March 20, 2007

Grad-student Woes, Post #1- Cynicism -v- Positivism

Posted in Procrastination, Work at 4:42 pm by a11en

[Trying to go through some old posts that never got finalized and get them out of the in-box here.  More coming soon…]

One of the first ways a graduate student can have a crisis of faith in science is in the growth of an internal conscience of cynicism. From without, the hallowed halls of scientific study appear pristine in all their perfection- each old brick standing credence for all that is contained within; an unshakable and infallible human institution.

From the inside, the older graduates here will known- it isn’t all shiny baubles and Jacob’s ladders like in the movies. Surprise! This human institution is fallible. (Is anything human ever infallible?) For those of us who are idealists, this presents us with a serious crisis. My comment on this to my fellow idealists is: Deal with it! If you don’t, you will never survive an existence as a human. (Unless perhaps you grew up on Mars, Mr. V. M. Smith.)

My Prof. once said: “Allen, you’ll never make it as a scientist if you are a pessimist. A good scientist is an optimist.” How true. And so, I offer to you the importance of balance: Cynicism balanced by Optimism. This is best of course if you are cynical of all work done by other research groups and optimistic about your own group’s work. 😉 This is one of the true ironies of science. Scientists claim to be completely impartial to the outcome of their work, but in conducting their work, they focus on an hypothesis and do everything they can to show their hypothesis is true. Sometimes they completely ignore statistical significance, and sometimes ignore other “uninteresting” reasons an observation may occur. Now, a scientist will say that ultimately it doesn’t matter whether the hypothesis proves out or not, but with today’s extremely difficult funding environment, at least on one level, this is certainly not the case. As well, it must be conceded that the scientist is truly focusing on a single hypothesis at the detriment of all others, at least until he gives up hope (faith) in proving it true.

Now, the fallibility of the Prof., and perhaps more importantly, the graduate student (who’s likely doing all the work after all) means that most scientific research must be scrutinized with the utmost care. Hence cynicism is your friend:
“What was forgotten in that ‘landmark’ study?”, “What isn’t being said?”, “What is ignored and how serious is it?” When you start digging (especially in the soft sciences) you find numerous questions abound. Frequently, there are little to no answers to be had. Sometimes it’s amazing science survives at all. So, be cynical. Dig for problems. Attempt to avoid them in your own work as well.

Speaking of your own work- being too good of a cynic will cause you problems. You see- Gradschool is ultimately one big ol’ problem. 99 out of 100 times you will fail at the test you are running. I myself have worked on well over 10 major projects in my grad studies. An example: Want to run some Hall-effect measurements (DC) on the old machine in the back lab? Well, the machine may need to be fixed, or reprogrammed, or perhaps babied to work. This will happen at each step of the way. At times it will feel like the Universe is conspiring to prevent your work from succeeding. Likely it is. Sometimes the problems are too coincidental to ignore. However- lamenting this fact will not help you. Here is where my advisor’s words ring true. If at each impasse you sit on the ground Indian-style with arms folded and bottom lip pouting- complaining that said experiment is doomed to failure… well, you can imagine how well and how fast that work will turn into your thesis! Ultimately, that’s what you are here for.

So being cautious and slightly cynical about your work can help, but it must be balanced by optimism. If it isn’t, you are in for a world of hurt. Your optimism can come from any source you feel is acceptable- internal, external, etc. This we will save for another post.

So, learn to balance your new Grad-student pathway. Cynicism has it’s useful points, but it can easily become so overwhelming so as to hurt your progress (procrastination), create malaise (procrastination), and ultimately cause failure of your goal. You are here to attempt this great job of “Science”- and it would do you well to pay close attention to those in your field who are successful in it.

(BTW, you may even have to face the odd firing squad. You had better learn optimism so that when faced with it, you can stand up to the onslaught. Questioning yourself, your work, and your purpose can be a good thing- just remember, they don’t give out theses for “questioning” nor for “internal struggles” – They only give these out for tangible work. More on internal struggles in future posts…)

Good luck with all your experiments. Hang in there- yes, it’s likely to not work- but, well, you won’t know that until you actually try it, now will you? 😉 So, get in there and try it!

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1 Comment »

  1. Alex said,

    Thank You


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