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.