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Research Life-Stories: Erin Wolf Chambers

April 23, 2013

Next story on our project from Erin Wolf Chambers:

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I spent most of my first couple of years of graduate school unsuccessfully trying to figure out what “research” meant.  I read papers and had plenty of meetings, but somehow had no luck really making new progress on any of the problems I looked at.  I tried meeting with different professors in different areas, but always seemed to run into logistical issues.  (Indeed, several of the faculty wound up leaving, proving that I wasn’t selecting potential advisors very well at the time!)  I dutifully kept a research notebook full of random thoughts and problems, as well as records of every talk I went to.

None of it seemed to help.  By the end of my second year, I was frustrated and confused about what was going wrong.  Around this time, I had a meeting with my advisor where I confessed my frustration, and told him that I was afraid I wasn’t cut out for grad school after all and was planning to quit if I couldn’t turn things around in my third year.  (He had just been on sabbatical for a year, so this was probably out of nowhere from his perspective.)   His answer was strangely reassuring and also terrifying: “Oh, you’ve reached THAT stage in your PhD.  Alright – let’s get to work.  You can do this.”

I’ll be honest – my internal thought process at that point was that this was some sort of hazing ritual, where I had to hit rock bottom before I could start to swim.  Yet at the same time, the fact that he had faith in me is still motivating to this day.  And it turns out, at least for me, that he was pretty much correct.  In those fruitless years of banging my head against walls, I had actually absorbed a ton of techniques and background.  More importantly, I had figured out what I liked (and didn’t like), so we were able to really dive into a few mutually interesting problems and made good progress.

A year or two later, I was wondering if this really constituted success.  How would I know if I was cut out to keep going and try for a faculty position?  (Keep in mind that at this point, a bunch of my friends had already dropped out and gotten ridiculously lucrative industry positions.  They seemed really happy, so that fate didn’t seem like the end of the world.)  About this time, we had a distinguished speaker in our department colloquium who was a theoretician – one of those amazing and brilliant ones that are terrifying because you could never, ever imagine how they did it.  The department organized a meeting for the graduate students after his talk, which a few of our faculty also came to in order to moderate.

In the meeting, one of the most junior students shared a concern that resonated.  He said, “So far, essentially all my progress has come suddenly and randomly – months apart, usually because of a good idea in the shower!  This isn’t sustainable, and clearly won’t get me through a career.  How do I figure out a way to make steady progress?”  The speaker laughed, and replied that in his career, it wasn’t about finding a way to make steady progress; rather, it was just about coming to believe that those random ideas would keep coming.  All the students were rather shocked, but all the faculty in the room were nodding agreement.  This was a revelation – were we all really just flying by the seat of our pants through our careers?

I’m still not sure I have it figured out, or when I’ll reach that elusive success.  People all have their own suggestions for how to go about this odd process of theoretical research, but finding what works for you is a lifelong process.  I am not anyone else, and the things that motivate me don’t seem to match a lot of what I heard in graduate school.  However, each suggestion and hint has been useful, if only to weed out things that don’t work for me.  And one or two things have resonated and changed the way I worked; for those suggestions, I will always be grateful to my mentors and collaborators.

In fact, I think this perpetual hunt is the most important lesson I took away from my early years in research.  Keep hunting, because progress is elusive and can be unexpected.  Find what motivates you, because that is what will keep you thinking about the problem in the shower.  Find mentors who believe in you and inspire you, because no one can really get there alone.  Perhaps just as importantly (at least for me), find collaborators you like to work with, because it helps to have someone to talk about ideas with in order to keep you motivated.  And have faith, because we’re all jumping in without any guarantees, and hoping for that next good idea to come to us in the shower.

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