Saturday, December 27, 2008

Searching for the Sense of Accomplishment

Alone at my father's house the day after Christmas, I had two choices between activity:

a) Read as many papers on the topic of my comps revisions as my brain would handle, possibly advancing far enough to start writing the new section, or

b) Attack my older sister's former bedroom, which has been used as a storage room for the past five or six years and was knee-deep in assorted junk with not even a clear path to wade through.

I didn't even debate the choice. I went straight to "b", and spent almost the entire day (minus a few hours of television watching during meal times) in physical labor. I didn't have to debate, because the choice was made purely on one criterion, of what I would achieve with my day:

a) A fraction of the reading list read, a page or so of notes on how they might be relevant, some rough attempts at revisions, and the ability to write "Read X papers on comps revision topic" in my upcoming weekly update to my advisor.

b) A disaster area turned into a clean room.

This decision epitomizes the problem I've been having with grad school, which is that it never really feels like I've accomplished anything. There are only ever incremental changes in papers (from the endless rounds to the "submitted pending minor revisions", the only time there is accomplishment is those first few days after a submission is made) and in research (a slow, laborious process whose "end" results are always "here are more questions we're going to be asking in the next research project). There is no sense of "I have taken on this project, I have worked hard for a certain period of time, and now it is done", because it is never done. And I find that I would rather tell my advisor that I got absolutely no research activity of any kind done in the week of Christmas, than tell myself that I managed nothing more than "making progress".

Monday, December 22, 2008

How Low-Priority Can Ethics Be?

My advisor has been sitting on revisions to a brief report for over four months now. Last February, we discovered a mistake in calculations in a published paper, that crossed the level of significance. Results that had been acceptably significant could now only be called "marginally" significant. We found the error in the process of replicating the results, so the effect is probably real, but the editor should still be informed.

First I had to argue my advisor and her co-author into agreeing that the mistake should be reported at all, on the grounds that it isn't up to us (them the original authors, me from the same lab). Then I dragged them through drafting a letter to the editor. Then my advisor decided that it should be a brief report instead, because the post-hoc explanation for why the results were only marginal was "interesting". And then she sat on the revisions for months. And then when I started pushing her to get me the draft back, she said that the delays weren't due to her new baby, but because she didn't consider the project a priority. This was right after she updated our lab's manuscripts page, with this revision right at the bottom, after even the revisions with a deadline in March.

I have said repeatedly that I want revisions by the end of December. I gave her several weeks' warning on this. I have explained that I will write my own letter to the editor if I don't get them, because her concerns about the ethics of cutting out the original authors on this are outweighed by my concerns about the ethics of going almost a year knowing that there is an error in the results without informing the editor, or anyone outside our lab.

I'm preparing to negotiate. I just can't sit back and have this always be the lowest priority, because new projects and manuscripts are always being added that will be higher priority, by virtue of having an actual deadline, but I'm not quite so anal as to demand revisions by the end of the month, as reasonable as that seemed when I first set the date. Perhaps I should be more laid-back about an error when the overall idea is probably correct, and this really should be my advisor's lowest priority. But I can't convince myself of that. It's a relatively minor ethical issue, but I can't help wondering if this is how she would react if we didn't have some reason to argue that the results didn't change that much.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Someone Thinks I'm Accomplished

As I trailed my dad around his office Thursday afternoon, so he could introduce me to the manager helping him with the new company website for which I will be writing content over the next two weeks (I get to add a brief stint as a Technical Writer to my resume, and make enough money to pay for April's conference registration fees), I discovered that I'd given him a whole new realm of bragging rights.

Tuesday afternoon, in my last e-mail check before heading out of town, I discovered the e-mail informing me that the submission of my first real article was "accepted pending minor revisions". I happily informed my dad as we waited for luggage Wednesday evening, and he happily informed everyone at the office who either recognized me or wondered why this tall young woman in jeans was following around their IT person. He couldn't remember the name of the journal, but then, I couldn't really remember the title of the paper (I remember the witty pre-colon part, but not the official post-colon jargon).

It's not quite enough to make up for the comps "passed with conditions", since "accepted with minor revisions" is much the same (the work of trying to coordinate minor changes with 2 co-authors is about the same as the work of trying to rewrite an entire paper by myself). But at least being able to deliver the news in person and hear the bragging makes me feel less of a loser for still being in graduate school and so far from graduating.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Semester Is Over

With the turning in of the final lab grades, my semester is over. All of my papers have been written, all of my students' papers have been graded, and there is not one place I am required to be for school purposes until January. Even all of my research projects, while not finished (because they're never finished) are all in the hands of my various collaborators, and I don't expect to hear back about a single one of them before New Year's.

Not that I get the vacation of the true college student. There is still the comps revisions to be done, or at least half-heartedly attempted. There is revising the lab I will be teaching for the third time next semester (This counts as more fun than work, since it's completely voluntary and I'm doing it because it's fun). There is the creation of the Socratic portfolio, part of my certification process. There are a few little projects I never have time to do during the semester. And, of course, anything my advisor asks me to do in the meantime. But it will be away from the snow (and today's lovely single-digit weather), the time crunch will all be in terms of "before the semester starts" not "next week", and there will certainly be more goofing off than I can let myself get away with here.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Resigning Myself to Comps Revisions

It took an hour-long meeting with my advisor, the numerous distractions caused by spending the school/work week with the gas to my apartment turned off (no oven, no stove, no hot water, and the vagaries of a temporary space heater), and the seemingly productive analysis of new data from two projects, but I think I've resigned myself to spending my winter break reading several dozen papers on new topics and completely reorganizing my review paper to fit them in.

Monday's weekly progress report to my advisor was completely truthful. The first topic listed had the heading "comps", and the details simply stated that I had not yet decided whether to do the revisions or just quit come May. This prompted a rearranging of the afternoon schedule so that we could meet for an hour and discuss what I want to do long-term, and how comps and the dissertation fit in to this. I can't say I buy her argument that the purpose of the revisions was not to have me jump through hoops in order to pass - the committee's take is reportedly that the revisions would make the comps a stronger introduction for a dissertation, but if that's the case they should pass me on the comps and let me worry about the dissertation when it's time to worry about the dissertation. However, I have been swayed that it's worth at least reading the papers to figure out if this could be my dissertation. I have resigned myself to that much.

Frankly, I'm sick of the topic, but I think that would be true of anything I had to work on that hard for that long, and changing topics now would just mean having to write an entire dissertation introduction from scratch. There's only one approach that wouldn't have me starting completely from scratch - I have completed 2 studies with meaningful results along one theme - but I'm not sure I want to bone up on the background or even pursue that research as the focus of my life for the next year or two. I'm hoping this general lack of interest is just due to Post-Quals Slump, and that I'll find any research interesting once the semester is over (one paper to write, one stack of papers to grade) and I've gotten away from the lab for a while.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Countdown to the End of the Semester

Welcome to the last week of class. In the next week, I have only 2 things that truly need to get done: 1) write a 7-9 page term paper for my thankfully nothing-to-do-with-my-major class, and 2) grade 21 research proposals. The term paper is due Friday or Saturday (my professor is lax, as he should be, since it's been over a month since I turned in the last paper and I still haven't gotten it back); the graded papers have to be finished by Monday afternoon so I can offload them to my students at their final exam.

Looking back at the semester does not make me feel in any way successful. Let's review.

Study #1 - At my advisor's insistence, I continued to collect data on a project after the initial data analysis revealed that the manipulation wasn't work. Final data analysis shows exactly the same pattern, and the additional data points didn't make anything more significant than it had been. This project is a complete wash for anything except doing a follow-up, and I probably won't do that because it doesn't fit into my dissertation.

Study #2 - The downside to collaborating with my advisor and her husband is that they both go on baby leave at the same time. Delays in getting responses to emails and a shortage of programming resources in our lab means that I barely managed to program the experiment, and am squeaking out a minuscule amount of pilot data before the semester ends.

Study #3 - My senior thesis student collected all the data for this project. The follow-up to an early (under revision) project is mixed; the replication is only marginally significant (pending massaging of data), but the expansion is significant in ways we don't know how to interpret yet. The thesis data (another of my ideas, with my student's help) turned out to be a wash, just like every other research project I've conceived myself (except my master's, which was just unpublishable).

Comps - Completed the review paper, reading approximately 150 journal articles, writing 10,000+ words (final draft), and answering every question I outlined in my proposal. My committee decided that I should have asked two additional questions, and instructed me to add these questions - which essentially means reorganizing and probably rewriting the entire thing.

Corrections Draft - My advisor has been sitting on this for almost four months, so I have been unable to make any progress. I'm close to losing my faith in research ethics over this; we found out that the published results were inaccurate almost 10 months ago, and still haven't told anyone. I set a firm deadline for getting revisions back, lest I lose all self-respect.

And...that's my semester. There was teaching a class, and some "lead" teaching activities, and helping out my thesis student - but as far as my "real" activities, demanded for research, the only thing I've managed to completed (Study #3) was really completed by an undergrad; I've just had to do the data analysis. I can't even count my two accepted conference posters, because they were submitted in the summer, and it just took this long to get the acceptances.

Yet another semester at graduate school, with nothing to show for it.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Revise and Resubmit

When we submitted my first-ever paper to a second journal, it came back "revise and resubmit", to which a professor in my department offered congratulations. I'm sure I smiled and thanked him, but I was thinking "For what? Is this what my life has come to - Celebrate, because they said your work didn't suck that much?" It took quite a bit of convincing for me to accept that "revise and resubmit" is as good as it gets, because no one gets accepted in the first round. I still don't think it's worth congratulations, though. It may be an encouraging sign, and it's certainly better for morale than a rejection, but what it really means is that thing you hoped you were done with isn't done after all, and it's time to force yourself back into it and go back to work.

I have the same reaction to the end result of my comps defense. There were three possibilities: pass, pass with conditions, and fail. Of the three, the one I dreaded most was "pass with conditions", which would mean not being done at all, but going back and rewriting that paper I had already given so much effort to. Sure, failing would suck, but at least it would be over. Naturally, "with conditions", and with rewrites, is what I got. Do two new literature searches, add two new sections on research the committee has decided would be relevant, and revise the entire paper to fit that research in.

As I returned to my office from the defense, I found two grad students planning on going to a grad school-sponsored happy hour, and I was invited along. I had no idea if I agreed to drown my sorrows or to celebrate. When the other students found out I'd just defended, they tried to convince me I'd done great - my committee members had signed in the "satisfactory" column, and all I have to do is get one person (probably my advisor) to agree that the conditions have been met. Four screwdrivers later, this argument was still not convincing. I won't be spending my semester break completing straightforward projects to get ahead in my work, or planning my dissertation proposal; I'll be spending it reading uninteresting journal articles and revising that [expletive deleted] paper yet again.

I don't care that the changes will let the comps paper serve as an introduction to my dissertation, which the old version just couldn't. At the moment, at least, I'm tempted to just not do it. I just cannot work up any enthusiasm or interest in reading one more paper or writing one more word on this [expletive deleted] assignment. I'm experiencing post-quals slump, and I haven't even finished "quals" yet. Another resurgence of cynicism towards or outright hatred of academia has me seriously considering whether failing comps would actually have been a blessing in disguise.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

One Day to Defense

In a little over 24 hours, I will sit down with my three-person committee, present them with a brief reminder of the key points of my 10,000-word review paper, and let them grill me for an hour. Such is the "comprehensive exam" in my department. I don't feel sick, but my brain definitely feels numb.

I could be lucky, in that there was only a single hour of overlapping availability between the three faculty members. It means my advisor advised against doing a real presentation, like I did for my master's, because her take on the other members is that they'd want to get right into the questions. So I don't have to try to put together a powerpoint presentation tonight. However, I can't shake the feeling that I won't be able to satisfy them all in such a short period of time; they'll still have questions left, and they won't want to pass me.

I just won't be comforted. Having a fellow grad student, who defended her comps last month, tell me that she passed on the grounds that it was clear she had learned a lot, she already had a post-doc set up, and didn't have the time to revise her comps and writer her dissertation by the end of the school year, does not make me feel any better about it. I have no such time pressures, and I really don't want to spend my winter break making any revisions, let alone extensive ones.

I'm just about burnt out on the topic. I'm not even sure I want it to be my dissertation topic. Part of the problem is that there was just too much time between writing the paper and defending it - three weeks. The timing was dictated by graduate school paper requirements and an unfortunate placement of Fall Break, and the effects became apparent in yesterday's meeting with my advisor. Studies that I knew backward and forward at the time of writing are now blurred; I don't know if I can call them all to mind when I need to, and I don't know if I have the willpower to sit down and try to re-learn them all tonight.

At some level I'm convinced it's over with, and there's no point to brushing up. My writing has always been stronger than my ability to think on my feet; I just wish the writing could speak for itself, without all this extra grilling on whatever the weak points of writing are. (This probably sounds really stupid - obviously the writing can't speak for itself if there are weak points to be grilled on. I think that the day-before-defense should be understood to be one of completely illogical and nonsensical thinking).

My advisor was able to pinpoint a few points and papers that I should brush up on, as they are the ones she is more likely to ask, or seem weakest to her (It must be tough, being the advisor. How do you advise the stressed-out student without giving away all of your questions in advance? Or could it be that she doesn't care, because she sees the defense as a formality and is already willing to sign the paperwork?). I've put myself to about five articles (of the 100+ reference list) to review and reconsider. I should just about be able to stagger through those. Then I have one night of recovery, before I start writing one last (mercifully short, at 7-9 pages) paper for the semester.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Finally, Something Was Accepted

Technically, I didn't get much work done over my week-long Thanksgiving break. I responded to some student emails, I commented on my thesis student's end-of-semester paper, I contemplated my future. But, I feel very accomplished, because not one but both of my poster submissions to a major conference in my field were accepted.

This marks my first acceptance in anything (besides the master's thesis itself, I suppose) since I came to graduate school. My first poster, my first "publication" of any type, my first conference. Every other poster submission, workshop application, grant application, etc. has been rejected. So, four years into my graduate studies, and I finally have something with my name on it that can go on my CV. In fact, I have two of them.

One of the posters will be the only form of publication that my master's thesis gets, because I'm still refusing to follow through on anything that would make it paper-worthy. I almost refused to do the poster submission, but my advisor encouraged me to give her some way of citing the research in future. And perhaps the poster will make me feel like I actually accomplished something with that thesis.