Rooting for the machines A Blog by Chris Baldassano

Seven things I learned as a PhD student

Doing great research is tough. There are so many factors outside of your control: experiments not panning out, unfair reviewers, competing labs, limited funding sources. I’ve tried to distill down some of the strategies that worked well for me and my labmates (these are most relevant to my background in science/engineering, but some might apply to other fields as well):

Get your hands dirty

Magic School Bus

Some early grad students get stuck in a loop of doing a lot of general talking about the kind of things they want to work on, but never really get started. Taking time to learn and plan your experiments is great, but there are a lot of things you can’t learn without diving into real data. You’re almost certainly going to mess things up the first one or two (or twenty) times, so start making mistakes as soon as possible. Having a deeper understanding of the data you’re dealing with will be invaluable in driving the kinds of questions you’ll ask and the design of your experiments.

Investigate things that don’t make sense

When you’re looking at the results of an analysis, often there will be something that just doesn’t quite line up: there’s one value of 1.01 when the maximum measurement should be 1, two data points are exactly on top of one another, 1% of the data points are giving “NaN”s. It’s easy to just brush these under the rug (“it’s just a couple datapoints”), but getting to the bottom of these is critical. Often they will reveal some flaw in your analysis that might mean all your results are invalid, or (if you’re lucky!) they might point to some new science hiding being an unexpected pattern in the data.

Explore, then replicate

The best way to approach an unfamiliar problem is to first collect (or extract from your full data) a pilot dataset, and start looking for patterns. You don’t need to be rigorous about statistics, multiple comparisons, or model complexity - what are the strongest signals you can find? Are there ways of transforming the data that make it more amenable to your models? Then, once you’ve optimized your analysis, you apply it to new (or held-out) data, and meticulously measure how well it performs. If you do your playing directly on the data, it’s very easy to start fooling yourself about what’s really there and what you just want to be there.

Realize that you’re in the big leagues

Throughout school, you’ve always been measured against your peers - your kindergarten macaroni crafts earned you a gold star because they were impressive for your experience level, not because they were competitive with a typical exhibit at the Louvre. In your first year of grad school, you are now competing with professional scientists who have been in the field for 40 years. This is intimidating (and one of the reasons why you start out being mentored by senior students and faculty members), but also exciting. You are on the front lines of scientific knowledge, answering real problems that no one has ever figured out before.

Know more than your advisor

This might sound contradictory to the previous point, since your advisor has a many-year head start in understanding your field, and you can’t hope to have more total knowledge by the end of your PhD. But for the particular project you’re working on, you should be finding papers on your own and reading everything you can. Publishing a paper that advances the field is going to require knowing more about that topic than anyone in the world, including your advisor.

Keep an end-of-the-day journal

Completing a PhD requires extremely long-term, self-guided planning, and it’s easy to lose track of what you should be working on and what the critical next steps are. Different people have different solutions for this, but my favorite strategy was to take 10 minutes at the end of the day and write (in a physical, dead-tree notebook) a couple bullet points about what I did that day and what the next steps should be. This forces you to take stock of your current goals, gives you a little morale boost (especially when you can look back over the past week and remind yourself that you really did make progress), and lets you pick up where you left off when you come back to your projects (possibly days later).

Drink Water

Taking care of your physical health is often the first thing to go when stress sets in, but this is a sure way to completely derail your research career. Drinking more water is an easy fix for most grad students - you can avoid kidney stones (I learned that the hard way), you’ll eat less junk, and having more bathroom breaks makes sure you take some breaks from your chair (no fitbit required). Some other no-brainers are to make sure you have an ergonomic typing setup (I know multiple PhDs that had to go on leave due to RSI) and keep a reasonable sleep schedule.

Comments? Complaints? Contact me @ChrisBaldassano