06 November 2009

Hate it.

As a graduate student, I attend lots of meetings in which we discuss research. Sometimes we talk about research articles. Sometimes we talk about theory. I meet with different groups of people, who all work on different research questions and organisms.

Lately, I've noticed a disturbing trend in the reactions of fellow graduate students when we discuss their personal (dissertation-related) research. The two situations that stick out in my mind right now involve discussions of research proposals. Obtaining funding for research is quite competitive. A research proposal that seeks such funding
needs to be rigorously evaluated and should pass muster from a variety of viewpoints, because not everyone rating your research proposal will be an expert in every subject your proposal explores.

I try to be a helpful peer, and I try to provide as much feedback as possible about possible advantages and disadvantages of specific research plans. Maybe it's my debate training, my nit-picky nature, or my current mindset from critically grading so many essays for my class. Regardless, I tend to be critical in my evaluating, and I tend to play devil's advocate as much as possible. The result, however, is lots of questions about methods, analysis, and a desire for an answer different from "Well, this is how everyone else does it." So I push, sometimes hard, for other students to think about why they do things certain ways.

The somewhat startling result, which I've encountered twice recently, is a proclivity for the person to get a little huffy and to respond with something like "I didn't know you would hate [this part of my research] so much."

OK. WAIT A MINUTE. I never voiced an opinion about other people's research that indicated I hated it. I never even stated that I thought the fundamental questions of their research was bad.

What I did was ask for justification about why they would ask a certain research question, or why they would perform certain tests in certain ways. I asked for cl
arification about research aims, and made them explain why they would draw that conclusion from that specific piece of evidence.

I asked them to fulfill the requirements of most grant proposals, and to be explicit in their scientific thinking. What kills me is that most of these questions are similar to the reviews I've recently received for my own (rejected) grants. Apparently, expressing any thought about someone's research that could be construed as negative means that the research is hated by the audience.

This is a new idea for me, and one I somewhat resent. As the first graduate student in my lab, I feel like I received relatively little feedback on my early research proposals, and I think I'm worse off as a scientist because I didn't face much constructive criti
cism then. I would much rather hear a question from a peer before I submit a proposal than in a reviewer's comments after a proposal is rejected.

Right now, I feel like I'm much more able to turn my critical eye on my own writing than I was previously able. I tear my own writing apart numerous times while writing, and I'm very lucky to have a couple of people in my life who can take a little time to look at my writing and tell me what they really think ("That figure is WAY too small, and I have no idea what that means!").

I suppose it's ironic that my graduate student peers are rejecting the very
thing which I currently seek.

And now, for the obligatory cat picture! Here's Fatticat hiding in a yarn bin.


Brittany said...

Maybe this stems from the "let's-not-damage-their-self-esteem" camp. Kids have grown up being told everything they do is great, everything they do is worth celebrating (e.g. Kindergarten "graduations"), and that they can do anything they set their mind to. I think that now kids (and I mean graduate students as well when I say kids) take criticism of anything they do as almost a personal attack and read way more into the criticism than necessary. I, on the other hand, am a realist and will flat out tell a student they will never make it in biology if I need to. I know, I'm such a b*tch. So many dreams to crush, so little time.

Anonymous said...

Brittany has a really good point. Also reminds me of an earlier entry you made alluding to academics and their snobbery...could it be there is just no way the research grads could be wrong? OMG, the humanity!

Anonymous said...

I think Brittany does make a good point. If you can not take constructive criticism and you are in science, you are in trouble. Especially now that funding is so scarce. The more applications the reviewers can toss out for small things they better off they are. I know the feeling about putting so much effort into being a good labmate when others are not the same. You will be better off in the long run.