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Power struggles in research and writing

I'm struggling with the current cricket manuscript, but it occurs to me that one of the subliminal elements in the struggle is an underlying power struggle. When I started my PhD, one of the things I strongly respected about my advisor was the emphasis she put on her students owning their own dissertation research. This emphasis is not an easy one for anybody involved, and comes at certain costs, but with certain benefits as well. She actually developed this emphasis in reaction to several unfortunate events, one of which I'll briefly describe. The main unfortunate event involved a student mentored by her husband (also an academic), who was carefully shepherded through the early stages of their* PhD, up until they had to take their comprehensive oral exam and defend their dissertation proposal. Well, this student got up in front of their committee and couldn't explain themselves to the committee.

It is important to know how to collaborate, yes, but in the American system it is unacceptable to outsource one's intellectual development, so clearly this situation did not stand, and it was a hard experience for all involved - a great sense of shame. When an advisor lets an unprepared student get up in front of a committee, it usually indicates poor mentorship, not failure on the part of the student - at least, mature committee members should be cognizant of this distinction and not abusive of their power over the student. At the same time, it's also impossible to predict how committee dynamics will shake out. Sometimes committee members feel it's important to prove their intellectual chops to each other, and use the unfortunate student as a punching bag in this exercise. I hope this generally isn't the case, and more than anything it again can reflect poor mentorship on the part of the advisor, who is hopefully sensitive to the interpersonal dynamics among the faculty to a degree that he or she can steer a student clear from such trouble. In my own case, I intentionally chose an intellectually challenging committee, and was rewarded by some tough questions, but I did so for the purpose of putting together as good a dissertation as I could muster. And I intentionally avoided having certain people as committee members based on recommendations about how well (or unwell?) they worked with my advisor's academic style.

So then, the postdoctoral experience. There are some fields where one's personal research activities are most effective if they're closely guided by more established researchers. In physiology, it's very difficult to throw undergraduates into a laboratory and expect them to come up with groundbreaking experiments. In many cases, it makes more sense to hand them a chunk of a larger puzzle, so they can make a meaningful contribution over a shorter timeframe.

But that's undergrads, and I'm referring to the postdoctoral experience. Postdocs can fall into a similar category, depending on the nature of the project, funding, and the project timeline. If I had been successful in acquiring my own funding, presumably I would be working on a project over which I felt and had more ownership, and would feel more power to steer the ship myself. However, in accepting the postdoc position I accepted, I voluntarily gave up some of that power. But I did so knowingly, because I saw the position as an opportunity to gain a number of useful skills that I could apply to other contexts in the future. And I've definitely gained those useful skills.

The challenge is, that doesn't make the power struggle go away, and it's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, my co-authors are awesomely enthusiastic and excited about my experiments and the papers I'm working on. On the other hand, at times I have followed suggestions and pressures down blind alleys due to this power differential, when a part of me was quietly raising doubts about the navigational decisions early on. This leads to regrets.

The difficulty of the situation tends to manifest most strongly when staring at a half-written manuscript. I find myself rehashing out the whole series of decisions that led to the present state of the manuscript (the data analysis), and start experiencing doubts over the direction of the manuscript and what to do next (massive "Now where was I and how did I get here?" reiterations). By this point, I know that I have to think myself out of this particular box at this particular point, and find myself wishing I were willing to be just a bit more obstinate about things in the early stages. Then again, I've always liked to collect lots of data, and in a lot of cases more data makes things harder, not easier.

Despite all of this emotional baggage, I must still forge on, and persevere. As my graduate advisor would say, there's no such thing as a perfect experiment. That said, there are insights to be gained from all experiments, but we must get back to work to find them.

And on that note, perhaps now I can get back to work on this pesky manuscript.


*I don't know the student's gender, and this pronoun seems more straightforward than "she/he."

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