Saturday, January 12, 2013

How Science Really Works

The theme of the week is research, theory vs. practice.

This past week, the #overlyhonestmethods Twitter hashtag went viral, my friend Phil Guo published an MIT Technology Review piece on the surprising importance of "grunt work," and my undergraduate researchers learned that "research" involves a lot of hunting down compatible versions of software packages.

Indeed, life in research is not what I fantasized as a six-year-old playing "professor" with my stuffed bear and raccoon, or even as an undergraduate student deciding the next years of my life.

How I thought graduate school would be. I arrive at MIT full of energy and wonder. Professors, noticing my unique capacity for innovative thinking, pull me aside and say, "Hey you, come work with me." I spend two weeks reading papers. After that, I produce ground-breaking ideas night and day. I discover productivity shortcuts that nobody knows about: I am able to eat less and sleep less, all while producing more. The brilliance of my ideas amazes the world. I spend most of my days explaining them in a cafe with a whiteboard. After I publish several seminal papers, universities call me offering me jobs, publishers call me offering me book deals, and journalists call me asking my opinion on all technological phenomenon. I tell them phones are so passe: everyone uses SMS now. During all this, I acquire a brilliant and handsome collaborator. After we realize we are twice as productive together, we fall in love. Together, we eradicate the world's software bugs. Along the way, I also eliminate sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and dust allergies. Since there is no Nobel Prize for Computer Science, the Nobel Committee awards me the prize in Literature*. All before my sixth year of graduate school.

How it is. I arrive at MIT full of energy and wonder. Professors, betting on my capacity for hard work, pull me aside and say, "Hey you, come work with me." I spend two weeks reading papers. After that, I work night and day trying to produce a paper for a conference deadline. I discover some "productivity techniques:" I eat less and sleep less and produce more work for two weeks.  Then I burn out for two months. Despite this sacrifice, the world does not seem to care how brilliant my advisor thinks our ideas are. We have another paper deadline. My advisor gives me all feedback between midnight and the 7am deadline. Learning from this, I become nocturnal in preparation for future deadlines. I spend most of my days (well, nights) installing obscure software packages and decompiling byte code into a more complex representation of the byte code. Nobody calls or texts anymore. During all this, I learn that the two-body problem** is one of many reasons I should avoid making eye contact with male academics, lest we accidentally fall in love and into a mutually destructive future. Reality crushes my soul.

And then. I stop idealizing science. I realize that even though science is conducted by humans according to subjective standards, we can still make progress. I accept that doing research means doing hard and often unglamourous work. I learn to play the game and to sell my ideas. I also learn to combat sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and dust allergies in my own life. Most importantly, I learn to enjoy myself.

To be continued: I am still in my fifth year of graduate school.

Addendum: Readers have noted that this paints a somewhat dismal picture of Ph.D. life. I describe some more positive aspects of this experience in this other post, Reasons to Pursue a Ph.D.

* Philosopher Bertrand Russell has also received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
** The difficulty of negotiating geographically colocated academic positions.


Unknown said...

Jean--remember when we tried to see who could finish grad school first? Haha, why on Earth would we ever try to make something as crazy as grad school more intense? -Arun.

Jean said...

Arun, yes--aren't we still having that competition?

In all seriousness, at some point I realized that even though grad school is intense, it's probably less intense than what comes next, especially if we become junior faculty. So we should enjoy the ride and learn a lot while we still have the time and resources.

...But you aren't graduating yet, are you? Because then I would lose. ;)

Unknown said...

Jean, strike every other sentence in the "how I thought graduate school would be", and you'd be right :-)

female grad student said...

Such an honest post :)
It is scary how close my 'how i thought it would be ..' is to yours ..


Unknown said...

Hi Jean, you're still in your 5th year? It feels like I've known you longer than that ... I guess that sounds right, though. Hope all is going well.

Unknown said...

@Jean: Done (hopefully) by Dec. 2013. So, as of now, we're still both in the race :). I have a sense though that you will finish before me :).

tess said...

Well said. I'm happy to have come across your wise, academic, newsy blog. It's nice to be far away from school -- I'm a mid-life librarian -- and eavesdrop on the ideas of smart young people. Keep writing.

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