Saturday, January 30, 2016

Is the Force with Me in Grad School?

Note: Grad school's been keeping me pretty busy, but I finally wrote a short, silly post about grad life for the blog of my department, the Energy and Resources Group (ERG). Though the full post is below, you can find the original here.

At times it’s difficult to explain the ERG student experience -- even to other grad students at Berkeley. But it’s not so different from other grad students when you think of it in terms of “the Force.”

That's what happens when you don't use the Force in grad school! Or is it? (Source: Kristina A)

It’s my first year as an ERG Ph.D. student but my third year as an ERGie, so I’ve already gone through a lot of the initial Ph.D. student anxieties: imposter syndrome, adjusting to working beyond a 9-to-5 schedule, and pretending not to worry about grades since “grades don’t matter in grad school.”

However, when you shift from the Master’s program to the Ph.D., there is a shift from structure and requirements to one of striking it on your own and making your own research decisions. I not only ask myself “What is my research question?” but also “How will I answer it?” and “When?”

It feels somewhat like working on a spaceship, learning all the technical details to fixing the ship from the inside out, and then... untethering. I think I feel like this because there’s a sense that I don’t know enough to figure things out on my own. However, my advisor reassures me that I still have time.

I’m going to geek out here (too late, I’m already in the middle of a Ph.D. program). In my own convoluted way, the relationship between a professor and a Ph.D. student seems somewhat like the Jedi Master-Padawan relationship from Star Wars. In fact, to me, grad school seems like the closest thing in the U.S. we have to a Jedi-like phenomenon.

Getting accepted to a Ph.D. program is equivalent to professors saying, “The Force is strong with you.” Then, you connect with your Jedi Master/advisor. From there, they train you in “the ways of the Force.”

I’m not the only one recognizing the connection. Jorge Cham of PhD Comics recently put this out:

As I consider this further, there are so many more parallels here. I, the Padawan, have been trained in many tools (and at ERG they get pretty diverse): maneuvering through the asteroid belt that is the institutional review board (IRB), extracting information from people on the field through interviews and participant observation, steering the ship of R programming, feeling my way through regression models and principal component analysis (PCA), and reading through applications for the new Jedi Masters of ERG.

There have been more than a few times when my advisors have asked me: “What do your intuitions tell you?” If that’s not Jedi Master talk, then I don’t know what is.

During the Ph.D., one is to go to the edge of what is known and figure out ways to get beyond it. This unclear, fuzzy world of the beyond is our “dark side.” We shouldn’t give in to ignorance and the complacency of not knowing. Into the wee hours of the night we code, make graphs, organize our Mendeley reference files, and take those final readings.

I recently completed my first stab at PCA on data I have been collecting for the past two years. I now have pretty graphs telling me that my intuitions may have been... somewhat off. This is when I think, “Damn it. The Force is NOT strong with me.”

Will I ever become a Jedi Master?

Well, actually, knowing when your analysis gives you a null result is a huge part of understanding the Force -- though academic journals may not readily acknowledge this.

So in a sense, I AM using the Force and overcoming the dark side! I WILL become a Jedi Master! I think.

Now on to a more pressing question: When do I get my lightsaber?

(Image source: JD Hancock)

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