Time moves really strangely when you’re in grad school, especially once you’re done with classes and your sole responsibility is to “do research”. For instance, I’m pretty sure it was still October last week. How did summer get here already?
Seriously, though, it is kind of weird and definitely more than a little bit frightening.
While I was in the midst of classes and the dietetic internship, I was always on the move and every second felt precious. I fantasized about time when, post-course-and-RD-completion, I could focus on “research”. I imagined zipping through the piles of papers I had lined up to read and tapping out analytic code to assess the treasures that (must!) lay hidden in the massive mound of raw data. In the cartoon fantasy looping in my brain, I imagined pages and pages of results spitting out of the printers and me at my desk switching between looks of confusion, despair, and understanding. The whole montage ends with publications and my graduation (I’m not so delusional, even in my dreams, to imagine what my post-graduation future looks like).
So, how does reality compare?
Well, I’ve lined up a draft for another paper and have even gone as far as set up some of my statistical code so that when I get my hands (they are itching) on my data, I can fulfill a lukewarm version of my fantasy. I’m sure the looks of confusion and despair will far outnumber the looks of understanding.
Truthfully, “research” can be kind of slow. Reading papers can take forever and sometimes your eyes glaze over and you find yourself re-reading the same paragraph over and over. It can also take a lot of time to get what you need due to effort on the part of a lot of people (but, thankfully, you don’t have to figure everything out yourself), so there will always be delays. And, you can end up (seriously) spending an entire morning trying to figure out why your code doesn’t work (there’s the missing semi-colon/spelling mistake/other stupid detail you’ll curse yourself for). The writing process also isn’t as smooth as one could hope; I definitely spent the last week adding incremental sentences to my draft paper.
But, the really neat thing is you get to learn something every day even if you feel like you’re a waste in terms of progress. You kind of have to redefine what “progress” means; you’re always doing things, but not really doing things….ya know? I was discussing this particular phenomenon with a fellow grad student who does basic lab work; there is at least a measure of progress seen in completion of each lab protocol and the incremental analysis of results. For my type of epidemiological work, I spend a lot of time reading up research and hoping that I will still remember everything (…nope…) by the time I actually have my data, finagle some results, and write the paper. I soothe myself by saying that it’s the learning process that matters.
In other news, several people from my department (and a friend in engineering) defended their thesis work last week. It has been really inspiring to see the different kinds of research being conducted by students here.