What a day to remember. I committed myself to submitting the paper today, and I completed the task just a few minutes before midnight. My wife is on a business trip. I had to put my son to bed first before I could resume my submission, but it wasn’t easy. He missed his mommy and became too emotional. I had to put him in the carrier and walk him to the reservoir until he could sleep. Then I went back to filling all the required information on the submission page, fixing things here and there along the way. Finally, it’s done.
Imagine our scientific career is mapped to a normal human lifespan. Then, in the first PhD year, we are all babies. We don’t know anything, and we are eager to learn. We receive ample guidance to make baby steps. And we grow up fast. By the end of the second year, which is where I am now, we have become adolescents.
Adolescence is a tricky stage. The adolescent scientist is not a child, neither is he an adult. He has gained certain skills, and there are certain expectations of him. Yet, he is still looked upon as a student. He needs to act confident but not arrogant. He needs to gain independence while yearning for guidance. It is hard to strike a balance.
The difficulties not only stem from the outside, but also from within the adolescent scientist himself. The more he learns, the more he needs to learn. With that comes self-doubt: am I good enough? Will I ever be? While asking where he is now, the adolescent scientist needs to think about where he is going. More questions. Part of growing up.
Growing up is the journey where one discovers his identity; it is a process of self-awareness and self-adjustment, baffling and tedious. Learning is a journey where one discovers his passion; it is a process of searching for a question and working for an answer, perplexing and laborious. But with every discovery comes enormous joy; it pushes him forward, ready to ask another question. In a sense, he embraces his adolescence. This stage is, without a doubt, a crucial and memorable part of his scientific career.
I have to begin my writing challenge with a rather sad story—one about a moment of social awkwardness I encountered today.
There was a series of presentations today by several PhD students. Before it started, I was asked by the programme coordinator to be the timekeeper for the talks. When it was about to start, the department head was absent, and one faculty member, I’ll call him A, agreed to be the chair. As the first talk went over its time limit and took up most of its Q&A time, A said that the speaker had a couple of minutes left. As I was keeping the time, I said that there was 5 minutes left for both presentation and Q&A. More than a minute later, when the presentation ended, I said there were three and a half minutes left, so we could have two questions. Faculty member B, sitting next to A, said “Now he wants to be the chair”, and A said something similar. I clarified that “I am the timekeeper.” When the first talk is over, A thanked the speaker. Another faculty member, C, said “Why are you thanking him, he [pointed towards me] should be thanking him.” The audience laughed.
Now, in retrospect, I think A was not very happy when I first clarified the time, and I think neither A, B nor C knew that I was the timekeeper. They thought I went over the line. Having had some time for recollection, I think I did. But that was not my intention. I was just clarifying things. I overdid it (I am always serious about what I do). My actions annoyed these people, and the actions were misconstrued as “trying to be the chair”, which was never my intention.
I set up this blog as a place to practice writing. Ironically, as I’m now writing my first paper, I have been neglecting this blog for a while. I thought I was already writing, so there was no need to practice writing. I now realize that such reasoning is flawed. Writing a paper is like running a marathon, it is a long and enduring process. When we train for a marathon, we don’t just run long distances. That is the core of the training, but we need to do more. We need to do interval training to beef up the cardio, we need to train different muscles to strengthen them individually, and so on. Similarly, practicing academic writing doesn’t mean just writing papers. I need to do a variety of other writings to flex up the writing muscles. That I am already writing my paper should not be an excuse to stop practicing.
Yesterday, I read about a business consultant who maintained a strict habit of writing every day. The result was that despite his busy schedules, he managed to publish two books. What’s more, the core content of the books came from his daily writings. I was inspired.
So, at this very moment, on a long bus ride home in a rainy evening, I commit myself to writing something every day. It could be this blog, my baby’s blog, my research journal or event in my little notebook if I don’t have any access to a computer. For now, I will keep this writing time flexible while trying to find a good routine. I’ve frequently heard and read that it is best to fix a time slot for writing, but it’s just not possible right now, and I don’t want to overwork myself.
In the spirit of deliberate practice, I will focus on one aspect of writing in each practice piece. The focus can be on conciseness, fluidity, story structure, etc. as I recently learned or am learning at the moment of writing.
This commitment is for a very long term. But as a baby-step start, let me challenge myself to do it for one whole week.
And the challenge starts now.
A new chapter of my PhD journey has started. I passed my Qualifying Exam. Now is the time for full-time research. Now that I think about it, this part is even harder than the previous one. Passing the Quals is just the start. So far, I was taught techniques and given problems to solve using those techniques. Now I have to find my own problems. My advisor said, very truly, that being good at research means knowing how to ask the right questions. I’ve collected of lot of techniques so far, and I will continue to do so. But that just mean knowing how to answer questions. Now I need to ask questions.
I feel excited. A bit scared, but good scared.
Another term has ended. It was a tough one. I started well, but lost momentum due to a week of going back home for Tết. And took time to gain back momentum after that, because I had to play catch with the content. And then I had to put my research on hold to to a side project. The good thing was that this project turned out to be interesting and I learned quite a fair bit. On top of school and research, I’m also participating in the EVA Challenge, predicting rainfall extreme. And then the exam came. In previous terms, I had always felt that I’ve learned the material well and was not worried at all at the exam. But not this time. Anyways, the exams were okay. The term ended with a fun pizza-and-salad lunch with other PhD students. We ended up talking a lot. It was great to catch up.
And now, it’s time for the Quals, after which it’ll be full-time research. But during the next 3 weeks of Quals prepration, I’m still gonna keep up with my grand tradition of doing research every Friday—it’s my version of the 20-mile rule.
I attended a time management workshop this afternoon. Since it was conducted by the Wellbeing Services (which is another fancy name for psychological counselors), the session focused more on solving the time management problem from a personal perspective rather than doing the usual tips, tricks and cheats. Through the sessions, I came to an important revelation. In my first semester, I was extremely focused. I knew that I didn’t know anything, so I worked hard through every obstacles. After 3 semesters of good results, I’ve come to see a better image of myself, which, unfortunately, makes me less tolerance to the thought of me not knowing things. This explains why I get distracted easily nowadays. As I study or read papers, every now and then I would come upon a difficult point, and I would deviate to checking Facebook, reading Wikipedia, or reading the news, to get that sense of gratification, which is a better thing to feel than being stuck with some hard maths.
The first step towards solving a problem is to realize what the problem is. I need to work on this.