*Names are altered for anonymity
As I entered the lab after lunch, Geeta,* a master's dissertation trainee, was being scolded by her mentor, Rakesh*, for not reading up when he told her to. Her ears had turned red, tears brimming her eyes. She left almost immediately as more people poured in. Although an average student, Geeta is sincere but rather meek. Her neglecting to read felt strange to me. Plus, Rakesh is known for his impatience and temper. Some nudging revealed that Geeta had read but couldn’t explain it to Rakesh. So he started shouting. And then she went blank.
Where I study, such scenes are common during the spring session with new doctoral aspirants and master's dissertation trainees abound. Fresh students grapple with the unstructured, scattered learning methods of real-life research and existing PhD scholars largely distance themselves from the role of a trainer/mentor. There is no formal “train-the-trainer” coaching, hardly even an informal discussion. There aren’t any “orientation sessions” to ease the newbies into the esoteric environment. Such unpreparedness leads trainees to doubt their capabilities and junior mentors to be clueless about what “picks up” their mentees. It sounds like a perfect recipe for disaster.
But we do not witness many disasters around us. Thanks to the autopilot. The emotion of autopilot has one aim - defense; to preserve our sense of self. This psychological tool called the “fight or flight response” derives from our primal instinct of surviving physical danger. It fulfills its goal very well but as a side-effect, it perpetuates an undercurrent of nervous energy that scans our environment for threatening events. In Geeta and Rakesh’s scenario, Geeta’s psyche will try to ‘flee’ such interactions through avoidance. If the same pattern reoccurs, her psyche will come up with ways to never interact with Rakesh. In case the interaction is necessary, her fears will play out in other ways. There’s very little chance that she’d actually learn anything in this process.
Being prepped up at all times to respond to a perceived threat can be draining and in the long run, it is counter-productive to stay on autopilot. There are two ways to break this stalemate - either Geeta has to ‘suck it up’ and deliver or Rakesh has to modify his training approach. Neither of them can be done while they’re both on autopilot. Here, we find ourselves staring at a problem - and it is not the autopilot. It is, in fact, a built-in response to the underlying problem(s).
Do all problems really have a solution like novelist, Alice Hoffman, says? The philosopher, John Dewey, said a problem well put is half solved. So let's begin there - defining the problem. We’ll have to take a couple of steps back to get to this one. Walk with me.
Flashback: College days are memorable for most of us. We’re young and everything seems possible. New friendships blossom, career opportunities abound. Academically, all we need to do is score reasonably well on tests. The syllabus is well-defined, lectures and classes help you learn. Umpteen sources are at your service. Sports and extracurricular activities take our minds away from academic demands from time to time, giving us breathing space. By design, we get much needed breaks. Students may sustain despite slacking on studies once in a while. In short, we are carefree for the most part.
Flash-forward: A research laboratory. In many ways, here, you are your own boss. You are solely responsible. This environment is a deep contrast to all previous educational settings. As opposed to timetables and syllabus, you will have a research aim and more or less nothing else. Not only do you have to create your own checklists (in a gently guided way, if you are lucky), you have to find ways to effectively complete them. That takes a serious amount of time devoted to self-learning. The linear ‘read-rote-repeat’ model fails miserably in this arena. If you have conceptual understanding in place of rote learning, you are fortunate. Still, you would need to cope with the lack of structure in your reading resource here. After all, to get good at pulling out useful research articles AND read them critically is an art. The motive is to read, understand, infer and then apply your understanding towards the project. Now this is a cyclic process, instead of the linear one you’re used to. Over that, seldom are there any check-ins as you follow this multistep process.
Application of knowledge boils down to experimentation - the technical part of research. Getting hands-on handling instruments, reagents, living material, etc for the first time means fertile ground for mistakes! There will be times when there’s no one around you to advise how to fix it, or tell whether it is even fixable (Your soul will be grateful for Google that day). Learning from failure and moving on like it was never a thing is the number one survival skill you’ll have to develop.
Copious amounts of literature might remain pending on your checklist as you set up that next experiment (or another trial at a failed one). You might have to execute a procedure when you aren’t completely sure of it. All the while, the clock is ticking. Unless you were always inherently great at it, time management becomes an overwhelming task. Time will be your most precious commodity because it feels as if it has shrunk.
Whether you are a fresh new researcher or mentor, taking a few steps towards each other will take us a long way. It’s never too late to make academia a better place. Shall we?