by yours as well?

At 7:03 AM, Blogger JaneB said...

Good music is definitely an important tool in keeping going some weeks.

I can relate - right now I have so much to do that is drudgery and I'm fed up and not sure what the point is - add 'uphill with the wind in your face' to your analogy and perhaps 'whilst wearing flipflops' and that's where I am. But I have been here before and come through it, and you know, I reckon ANY job would have moments like this, it's part of being human to get fed up and spend a while going through the motions until we remember why we are doing it. It'll happen for use both, that excitment, that bouncy feeling.

In the meantime... time to be glad it's summer so I can put on something bouncy and cheesy without any of my ultra-cool non scientist colleagues wandering in and finding me being terminaly unhip.

At 5:26 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Scientist Mother,

I think that's a bit of an unfair question.

I try to look at the situation and be as objective as I can, but in reality we're all subjective creatures, aren't we?

Keep in mind, I did NOT quit grad school, despite having an absolutely miserable time program-wise and politically. It was just a bad fit for me. I don't know if I would have been happier elsewhere, I used to think so but now I don't know if I still believe that.

But by the time I was seriously thinking it might not get better, I was already more than halfway done with my PhD. So I decided to finish it. Partly just to show that I could get a PhD and make people call me Dr!

But in general, when it comes to the stay-or-quit question, I think you can't generalize. It really depends on the person.

For example, I have a friend who seriously considered quitting but ended up staying. And now she's doing very well, halfway through her grad program.

She still intends to quit after she gets her PhD.

We'll see what she ends up doing.

She's exactly the sort of colleague I would want to have, so I don't want her to quit, but she's also a friend so I don't want to see her miserable, either.

Ultimately she has to decide, all I can do is give her the information I came by the hard way, and try to help her avoid having to find out the way I did (and maybe steer around some of the crap I stepped in!).

Isn't that what friends and mentors are for?

And from our talks, it's clear to me that some things, which bother me a lot, don't bother her at all, and vice versa.

Yes. Everybody's different. This is not news.

But I also want to say that I disagree on one point with this other commenter who has been posting here (AnonJuly10).

He says you shouldn't complain or worry about discrimination (assuming that's one of the kinds of 'crap' to which you're referring).

I think it's never going to change if we all just act like it's not there. This is the status quo. I HATE the status quo, and I hate it when people cope by pretending it's going to magically fix itself. It won't.

That said, I'm glad when non-'normal', as he puts it, people make it into the system, despite considerable discouragement along the way.

Because that is the only way, that I can see right now, to create change. From within the system.

So, I'm glad if my friend wants a certain lifestyle that is somewhat atypical for academic science (at least the way I was brought up in the system), but in my opinion her way is very doable and would probably work well for a lot of these 'non-normal' types who don't fit the mainstream "white guys with beards and labcoats who sleep on a cot in the lab" stereotype.

So what was your question, exactly? I'm not sure I answered it, but I'm not sure if you were looking for an answer.


I like your image of the person wearing flip flops uphill in the wind.

The labs are busy here, so I don't get much of a reprieve from my colleagues, unfortunately, or their sense of hipness. Mostly I just try to walk fast and look too busy to talk about why I'm wearing what I'm wearing!

At 7:47 AM, Anonymous AnonJuly10 said...

Dear Ms. PhD,

(I think you were referring to my remarks about "normality" when I was AnonJuly5.)

I admire your desire to change what is faulty with the system. I want to clarify that my emphasis was not so much "do not complain", as it was "focus on the science". There's a difference.

"Normality": I didn't try to define it. At some level, of course we want non-normal people. I'd love to hire someone who was terrific non-normal ideas about science which thereby achieve great breakthroughs. To be extreme in the other direction, I don't want someone who is technically psychotic with murderous tendencies either. I don't care if the person has a non-normal sense of fashion, for example.

What is driving all this fear of "non-normal"? Hiring a faculty member is pretty close to inviting someone into your family for life. Only this is someone you can't only see at Thanksgiving. You have to deal with him/her all the time. You pretty much get one chance to interview them and see what they're about. Do you want someone to annoy you week to week until you retire? (Say, someone who's sexist.) Do you want someone who will embarrass the department with, e.g., sexual misconduct?

Of course not. You want someone who will go out and give a positive impression of the school and make your life pleasant, potentially causing problems that you'll have to clean up.

So, yes, I'm saying that if you're a psychopathic killer and really think the world should practice cult murder, you should probably hide that fact as best as possible -- at least until you get tenure :)


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