Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Grad Student Psychology: I'm a lucky sunnuvabitch, now I have to step up

Warning: I've tried my hardest not to make this post whiny, but it might enrage you anyway. Readers with heart conditions, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems are encouraged to exercise caution.

I have been very lucky.

I got into research relatively early in my undergrad (although this was by my own effort, there was certainly some luck involved in it to working out, especially since I had (have?) no idea what I was doing.) I worked in a variety of fields on some solid projects (and some not so much, but whatever). One of these brought me in to contact with a faculty member from BRU, who graciously agreed to write me a reference letter, which is probably how...

I was accepted into a graduate program I was probably unqualified for. (on paper anyway. As I understand these things though, that may not mean that much, so maybe this isn't that big a deal. But my background is definitely a little odd)

I had extremely positive rotation experiences. One got my name on a paper, and another even produced real data (gasp) that is resulting in follow-up experiments (shock, horror), and none with absolute failures (the one that produced the least, science-wise, was also the one most out of my field of experience, so I learned lots that will probably come in handy some day.)

Finally, I've joined a lab at a time when the larger project I am part of is just taking off, and it's well placed in a context that is relatively less-studied (since I keep running in to questions the answer to which is "no one really knows") but important (judging by some recent reviews. But there's probably observation bias there). And our approach will add a lot. I think. As well, the PI is fair but demanding, and supports his students well. The members of the lab are, nearly to a person, pretty kickass, supportive and helpful, and a riot to work with.

In fact, it seems like everything is perfectly set up for me to do some great work.

Which means it's all up to me now: I can't hide behind circumstances not being optimal or the fact that no one really expects much of me. The science won't be easy, there are some non-trivial problems to solve on every side (as in, I'm still not sure if this is mathematically possible, much less realistically feasible), and parts of it depend on skills that I don't think I'm that good at yet. So I'm really not confident that I'll be able to make this work. Which is kind of scary.

If I'm going to get through the next ~6-12 months with anything resembling success (which does not mean "lack of failure"--I understand that failing regularly is part of the game :) I need to get over myself & my fear of failing. At the very least, I need to stop it from preventing me from getting shit done.

If anything, this is what could most likely trip me up. So that's why this is here. It's my public kick in the pants to (hopefully) prevent me from sabotaging myself. Yaaaay.


  1. I can't hide behind circumstances not being optimal or the fact that no one really expects much of me.

    I work in the best lab in the world for what I do, we have scads of money and resources- and as such- I think this very thing *all the time*. On one hand, it can be a positive source of pressure- a kick in the pants, as you call it. But on the other hand, we have to keep in mind that if we *don't* do something absolutely fantastic and we've been trying our best the whole time... then we are not failures. Sometimes luck in research plays a bigger role than we'd like to admit.

    Just try your best, that's all anyone can ask.

  2. I need to get over myself & my fear of failing. At the very least, I need to stop it from preventing me from getting shit done.

    As Nike says, "Just do it." As n00bs, we tend to spend a lot of time obsessing over making the experiment "work", meaning figuring out how to make it give us the answer that our adviser wants and the many possible ways we could screw it up or the many possible ways out of our control that could give us a different or inconclusive result. We certainly need to understand how to do the experiment, the basis for why we're doing it, and the limitations of the data.

    At some point though, we have to do the experiment. There's a good a chance that it will not work as hoped, but we have at least learned something (even if it's just that running an electrophoretic transfer backwards is really not useful). The fair-but-demanding PI knows that science involves a lot of "failed" experiments (even if he/she does not acknowledge it often) and that you can learn just as much from those as you do the ones that support your hypothesis.