Researcher Life : Is the Blotchy Area Clearing Up?

Continuing in the spirit of The Metaphor, here is another post. This one is about the Blotchy Area on your map, and how to figure out if you are making any real progress.

As I explained in my metaphor, when ‘you enter this area, your compass starts acting up … You look up to the night sky and all you see is some lone stars scattered around. No constellations, no patterns to use as orienteering tools, no Pole Star, no Sirius’. However, I’m not the only one making metaphors. The picture you see here is a beautiful reconstruction of The Map of Manuscript Earth by @redpenblackpen. If you want a different take on the blotchy area and explore the emotional turmoil it brings with it, you may want to read this interesting view on Is your PhD like a Kaleidoscope and I highly recommend understanding The Valley of Shit.

If you are still here or came back after exploring the above references, I assume you’ve gotten a good enough feel of the Blotchy Area, and want to move on to asking yourself, “how do I know I’m clearing the blotches?!”

When I started my PhD, I had to learn a lot of new things.

I had to learn how labs are set up, how connections work, how computers talk to each other, the possible ways of sending triggers, and finally programming the whole experiment so all these machines do what I need them to. I did it all. I documented it all. But I thought to myself, “never again!”. Up until last year, when I was invited by fellow researchers in Cologne to carry out this exact process all over again. Turns out, my boss told them I was now an expert (after struggling through my early PhD years) at setting up eye-tracking labs. I visited them for 2 days and then periodically for 3 months. I got them a lab with a fully functional experiment, set up and running. A month later, they started testing with patients. Something that had taken me over a year to figure out for myself, took a couple of days to replicate! I was pleased, and surprised. So I thought long and hard about what it is that makes learning happen and how do we know it’s happened?

Let me explain my thoughts through an example we can all relate to – food. Think of your PhD as needing to learn all about global cuisines (unless coincidentally that is your PhD project, in which case, please do write to me and tell me more!).

Learning builds on existing knowledge. When you see, hear, or experience something new, it latches on to the next closest bit of information.

Let’s say you’re on a world tour to explore foods (field work for your PhD, of course) and are going to eat an authentic French baguette for the first time. So far it has simply been stored in your head under ‘all things French’. This category also has the Eiffel Tower and the movie Ratatouille; so you imagine the brown headed chef from Ratatouille kneading for you this beautiful bread, serving it under the lit Eiffel Tower. You eventually get back to reality and try this loaf of French bread. It’s sleek, not like your regular loafs, hard on the outside, soft inside. Hmm…you like it. Baguette has now moved to the category of ‘European Breads’, along with the the black Viennese bread, the solid multigrain German breads, but it has also formed links to the soft American toast bread and the Italian ciabatta.

You continue exploring different foods and realize a lot of them are served with cut up pieces of Baguette – salads, soups, sure…but there is probably some baguette at that wine tasting session as well. So now Baguette, while staying in the category of European Breads, keeping its original links to Toast and Ciabatta, also forms links to salads, soups, entrees, meat sauces and wine! Over the course of your field work all over the world, you form a net of connections.  A variety of breads, meats, veges, sauces, pastes, bases, rice, dough, connected to each other because they can be served together, or because they are similar in preparation, or similar in texture, or can be cooked in under 10 minutes, or just because they are your personal favourites!

Imagine yourself now, a year later, organizing a Spanish tapas party. You take your good ol’ tapas full of marinated meats, olives, aubergines, paprika, cheeses, and you have a brilliant idea to add a bread basket to this table. You decide to add cut up baguettes and miniature Naans to this basket. It’s gonna be a hit! Congratulations. You’ve just used your knowledge of global breads, connected to all the ingredients being used at a Spanish cuisine party and made it into a cool fusion!

Once you understand how knowledge for foods works, it’s the same for any other skill or concept you learn. Once you understand this, you just need to give yourself enough opportunities to test your expertise. If you never got the opportunity to organize a Tapas Party, you may have never known how well you understood French Bread!

Essentially you need to keep organizing different themed parties throughout your PhD! See what you come up with. If you were to organize a lentil party (I recently attended this theme!), would you be restricted to thinking about just one cuisine? For the longest time I only knew how to make lentils the Indian way. I thought lentil soup was just a westernized version of the Indian ‘dal’. Then I came to Germany and realized everyone here has a grandma’s lentil soup recipe – complete with German mustard sauce and balsamico!

Being invited to Cologne was my lentils party. I could call on all my knowledge of lab set-up gathered over the first years of my PhD, having slowly formed intense connections based on previous knowledge about computers, experiments, and paradigms, all the way up to a connected lab. Although it took many experiences to form the correct links, the final party had just the right dishes on the table.

Learning during your PhD is a series of forming many new connections to your existing knowledge. So even if you organize the same party again, it should tell you something about your knowledge level. Was the Tapas Party in your fourth year better than the Tapas Party in your second year? That’s progress! For e.g., I was recently asked by the Boat Master (refer: The Metaphor) about how I would be solving a programming problem in my analysis in the near future. To my surprise, I could answer very comprehensively, laying down the approach I would take and why this would be better than another suggested approach. This surprised me not because it was a difficult problem. The surprise was because I would not have been able to answer it a year ago, when I started working with the said software and similar data-sets. Let’s not forget to congratulate ourselves on such milestones, while of course keeping a look out for potential other Parties to host!

Finally, can you watch a cooking competition?

You’ve learnt about global foods and you’ve tried them out in some settings (parties) that you thought would work. How do you know your knowledge is enough? You try watching a cooking competition of course! The difference between organizing a party and attending a party is that you know what you have done in the former, but have no idea what was done in the latter. So if you were a cooking expert and you watched Masterchef Australia, you should be able to understand the recipes being made, potential problems the participants faced. You would no longer have to experience the problems yourself to know what was being done wrong. If you would be invited to a party and everyone there was in awe of the cheese balls, you would be able to appreciate this at a different level. Not just at a level of ‘oh this is tasty’, but more at the level of, ‘ah to make this tasty the chef would have had to prepare fresh cream cheese and bake it at the right temperature for it not to burst’.

So keep hosting parties and if you are already good enough at that, go ahead, watch some cooking competitions and go get yourself invited to some good parties.

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