Monday, January 29, 2018

Use Your Imagination!

One of a researcher’s best tools is the imagination. What do you think could happen? What could be the explanation? What are the possibilities? Imagination is a fundamental tool on which a researcher’s practice depends.

Recently, I read the book Born to Run (Christopher McDougall), about long-distance running.
It mentioned that women finish ultramarathons at a much higher rate than men and briefly speculated on this, but provided no answer.
Yesterday, I was out for my own run, and the question popped into my head with a possible answer. And at that moment, the idea of writing about the importance of imagination occurred to me. My train of thought went something like: I wonder if heat management explains the superior finishing rate; I wonder how I would research that; What other potential causes would I have to take into account; This is what research is, and I could talk about it in my blog. I was just speculating—I’m never going to do any serious study of why women finish ultramarathons at a higher rate than men. But speculation is fun—imagining possibilities—is hardly different than playing imaginary games as a child, and no more wearisome, if I’m not going to make any effort to turn speculation into real research. But real research starts with some form of speculation—some story about how the world works.
Speculation sparks research. Suppose, I were interested in researching this question of why women finish ultramarathons more frequently than their male counterparts, where would I start?
I would start by trying to imagine why women outperform men in this way.
Is there some psychological dimension, e.g., that men are more aggressive, take more chances, and therefore end up injured more often?
Is there some physiological dimension, e.g., that women are physiologically better suited to the task?
Or perhaps there is some external issue, e.g., sexist race supervisors are trying to sabotage men?
I can imagine the fantastic: maybe Artemis and Hermes had a couple of races, and Hermes won the sprint and Artemis won the marathon, and they have given similar powers to runners of their respective genders. Maybe it’s a side effect of the nefarious plot by K.A.O.S. to spike international water supplies with a mind control drug. Imagining the fantastic is not going to suggest many useful research projects, but it might help suggest something a little less fantastic that would be plausible and interesting.  

To some extent the exercise of imagination is inevitable: a researcher who said “I have no idea, so I’m just going to gather all the data I can,” would still make plans to gather a variety of data, and each plan would reveal an implicit imaginative leap that the data to be gathered were relevant. Taking biological samples would reveal an implicit assumption about a physiological dimension. A researcher gathering biological data might say “I have no idea what causes it, that’s why I’m gathering this data,” but that claim of having no idea does not take credit for thinking that there is a possibility that physiological issues matter. A researcher who was certain that the issue was not physiological, would not gather such data.

If you think there’s a possibility, try to make it explicit: what is the possibility? Is it something in the blood? in hormones? in bone structure? If you’re going to gather physiological data, what are reasons that it might matter?

In the specific case of my idea about women finishing ultramarathons more frequently, I was wondering about heat radiation and long-term performance. Another idea that Born to Run explores is the idea that humans (homo sapiens) evolved as persistence hunters—as hunters who would chase their prey until the animal died of heat exhaustion. Born to Run speaks of running for hours in temperatures of 100+ (F) as a means of bringing in prey.
What I wondered was whether heat radiation and control over internal heat is a factor in the difference in performance between men and women, and how much that specific gender difference is actually dependent on size.
Here’s why size might matter: heat radiation depends on skin area—our skin is our radiator, with the ability to sweat providing additional cooling (one that almost all mammals lack, thus causing their problems with heat exhaustion that makes it possible to run an animal to death over hours). Meanwhile, heat generation depends on metabolic function, and especially on muscular activity.
Imagine that there is a size where the body’s heat generation and heat radiation are balanced (for a given set of conditions). For abstract purposes, let’s say that size is 1 (the unit). For that size, heat generation = heat radiation and the body can perform without problem.  
What happens with a bigger body with similar proportions?  What if size increases by 20%? Now the basic measure is 1.2. Does this affect the balance between heat generation and heat radiation? Yes. Skin area is proportional to the square of the basic dimension, so skin area—the radiator—has increased to 1.44 (1.22). Meanwhile, muscle mass is proportional to the cube of the basic dimension, so the muscle mass—the heat generator—has increased to 1.728 (1.23). Now heat generation (1.73) is greater than heat radiation (1.44). 
The math assumes that an increase in one dimension is matched in the other two, and that may not be the case, but compare a 60” ultramarathoner with a 72” ultramarathoner: what would their weights be? The short one maybe 100lbs.? The tall one maybe 150lbs.? That weight is a reflection of muscle mass—so volume increased by 50% with a 20% increase in height. I don’t have a good estimate of how skin area increased for these hypothetical runners, but assuming that it roughly increased according to the square, to 1.44, or 44% increase, still the increase in heat generation has slightly outstripped the increase in radiation.
All that is just a detailed description of the thinking that supported my speculation (my actual reasoning didn’t include the actual math, just the basic geometric principle that increasing size of a solid object with fixed proportions leads to an increase in the ratio of volume to surface area).  

That is rather far afield from my main thesis, and this post is already long, so I'm not going to make much effort to wind back t my main theme of imagination. But in addition, I'd like to point out the thought processes that were spawned as I tried to explore my speculative idea (my hypothesis) in writing: one one hand, my speculation about a single cause (heat radiation) was placed into a framework of other possible causes, showing a variety of other possible causes that could be the case. On the other hand, my attempt to explain my idea, which led to a closer analysis, including the attempt to put rough numbers to my speculation to assess whether my speculation is consistent with closer inspection. 

In any event, exercise your imagination.

Monday, January 22, 2018

What's a dissertation good for? Practice.

What’s a dissertation good for, anyway? My answer: it's practice that develops valuable skills.

Last Friday, I made a video about practice. It was a sort of follow-up on the previous video, which had talked about a willingness to make mistakes. Practicing involves making mistakes, and working to stop making those mistakes.  My video suggested looking at the dissertation as a practice—to focus on the process, and to take each step as part of a practice in which mistakes are merely part of the process—one makes a mistake and one learns to iron it out.

It’s easy to get focused on the product of a dissertation project: the dissertation itself, or its theoretical or intellectual content.  With that focus, it can be easy to get sucked into negative considerations about the limitations of research. Dissertations are usually written with limited resources. Even those that contain publication-quality research usually require significant revision before they are suitable for publication. Many doctoral candidates get discouraged that their work is so small as to be meaningless.

But the dissertation could be viewed differently.  Maybe the dissertation project is not about creating research, but about creating researchers? You can view the dissertation project through this lens to your benefit.

Approaching the dissertation project as a practice means taking action for the purpose of developing skills that you can use.  The skills needed by a researcher are often skills that are of valuable in many areas: the ability to express oneself clearly in writing and in speech is certainly valuable in many contexts. The ability to plan, organize, manage, execute and complete a project is a valuable skill in many contexts. The ability to use research literature effectively is important for professionals in many or most fields.

Every day that you exert yourself to work on your dissertation, you are exercising some or all of these skills. And the more that you work at practicing these skills, the more your skills develop. And as your skills develop, the scope of your endeavors can increase.

Consider, by analogy, a musician. Each day, the performing musician practices to hone skills and mistakes made in that process are nothing but part of the process of refining and improving the performance. But in the process, the skills necessary to perform improve, and the musician who starts with simple pieces for performance moves on to more complex ones. At each stage of the advance, there are moments when the musician is at the limit of current abilities and struggles. And, with practice, those struggles are often overcome, and skills increase and the complexity of the music that can be formed increases, as does the pleasure that comes with performing well.

If you are a dissertation writer, you are probably working on your first independent research project, and perhaps you are unsure of your steps in that process. That’s perfectly natural. And that’s why you practice. When you view your work as a practice, you can approach each day saying “this present day is only part of the practice; whether today goes well or ill, tomorrow will still just be another day in the practice.”  OK, sure, there may be exceptional days when something really bad happens and makes the next several days more difficult. But on the whole, the dissertation process is one that can be used to support your development of skills that will serve you well.

I support this attitude with respect to writing, in particular. Practice writing: don’t focus on the product, focus on the process of putting words on the page. Putting ideas into words is absolutely a skill that develops with practice. Put a lot of words on the page. And the next day, put a lot of words on the page. Revise a lot, and throw stuff out. Develop your skill as a writer, and then the quality of your writing will increase and you will be able to write necessary pieces more easily—whether that means writing emails, applications for jobs or grants/fellowships, or work for publication.

Practice isn’t glamorous. Practice can be tedious and frustrating. Practice requires coming face-to-face with your mistakes, and requires a willingness to try and try again, despite mistakes. Practice also unlocks the expertise that allows people to excel in their chosen fields.

So, as you work on your dissertation, think about your work as practice, and as a chance to develop skills that are useful in any profession. Oh sure, getting that degree would be nice, and getting published would be, too. But if you develop the skills, you have the ability to create new works of equal or greater value. The famed “give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and feed him for life” saying is an apt parallel here, which I’ll twist to this context: “Finish a dissertation, and get yourself one reward (a degree); Learn valuable research skills and get yourself rewards for life (a career).” 

Whatever else a dissertation might be good for, it’s good as an opportunity to practice.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Be Willing to Get It Wrong part 2: On the cost of being wrong as a graduate student

In my previous post, and in a video I posted last Friday, I was talking about being willing to get it wrong.  In both the video and the blog post, I assert that the cost of being wrong isn’t that big a problem, and that’s a claim that I don’t make lightly.  This post is to discuss why I believe this is true for graduate students.

Graduate students often get stuck in the writing of their dissertation, and then, as a result of being stuck, fail to produce written material to give their professors. A lot of these writers, I think, are stuck because they don’t feel their work is good enough, and perhaps even feel that they are not good enough to do good work.  One approach to this problem is to focus on how writers are often more self-critical than is best for themselves, and get stuck for this reason (a book on writing blocks argues that self-criticism is one of the big causes of writing blocks), but that focuses on the writer.

In this post, I want to focus on the context: why is it that getting it wrong isn’t that big a deal for graduate students? Why do I assert that the costs of turning in a bad work are generally low? Well, what are the costs?

Firstly, there are the emotional costs of getting negative feedback. I would argue that these are the biggest costs—the main damage from getting bad feedback is emotional. A self-critical person who receives negative feedback will quite possibly struggle a good deal due to negative feedback. This can be a big problem, but there are ways of managing your response to feedback that can help.

Beyond the emotional costs, what are the other potential impacts on a graduate student? Well, those impacts are generally constrained to the context of the university—friends and family do not, typically, even look at a graduate student’s work, so a bad work isn’t going to affect those relationships, and a non-academic employer similarly won’t care whether or not your professor liked a specific work (if your employer is paying for your education, they might care about your standing and progress in your program as a whole, but they won’t generally care about individual pieces of work). So what are some of the possible impacts:

1. Getting kicked out of your program.  This is a form of academic death, I suppose.  Realistically, it’s implausible to imagine a student getting kicked out of a graduate program for submitting an inferior piece of work. It’s plausible to imagine a student getting kicked out of a program for plagiarism, but that’s not really poor quality work (which is difficult to avoid), that’s malfeasance (which is pretty easy to avoid). And it’s pretty easy to imagine a student getting kicked out of a program for regularly turning in poor quality work—but that’s not what I’m focusing on here.  If you have turned in several pieces of inferior work over a long period of time, obviously there will be some anxiety over whether another such inferior work will cause problems, and if you’ve been previously warned that you have to improve your work or get kicked out of your program, then obviously there’s a significant potential negative impact.  But I would wager that’s a real threat to only a few students. Students are far more likely to fear getting kicked out than they are to get kicked out.

2. Damaging your relationship with a professor.  There is a real danger here, and one to take very seriously.  At the same time, I would argue that if your work does actually cause a significant negative reaction from a professor, that’s a good sign to reconsider working with that professor.  There is a world of difference between harsh yet constructive criticism and peevish complaints or ideological agendas.  The kind of professor who would give harsh but real criticism is also likely the kind of professor who will revise their views when new, improved work is submitted (again, acknowledging the different impact of repeated submission of inferior work compared to a single piece). A reasonably mature professor will not carry a grudge against a student for a single piece of poor work. The kind of professor who would be offended—who would carry a grudge—for a single inferior piece of work, is probably not the kind of professor that you really want to work with. (Granting, it’s sometimes desirable to work with professors who are emotionally difficult—but if you choose to do that, you can then manage your relationship and your emotional response to that professor by remembering that the professor’s issues are not related to you personally.)  On the whole, the cost of a single bad piece of work, then, is low. If you are a student who is dealing with writer’s block, it can be very helpful to remember the low cost of a single bad piece of work.

3. Other negative impacts. Realistically, for graduate students, there are very few other negative impacts of poor work.  Poor work could prevent getting a fellowship or grant, and that can be be distressing, but, of course, in the context of grant/fellowship applications, the rejection of a poor work is equivalent to the result of no work: you can’t let fear of rejection stop you from writing and turning in an application because the result of rejection is almost identical to the result of submitting no application at all—rejection and not applying both end in missing the opportunity. I won’t make light of the emotional impact of trying and failing, but isn’t there an almost equal burden in allowing fear of failure to stop you from trying?

Turning in low-quality work can have negative ramifications. But for graduate students, the dangers are relatively slight, particularly when compared to the dangers of letting fear of error interfere with the progress of your writing and research. Take chances, experiment, and face censure for your actions rather than fearing error, inviting paralysis, and earning censure for not having done work. For the vast majority of graduate students, the costs of getting it wrong are relatively low compared to the costs of delaying submission of a work.

Be Willing to Get It Wrong, part 1: Ironic results

On Friday, as part of my new “Dave’s Dissertation Advice,” video series, I posted a video on being willing to get it wrong.  The main idea of the video, I suppose, was a take on the fairly common “You can’t win if you don’t play” idea.  I was talking about the willingness to make mistakes, the willingness to experiment and explore, and the willingness to invite criticism, even if the criticism is negative.

Ironically, the video itself was rejected, in a way.  And that’s OK—I didn’t have a lot riding on that video, in terms of my ego, and the rejection wasn’t one that was emotionally challenging. The rejection I received was that when I tried to use the video as the basis of advertising on facebook, it was rejected because the image had too much text in it. To make a point about being willing to make mistakes, I purposefully introduced or allowed possible roughnesses into the video, one of which was the significant use of  text alongside the video/audio. This text showed up in the thumbnail of the video, and, as a result, when I posted it to facebook, the image included text. Hence the “too much text in image” rejection.

The effort that went into the video wasn’t wasted, even though it received a rejection for one of the specific purposes I had intended (advertising on facebook). The video is available to people who might be interested, and a friend of mine gave me a suggestion that was useful. And I learned in the process.  All in all, it may have been rejected, but it’s no disaster.

The effect of having a work rejected can be more severe than the impact I faced, but a large part of the impact of having a work rejected is the emotional impact of that rejection, and if you approach feedback well, its negative emotional impact can be limited. Beyond the emotional impact, it’s very rare that a rejected work will cause any problems—rejected works are generally ignored after being rejected. For a graduate student, the risk of any harm beyond the emotional is pretty slight—professors don’t generally kick students out of programs for doing inadequate work, unless that’s a years-long pattern. A bad draft might make a professor less willing to help you in the future, but that’s a problem remedied by writing a better draft to follow up the weak one—especially a draft that incorporates the professor’s critiques.

The basic “you can’t win if you don’t play” trope is really a crucial one for graduate students who often get stuck “working” on a project rather than completing a draft to give to their professors. In the dissertation writing phase, in particular, students are given the freedom to continue working independently, with minimal need to produce concrete works.  

Monday, January 8, 2018

Sadistic Professors

In my recent video on what I called “the hazing ritual problem,” I mentioned the idea that some professors are sadists, and that really touched a chord for one of my friends who was kind enough to look at my video.
In the video, I was making the point that it’s not helpful to view your professors as sadistic (unless, of course, they really are), and that’s it’s easy to mistake for sadism what might be something less malicious. But I don’t want to make light of what can be a really serious problem, so I’m going to make a few comments that follow up on the ideas in the video.
Firstly, let’s set the basic premise that there are some really reprehensible people who are professors.  There are people who enjoy causing pain, and people who enjoy exerting their power to force others to do their will. Some of those people are professors.  How many such professors there are is uncertain—1%? 10%? 50%?—but there are some, I’m sure.  The best answer to such a situation might be to get a new professor, or the best answer might be to take action to protect yourself against the worst and grin and bear it.  A lot depends on the situation—real crimes should not be tolerated, but what about petty malice? One might choose to accept some petty malice for the advantage that might be conveyed.  However you may choose to respond, you want to focus your attention on your real choices. Remember that it is your life: you don’t have to work with a sadist, even you would have to switch to a new program at a new school to finish a degree free from that professor.  Giving up years of work in one program would be awful, but worse than suffering through additional years of future torment? Another program will accept you. You can get a degree from another school.
The more that you can focus your attention on your wider set of opportunities, the less you feel at the mercy of someone who is mistreating you. On an emotional level, there is a vast difference between feeling trapped in a program under a sadistic professor and feeling like you’re in a bad situation under a sadist, but still a situation that you can choose. If you can stop feeling trapped and start thinking about your choices, you have a better chance of protecting yourself from the stresses and damages of working with someone abusive.

Beyond accepting that there are some sadists out there, I would encourage trying to look for whether, in fact, what could be mistaken for abuse is, in fact, something else.  There’s a saying “never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity.”  To that I would add “or by disregard/indifference.”  
I would think that the main cause of graduate student suffering is professorial indifference: professors are supposed to care and are supposed to give guidance.  But professors are busy, and they may not give sufficient attention to their students.  I’ve worked with a lot of students who have received really bad feedback from their professors.  I couldn’t tell whether that was because the professors just weren’t trying or were incapable of giving good feedback, but one a certain level, it doesn’t matter: bad feedback is bad feedback.
On another level, it does matter to know whether you’re getting bad feedback through stupidity or neglect, because you would want to make plans that take your professor’s shortcomings into consideration. Planning to work with an indifferent professor is different from planning to work with a stupid professor.  And although neither the neglectful nor the fool deserve the same censure as the malicious actor/abuser, their impact on a student can be severe.

On the whole, professors are just people. If you have trouble with your professors, think of them as people and consider how to manage their emotional issues.  Make plans; devise strategies. Recognize that you are an active participant in your relationship with your professors. Keep your eye on options so that you don’t feel trapped. Above all, remember that you are not trapped. You may need to make a sacrifice to achieve healthy change, but you are not trapped in a graduate program. There are other programs. If you’re good enough that you’re in an extremely prestigious program, and are worried about loss of prestige by switching to another institution, well, it’s still your choice, and if you’re that good, maybe you’ll do better with a less prestigious program that gives you good support than you will in a program that is making you feel like your dissertation work is torture. Make it your choice.

A graduate program is an opportunity, not a trap. There are difficulties and costs, and it’s hard to predict exactly what those will be in the future, but what plan is certain? The more that you think about your situation in terms of your choices and your power to guide your own life, the less that you will feel at the mercy of your professors. There are costs in staying with a sadist, and there are costs in leaving a program to work with another professor—if you’re feeling like your professor is torturing you, start to consider why—sadism? neglect? stupidity?—and then make appropriate plans. 

Monday, January 1, 2018

Happy New Year! Celebrate something!

Happy New Year.  Thanks for reading.

The new year is not a holiday that I find particularly inspiring.  Yeah, sure, by some quirk of history, the annual calendric change of year has come, now, in the winter, instead of at any other time of year, but why? Other calendars have their new year at different times—there’s nothing special about this day—it's not marked by any celestial event (solstice, equinox, etc.), not marked by any notable historical event, etc. 

But in thinking about what to write today, it occurred to me that the issue of celebration is one worth mentioning, especially because this time of year can be emotionally challenging for many people.  Granted the holidays have mostly passed, so the emotional minefields relating to family and social gatherings have passed, but for many writers who are stuck, it can feel particularly distressing, as it’s entirely possible that weeks have passed without getting much work done while dealing with holiday travels, etc.
With a new term looming, this is a time of year that many dissertation writers are thinking that they need to get a lot done before they see their professors at the beginning of the term, which can be extremely stressful for those dealing with writer’s block.

When emotional burdens grow, it’s easy to become focused on difficulties. With an approaching term, it does make sense to focus on what you want to write, and all that needs to be done to get ready for a new term.  At the same time, if you’re stuck—if you haven’t been making good progress in your writing—if you’re procrastinating or feeling lost—that pressure to focus on what you have to do can turn into a focus on all that you haven’t done, which is only a step away from the emotional torment of self-doubt and self-denigration. And that’s a pattern that you want to break.

Celebration helps break the pattern. It turns your attention away from the difficulties and away from a sense of failure.  Focusing attention on positive things can have a positive impact on emotional state.

I’m writing this in the context of New Year’s celebrations, but what I’m really encouraging for the blocked writer is to celebrate little things that matter more: celebrate every bit of progress that you make. As the deadlines loom, and the period of unproductive efforts extends, celebrate every little accomplishment.  If you write one word, celebrate that.  One word may be far less than what you need to write every day, but, it’s infinitely more than nothing. Whatever you do, focus your attention on that little accomplishment. I’m not saying you should rest on your laurels after writing a single word, but if you haven’t been writing, you should celebrate that one word as improvement. Maybe you can write one more, and celebrate that. And maybe that becomes a series.

Focusing on and celebrating your accomplishments, even if small, focuses your attention on the task at hand—looking at what you have done is a valuable clue as to what to do next. It takes the focus off of you and off your perception of failures or regrets about what you could have done.

Habit plays a crucial role in writing. If your habit is to focus attention on what you wanted to do but didn't, that draws attention away from the tasks at hand and feels bad, too. If your habit is to focus on what you have accomplished—however little—it keeps your attention directed on the work that you still hope to accomplish and it feels better.  Both habits—that of focusing on what you didn’t want to do and on what you did do—are equally true, in the sense that they both focus on your actual personal history. “I wrote 500 words! Whoohoo!” may be just as true as “I wanted to write 3000 words. Darn!” But, in terms of a writing process, which perspective is more likely to help you work tomorrow? Which directs your attention to issues that you need to write about?

To some extent, habits of mind are subject to conscious control.  Humans definitely get stuck in habitual patterns that are hard to break, but what are you going to do about a habit that you dislike and that causes you difficulty? Isn’t it worth some effort to change the habit? A regular conscious effort to celebrate your accomplishments can become habitual, helping you write more easily. It requires practice, and change comes slowly, but practice eventually makes a positive difference.

As an exercise, write down what you did accomplish, and compare that to your worst days. “Today, I wrote one word, which is better than my worst day!” It’s an exercise, so it may require some effort. Do it, even if it feels ridiculous. Do it often. It only takes seconds to say "I wrote a sentence; I'm going to celebrate that as more than nothing." Change only comes with practice, so letting skepticism stop the practice will prevent the practice/habit from forming. People can develop positive habits through regular practice. It takes effort, but the effort pays off.  Practice celebrating.