The Unavoidable Vulnerability of Research

I had a bit of a dud week this week. I was planning on doing some flow cytometry; but I didn’t get around to booking it until Monday and, surprise surprise, the machine had been booked out. So I switched tact and decided to finally run some plate assays I had been avoiding. Unfortunately, I seeded my cells too low and they never quite got over the hump. By the time I realised the cells couldn’t be used, it was Wednesday morning, I didn’t have any backup cells and I wasn’t going to have any lab time on Thursday.

It was going to be an experiment-less week.

I got over this annoyance fairly rapidly (go me!), as I realised it had been a while since I sat down and did some reading. Last time I presented my work, I got some pretty interesting questions about the project background, which I had never actually considered. In short, it was about time I got in some reading. At this point, I had already envisaged my blog post for the week. It was going to be called, “In Favour of a Week Off,” and it was going to be all about how fabulous it was to get lost in reading material. HA.

There are an infinite number of questions people could ask me about my work. I still don’t know what my results mean. In order to increase the chances of me knowing the answers to questions and being about to properly interpret my data, it’s in my best interests to read as much as I can get my hands on. Somewhat inevitably however, I would reach a point in a publication where I struggled to understand. I would have to spend a long time making notes and scribbling out concepts, then when I looked at the time I would panic as I realised what a huge, time consuming and exhausting experience this was all destined to be. I began to replace note making and scribbling with procrastination, and my reading slowed even more.

In one of my efforts to procrastinate in at least a somewhat productive way, I found myself listening to a TED podcast. I heard from another researcher; a vulnerability researcher named Brene Brown. Brene described the phenomena of shame and vulnerability, wherein shame is something which we will all experience, and it can be described more accurately as the fear of disconnection, or the fear that we’ll get spotted for “not being (blank) enough”. I realised that what I had been struggling with was shame. I was scared that I would get spotted for not being smart enough, and therefore not truly belonging in the scientist community.

I was scared that, unless I read and understood everything in my field before I talked about my project in public again, I could be shamed for not knowing enough. No wonder reading was such a stifling experience. I was unintentionally telling myself that, unless I knew everything, there was no point even trying. But, in reality, of course we can never know everything about our field. Whenever we walk up to the podium or stand in front of our poster, we are exposing ourselves to the vulnerability that one of our peers will point out something we hadn’t thought about or realised before. It’s a vulnerability that we just need to get used to, because it’s all part and package of what we do…or, as one of my new favorite researchers would put it, 

“If you’re gonna go into the arena, you’re gonna get your butt kicked.
…as scary and dangerous as that sounds, it’s not as scary and dangerous as spending your life on the outside looking in.”

Instead of fixating on what I don’t understand, or all the mountains of papers that I haven’t read yet, I just need to get on with it, and (more importantly) give myself credit where it’s due, instead of getting stuck in cycles of self-abuse.



The Specifics of Specificity

This week wasn’t a great one, but, like most weeks of a PhD student, it had its ups and downs.

Towards the end of last week, I attended two seminars by Maria Gardiner, from Thinkwell. The seminars were informative and motivational, and helped me to identify a number of the emotions which had been holding me back previously (anyone heard of Imposter Syndrome?), and try to come terms with them.

I went back to work on Monday with new mantra and a new approach; I could be productive and I was capable. I got stuck into drafting my lit review, finally turning my back on some reading, and instead starting to put those 20,000+ words of notes from the 200+ papers I had been reading into some sort of logical order.

On Tuesday, I attended an Induction Workshop, where we were informed of some basic outlines for our confirmation reports (to include lit review, time-table for the next 2 years, preliminary results etc.). We were told the final document should be between 3000-5000 words. Now, my current draft of my lit review (representing maybe 60% of the total info I had intended for it to contain) stood at 4000 words…

I realised that I had taken the wrong approach. Those 3000-5000 words didn’t have room for ‘waffle’ (in this instance; clinical information, drug development history, non-canonical pathways of my protein/s of interest, disease risk factors…). What I had written so far may have been interesting, but it wasn’t relevant enough. In writing what I had, I had been unconsciously hiding from the fact that; I didn’t have a research question. For all that time I thought I had been productive for, I had actually been procrastinating.

I don’t know how to develop a specific research question.

I don’t know how to judge whether that question is good enough.

Even if I succumb to the notion that the question may work itself out over time, I don’t know what to do with myself in the mean time.