I thought I would get better at this...
November 19, 2017
In my first semester in undergrad, having declared a major of cognitive science (whatever that meant), my first heavy neuroscience class took me for a bit of a ride. With the final approaching, unorganized, and amidst moments of vague panic, I studied through the night. That’s okay, I thought, I’ll get better at this.
In my first quarter in graduate school, amidst a heavy class load and the first steps as a graduate student researcher, an unfortunate schedule meant I had my three class presentations in one day. I had a hell of a week trying to get everything ready, cycling through some rather ridiculous ideas in the process. That’s okay, I thought, I’ll get better at this.
Ahead of presenting at my first scientific conference, I had a lot to do to get my project ready, more tasks than time, with a lot of new things to learn to get a poster made. After an all-nighter at the lab, I went home as the sun came up to shower, pack, and head straight to the airport. That’s okay, I thought, I’ll get better at this.
In the two years since, I’ve presented various projects at four more conferences around the world, each with some new element to the what, where and how of the project/conference. Each one has involved an all-nighter at some point late in the game, scrambling to pull things together. I did this most recently only a couple weeks ago. That’s okay, I’ll… well, actually…
I have, I think, learned an amazing amount and got a lot better at doing a lot of things over the last years. But somewhere along the line it seems I was waiting for knowledge or maturity or maybe just age to lead me to be and feel more organized - more on time and on top of things, more strategic, purposeful and assured about what I’m doing, rather than just seemingly haphazardly running to catch up as I bounce through projects.
I am, at least to some extent, better at all of these things. But there has been no particular moment of clarity and it seems unlikely there ever will be. From my experience, and related conversations, simply continuing to exist in science doesn’t, by itself, make anything feel calmer or clearer - organization and clarity don’t just emerge from time served. Mostly I have found more questions and more uncertainty.
I think this might, in part, come down to process vs. content in science. Great ideas are great, but without concerted efforts to organize those ideas into working projects, they remain ideas rather than developments. More and more I find myself interested, and actively working on, the process of science. How do / can / should we organize data, code, projects, schedules, and so on to turn ideas into knowledge, sketches into tools, thoughts into activities? How do I wrangle these ideas into well-organized, on-schedule projects? How can we wrestle a sense of control from fundamentally uncertain terrain? It’s tricky.
To put it another way, in my experience, if you are curious, and stick at it, the ideas of what to do are the joy of science - but they are also often the relatively easy part. The under-valued, work-like aspect of it all is the process of how to really properly go about getting it all done. Every fleeting moment of insight usually takes an exponentially greater amount of time to actually deliver the idea. That’s where we often lack discipline, and training. I think this bleeds into our current overarching issues - of reproducibility, transparency, shareability, scalability and openness in science - all of which arise from issues with the process(es) of science. More and more, I would retro-actively choose to take a class in project management, coding practices, data organization over the ones about the hot new ideas.
The process of science is a skill - or rather, many. I’m better at, or have worked harder at, some of these skills, but need to work at others. Project management, deadlines, and wrapping up projects to be able to call them finished are areas I need to actively work at - and these are skills that won’t just appear. Research is by it’s nature messy, unpredictable, and meandering. It will never be entirely clear, scheduled and predictable. That’s part of the joy. But accepting uncertainty does not, and can not, mean welcoming it in wholesale - there needs to be a balancing act of structured organization to navigate through it all.
And it’s definitely a balance. I like exploring broad new ideas, and I will probably never be the one doing the same old thing, calmly ahead of schedule. Each new experience on this journey scares me in a new exciting way, and each new moment of last-minute scrambling, and powering through to deadlines comes amidst a new exciting challenge.
But it also has to feel, and actually be, sustainable. I often even enjoy the all-nighters - there is something intriguing about the clarity and focus of sitting down with a cup of coffee and a long stretch of time to work it all out, and see it come together. Much less useful is the self-imposed, unproductive stress of having signed up to do yet another brand new project, of unfinished projects getting in the way of chasing the exciting new idea, or the vague panicky feeling that this might be the one that actually comes crashing down - that I won’t pull it all together, or that I’ll finally find the catastrophic error from rushing through things too quickly.
It’s been almost exactly six years between the first and last of my intro examples - from starting my major in undergrad until now. In some ways, I feel like the same curious, disorganized kid scrambling to not be swallowed up by the challenges of the day. In other ways, I feel worlds apart from that place. If I’ve learned anything though - nothing just changes, or happens. It takes action, but luckily someone else probably figured out most of it decades ago.
So, to wrap it all up, I guess this is really just my self-reflective letter to science as a process, and a public commitment to keep learning that process. To keep actively trying to get better at all the various aspects of it, to try and find a sustainable, functional organization through this weird and wonderful world of scientific research. For me, that’s being a bit better at deadlines, and finishing projects!
If anyone has any tips, suggestions are always welcome!comments powered by Disqus