I am a Vacuum Scientist

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Stinko Ginko
I am a vacuum scientist.

Well. Not really. But sort of. If you read this response from Berchenko-Kogan to "what do grad students in math do all day?" you will understand. All the ups and downs in a grad student's pursuit of truth. What it's like to come up with a novel [and doable] research question. I'm not even a math PhD student, and the article still applies! It's a really good explanation of what it means to be a PhD student in the sciences:

"This goes on for several years, and finally you write a thesis about how if you turn a vacuum cleaner upside-down and submerge the top end in water, you can make bubbles!

Your thesis committee is unsure of how this could ever be useful, but it seems pretty cool and bubbles are pretty, so they think that maybe something useful could come out of it eventually. Maybe.

And, indeed, you are lucky! After a hundred years or so, your idea (along with a bunch of other ideas) leads to the development of aquarium air pumps, an essential tool in the rapidly growing field of research on artificial goldfish habitats. Yay!"


When I was first dating J, he asked me a question I get asked frequently: "So...what do grad students do all day?" The Berchenko-Kogan response is a good overview of the entire PhD program and touches upon the things we actually do: read a lot, look for holes in the literature (i.e., thinking), develop questions in those holes (i.e., thinking), pursue those research questions (if in an applied science, such as myself, through psychological experiments, data analysis, and questionnaires), and write about that pursuit. There's a great deal of email writing, video-chatting, and face-to-face meeting, as much of this happens in collaboration with other professors and students either collocated or somewhere else on the planet. When it's conference season, I'm creating presentations from my writing and doing a tiring amount of social networking.

In short, PhD students read, think, design, and communicate. Oh. And we also wear a lot of pajamas. Because it's what's inside our head that matters, fools.

I also really like this visual explanation of what a PhD thesis contributes to the whole realm of knowledge: http://matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures/. A dissertation is just a tiny pimple on the face of all of human knowledge.

2 comments:

Nicole said...

This. This, this, this.

PhD {students} unite.

Deidre said...

This is great! My husband is doing his PhD right now, and I think most people are surprised to find how much like a 'real' job it is!

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