Monday, October 27, 2008

mental murkiness

This morning I received some feedback from Sam about my application essays. It sounded a bit harsh but he's absolutely right in everything he said:
res statement does not wow me. methods are fine but first few paragraphs are blase. nothing pivotal, just another story that the Herb lab is pursuing is what reviewers could say! same old story, just a new species -- who gives a damn? the first para has to capture our attention about a novel conceptual idea--what sets your study apart from everything else? why is it so novel and ground-breaking? i see nothing from what you may have reviewed for your paper that comes to play in the 1st few paras -- you have to work harder on this document.
This prompted a lot of reflection and thinking today. I didn't make any major changes since I'm getting more feedback tomorrow, but I did talk to Chip about my project and talked to a few people (Jon, Mariyah, another friend) about my mental murkiness.

Of course I know I need to address the things Sam said, but I seem to have trouble saying clearly in writing why what I'm proposing to do is novel and exciting. I've had this problem with the review paper and now with this proposal. I think it comes from a deeper lack of clarity about the ecological relationships I'm trying to understand, and the best way to go about understanding them.

In general I think I'm doing a good job at this whole grad school thing. I've identified an area of research with opportunities that I'm excited about and I've even gotten a few grants to study it. But I think my greatest insecurity and weakness right now is my ability to translate questions into experiments. Let me explain.

I have a big question for which I would like to know the answer. I'm not talking huge, but big. Bigger than can be accomplished by one Ph.D. or lab group. Under that question I have several smaller questions that are interrelated but can still be approached and answered in many different ways. Then within those I have questions that are specific to my field site and system. It helps me to think about the levels of each question and I've laid out many of them explicitly.

My problem is in connecting the experiments and the questions. I have an interesting array of methods I could use to answer some of these questions. I can think of experiments and observational studies that would tell me something about the system I'm working in. I start to try to answer one specific question using a particular method, but then I get discouraged that the question isn't the right one because it's only addressing X and not Y or Z*. Will answering this small question even tell me anything about the big one? Am I looking for a silver bullet that doesn't exist? When I start delving into the details, I lose sight of the big picture and have trouble justifying my research to the rest of the world. I have yet to find the middle ground where I can both grasp the details to answer specific questions while holding onto the bigger question. Am I making any sense?

I seem to be able to think up questions with ease, but the process of determining how to clearly and rigorously answer them is very difficult for me. I suppose this proccess doesn't come naturally to everyone and that's why I'm in grad school.

*Is this possibly a relict of my perfectionism that I have slowly overcome since elementary school? Is this the modern-day manifestiation of my fear of writing anything in third grade for fear of writing something wrong? Am I trying too hard to figure everything out before I actually do anything? I tend to think that since data are expensive in my case that I do need to figure out as much as I possibly can before I go spend 3 months in the middle of nowhere Ukenzagapia without my advisors. Perhaps that is perfectionism justified. No, I am not being a perfectionist. I am being reasonable and responsible in trying to plan my research carefully while recognising there are plenty of things beyong my control. At this point I think I am just confused.

3 comments:

Catherine said...

You might think about how writing as a woman pushes you to understate and to contextualize, rather than ringing the bell and declaring absolute primacy and victory. You know what you want to do and you know that no one else has done it and you are the best person to do it. Would thinking about this help?

Fia said...

Hi,
I like to read your blog, am following your review already for quite a while. Hang on to it! Writing is mainly experience (and I seem to not have much of this). Oh, and I am big time jealous of your new laptop - did it arrive yet? And: TAG!!!

Karina said...

Thanks Catherine. I'll try to keep that in mind while I write!