Sunday, November 29, 2009

Goals, Part 1: Getting me some learnin'!

I have a lot to learn. Like, scarily lots. My ignorance is like a deep yawning chasm full of goblins and balrogs and god knows what else. One of the hardest things I've had to do so far is find a balance between being too paralyzed by what I don't know to try anything or speak up during discussions, and knowing when I really do need to go and do some reading and figure things out.

On the plus side, not knowing jack-all means every day is a learning experience, and when you're a huge nerd like me, that's a tantalizingly attractive prospect! And I'm also heartened by the prospect of several years in which to learn some of this stuff a PhD is supposed to know. And the fact that, for the time being, I still have **huge noob** status and can get away with some statements of shocking ignorance. But that won't last long.

So in trying to figure out just what I don't know (the first step towards rectifying ignorance...or maybe just making myself feel bad), I thought I'd try and lay out the things that I think I should have mastered after a half-a-decade or so, ie: when I graduate in shining glory. You can all stop snickering now. Thank you.

None of this was any great insight on my part, rather it was gleaned from various things on the internet that I subsequently forgot to keep the urls to and so cannot cite appropriately (yikes!). Basically, in terms of Things I want to Learn by the time I graduate, the list looks something like this:

  1. The literature relevant to my project and the biological context, as well as this nebulous cloud of bioknowledge of a broader sort that I was probably supposed to master during my undergraduate and....didn't. But my sneaking into grad school on a wish and a prayer (ha!) is a story for another post.
  2. How to design experiments with appropriate controls and carry them out accurately, efficiently, and safely. Also, I want the Zen Hands that some people seem to have, but I think this might be more of an inherent talent (or at least, unlearnable for someone with the Klutz gene (KLZ1, Minion et al. 2009) that I am homozygous for)
  3. How to write manuscripts and grants*, and all the rigmarole involved in submitting, getting rejected, revising, yadda yadda yadda.
  4. How to give a good presentation of my work. Big effort needed here, I hate talking in front of people. But this is one of the things that I think I have a handle on learning, as long as I take every opportunity to practice and seek feedback.
  5. How to teach and/or mentor
  6. How to communicate my work/field/science effectively (that is, clearly, concisely, and persuasively) with a wide range of people (ie, my PI, the people in my lab, in the department, other scientists, the general public, my grandmother...)
1-4 will probably happen without too much extra creativity on my part (above doing a good job in general) but 5 and 6 might be trickier. I could TA: I did TA labs and tutor a bit during my undergrad and mostly enjoyed it (although grading sucks, of course) but in my department it's not the norm for grad students to TA (and I suspect it's actively discouraged in some (many? most? nearly all?) labs). But being able to teach well, and not hate it, or at least be able to hide it well enough that your students don't actively hate you in turn, is a necessary component of most faculty jobs, and related skills are important in a lot of jobs that scientists do, so I feel like neglecting this aspect is irresponsible. 'Course, TAing might not be the most effective way to learn to teach, either. So I'll have to think about this.

re: #6: I said I'm ignorant, but I am reasonably confident in my ability to learn, remember, and synergize information. But communication, especially speaking, just happens to be difficult for me. I'm naturally shy and don't react well under pressure. (Not trying to make excuses, just explaining why I think these things will require extra work from me)

I don't know if it's because I'm poor at putting myself in others shoes or just general inexperience, but I have a really difficult time judging how much the person I'm talking to knows about what I'm saying, and what they need or want me to cover. This even extends to meetings with supervisors, which should be reasonably straightforward--we just met last week! But somehow I never seem to be able to predict what I should have prepared or what they're going to ask me.

As well, whenever someone asks me what I'm working on, I'm never satisfied with my answer. I don't really know how to fix this, other than just sitting down and coming up with an answer (or three, for various audiences as described above)

Anyway, I've rambled enough. I want to talk in a little more detail about my goals for the next year or two, which is why this is part 1. But seeing as the year is almost up, I thought I'd save that for a New Years post. If this blog is still even alive then.

* one common aspect of my courses is the requirement to write mock grant proposals as some/most/all of the evaluation. I have no idea how well this replicates the real process of writing real grants, but hey it can't hurt.


  1. Good list. #6 will come with #3-4. Even when speaking with a lay audience. I would add a #7 (which perhaps you're already mastered?): Learning how to both fail and succeed with grace. It is how you handle your failures that will determine the bulk of your career.

  2. Thanks. That's a great addition--definitely not mastered.

  3. Re: #5-I think most would argue that TA'ing is not a particularly effective way to learn how to teach and mentor. To an extent, the teaching portion comes in many forms, like journal clubs and research presentations outside of your group. You can gain some experience mentoring by taking on rotation/undergrad/new students. The biggest issue is not having a readout of how effective you are. Some institutions have centers for teaching that provide unique opportunities for students and postdocs; some even have have teaching certificate programs that require in-classroom experience.