Friday, October 11, 2013

A research project shift

Here I'm going to talk a bit about my research, but devoid of any particulars.  This is partly because the vast majority of you wouldn't understand the particulars.  But mostly it's because I can't leak any information on my group's research.

Over the past few months, I shifted research projects.  It wasn't a huge shift.  I'm still in the same research group, studying the same material, using the same experimental technique, but I'm no longer working on the same paper.  This has probably set me back a bit, because I spent a year on my project without any paper to show for it.

The issue was that my advisor and Famous Theorist are both pushing a particular interpretation of my data that I don't agree with.  My interpretation is much less exciting than theirs.  I'm also not sure what experiment I could perform to rule out my interpretation.  My interpretation is along the lines of "this kind of analysis is invalid" rather than a fully-formed theory, so it's not really the kind of thing you prove or disprove easily.

I told a friend about this situation, and he said it was very "principled" of me to drop the project just because I didn't agree with the exciting conclusions.  He didn't agree with this principled stance.  He thought it was better to publish a paper with overreaching conclusions than not to publish at all.  Sure, the conclusions will likely be disproven later, but there's a small chance they'll turn out to be correct.

I'm not sure that I was taking any principled stance.  Maybe if the paper was nearly ready to be published, I'd be fine publishing it even with the conclusions that I disagree with.  But the truth is I'd have to do a lot more work to get to that point.  And if anyone would acknowledge my alternative hypothesis, that would mean even more experiments to rule it out.  I'm not really willing to invest that extra time to go nowhere.

My advisor and I were a bit frustrated with each other's positions.  My advisor was frustrated with me because she thought I was misunderstanding Famous Theorist, and that I wasn't proposing any experiment to test my theory, which she didn't understand.  I was frustrated with my advisor because she was misunderstanding Famous Theorist, and also my own theory.

But I don't mean to make it out like this has been hurting my relationship with my advisor.  There's an easy resolution to the disagreement: I switch projects, and she assigns another student to continue my old one.  It's slightly awkward, because I openly believe that the other student is now stuck in a dead-end project, but I wish them success in any case.

One advantage of switching projects at this time is that I know enough to form my own ideas of what to study.  I had a new idea in France, which I excitedly presented to my group.  My advisor likes when students come up with their own ideas, so she lets me pursue it.

Long story short, I haven't published anything, and I'm not close to publishing anything yet.  Oh well.  Such is the life of a grad student.