Grad Student Experiences in Leadership (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

scrollThis will be a different type of blog post. This is actually a blog post from 14 graduate students who graduated from the Rutgers Pre-Doctoral Leadership Development Institute (PLDI). This post is composed of short notes about their experiences and serves to thank the Faculty and Staff involved in PLDI. Continue reading “Grad Student Experiences in Leadership (Throwback Thursday)”

Career Advice For PhDs

Inside Higher Ed Q&A with the author of a new book on career advice for faculty members and grad students.  The article is HERE.

Sacrifices

In the past month, two of my three closest friends from high school have either gotten married or placed a down payment on a house. Two weeks ago at the wedding, the single one, whose house is still currently in the process of being built, showed me pictures of the structure and mentioned how real it felt as they began to put the windows into place. Being stuck in grad school while close friends make these huge commitments is less than ideal to say the least. As their future gets clearer, they pose questions about the cloudiness of mine and as I’ve posted on the blog before, my aspirations of going into academia don’t necessarily impress my trio of friends: The Dentist, The Surgeon, and The Homeowner.

Seeing their lives progress while much of mine has remained at a stand still somewhat made me question my chosen path. These interactions combined with the barrage of academia job applications I’ve sent out without much any response hasn’t been positive reinforcement that this is going to be my career.  Even if I thought industry was a good fit for me, I haven’t had any sort of formal experience since my internship in 2009 and wouldn’t really know where to begin to make the switch. Most of my professional experiences the last 4 years have been so focused on teaching, I’ve been honing skills that I’m not sure how valuable they would be in an industry setting. Sure, my public speaking is much better, and I’d argue I can communicate science better than most of my peers, but even students from my department who have much more impactful research and leadership experiences than I do have struggled finding a job.

About a month ago, I set a deadline of June 1st as when I’d start looking for positions in industry,  just to see what was out there and if I could find a position that would work for me.  That was Monday.  However last week, the instructor for the summer course I’m TAing for had a conflict and needed me to cover her lecture.  I’ve given talks at conferences and departmental seminars, but this would be the largest crowd I’ve ever spoken to probably outside of my high school graduation.  It was an introductory lecture, Biological Molecules, teaching the building blocks of proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, and nucleic acids, something I had no problem teaching but given this was my first time, I had this odd feeling of nervous excitement, similar to Christmas morning as a child, heading into the lecture. 2 hours later…okay, you caught me, I let them out early. 1.5 hours later, I felt inspired and confident that that all the sacrifices I’ve made to be here have been worth it, and that the wedding and the house are still in my future and I’ll get to them.  First comes the hard part, finding someone to let me teach.

The Magic of Motivation

At some point, while you have been reading articles for classes, attending seminars, teaching and occasionally collecting data, you have progressed into the later years of your PhD.  One day you will realize, “Hey, I’m getting there!” and simultaneously feel “Ugh, so much more to do.”  This is the point in time when your motivation is as necessary as your experimental controls.  Why does this point in time happen so abruptly and how do you keep moving past it?

First, let’s briefly consider why this dichotomy of optimism and frustration occurs.  I think it has to do with the grand scope of a PhD program.  The large, amorphous goal is to develop, execute and communicate a project of to-be-determined size, depth and importance.  What you find at the end may be completely different than what you thought when you started.  And there is no simple roadmap of how to get from Point A to Point B while hitting all the landmarks in between.

From Point A to Point B

Our minds (and hearts) often have difficulty wading through the small details of a big picture. To better allow our brains to get to the end point, we need to set smaller, intermediate goals.  Now you may think, “Goal setting is obviously important for getting my papers written and my   experiments completed, but how does this help my motivation?”   Not only do these intermediate goals enable us to manage the day-to-day, they help us see progress on the messy path to Point B.  This article on mindtools.com has some great tips for goal setting and utilizing these goals as a compass toward your big picture.

Goal setting seems like the practical explanation to the question of how to maintain motivation.  I really appreciated this TIME article’s not-so-logical explanation of productivity loss.   Life is not just logic, and emotions alter our productivity and motivation.  So, what to do when you have an experiment that is just not working, your advisor asking you to do more and the feeling of frustration and fatigue inhibiting every reasonable plan of action? Here are three magical suggestions:

  1. Stay Positive: Whatever is going wrong is temporary and not the end.  If you are relating to this article, it is because you are in the middle of the long journey.  This means you have accomplished A LOT on your way to this point.  Remember all of those experiments that have gone well, those papers that you have really liked, that conference talk that was awesome.
  2. Get Rewarded: Tom and Donna from Parks and Recreation have this one solid with “Treat Yo’self Day.”  You don’t need a reason – you’ll feel happy and much more excited to get back to the grind.
  3. Get Peer Pressure: You care what your friends think, so use them!  Ask them to push you toward that scholarship deadline or paper outline.  Be deadline buddies and set dates to check in on your progress.

There is no one path to a PhD or one solution for staying motivated, so these tips are as good a place to start as any.  Slow days will come and go.  Stick with it.  There is light at the end of the tunnel…

A Grad School Sense of Humor

As I approach the halfway mark of my fourth PhD year, one of my favorite ways to keep moving forward is by maintaining a sense of humor. To summarize a great article on gradhacker.org, a sense of humor can help with grad school success because: 1) you will experience failures before you achieve any success, 2) you will inevitably embarrass yourself from time to time, 3) you aren’t going to finish everything you set out to do, 4) stress happens, and you need to let go of it, and 5) dealing with frustrating people and situations is sometimes unavoidable. My favorite laugh a day type website is http://whatshouldwecallgradschool.tumblr.com/. Check out the archives for Dec 29th 2014 for an accurate description of how my fourth year is going. Let me know if you have any favorite daily sites you visit for a good laugh!

The Truest Sentence You Know: How to Get Un-stuck

The greatest frustration of graduate school has to be that, no matter how often I hope it will, the dissertation never writes itself. How convenient that would be! Alas. It’s one thing to feel confident and assured that you know what you’re doing in the archive. You found a seventeenth-century piece of parchment, and you actually managed to decipher a line of chancery hand? Congratulations, and well done you! You’ve earned a slice of cake and sit-down. And while you savor that pastry, it all comes together in your head – chapter titles, concluding paragraphs, clever introductions. You can see it all. Then you sit down to write it. And that’s another thing entirely.

I can’t be the only one who knows this feeling. It’s like that liminal space between waking and dreaming when your limbs don’t quite work. The fear of failure or – worse – mediocrity can be paralyzing. I’ve always fashioned myself a writer, but what if this time…what if this time…

And then I know I need him. I need Ernest Hemingway.

Hem may have led a disastrous personal life, but he knew a thing or two about putting pen to paper. And even he, the (so to speak) consummate professional, had his bad days. But, thankfully, because he was the consummate professional, he soldiered through them, and, lucky for us, he wrote about it. His advice, recounted in A Moveable Feast, was directed at himself as he struggled with a story in his Paris years. But he might have been talking to me too.

“Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

By some miracle, it works. It always works. It gives my writing the strength and attitude it needs to be convincing and, if luck is shining on me that day, stylish. Excavating my draft for the core truth I want to convey – in this sentence, this paragraph, this chapter – and being able to communicate it in a simple declarative sentence makes me a powerful writer for a moment.

Because that has to be part of the goal, doesn’t it? I’d like the dissertation to be more than passable, more than good. I’d like it to be stylish. Readable. Art historians like me write about people who created, but we’re creating something too. Shouldn’t we recognize that we are engaging in a creative act and try to act accordingly? Shouldn’t we try to write something worth reading? Something that contributes not only to our field or to the humanities but to humanity? (Did I go too far there?) I don’t flatter myself that I’m the next Simon Schama, Paul Barolsky or John Summerson, whose work I would gleefully read under the shade of an elm tree. But what was the point of doing all this if I’m not going to try?

Hemingway rented a room in the Latin Quarter of Paris – no heat, no toilet, no fun of any kind. When he was stuck, he stared into the fire, peeling an orange until he settled on the truest sentence he knew at that moment. He knew the fear of failure would be there, and he had a strategy for facing it. And Lord knows, he wasn’t alone. A list provided by my good friend and writer Michael Fuchs includes a series of successful writers lamenting their own fear of failure, including himself as he prepares his fifteenth manuscript. And Nora Ephron famously said, “I think the hardest thing about writing is writing.” We all get stuck. What is your strategy for getting un-stuck? In the end, I suppose it all comes down to discipline, whatever your discipline.

“Sabbaticals” for graduate students

Dynamic Ecology is a fantastic blog (written by a small group of contributors) on various topics in academic research and careers, especially in evolution and ecology.  They just featured a provocative new post advancing the idea of taking a “graduate student sabbatical” — when a grad student spends a long period of time somewhere outside of his/her home institution — to achieve research goals (e.g., forming a new collaboration, facilitating field work) or to accommodate family needs (e.g., a significant other with a job elsewhere).  Usually we only think of sabbaticals for faculty members, but grad students often do similar things all the time, even if we typically don’t call them sabbaticals.  It’s a fascinating angle, I recommend checking it out!

On the Digital Humanities

I recently attended a talk sponsored by the MLIS Colloquium Speaker Series at Rutgers University titled “Digital Humanities: New Roles for Libraries.”  The panel consisted of a diverse group of Digital Humanities scholars, staff, librarians, and specialists who discussed a broad range of topics ranging from an overview of the Digital Humanities to the specific roles of the various members of the panel.  As a PhD student in the Humanities, it was fascinating to learn about the general role of the Digital Humanities as well as the role they can play in my own scholarship.  The panel allowed me to consider the benefits of this kind of technology in academia, and to think about scholarship in ways that I had not previously thought about it.  In the following paragraphs, I intend to share my learning experience with you!

Perhaps an obvious, but very important aspect of the Digital Humanities is that it allows us to conduct research remotely.  The example provided was the Jazz Oral History Project at Rutgers – a project devoted to the recording and digitization of the oral history of jazz musicians and their profession.  By digitizing the oral history interviews, we are able to access these materials from any location, thus eliminating the need to travel to conduct research.

The most interesting aspect about this project, however, is the notion that it changes the way we study history.  We are no longer simply memorizing important people and eventful dates, but instead listening to and learning from the seminal figures that lived this history and are providing us with the opportunity to rewrite it.  As one of the panelists stated, we are experiencing history through storytelling, arguably more exciting than the traditional experience we are used to.

I think the greatest potential of the Digital Humanities lies in the opportunity for collaboration.  Digital Humanities librarians are able to work with scholars from many different departments of the university.  Furthermore, the Digital Humanities can bring together researchers from two seemingly disparate fields, such as Foreign Languages and Computer Science.  This allows for various networking and professional exchanges, but it also provides the opportunity to consider your research from different and multidisciplinary perspectives.  I believe this is especially relevant in today’s academic world; STEM disciplines and the Humanities are often at odds with each other, but it is truly in our best interests to narrow the gap between the two and take advantage of the chance to collaborate.

The Digital Humanities will undoubtedly continue to evolve and prove to be a valuable tool in academic research.  In a world of continual scholarly production across multiple disciplines, the Digital Humanities allows us to engage in both technical and creative endeavors, providing us the opportunity to expand our work and the collective knowledge of humanity in previously unthinkable ways.

Communicating science: the elevator speech

In a previous post, I described my experience at a workshop (organized by the Rutgers Graduate School-New Brunswick) on communicating science.  I described the importance of preparing descriptions of your work for a spectrum of likely audiences – having at least some idea of what aspects of your work to emphasize to different audiences and what language or ideas to use are critical.  However, in addition to these more customized versions, having a more generic but highly-polished description of your research that you can recite from memory at any time is probably worth having.  This is often known as the “elevator speech,” since it’s supposed to be something simple and short enough that you can say it during the time you’d spend with a stranger in an elevator.

I’ve had a murky version of this for a while, but it was largely a vague set of examples and analogies I liked to use when describing my research to a friend or family member rather than a well-crafted summary.  But the workshop motivated me to finally develop a better version, so here is my latest attempt:

Every cell in your body contains thousands of different kinds of molecules, stuffed into a very small space and interacting with each other in complex ways.  How does this mess of molecules ultimately do all things that cells do, such as making new cells, extracting energy from food, and transporting nutrients?  And how did the precise interactions of all these molecules develop over millions of years of evolution?  This knowledge is important both for treating human diseases in which these cellular functions go wrong (e.g., runaway cancer cell growth), as well as engineering microorganisms to perform useful jobs, such as synthesizing biofuels with bacteria or making better beer with yeast.  My research uses mathematical models and computational techniques to understand how natural selection changes these molecules and their interactions over time.  We want to use this both to understand how organisms naturally evolved in the past and to predict how they might evolve in the future.

Alternative Summer Experiences

I have been very fortunate during my graduate school years to explore alternative options for my summers besides remaining in the research lab, working on my thesis, and teaching summer courses. These experiences have allowed me to develop skills and to network with people I would not have had access to otherwise.  I spent two summers on these “alternative” options taking a break from teaching and research.

The first type of alternative summer was early in my graduate career when I attended a course at the Marine Biological Laboratory or MBL in Woods Hole, MA.   Woods Hole is where famous life scientists go to play, learn, and teach the next generations of scientists during the summer break.  The Woods Hole website calls it “a salty sea spray village that brings the Nobel Laureate and the fisherman together in harmony.”  Of the several courses offered at the MBL, I was lucky enough to be admitted into the Microbial Diversity Course, a 6.5 week intensive crash course on all things microbiological.  We spent the first few weeks attending morning lectures followed by exploration of local fresh and saltwater marshes, bogs, and streams in an attempt to culture the various resident microorganisms.  The second half of the course was spent developing individual mini projects and additional instruction by world-renowned scientists.  However, it was not all work and no play as the scientists and students would mingle at the local beaches and bars in the afternoons and evenings.  I was also able to visit Martha’s Vineyard and go whale watching off the Cape Cod Coast.  This course and courses like it give students the opportunity to interact with other students and scientists from around the world, greatly enriching our scientific development in ways that are not possible if we do not venture off-campus.

This past summer I decided to experience something completely different from the normal bench work associated with microbiology.  I applied and was accepted to the U.S. Department of State’s Internship Program as a Student Intern.  I was placed in the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary (STAS) in Washington, DC for a 10 -week period.  In this office I was surrounded by science PhDs who were using their knowledge to further U.S. international relations in regards to science policy and science diplomacy.  My responsibilities included drafting talking points, updating program information, and initiating a memorandum of understanding between State and a non-governmental entity.  I was free to attend numerous meetings, seminars and lectures within the State department and the surrounding DC area that caught my interest.  I worked on one initiative, the NeXXt Scholars Program and a research project on the Benefits of International Research Collaboration.  The NeXXt Scholars Program was initiated to increase the number of women from Muslim majority countries coming to the U.S. to pursue undergraduate degrees in STEM fields.  This was achieved by partnering with New York Academy of Sciences and U.S. women’s colleges.  Rutgers Douglass Residential College is one of the 38 women’s colleges that participates in the program.  During this internship I was learning how to apply the professional skills I was developing during my PhD training such as project management, organization, communication, and writing.  I learned how important it is to convey an overview of information in a clear and succinct manner, very different from the more in-depth analysis that graduate students do on a daily basis.  Being in DC provided me with the opportunity to network daily with professionals in related fields, experience the inner workings of the government, and discover numerous other possible career directions after graduation.

These two experiences, in addition to the normal teaching and research, have helped to round out my graduate education.  I learned and honed valuable skills that I may not have had the chance to develop if I had only remained on-campus.  Therefore I suggest you immerse yourself in another experience by taking advantage of internships, courses, field work, study abroad and other off-campus opportunities.  It will broaden your perspective and allow you to come back to your research with fresh eyes.  For many of these experiences the time to apply for next summer is now so act quickly!

Grad Student Experiences in Leadership

scrollThis will be a different type of blog post. This is actually a blog post from 14 graduate students who are about to graduate (or graduated) from the Rutgers Pre-Doctoral Leadership Development Institute (PLDI). This post is composed of short notes about their experiences and serves to thank the Faculty and Staff involved in PLDI.

What is PLDI?

Rutgers’ Pre-Doctoral Leadership Development Institute program (PLDI)  is designed to teach doctoral students aspiring to careers in academia how to navigate the challenges of academic leadership and thrive in the university environment. In this two-year certificate program, our professors shared a very precious gift with us – their experience. We created this blog in order to share our experience with them, with respect and appreciation for the gift they have so graciously given us. We hope that this will continue to serve as a reflective space for affiliates and future cohorts to share their perspectives.

-The PLDI Class of 2013

Tara Coleman: Program in Comparative Literature

When I first started the PLDI program and told my Dad about it, he looked at me strangely and asked why I needed leadership training if I was going to be a professor. He doesn’t know it, but I have already benefitted from my training a great deal, in ways as simple as being able to participate meaningfully in debates among my family and friends about Rutgers, the challenges facing higher education, and how I see my future in this field.

Continue reading “Grad Student Experiences in Leadership”

Research in Mathematics

Working in mathematics, I’ve found myself often asked the question “What do you do?” Sometimes the expected response is my “elevator pitch” (the short blurb about my area of expertise). But sometimes the question is more basic: “What is it you do, though? Do you just sit all day and think?”

Thinking [cc]

Now, to a large extent, many people in research spend all day thinking. However, mathematics is not simply the art of staring at a problem until the solution materializes in one’s head. (It’s worth a try, but often solutions do not come from epiphany alone.) I would like to discuss a few of the ways in which research is conducted in mathematics, with emphasis on the parallels and similarities that may exist between mathematics and other fields, perhaps to somewhat debunk that notion there may not be any such similarities.

Nature [cc]

Mathematics research revolves around proving new theorems — mathematical statements that can be deduced from the fundamental axioms of mathematics and from preexisting theorems. Generally, though, the procedure is not to make a big pile of the existing statements and to try to string them together randomly until one forms a coherent deduction that results in something meaningful. That would be pretty rough sailing! Mathematics relies on conjectures, put forth as believed to be true and hopefully proven by someone at some later time. While there are conjectures (e.g. Goldbach’s conjecture) which remain unsolved for long periods of time (sometimes resulting in notoriety), most theorems start out as rough ideas or propositions that are developed with increasing structure and refinement until they are proven. In addition to proving new theorems, other steps forward in research include constructing examples of mathematical structures and verifying theorems by re-proving them in new ways. Computational work is also done to improve theorems in the case that a theorem is quantitative (or sometimes, to prove that a quantitative result is best-possible).

El. J. Comb. logo

Know the literature: As in most fields, the mathematical literature is vast, and perhaps especially in mathematics, it is easily accessible. Increasingly, mathematics journals are available online — not just through the library system, but free for instant download on the Web. Having less concern for the preservation of intellectual property, many editorial boards have shifted to such open/free publication. (Indeed, I myself have a publication in The Electronic Journal of Combinatorics, which is precisely such a journal.) There is also the arXiv (the X is pronounced sort of like χ, the Greek chi), which hosts preprints of papers and other works of mathematics (and many other fields).

Being familiar with the body of literature, both seminal papers and other older works as well as the current cutting-edge work (as it appears first, usually on the arXiv), is an important part of conducting research in mathematics. Jacob Fox came to Rutgers in 2009, when he was at Princeton, to speak at a seminar. He noted during his talk the importance of being familiar with the literature, mentioning in particular how his knowledge of a certain publication helped him and his coauthors solve a problem.

Mathematics [cc]

Crafting and Proving Good Conjectures: One of the more important questions is where to start — if we’re going to prove a statement is true, what is that statement? Generating good conjectures is not a matter of guesswork or divine inspiration, at least not entirely (although the former may have helped from time to time, and the latter is open to some debate at least). Increasingly, experimentation is a common way to generate conjectures. It is also often useful to test conjectures in small, typical, or special cases (where “small,” “typical,” and “special” depend on the problem at hand). Usually a conjecture applies to too many cases to test them all (sometimes, infinitely many cases), so this methodology is often used to verify that the conjecture is sometimes true, but not to verify the conjecture exhaustively. (Conversely, experimentation may lead to a disproof of a conjecture by identifying, constructing, or otherwise elucidating a counterexample.) Experimentation may also help unearth components of the proof of the conjecture at hand.

It is also crucial to have a firm understanding of the big picture in the field where these questions are being asked. There is a substantial amount of context and content that guides someone to the right kinds of conjectures and the proofs of those conjectures. Mathematics is a field in which the objects of study are highly structured, and knowing these structures helps eliminate some of the technical clutter that can obfuscate the underlying truths that one wishes to prove and the bits and pieces that go into proving them. Many proof techniques can be adapted to different situations, so in some sense theorems may be proved by matching a generalized proof to a statement you would like to prove specifically.

Proof [cc]

Building Theories and Solving Problems: Tim Gowers is famously credited for roughly dividing mathematicians into the two categories problem-solvers and theory-builders (or rather, he is credited for noting this division in his oft-quoted The Two Cultures of Mathematics). I won’t discuss this dichotomy, but these two activities characterize much of the research done in mathematics. Proving single, unrelated theorems one-by-one is not usually how research goes. Rather, the enterprise involves longer strands of investigation — a dozen theorems sometimes collapses into a single stronger and better statement after enough exploration and refinement. Meanwhile, single ideas branch into many avenues of investigation. But generally, the aim is not to knock down one theorem, then turn around π radians and start over, but to work on larger-scale investigations. I could make a metaphor about bowling pins or dominoes, but I think the idea is clear. An important aspect here is also collaboration, which is a major element of research for many mathematicians. Working on papers is one part of collaboration, but other important activities include seminars & conferences (as participants and as organizers), expository writing, editorial work, and many other collaborative activities.

Structure [cc]

So the venture is to find good lines of research and establish some clear, path along that line. There are the two approaches. The first is to identify important problems and build up theory to solve them. One famous example is Fermat’s last theorem, which conjectured centuries ago and recently proved by Andrew Wiles. During those centuries, large swaths of mathematics were developed in large part as attempts to prove this conjecture (including Schur’s theorem, one of my personal favorites). This “problem solver” work weaves what might be the leading strands of the theory, loose and rough but pushing outwards farther than neighboring strands. Such work often moves mathematics in innovative or interdisciplinary directions, building bridges between fields of mathematics, and may also connect with work in applied mathematics. The “theory builders” weave strength and cohesion into the fabric (to extend the metaphor). To this end, they focus their research on developing and enriching the theory. They may work to classify all types of a particular structure, for example. Such work includes that of several Rutgers faculty in classifying the finite simple groups. This theory-building reinforces others’ work as they develop and solve conjectures, as it makes the underlying theory more robust.

Images used in this entry are used under fair-use and/or under licensing guidelines set forth by the copyright holder that allow use in this blog, as presented for educational or critical commentary. Images are copyright their respective holders and credit or source is indicated in each caption or in the text of this entry, as applicable. Thanks to Yusra Naqvi for her helpful comments and suggestions.

Research Methodologies in Laboratory Sciences- The Joys of Analytical Instrumentation

Obtaining a graduate degree would be so much easier if the analytical instrumentation would just work…For those of you would don’t have to run various chromatography instruments (ICs, HPLCs, GCs), thermo-cyclers, spectrophotometers, or any of the other numerous finicky pieces of laboratory equipment, I envy you.  You haven’t had to start your day thinking you would be able to run 100+ samples and get another figure for your thesis, only to spend not just a day but a whole week troubleshooting a mysterious problem, eventually determining you’ll have to order a part that will be delivered in three more weeks just to determine the concentration of your chemical of interest.  This of course holds up all the other experiments you had planned to set up.  I welcome you all to the joys of basic wet science research.

When I find myself in these situations I take a deep breath and think of all the reading I’ll be able to get done while I wait.  In my experience these situations usually arise from a few common problems and are a major part of the experimental process.  First, make sure you really read the instrument manual before you attempt to use anything or try to fix it.  Many times an instrument isn’t working because someone else, who had no idea what they were doing, decided to make a “repair.”  This is one reason it is important for senior members of the lab to instruct the new lab members on proper usage.  Secondly, remember to perform routine maintenance, as neglected instruments are like high maintenance boyfriends and girlfriends.  They will not work solely out of spite if ignored for too long.  Instruments work best when used and maintained on a regular basis. Third, always remember that this is part of the “learning” process.  You never really understand how something works until you have taken it apart and put it back together a million times.   Now not only are you an expert on the instrument, but you can also understand and interpret your data better since you know the limitations of the measurement. Your advisor and other graduate students will agree that this is a large part of the experimental process.

Lastly, if all else fails, blame an undergraduate and take a long weekend or a mental health day.  Delays are only to be expected when relying on group used equipment and if you are lucky someone else will have fixed it by the time you get back.  Plus working this hard makes obtaining the data that much sweeter.  So the next time an instrument, computer, or your “favorite” piece of equipment gives you a strange error message remember that you are not alone and that this is all part of the process.

Collaborative Hunting and Gathering

When I try to describe Comparative Literature to those unfamiliar with my field, I think back to the way one of my undergraduate professors put it. Comp Lit, she said, is like a mad scientist’s laboratory, except for the humanities.  Working and thinking in such an interdisciplinary field means that I am encouraged to think outside of the traditional boundaries of thought (in my case looking to Sociology, Caribbean Studies, critical theory, novels, film, and medicine). So how do I conduct research? The short answer is “Read a lot and write a lot”, but thinking about how I’m going to approach writing a paper on Ralph Ellison this semester, I intend to:

  1. Ask myself questions: What are the key themes and issues that have come up for the authors? What do I find most confusing/interesting? This is an important step, since the last thing I want to do is impose my theories onto a text or author. In the case of Invisible Man, I’m really interested in how the trope of invisibility is linked to blackness, and I wonder about the way the author portrays history.
  2. Make connections: This is what brought me to Comp Lit in the first place! How does what I am reading relate to my larger research interests? How can I make this useful as I think ahead to my dissertation? Is there a particular theoretical model that is useful in thinking about the topic? I’ve also noticed some similarities and differences between this novel and writing by authors from the same time period in the Caribbean.
  3. Meet with my professor: Our professors are an incredible source of knowledge and experience, and the earlier you meet to discuss you ideas, the more focused your ideas will become: they can steer you toward key texts and theorists and advance your thinking before you begin to dig in the stacks.
  4. Hunting and gathering: Sometimes I prefer to do more free-writing (my idea of “gathering”) to really hone in on what I care about;  other times, I really need to dig in and find out (“hunting”) what has been said and done on a topic first. With my Ellison paper, I’ll probably  go the library route first: a) the Rutgers library website, b) the MLA Bibliography, c) my subject librarian, d) Google Scholar, e) for larger projects, traveling to archives to access relevant original documents.
  5. Writing! One of my mantras is “writing is thinking.” The only way I can really know what I think about something is to write about it, so after completing steps 1-4, I’ll begin writing my paper.

Although there are certainly times when my work revolves around my own relationship with the texts I’m exploring, the process really is collaborative…having a conversation with the authors and filmmakers I’m working with. As the conversation gets larger and the stakes higher, the sources you tap into may take you farther than you expect.

Feet in (At Least) Two Worlds

Every discipline has its subfields…and subfields of subfields. This is very much the case in Anthropology where the Cultural (and Linguistic) wing is a completely different world from the Physical (and Archaeological) wing. Of course there is a shared history, but they have diverged considerably over the years. In a tiny (reductionist) nutshell, the cultural wing focuses on understanding modern humans through the lens of culture, whereas the physical wing emphasizes biological features of modern humans and our ancient ancestors, such as the study of human origins. But I come from a four-field Anthropology background. “Four-field” means that I took courses in all of the aforementioned subfields, especially Cultural and Physical, and I always get a little thrill upon finding intersections where culture meets biology, such as in Medical Anthropology.

This appreciation for both the Physical and the Cultural has recently come to the forefront of my academic studies. Up until last fall, I studied the hominin fossil record. After about a year of hair-pulling and soul-searching I made the decision to switch my dissertation topic in my fourth year to the study of how we teach evolutionary theory. This switch means that now I will do my dissertation with real, live people! No more fossils for me (though I hope to visit them now and then). I am diving headlong into the world of interviews, surveys, and participant observation. Yet I am still grounded in evolutionary theory since that is my topic. This puts me in a rather unusual situation. I am still in the Physical Anthropology wing of my department, but I am also a little bit in the Cultural wing. In fact I will have committee members from both wings. As my advisor said, I’m a hybrid.

What will this mean once I finish? It could place me in a kind of disciplinary limbo, but I am choosing to look at it differently. Instead of focusing exclusively on tenure track positions, I will look beyond academia, whether it is in the realm of curriculum consulting, policy-making, or creating educational materials. The point is that taking this risk was worth every moment of anguish and anxiety leading up to the moment when I told my advisor what I wanted to do. He and others in both wings of my department have been incredibly supportive. Most importantly, what I am doing now is something that I will always be passionate about.

Lesson learned? While a big dissertation change can have its logistical drawbacks, if it will enable you to do what you love, don’t be afraid to switch direction even when you are halfway done! Graduate school is extremely challenging…emotionally, intellectually, and even physically. It’s only worth the immense effort if you are doing something that will drive you beyond the completion of that coveted PhD.