Sunday, October 9, 2016

Your adviser is the driving instructor

In my last post, I draw an analogy between driving and doing research as faculty. The next obvious question would be “How do I know as a faculty where I should drive to?” It is not easy to know that, it takes years to figure that out (I am still figuring out, maybe some do it sooner). And graduate school training (doctoral training) plays an invaluable role in this. I use the terms graduate school and doctoral program interchangeably.

Role of your adviser

Consider your doctoral program a well-known driving school and your PhD adviser a renowned driving instructor. His main and perhaps only duty is to teach you how to drive (do research). Sure, you can learn driving from your parents, neighbors, or the distant cousin who is visiting from Kenya. But learning from a good driving school prepares you for real driving on the bumpy roads of life (getting your hands dirty with real data) and not just in the parking lot or in simulated roads on video games (made-up data we sometimes use to practice statistics in class). Sometimes, your adviser is a big shot training instructor in which case, other members of the lab such as senior doctoral students and postdocs take you out for a ride to teach you those driving skills. So it’s important that you have a good relationship with everyone in the lab. Your adviser doesn’t just teach you how to drive. He lets you go to conferences where you showcase your driving skills in front of an audience. He writes grants and gets you funding so that you always have fuel in your car. He writes you good recommendation letters so that other places can hire you as drivers. He advises you when your car isn’t running well or your engine is making a funny sound and you need to troubleshoot. He gives you a pep talk on days when it is snowing outside and you don’t feel motivated enough to drive. He teaches you life-saving skills such as changing lanes, looking at your blind spot, racing, parking on mountains, and avoiding drunk drivers on the freeway.

Couple of other things that happen in your doctoral training

1. You take coursework. Consider courses as the tools that help you to be able to do research. If you are training as a driver, it will help to know a little bit about the mechanics, the nuts and bolts, where the engine is, how the brakes operate, how the radiator works, how to change a flat tire, and why driving in a certain way may be better than driving another way. Coursework just doesn’t teach you the skills to drive, but also the knowhow to stop, park, check engine oil or maintain the car.

2. You build collaborations with your peers and other professors. In the world of research, carpooling is way more fun than driving singly. Sometimes, you get more gas/petrol (funding) if you are able to show that if you are carpooling (collaborating), rather than taking a lonely trip from Seattle to Boston and not being fuel-efficient. Gas stations most certainly frown upon single drivers. But how do you ensure that you get along with the other carpoolers and don’t end up going for each other’s throats on the freeway? Graduate school lets you find other drivers you might get along with. Big gas stations (funding agencies) like the NIH and NSF will not even give you any fuel if you are young and applying singly or as the main driver. That’s when established professors will be on the driving seat and you in the passenger seat.

3. You identify mentors in other professors. Remember, you have the closest relationship with your own driving instructor. But sometimes, he is too busy or gone. Sometimes, you don’t get along with him. Sometimes, he doesn't know a skill that you need to know because driving regulations have changed in your generation. That is when the other mentors ensure that you continue to do well and your car(eer) doesn’t stall in the middle of the freeway.

Your research agenda

Your primary research agenda is usually an offshoot of your adviser’s research agenda (it could be different but I am speaking from my experience). You spend maximum time with your dissertation data that is based on your adviser’s project and research interest. Let’s say for my PhD, my adviser trained me to figure out the shortest, safest, and the most fuel-efficient way to drive from Seattle to Mount Rainier National Park. I demonstrated to my dissertation committee that my car runs fine, I can check blind spots, I don’t get killed while driving on I-5, don’t run out of fuel, and can apply the proper gears and brakes depending on road or weather conditions. Now the fruit doesn’t usually fall too far from the tree. So after this, perhaps my own independent research could look into how to find an optimal route that connects all three national parks in Washington State in the most efficient way. I create that knowledge for other people to use. Or maybe now, I base my research on a real-life problem, for example, why do most people who take a particular smaller state freeway from Mount Rainier to Mount St. Helens after sunset get killed. If I never took that Seattle to Mount Rainier training for my PhD, I would have never figured out how to move ahead in life from Mount Rainier.

And the convocation ceremony? Consider it as a public event where your adviser officially gives you your driving license. He comes wearing his driver’s uniform and you wear yours. The world rejoices, your parents fly to attend the ceremony beaming with pride and wiping tears of happiness, and some bigshot celebrity driver comes to give the convocation speech.    

I am waiting for the day I will be sitting in the main driving seat as the principal investigator (PI), my adviser and other colleagues in the passenger seat as co-PIs, and together, we will drive around the world with tons of fuel supplied by the NIH or NSF looking at interesting research problems.

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