4 January 2012

Science Resolutions -or- Grad School Lessons Learned

Posted by Ryan Anderson

Now that I have finished graduate school and am an older, wiser “post-doctoral fellow”, I was planning to put together a post containing advice on grad school. But then as I thought about it, I realized that the bulk of my advice fell into the “do as I say, not as I do” category. That, combined with the new year and accompanying new job, led me to re-tool my advice in the form of some science resolutions. I am going to do my best to follow these resolutions as I start the next phase of my career, and hopefully you’ll find them helpful too.

1. Keep a Research Notebook

I am notoriously unorganized. It’s not that I don’t want to be organized, I just have a hard time sticking with it. I was the kid in high school who would diligently write everything down in my day planner for the first three days of the school year, and then lose the thing and never think about it again. (According to the Myers-Briggs personality test that I took while in the NASA Academy, this is the result of being a “perceiver” rather than a “judger” and liking to “keep my options open”.)

Alas, this bad habit carried over into my research and for 99% of grad school, I didn’t keep any coherent notes on my research. This led to a lot of back-tracking and frustrated searching through deeply nested folders on my hard drive for that one file that I just knew I made at some point. There were also plenty of cases where I had to reverse-engineer my own thought processes: Why did I group those two samples together? Why did I exclude that spectrum? How did I decide to use that variation of the algorithm?

Not really optimal.

During my last summer at Johnson Space Center, I actually did diligently keep a lab notebook, and it was quite useful! I also briefly kept a word document in which I described my thought processes and methods as I started on the research that would become my last chapter. This document made it much easier to write the actual chapter, but alas, I fell out of the habit.

So, as I start fresh I am resolving to keep careful notes on my research progress every day. I am looking into note-taking software like Evernote so that I have a digital copy of my notebook that can be safely stored in the cloud and accessed anywhere.

2. Read More Papers

I have always been bad about keeping up with the literature. Of course, I’ll read the high-profile papers that come out, but often I go to conferences, try to absorb a fire-hose-deluge of new results, and then don’t read any actual papers for an¬†embarrassingly¬†long time. Then I go to write a paper of my own and have to spend lots of time tracking down all of the relevant literature, and occasionally finding previously published work that is uncomfortably similar to what I have been working on.

In the process of applying for post-docs, I had to put together a research proposal, which involved doing a lot of background reading. I ended up hauling stacks of improbably thick reference books up the hill from the library to my office, and spending days doing nothing but trying to absorb the entire literature on, say, the geochemistry of boron. This might sound mind-numbing, but it was actually pretty fun, and gave me lots of ideas.

Going forward, I intend to stay more up to date with the literature and also to read more widely so that I am exposed to more ideas (and frankly, because there is so much more to learn about the many fields that comprise Planetary Science).

3. Plan Ahead

I did not have much of a coherent plan going into graduate school. If you’re feeling charitable, you might look at the various projects that I worked on and consider them a diverse cross section of planetary science, giving me a wide variety of skills. Or instead you could say that I was doing odd jobs for my adviser, and then when a couple of them grew into something larger, those became my thesis.

It all worked out in the end of course, and I really do have a wonderful skill-set thanks to the many projects that I worked on, but things would have been much smoother had I just taken the time at the very beginning to read a bunch of papers, get some ideas, and work out a research plan with my adviser. Of course, the candidacy exam is supposed to force you to do precisely this, but in my opinion, that’s too late. I had already been working for my adviser for a year and a half at that point and had momentum in several different directions.

I am going to keep this lesson in mind for the future as I try to choose other research projects and apply for grants.

These three science resolutions double as the advice that I would give to any new grad student:

  1. Read lots of papers to get up to speed in your field and to get inspiration for topics that you want to work on.
  2. Take the time to make a clear plan from the beginning so that you spend your time in grad school effectively.
  3. Keep a research notebook (in hard copy or electronic form) and record as much as possible in it.