“Dora, we are not making Goulash,” my thesis supervisor told me. “This is a research project, you can’t mix in random things.”
I was too embarrassed to admit that I had no idea what he meant.
I am Hungarian, and I was in my early 20’s at the time, but I had never cooked Goulash…or any other dish more complex than Raman noodles or soups out of a can.
(I am happy to admit I have come a long way since then both in terms of cooking and introducing fresh greens into my diet)
I called my Mom (the Goulash expert in our family) in Hungary the next day and asked what she thought my supervisor was talking about.
“I don’t know about your boss,” she explained, “but when I cook I never follow the recipe exactly. I kind of use it as an idea and then use what I have in the kitchen. Sometimes I add potatoes, carrots, other times I may even add beans and bay leaves or spicy paprika. It really depends on who will be eating it. Some people like it spicy, but you know if it is too hot it can upset you stomach…” I knew this would be a very long conversation unless I intervened.
“Thanks Mom,” I cut her off looking at the funds left in my Skype account. “I think I know what I need to do.”
The next morning I looked through our grant proposal, and I realized that while my boss had a good points about not adding random things into our plans, cooking and research for my thesis were not that different.
Whether I was planning a series of experiments to produce data for a publication or cooking an elaborate meal, I had to balance a predetermined plan (or “recipe”) with spontaneity depending on how things went.
We had a firm deadline to produce the required results (else the funding would be gone), but there was room for creativity to make our research even more interesting.
I had been suggesting additional experiments to learn more about our system and produce more publishable data, but my supervisor wanted to stick the proposal to stay within the budget and timelines.
I got his point, yet I still felt that we had to have a backup plan.
What if our research plan didn’t turn out as we hoped and had no results to present to the funding agency?
There was also a part of me that was curious and wanted to learn.
Like most students, I came to grad school because I was passionate about research and I felt bored and disappointed at the thought of just sticking to a predetermined proposal.
Just as I had expected, some of our experiments yielded no interesting results and we had to come up with other plans quickly so we could gather more data before the grant proposal progress reports were due.
My gut instincts (and my Mom’s Goulash tips) were spot on: while you do need a well-thought out proposal (or recipe) to start with, there is a delicate balance between following a regimented research plan to continue to get funding, and coming up with your own ideas spontaneously along the way so you can produce the best research (or Goulash) that you can within your time and budget.
I started cooking in grad school (I finally discovered that cooking dishes more elaborate that raman noodles and canned soups were not as complex as I had thought) and I realized that it was much easier to prepare dishes when there were pictures in the cookbooks.
Pictures in cookbooks served a double purpose:
Later on when I started cooking for guests, the pictures helped me visualize how I would serve the dish and make it look even more appetizing.
Similarly, I had to be very clear about what I wanted to accomplish in my thesis research and why it was important.
The “why” became especially important when:
Always know your “why”- being clear on your “why” (the purpose of your research or of being in gad school) will help you to keep taking action when you run into obstacles and feel like you will never finish your thesis.
My mom had a great point about varying recipes depending on whom I cooked for.
Some like Goulash really spicy, others prefer a bland soup with lots of vegetables.
I had to know their preferences before I started cooking, otherwise I would run the risk of sending a spice-sensitive person to the ER, or being accused of cooking “watery” soups by another person who likes to feel fire in their mouth.
Either way, they probably would not trust my cooking anymore.
Our grant review process was no different.
Whenever we had to renew our grant, the agency sent a reviewer to evaluate our progress.
Each reviewer had their own checklist of what they were looking for, and we had to know their pet peeves in order to put together an effective presentation that would convince them to continue our funding.
This approach was also essential to help me prepare for my thesis committee meetings.
I had three professors in my committee, and they all had different expectations.
This led to many arguments during the meetings, and I felt frustrated trying to understand what I had to do to finish my thesis.
In my 6th year I decided this was it – I would find a way to get all three thesis committee members on the same page.
I met with each committee individually prior to the meeting so they could share their requirements for my thesis and questions they had about my research.
Fortunately, I was able to prepare a presentation for my final committee meeting that addressed all of their concerns.
While there were still a few arguments, this approach worked to get all of them on (almost) the same page and my chair gave me the green light to defend at the end of that semester.
Here is something you may not have known about me: I spent 6 years in grad school (working in the lab starting on day 1) but I collected half of the data for my 150 page thesis in 2 weeks.
What did I do for the other 300 weeks in grad school? (I know, I just did the math, and I could hardly believe the numbers myself)
I prepared to do a study, I messed up, and then I was back to (almost) square 1. Okay, maybe square 1.1, but still, I was disappointed.
With each iteration of “messups” I learned something about the do’s and dont’s of academic research.
And the funny thing was, that each time that each time I felt like I failed, I remembered a story my Mom told me.
She was also in her 20’s when she learned to cook, because her Mom was an amazing cook too, so she didn’t have to learn until she got married and moved out.
One day my Mom wanted to surprise my Dad with Chicken Paprikash (one of my favorite Hungarian dishes), and for some reason most of the meal ended up on the ceiling.
She recounted this story to me each time I told her about my failures at lab.
“My first Paprikash ended up on the ceiling, and I had no idea why. When I re-read the recipe I realized that the oil was way too hot, so the sauce splattered all over the place. I am just lucky I didn’t get burned,” she reminisced.
I was very surprised when I heard this story for the first time, because my Mom is one of the best cooks I know, but it encouraged me to keep moving each time I felt like I failed in grad school.
This tiny change in my mindset made all the difference to help me keep taking action, and learning all I could along the way, so I could set up my studies properly and collect all the data I had to my last semester.
In cooking tempations manifest themselves as “tasting too much before the dish is done” (so you have nothing left for dinner).
This is especially common among beginners (who want to make sure their dish turned out well), but it can also happen if you are cooking your favorite dish.
You will not only burn your tongue if you taste your dish mid-way, but you probably won’t even be able to tell if it will turn out well until you have given the flavors enough time to infuse.
As an independent researcher, you don’t always need to consult with your supervisor before you try something new.
The problem occurs when this new “side-project” starts to become a significant time-sink.
If you come across a novel idea that you think could complement your thesis, run it by your advisor before spending a significant amount of time (or money) on it.
You might need to do literature research or collect preliminary data before presenting your idea to your supervisor.
Don’t assume that just because you think this research is interesting, your advisor will too. (Perhaps he/she has tried it in the past and chose not to pursue it for a good reason).
I was a resident tutor in an undergradute dormitory during grad school, and every few weeks I organized “study breaks” in the evenings.
“Study breaks” was a fancy way of saying, take a break from work, socialize a bit, and eat good food.
With my new cooking skills I wanted to impress my students and I prepared gourmet cookies, and sometimes even complete meals to help them to get through the next 3-4 hours of studying.
One thing that I learned was that students cared more about quantity than quality.
It was better to have a big tray of generic store-bought chocolate chip cookies than to have a handful of gourmet of cookies with macadamia nuts, but no matter what, I had to have something.
There are few things more heartbreaking than having 25 starving undergrads knocking on your door at 9 pm, and then sending them away because you burnt the brownies.
No matter what I decided to cook for them, I always had a store-bought backup snacks, and sometimes they couldn’t even tell the difference.
By the time I was in my 6th year in grad school, I realized that I had to apply the same logic to my research if I wanted to graduate.
Fortunately (or unfortunately), I already had a very long list of “what-ifs”, compiled after having “failed” so many times.
But I was determined to graduate in my 6th year, and I had to make every day count.
No matter what, I was determined to keep taking action and moving forward in my thesis work.
Like all students, I had a daily to-do list.
But, unlike most of my peers, I also had a Plan B and Plan C.
In retrospect, I probably would have graduated without proactively setting up a Plan B or Plan C, but it would have taken me an extra 6 months.
An extra 15-20 minutes of planning each afternoon to graduate 6 months sooner?
I think it was a worthwhile investment of my time, as was learning to cook healthy foods so I could make it through the last year of grad school, and still have enough energy to smile when my committee finally approved my thesis defense!
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