Tuesday, December 30, 2008

On Being Impotent in My Field

I'm just going to say right up front, please pardon what is sure to come across as arrogance in this post. 

Okay, now that the disclaimer is done....

I am in a shitty transition period right now. I'm no longer an undergrad, but not yet accepted as a grad student. Because I graduated in December, I have a much longer transition period than students who wouldn't graduate until May. 

This translates to a profound impotence in my field of academia. 

What do I mean by that? Well, there are a lot of things I would love to be doing right now that directly relate to my aspirations but can't because of either lack of status or qualifications. 

For example, I would LOVE to be doing peer review for one of the journals in my field - even a little one. But even though I am entirely confident in my critical thinking skills and ability to objectively and thoroughly evaluate research, I don't have anything to prove it to the powers that be. 

Other than the project I am in the middle of working on for which I am second author, I am unable to produce any of my own research right now because I am "without institutional affiliation" if you will. Which also = without funding. 

I can't run for office in any of my professional organizations because not only am I without institutional affiliation, I am not yet a grad student either. I am utterly useless. 

I just want my science. That's all I want. I am more capable and have a greater mind for it than most of the grad students at my former MRU. Seriously. I wake up in the middle of the night with ideas for research that are quite awesome and about 99% of them have never been done before when I do a lit search the next day. 

I have an absolute hunger for it. All of it. I have hundreds of MBs of journal articles on my computer that I read for leisure, not to mention all the subscriptions that come in my mailbox. I read books covering all aspects of my field constantly. You could randomly select any sub-field of psychology and test me on it, and I could hold my own - even the ones I have no respect for whatsoever, like evolutionary psychology (another blog, another time). 

I just want to be INVOLVED, dammit. I want to DO something in my field. Like, NOW. 

Those of you who are in later stages of your science careers - imagine if someone said to you, "Okay, you now have to wait almost a year before you can do ANYTHING in your field. No research, no writing, nothing that anyone will ever consider to be important. No teaching. All you can do is read shit and blog about it if you so choose."

You would probably die, right? That's me right now. I am chomping at the bit. 

Fig. 1: An accurate representation of JLK right now in Social Psychology. "Come on, guys! I wanna play!!!"


Isis the Scientist said...

JLK, your ambition is really admirable. That being said, you are at the starting line or a marathon (grad school) that is probably going to totally kick your ass. If there is anything non-sciencey that you want to do, do it now.

Still, it's hard to turn off the science. I carry around with me my "idea book." This is different than a lab notebook. This is a place where I write down all of the ideas and hypotheses that I have that aren't necessarily related to any current project we're doing. It's where I write down the information for people I meet or really Earth-shattering papers I read. There is no reason your ideas need be wasted. In the meantime, have you considered working at an MRU or SLAC as a technician?

Anonymous said...

Look up the editor (or an associate editor) of that journal you mentioned and email him/her. Say that you would like to be added to their reviewer list and considered to handle papers that deal with X, Y, Z.
In the meantime with your research thoughts, WRITE THEM DOWN. all of them. Start assembling your favorite papers with something like EndNote.
I agree with Isis - ask around about lab jobs. This could be a quick way to a paper, or a future collaboration.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

As Dr. Isis said, this is a long road of growth and development you have embarked upon. And at each stage of the road, you will look at those ahead of you and think of yourself as fully capable of fulfilling those roles *now*.

You will always be wrong, and it is very important for your development as a scientist to fully embrace the process.

If you convince yourself that it is a purely arbitrary matter that others are further down the road than you--possessing grants, acting as a peer reviewer, mentoring trainees, etc--you will hinder your development as a scientist. You have much to learn, and you need to open yourself up to that process by fully and ecstatically embracing your relative ignorance and lack of experience. (And BTW, the ignorance I am talking about has *nothing* to do with whether or not you have read every single fucking published paper in your field.)

Isis the Scientist said...

PhysioProf offers excellent advice here. It's blunt, but it's the truth. I am constantly amazed by the boundlessness of my own ignorance, but your career will come with time.

Professor in Training said...

What Isis and PP said. Take some time now to do what you want to do before grad school begins as you won't have the time to do it later. Grad school is all about learning new things and it takes time to develop into a good researcher and peer reviewer.

This article is a good illustration of what PP was talking about. Acknowledging and embracing what we don't know is how we become better at asking questions.

JLK said...

I'm thinking that maybe I wasn't as clear in my posting as I was hoping for.

I know I'm not nearly ready to have a PhD and do things that those with the PhD do.

I just want to do the things that grad students can do. There are grad student peer reviewers in my field, grad student officers in the APA (Psych), etc., etc.

But because I am not yet accepted to a program, I can't apply for these things. That's the only reason.

I don't know much about physics, but you know how when a speeding car hits a wall, all the passengers keep moving at the same velocity as the car? (Or something like that)...well, that's me right now. I've been speeding along this whole time with awesome momentum, and even though the process has been stopped (albeit hopefully temporarily), my whole being is still trying to move forward.

A couple of things I'm learning from being in the blogosphere - the social sciences are VASTLY different from the hard sciences in terms of grad school, lab structure, the work, everything. There are no jobs as technicians that I can apply for. It was hard enough finding an RA slot in the lab I am currently doing work for. Psych is the biggest department on most MRU campuses - there are huge amounts of students scrambling for RA spots and not enough spots available.

I think I'm gonna start doing extensive lit reviews w/ annotated bibliographies for all the research ideas I've written down over the past few years. Maybe even start writing the intro sections for papers I might someday write.

I don't know, but all this sudden free time is making me crazy. I need to do something that's actually productive (or feels that way).

Stephanie Zvan said...

JLK, coming from the social sciences, I get what you're saying about the slots. A couple of opportunities you might not have considered, though: Can you think of any professors who might be interested in letting you TA on a less official basis--just something where you're available to answer questions and help students think things through? If not at your university, would any of them recommend you to a local community college? Teaching experience doesn't suck.

Also, as you're going through your literature, I'm sure you come up with questions. Why not write to the researchers and ask some of the ones that could be important for research you want to do later? It's never off season for networking.

PhizzleDizzle said...

The fact that you are so excited is inspiring. That's great. You're going to need to store that shit up for lean times ahead, don't forget how much you want to do this later when shit be sucking troll balls.

That being said, I advise that you go traipse around a foreign country for 2 months. You'll never get to do that again. I hope hope hope that I have time to do that between graduating and starting a real job. However, seeing as my graduation is delayed because of stupid wrinkles in stuff, I may not get to do so and it makes me very sad.

leigh said...

you have a tremendous amount of energy. i am also banging my head against the wall with forced time off, it's driving me nuts, but you gotta learn when to cut yourself a break. even if it's not by choice.

i would have totally clunked out mid-january if i had kept up the schedule i was running. you need some downtime, too, you've been busting your ass.

that's not to say you shouldn't pursue all the kick-ass science things you're interested in and probably make your life a little easier in the upcoming future, but that you need to learn to slow down and budget your time so that the next 5 years don't feel so much like torture.

burnout is a big danger in grad school. this is a good time to find an alternative activity that you enjoy that gives you some space from your work life. :)

daedalus2u said...

I agree and disagree with both PP and Dr Isis, and to some extent with the paper that PiT linked to. There is a lot that you can do now, but virtually all of it is self-development and getting ready. There will be a time that you can give back but not yet.

I make a large distinction between ignorance and stupidity. To me, ignorance is the absence of knowledge. Stupidity is the inability to recognize that one is ignorant which usually is followed by the substitution of wishful thinking for facts and logic.

Ignorance can be corrected with more knowledge. Often stupidity cannot be corrected. If stupidity has been replaced with wishful thinking, then virtually always the process is irreversible. Developing the proper habits so that does not happen is the most important aspect of starting a scientific career. For some people that comes easier than for others. People on the autism spectrum for example (I discuss some of my ideas why in the current top post of my blog).

If one feels stupid, one is not stupid, one is ignorant. If one does not feel ignorant about the unknown then one is stupid as well as ignorant. In a real sense, the more stupid you feel, the less stupid you are because recognizing where you are stupid/ignorant is the first step in correcting that state. Another term for stupidity as I am using it is the arrogance of ignorance.

What you can do now is read. My suggestion is to read a gigantic amount. Read good papers as well as bad papers. That is the only way that you can learn to tell the difference. You cannot rely on anyone else to tell you which is which.

The way I think of scientific knowledge is as facts in a gigantic network. As you read and understand the connections between different facts you are connecting nodes in that network. When you start out the network is sparsely connected. As you learn more, it gets more and more connected. You need to know more than facts; you need to know how those facts are interconnected with other facts. You need to be able to remove “facts” when you find that they are not. When you become an “expert” is when you reach the percolation threshold. That rarely happens except in very simple and/or narrow fields. But as you start getting closer, your abilities increase exponentially (the percolation threshold is a critical point).

What is especially important is to be able to tell the difference in yourself between ignorance and stupidity. You cannot rely on anyone else because they may be ignorant and/or stupid too. In some cases with some colleagues, expressing that one feels stupid or ignorant is to invite attack. Try and avoid such people as much as possible.

daedalus2u said...

I had another thought. My ex is a clinical psychologist with many years of school, of training and of reading papers. She and all of her colleagues always said that despite all of that education “you really learn from your patients”.

I don’t know what kind of psychologist you are working toward being, but learning by observing/doing has to be an important learning method. Without a license you can’t treat anyone, but I suspect there are essentially unlimited opportunities for volunteer work.

Silver Fox said...

I always felt a little odd graduating in December, which was one quarter late and not with the rest of my class (because I had stayed out 2 quarters).

I had the opportunity, though, to work at a place I never would have worked at, otherwise, from January to August, when I went to grad school. I was fortunate to be able to find a job, I think - in geology but doing mostly rather mundane or ordinary thing including a lot of data entry.

And geology may be very different than what you are doing! If someone told me I absolutely couldn't do any geology for 9 months, I'd say to hell with them and go out and map some place of my choosing (or close by!) just because it's there. I don't know if constant observation of people would at all serve any purpose, keeping notes, writing what you see, and coming up with some great idea or way of putting things together. Maybe it would be similar to mapping somewhere, maybe not.

I hope your energy will carry you into something you consider valuable and worthwhile - and maybe you'll even be surprised!

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