I don’t have enough time to play. Even in absence of most social activity outside of research and weekends devoted to work, the play is just not happening! Why is this problematic? It is problematic because I strongly believe that a researcher can be his or her greatest when only subjected to self-derived constraints. The most productive and interesting times of my young academic life have been when I find a cool method, and am independently driven to understand and extend it. That might include reading about statistical methods or mathematical principles that I do not understand, or diving into a tutorial to learn nuts and bolts. The idea is that the responsibility to explore is my own, and given that the catalyst is personal interest (and sometimes stubbornness), I would argue that this is the secret formula for creativity and productivity. I would hope that I was chosen to be a graduate student based on this intrinsic hunger for understanding, learning, and building things! This quality that emerges from the woodwork does not require an external hand of control. In fact, when you add this external control to the equation, the resulting sculpture is ruined. What might have emerged from the block is of an entirely different vision and hand. Thus, I want to argue that to best develop as a researcher, I must maintain control of my tools. I must have time to play.

Let’s start by breaking apart the composition of graduate school, which is me-as-a-researcher in the short term. The first two years are a whirlwind of trying to fulfill class and research rotation requirements, with the general idea that you should both be improving your computational prowess and finding your niche lab. There are a few courses that feel lovely in how I can see the relevancy, and a lot more courses that give me what unfortunately feels like busy work. Given my focused personality and desire for efficiency, when I feel that I am not learning or using my academic credits as wisely as I might, this is troubling. I will admit that I made the mistake of taking a handful of domain courses to supplement my research when I should have immediately jumped into strictly methods and computational ones. However, I would also argue that I was pushed into the domain knowledge courses due to the pressure to be able to propose marriage to a lab within a handful of rotations. How am I supposed to know if the domain is right for me if I have yet to explore it more deeply? All in all, the takeaway point here is that both of these components take up every ounce of my little graduate student soul, and leave no time for anything else.

Let’s now talk about me-as-a-researcher in the long term. The ultimate, and ideal goal is to identify a core problem that I am both interested in, AND good at. If I am good at something and not interested, that’s like putting a cat in a room with a small dog. The cat could probably tear him apart, but he’s thinking about a delicious mouse. If I am interested in something but not good at it, well then I could either become good at it or just be mediocre and happy, but then I wouldn’t be able to really have an impact and it’s probably not a good use of time assuming that the ideal algorithm is to match people with what they are best at. Ideally, I would want to be able to have at least a sense of this particular problem that I want to pursue by the end of two years, giving me approximately 3 to 4 years to pursue that and nothing else! The “end” of the journey is a beautiful and passionate dissertation to earn a PhD, and then stepping into a new set of academic shoes. For now, we will stay within this journey of obtaining the PhD. I would now like to explain why I need time to play in these first two years, a dynamic that is not supported by the current structure.

In middle-school, high-school, and college, the world was very narrow. There was a small set of well defined problems, handed to me by the teacher, and I could prove mastery by solving them and getting the best grade in the class. Never did I have to think about problems in the “real world” and I certainly didn’t have to define my own problems and independent plans of action for pursuing them. This flipped dynamic is of course definitive of graduate school! For the first time I am seeing so many interesting problems, and so many various sub-problems (even under the same domain umbrella)… which one to choose? I know that I am smart and capable, and making this choice is a matter of:

  1. identifying said core problem
  2. hammering down resources for learning, and allocating time to make sure I have the breadth and depth to have domain mastery
  3. pursuing a specific question with this mastery

and at some point hovering around steps 2 and 3 I might transition into a “real” researcher. This train of thought is why I do not believe that it make sense to publish in the first, second, or X year of graduate school. How can one so quickly identify, understand, and conduct meaningful research about any particular domain? I know that the rule of the road is publish or perish, but I most certainly don’t want to publish for the sake of publishing. Just having a result does not mean it is worthy of telling the rest of the world. I am sure that many young graduate students pursue guided work that is meaningful and should be published, however largely I think that meaningful contributions are more likely to take half a decade of work… or a large nugget of a lifetime! A large percentage of papers that do get published by dewy, green graduate students probably are not that great. However, I digress! This process of identifying and being ready to pursue a problem should be the goal after two years.

The pressure of the short term goals (paragraph 2) is what endangers this process. It is very likely that one can be so overwhelmed with other things that they are unable to choose at all, or choose the wrong domain or question due to not having enough time or mental energy to explore. Let’s go back to talking about my little busy-graduate-student brain. It is latched on again to the high-school and college mindset of cranking out problem sets, preparing for exams, and trying to meet expectations of advisors and professors because I am being stamped with grades and forms with long lists of requirements. It should not matter, and even when I intellectually acknowledge this dynamic, I cannot get around the fact that learning is a different experience when I feel it is forced as opposed to being my own exploration and choice. When I learn something fantastic, and a little light goes off in my head of something I am eager to play around with, I always find myself asking “so when can I get to try that out?” The answer is usually some convoluted “at some time in the future.” I then add it to the place where ideas go to die, a list of things in a Google Doc that are delayed indefinitely because I have to prioritize everything else. The irony is that the exploration of these little ideas, being allowed to play, would better lead me to identify my focus, and lead to more productive work.

If we were real scientists or researchers, we would be driven by those little impulses to play with ideas. I would feel a spark, and perhaps work for a week on Idea 1, go for a month on Idea 2, identify a gap in my knowledge and spend time just reading, and focus the courses that I take based on these gaps. I would hungrily run around to every lecture that I find interesting, and be given the freedom and trust of using my time in a way that will lead to the two year goal of identifying a domain and problem. There would not be expectation of sitting in any particular chair for X hours a day to fulfill some confusing requirement, or taking a course of flavor Y because someone else is convinced I will be incomplete without it. This level of control, namely how every quarter I have to take an overloaded number of courses (no matter what!) and do X,Y,Z in a rotation (no matter what!) is suffocating and stifling. I largely do not have a choice. If I do not sign my name on the line and get everything done, I won’t fulfill requirements by the end of two years and can chance losing funding, which is the equivalent of death for the graduate student. The problem is that during these two years we aren’t allowed to be real scientists, yet after two years it is what will be expected of us. We aren’t allowed to follow impulse and passion and idea because there just isn’t time, and by the time we are given time (after courses are over) we have already proposed marriage to a domain / lab that may not have been the choice had we time to explore. The carving might turn into a dancing penguin when it would have been a contemplative giraffe.

So, this is the fundamental problem in my head. I feel an urgency and a drive to find “that problem” that I think I could both be good at AND make a difference. But that is in conflict with what I think I should be doing now, which is learning how to ask better questions and developing a computational background that is going to give me the ability to answer those questions. To have a program structured that forces the student to do both at the same time does in fact the exact opposite, because there is no time to play. Neither domain or intellectual depth is reached. And this problem is not limited to any particular institution. I love my school. I know that I am in the right program, and am blessed to have more freedom than the average graduate student. However, I yearn for less control and more freedom to run around taking in as much knowledge goodness I can be present for, pursuing projects with fellow graduate students driven by intellectual curiosity, and growing as a real researcher as opposed to an individual trying to fulfill what others expect of her. This is why I want to play, and even if I cannot, I will stand on this little soap-box and declare it to the world. I will continue to plow up this hill with hopes that after two years, the environment that I might find at the top is the same place I would have decided to want for myself.

Suggested Citation:
Sochat, Vanessa. "I Do Not Want to Be A Drowning Duck: the treadmill of graduate school ." @vsoch (blog), 19 Feb 2012, https://vsoch.github.io/2012/i-do-not-want-to-be-a-drowning-duck-the-treadmill-of-graduate-school/ (accessed 16 Apr 24).