My thoughts for 15th October 2015

Last week, I’ve mostly been scared by the thought of starting the actual practical PhD research.

My material is enormous: Millions of discussion threads with millions of comments. I know from experience how hard it is to get lost in this kind of a pile. The first thing to do is take a good look at the data in its entirety and form an idea what you might ask from it. This alone (after the data has been cleaned) may take weeks if not months, and it is during this phase you develop your question, expectations, and make a plan on what you will do.

On the other hand, the time available is relatively short, so to get some concrete things done, it is better to start working already instead of pussyfooting around and planning for every possible contingency. It’s never possible to fully plan your way through the analytical work; analytics is an art, always agile, and it involves looping over different phases before arriving to a solution that even then is merely “workable”, “sufficient”, or “good enough”. (Don’t tell this to the decision-makers who think that any prediction that drops out of computer program is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.)

Now, in addition to PhD work, I do have some free time and so I went to movies last weekend. The film was “The Martian”, where this Robinson Crusoe like scientist (Matt Damon) is left alone in Mars where he needs to survive on his wits, with the hope that in roughly two to four years, someone may fly back from the Earth and save him from starving to death.

In addition to the amazing cinematography, what stroke me the strongest was that the time frames of the events were so long. Atypical to most thrillers of the day, whenever the protagonist faced an obstacle, our scientist almost always knew he had a few days, weeks, or months to find a solution. Time frame here wasn’t fifteen seconds – which seems to be the allotted maximum reaction time in most current drama films – rather, the times quoted were in the same ballpark with my own PhD project, assumed to take four (plus) years.

So the messages I left the theater with were personally quite relieving ones: “There will be moments when you fail and feel you will surely die. Win your fear. Don’t give up. Science yourself through any problems, just by solving smaller problems first. Some things you may ration and plan, and then you may need to revise your plan. Work yourself through the issues as they come.”

Pretty sound advice, I think! Deepest question left unanswered was: How to overcome your fear of failure? The question of a scientist failing due to their own improvised actions that they thought were correct wasn’t tackled in this film.

How I myself tackled the question this week – I actually went and admitted my fear of failure to my supervisor. He is experienced and took it well (as he had obviously noted my fear already), and this was enough in itself! However, I actually hope I will start failing, and start doing it fast. One benefit from that is I will learn to recognize how I typically react, how it feels, and get over the feeling when some truly important issue fails! Something truly important will surely fail during this project. I’m not even knocking on wood; I know it can’t be avoided.

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