Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Data Happy

When I was a kid, I had the classic childhood experiences of being extremely excited by holidays and birthdays and other special occasions (getting a new kitten!). The days of being thrilled by such things are long gone (new kittens excepted), but birthdays and holidays have been replaced by new thrilling events in my life. Some of these new thrilling events are in my professional life.

This week, I am feeling very excited about getting some new Science Results very soon. I CAN'T WAIT TO GET THESE RESULTS.

If the results are not great, I will be rather crushed. I have learned to deal with the disappointment of getting nautical-themed dishtowels from my mother for my birthday nearly every year, but I'm not sure I'm ready for the disappointment if these much-anticipated results do not live up to my expectations. If the results are boring or bad, I'll deal with it, move on, recover etc., but I hope I don't have to.

But if the results turn out to be as great as I expect/hope them to be.. it will be just like getting a dozen new kittens.

I'm not sure why the anticipation of interesting research results reminds me of childhood. I don't think data-anticipation is a particularly childish thing, but the feeling of excitement leading up to the revealing of the new results reminds me of that old-time thrill of special events. And I am counting the days.

Among a certain circle of colleagues of mine, there is the tendency to classify grad students as to whether they have a passion for research or not. There are various terms for the passion-for-research characteristic, many of them involving words like "fire".

It is not a requirement that grad students live and breathe research and only research -- I hope that we can all appreciate a hardworking student who has other interests in life -- but even a non-monomaniacal student should (ideally) want to investigate (and be given the opportunity to investigate) some questions or problems that they find deeply interesting. They should (ideally) feel the urge to discover things, and then also feel the excitement of discovery when it happens.

I have advised some students who truly had this "fire" for research. They just had it in them -- I did not teach them this. For those students, my hope is always that the stresses of grad school won't extinguish these feelings, that they will back up their "fire" with hard work, and that they eventually emerge from grad school with a degree and a still-flaming interest in research, and then go on to make all sorts of new discoveries that I can't even imagine.


Dreich said...

I think everyone has the passion for exploring new things but some people are better at being pioneers than others. This probably doesn't make as much sense on text as it does in my head.

Whilst studying biochemistry at university I found the laboratory work to be extremely interesting and I loved to be able to figure things out from it. For some sad reason I especially enjoyed spectroscopy analysis being able to see different things in an unknown compound was like being a detective.

Sadly after my 3rd year I didnt graduate partly due to personal reasons but also I feel that when you've got someone pushing you like at school you're going in the direction they want you to. Whereas at university and in working labs there's so many different approaches to different things that it's hard to focus. I had the desire to investigate but the sadly had the nerves of a headless chicken.

Elena said...

I sooo understand how you fell. I have been running some tests since last week and I can't wait for Friday, when I'll have the time to run the analysis scripts and see the results. I have been disappointed in the past, so I'm trying not to get my hopes's not nice when you have an idea, code it and expect it to make wonders on your data, and it turns out that it does no better than the classical schemes (I'm in the field of evolutionary computation and this happens quite often :( )
Good luck with your data!

Susan B. Anthony said...

LOL @ the nautical-themed dishtowels. I am excited for you about the impending results! Please let us know if they live up to your dozen-kittens expectations!

jonah said...

As a student trying to keep the flame alive, I hope I can fulfill your wish.

Ψ*Ψ said...

really? you mean the disappointment after EPIC CHRISTMAS DATA fails to live up to expectations never goes away? it doesn't even fade a little or become less crushing? i'm going to have to live with this kind of anticlimactic despondency for the rest of my life?

do you at least reach a point where you can sleep the night before?

? said...

Interesting post. I found, from my grad school experience, that only those with "the fire" or ones that could pretend they had it were the favorites. Those of us that had outside interests (i.e., families) were looked at as second class citizens. The assumption was that we were not "serious" about our research. I couldn't disagree more.

Greg said...

It is a very fine line between anticipation of results and misinterpretation of results. I love the anticipation too but I have seen the consequences of wanting the results to live up to expectations and not viewing the data for what they are. It is something I am constantly reminding my graduate students about. Never the less, I hope your hypotheses are true!

Anonymous said...

I miss having fire. I remember as an undergrad, being the first person to see some exciting new result. It was such an amazing feeling. I definitely have lost much of my fire from grad school hardships/adviser issues/been in grad school too long. Maybe it will come back as a post-doc? Or just by starting a new project?

Your next book should be, "How to put the fire back into a graduate student/postdoc/researcher." I would appreciate any advice. I've been turned into a bitter person that I don't really like anymore from my experiences. I used to love science.

scicurious said...

OMG YES! I get some hot hot data and I am literally grinning all around the school like a maniac for DAYS. However, I have found that my enthusiasm has been labeled "unprofessional" in the past. Perhaps some people don't like fire so much.

Also, my mom? Food-themed potholders and dishtowels. Usually coffee or olives or something.

John Vidale said...

I agree entirely with FSP's post. Passion for science is the mark of most of the best students.

Fire for discovery in scientists motivates greater effort, but also more innovative paths to pursue, greater care to find the right answer, and more persistence to get those around into the fray.

Jon, ABD said...

I agree that passion is an important part of being the best in any profession. If passion for research is a (anecdotal) metric for determining success in science, what about those who enjoy working around science (education, organization) but not the research as much? These people are juat as important to scientific progress, I'd argue.

Also, is there any way to determine that a prospective student has this passion for research a priori?

An important aspect of passion for research has to be the desire to communicate your findings to others, especially in writing. I can personally vouch that writing a dissertation, which I'm doing right now, can easily suck the excitement out of research (and most other things, ha).

FSP, I hope that your results are as awesome as you anticipate them to be.

Anonymous said...

This post is why I love your blog so much, FSP! I am a postdoc in engineering and I read several other blogs like yours -- written by anonymous professors, mostly women, about their daily lives in academia. But it is only your blog which reminds us that science is not just a career, and reminds us of the reason why we do science after all !

HGGirl said...

Another thoughtful post! First, I'd like to agree that having outside interests doesn't take away the fire for science. Some of the most science-passionate people in my department are also passionate about many other areas of their lives.

Also, I'm curious where you see people end up if they don't start out quite so "fired up"?

Anonymous said...

so, if given the choice between a passionate, but scattered and undisciplined grad student, and one that was careful, methodical, organized, and emotionally detached... which would you choose? are you faced with decisions like these in actual real life?

Lori said...

I'm a biologist and my data comes in in small bits along the way. So for me, the exciting moment is... the statistics! I love the moments when the little wheel of the stats package is running, and you don't know yet which results are meaningful and which aren't... and then thinking about what it all means.

And my mom? Bad clothing -- things that a 73 year old woman loves, but that aren't so good on me...

Female Science Professor said...

I don't have to choose between the fired up but scattered student and the methodical but perhaps less passionate-about-science student. Both are common; I advise them all.

Kevin said...

The PhD Mommy wrote
Those of us that had outside interests (i.e., families) were looked at as second class citizens. The assumption was that we were not "serious" about our research. I couldn't disagree more.

Many of the students I've seen with "fire" also had families that they cared deeply about and spent a lot of time with. "Fire" is not about putting in huge numbers of hours, but about caring about the research and being excited by it.

I've seen students who put in huge number of hours but didn't seem to care about the research at all (burned-out perhaps). I've also seen students with a lot of outside responsibilities (families, full-time jobs, ...) get really excited about their own research or the research of those around them.

I get excited about new results, even after 27 years as a professor. But one of the first things I do, especially with results from grad students, is to look for ways we might be fooling ourselves. I referee way too many crap papers where people have jumped to conclusions without having done even the simplest and most obvious checks.

Laura E. Mariani said...

PhD Mommy, I'm sorry you've felt like a second class citizen for having a family. My own adviser has made comments in the past that express the opposite impression: she thinks that some of the most productive researchers are working parents who know they have to be done for the day at 5 PM so they can get to daycare. Other scientists may spend more hours in the lab, but how much of that is blog reading time? (Using myself as an example... kind of a lot.)

John Vidale said...

Some posts seem to consider that people can be passionate about everything. My definition is relative rather than absolute.

Passion for science is choosing to work on science over the other choices of how to spend one's time, including proposals, teaching, and committees as well as outside interests such as families and hobbies. Although there are risks of being too one-dimensional, at some level, the work gets done quicker and better when one is paying attention to it.

Anonymous said...

I have to echo others here that posts like this are why I love your blog. Although being in science has its hardships, particularly as a woman, I love it and it's nice to hear from others who do too instead of the stream of negative comments I hear constantly about how academic science is so bad for women. Probably is but I just can't stop loving the science and it's better than most folks jobs.

That feeling of seeing an interesting pattern in the data? Yup - Christmas, kittens, a little like falling in love. My head starts humming with those jazzy Depression-era tunes "Gray skies are going to clear up, put on a happy face", "We're in the money", etc. Thanks for this! Good luck with the data!

Anonymous said...

sadly I've long ago lost the opportunity to get excited by results just for the sake of fulfilling intellectual curiosity. As a 100% soft money researcher I am driven by fulfilling grant promises and obtaining more funding so that I can even live to see another day in the lab.

Ms.PhD said...

Interesting post and comments.

I've mostly given up on the Christmas-eve excitement in favor of knowing my work is solid and will stand the test of time. My lack of expressing passion is probably not so outwardly impressive; uses less adrenaline; and has basically bridged the early naive yay! into what I hope is wisdom (rather than burnout).

I credit my advisers, who have all been like Kevin. They felt it was their duty to suck the fun out of any good results I got, ASAP. So now when I get a really exciting result, I don't usually tell anyone until I have reproduced it. And by then, it is way less exciting.

Even when I generally turn out to be right, the initial moment of excitement isn't allowed to last more than a mere moment before it is crushed.

I've learned to delay the gratification, as all good academics do, until I am sure I have done all the checks. In some ways it is very satisfying to be able to argue back and say yes, yes, yes, I did all that and it still stands up.

And in other ways, I will never get that same kind of excitement back.

Thanks, rigorous advisers. I am very careful, but I will never be the same as I was then.

Also, like Anon 7:41 and one of the other commenters, I have learned the pain that is having a really cool result done really carefully and not being able to publish it or continue working on it for lack of funds or an appropriate job title.

This also sucks the life out of science fun.

Right now I am just jealous of FSP. I have no really exciting results to speak of- only strange results I can't explain and can't devote enough time to explore.

And, I have never had a kitten. =(

Geologist said...

Thank you for your nice post, I just got some beautiful data kittens and you described my feelings for them perfectly.

Anonymous said...

MsPhD wrote :"Also, like Anon 7:41 and one of the other commenters, I have learned the pain that is having a really cool result done really carefully and not being able to publish it or continue working on it for lack of funds or an appropriate job title."

I have frequently in my postdoctoral career experienced the roadblock of starting a project, making good headway, then funding runs out or gets cut and I can't continue working on it. Even though we were so close to getting a breakthrough result. All that work just evaporated with nothing to show. Or, another project that I initiated that I'm "not allowed" to work on because of job title. What bullsh!t is this?

I'm only "allowed" to work on other people's ideas, bringing their ideas to fruition for them.

EliRabett said...

People underestimate how manic depressive research is.