Friday, April 27, 2012
Why can't I seem to find any answers? These days, I seem to have a lot of general preferences and vague directions in place, but nothing I could use to find an actual project or job to work on. Yesterday, it occurred to me that, during my previous career as a laboratory researcher, I went through a similar phase every time I started on a new project. I had a general question that I wanted to answer, but only the first inklings of what I was going to do to answer it.
I could see the first few steps ahead: do a literature search to see what had already been done, figure out the first bits of data that I needed to take and how to frame the experiments. Decide what data I could collect myself, and what I would need from other people. Collect the equipment and materials that I needed: buy, borrow, or build. Colleagues who were better at various things would stop by and offer advice -- where I could get that particular kind of copper tubing or silica aerogel, how to stop the vacuum pump oil from backstreaming into my sample holder, why my structure refinement refused to converge.
Run those first few experiments. Pause, evaluate the results, figure out what I knew that I didn't know before. Figure out what else I needed to know. Move forward.
As the results started to come in, I had to figure out a way to organize them and start a preliminary outline of a manuscript to send to a journal. Putting the results on a framework helped me see what parts were still missing and what parts made sense (or not). As the answer evolved, the questions would evolve as well. The challenge was to strike a balance between following the questions wherever they led and staying the course with my original direction of inquiry.
At some point, usually with a nudge from a colleague or mentor, I would write a paper for publication. There would always be more questions to answer, more fine-tuning on the results, but at some point I just had to put it out there for review. Refinements could come later, but if I didn't stake my claim, someone else would move in and I would lose my opportunity. (I found that out the hard way.)
I think that I must be in the literature search phase of my one-year exploration. I am reading books, going to seminars, taking notes, trying to frame my questions and collect the bits of answers that I already have. I am talking to potential collaborators and colleagues to see what they are doing. It's not simply a matter of running into the lab, sloshing a few things around, and yelling, "Eureka!" No, I'm going to have to do this like a science project.