To kick things off I thought I would discuss something that has been on my mind lately. I have bounced around fields and labs a bit, and most recently the focus of the research I write about took a pretty dramatic shift. This happened because I was primarily hired to write grants, not do research, but that is a story for another time.
The key thing here is that the change demanded I push my learning curve on a new topic, but it caused me to reflect on what it is like to be dropped into a new environment with a new subject matter. If you are in the early stages of your graduate career, or maybe a new postdoc, you know I am talking about. About now you have the feeling of going from the ‘know-it-all’ to the dunce staring at Mt. Improbable. THEN, while you are trying to figure out how to start your climb, your boss/advisor tells you to produce some document (e.g., grant or prospectus) ASAP.
The temptation here will be just to plow into it, and somehow churn something out by skimming some review articles and hope no one notices there is no depth to your statements. STOP! What I want you to do is to take a step back, and realize the mountain isn’t as big as it looks. If you do this you will realize that there is a paper trail for you to follow. My advice here is to take the time to really get to know your topic, and know yourself BEFORE you start to write.
Ok, right now you are probably thinking, “Well, DUH!” especially if you have been in science long at all. However, I think that even seasoned professors tend to forget this process, and often fail to pass this knowledge on to graduate students in the pursuit of something new and shiny.
So what do I mean?
1) Really know your topic –
- In other words, don’t just read the most recent paper or review. DIG! Use current papers to make a paper trail back to where the field or idea started, and even why it started (if possible). This often means ignoring the first author – sorry person who most likely did the project and writing – and see who was the brains behind the project. This is often the last author, and this person was once inspired by, and worked in, this line of research when they were a student or postdoc in another lab. Go find that lab and the lab that person came from. Rise and repeat.
- Find your niche, this should stem from the above process. Even if you came in on a “in progress” project, it helps to know where the gaps or assumptions in knowledge are in the field. This makes you better able to address WHY this research needs to be done (and will help you SELL your research!). It is important not to just blindly follow what everyone says, because often when you look closer you will find that what is presented as fact isn’t actually known, hasn’t been tested, or was misinterpreted by someone who didn’t DIG.
2) Know yourself – This is two fold.
- First, you need to know what really excites you. If you aren’t excited about the research you are doing you won’t be able to get a grant reviewer excited ( a VERY bad thing). Getting to know your topic and learning WHY the research SHOULD help with this. It will also make you look good to your advisor and committee, because knowing and being excited about your research shows you care and are critically thinking about your research (Not that I’m saying you should be Richard Simmons excited when you talk to them, but show some passion).
- Second, know your work style. I CANNOT give real advice on the ideal work style, because I am a firm believer that everyone has his or her own process. Do know your process and embrace it. If it means lying to yourself about deadlines – DO IT. If it means becoming a vampire or an early bird – DO IT. If it means budgeting money to sit in a coffee house all day – DO IT. It took me a long time to realize that the more the fight your process to fit someone else’s ideal the less productive you’ll be. In a later post I will address this issues more in depth and provide some resources that makes suggestions on how to establish a “better” process, or how to fully embrace the one you have.