Sunday, September 28, 2014

Treading water & touching the lake bottom -- Perspective for young researchers

Last week, I went to the University of Michigan to visit Cliff Lampe and to speak at the ICOS lecture series.  In order to welcome me to Ann Arbor, Cliff set up a dinner with some of his bright-eyed young grad students.  At one point in the conversation, I off-handedly gave some advice on making it through grad school with one’s psyche intact.  It got me thinking about the sense of fear I experience when pursuing unknowns.

Getting started on a new project is a disorienting experience.  This disorientation can be terrifying and disheartening.  However, as a research project gets more mature, the notion of what questions are interesting, how they can be answered, and why those answers matter begin to form fixed points of reference.  In my experience, these conceptual footholds bring an intense calming and sense of a productive purpose to a project.  They can mean the difference between feeling like one is standing before a soul crushing abyss, and instead, feeling like one is standing on solid ground.   I've experienced something like this before grad school and I think it serves as an appropriate metaphor.

New projects are like being thrown into the middle of a lake at night.

For those of you who did not grow up in Minnesota (a.k.a. “The Land of 10,000 Lakes”) swimming in a lake is an interesting experience about which I’d like to share some insights.  I’ve sketched an attractive graphic.  

So, when you are floating in a lake and you can’t reach the bottom with your feet, you don’t have a good sense for how deep the water is.  In the dark water, your imagination of the distance between you and the lake's bottom beneath you can be your enemy.  Even if the bottom of the lake is just inches away, it could be a hundred feet away -- and filled with eels, sharks and monsters.  This could be seen as a childish way of thinking, but even today I find myself slipping into the spiral of imagined terrors when I swim in large, deep bodies of water.  

As you approach the shore, the fear doesn’t progressively subside.  Instead, the act of swimming feels a bit like fleeing and that enhances the thoughts of imagined terrors just inches from your feet.  Faster swimming leads to more terror enhancement in sneaky spiral that makes you want to swim for your life.

However, once your feet come into contact with the sandy bottom, the relief is immediate.  This knowledge of where the bottom is gives you perspective. You can now measure progress toward the shore.   You can stand and stop treading water.   There's no room for monsters beneath you anymore.

OK, back to research projects.  I see a lot of young grad students leading a project for the first time struggling in their deep water stage(which is totally normal) and assuming that it’s because they are somehow less competent than others(they aren't) or that their work won't lead to anything useful.  This happens all too often when students are making fine progress. They may be getting close to the shore of their research project, but they don't have a sense of any reference points yet. The unknowns still feel infinite and intractable.  The direction they're going could be leading them to deeper water.

So far as I can tell, everyone experiences the deep water stage of a research project, no matter how senior.  Seasoned researchers have made peace with, or even celebrate, this disorienting part of research in the same way that veterans of the lake have made peace with their imagined deep-water monsters. The trick is to staying sane is to recognize that sneaky spiral of fear when it happens.

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