Apprentice in the driving seat


This morning I heard a talk by an interesting visiting speaker, about learning to do science. He is of the opinion that the usual model for PhD training is something like an apprenticeship, where we gradually pick up the skills of our supervisors; that this involves a lot of mistakes and wasted effort (don’t I know it!); and that, crucially, this could be avoided if we were taught more efficiently. Up until hearing this, I’d never come across the idea that there was any shortcut. I think what he recommends is straightening all the ideas out beforehand, going through the creative process of generating research questions, which then form the basis of a plan. He emphasised that the student should be in the driving seat.

My objection is that for me, deciding on what to do has involved a long iterative process of going in-between the literature and my own thoughts, each refining the scope of the other in successive cycles. I couldn’t have designed my project from day one because I didn’t have enough background knowledge, and I hadn’t seen any examples of research output to know what research really was.

So my project goes more like this. (The blog I’ve linked to has other quite interesting posts about academia.) One of the secondary characters in my boring PhD story has, in fact, starred in a spin-off – a short paper which is currently in review at a journal. The depressing thing is, if I’d set out to do that paper, it would have taken me about a week to do the work.

The question is, can I turn it around now? Can I design the rest of it in a way that will allow me to forge ahead with the confidence and motivation I am so lacking at the moment? I feel that I should really try to, but I don’t feel terribly hopeful. I can’t really say that my research “driving skills” are getting any better. It is possible that I just won’t become someone who can come up with good research questions.

The speaker also spoke of passions, and that we should always have the courage to aim to do what we are passionate about. This just compounded my feeling of crapness because I don’t have any real passions.


One response »

  1. Hi. Just remember that in every walk of life there are those that can do it and those who end up teaching or pontificating about it instead – because they can’t do it. Research is just the same.

    Research is a doing thing not a knowing thing. So are riding a bike and playing the cornet. You can’t acquire research except by doing it, repeatedly until it gets to be a habit. There is no “efficient way” to acquire a habit. For all these doing things you need to put in the hours. Progression isn’t linear, not even monotonic.

    As for passion, forget it. It clouds the judgment about your own work and others; it makes you think you are more important than you are; and it will eventually let you down – just because it can’t ultimately compete with the real things in life.

    The best motive to have is simpler – a wish to know what the truth is and an unwillingness to be fobbed off with less. When I was writing up my PhD, my supervisor (who I saw annually) asked whether I thought there might actually be enough data to tell us, if we knew how to ask it, how vision works. The lesson I’ve never forgotten is that, if you try very hard, then just occasionally you can grasp at the thought that there can be a sufficient answer.

    Oh and by the way, I’ve published plenty papers (too many probably), and there’s none of them I couldn’t do in a couple of afternoons now. But by now they are a well-trodden path, for me at least, whereas at the time they were uncharted territory. None of them has ever been found to be wrong – that takes time when you’re not sure what counts as right or wrong.

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