Monday, June 25, 2012

Asymptotes

"In analytic geometry, an asymptote of a curve is a line such that the distance between the curve and the line approaches zero as they tend to infinity." -Wikipedia

 Figure 1. Time, effort, and perfection. You're never gonna get there. http://joyfulpublicspeaking.blogspot.com/2011/02/effort-and-asymptote.html

That is, the curve never actually reaches the line. It just gets really, really, really close.

Such is the case with "finishing" an academic project. In my case the "curve" is the paper I've been working on, but really it could be anything academic. A thesis, a project, and experiment, etc. etc. Whatever. The "line" is the completion status of the thing I'm working on. And no matter how hard I work on it, no matter how much time I put into it, I will never ever reach completion. It simply won't happen.

For me, the hardest parts of writing a paper are the very beginning and the very end. The beginning is rough because I have a difficult time building up motivation and getting over the initial hump; but, once I start writing I see the progress being made and it comes easier. The end is even more painful to get through, however, and it is all because of this asymptotic approach to completion. The last 10% of a paper takes an absurd amount of time to get through.

I know perfectly well this paper will never be good enough for my own standards. I know that eventually I'm going to have to just let it go, because any more time invested in it will just give me diminishing returns (see Figure 1). It just eventually becomes more work than it is worth. And that is how you know when a project is "done", even if it technically isn't.

Because it can't be. It's mathematically impossible. And there's no use driving yourself crazy over it.

But for me, for right now, I think I've yet to reach that critical point where I feel like I'm wasting my time. So I'm off to the crazy factory for a couple more days of staring blankly at my computer screen.

I'll stop if I start to go cross-eyed.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

This is a topic I've intended to write on for a while now: academic flailing. I'm bringing this up now because I've been trying to learn how to do something new all on my own and it's taken me months to only be half successful with nothing to really show for it yet.

What's been going on is I have been working on a paper with some friends/colleagues since December. We originally intended to have the paper written and submitted some time in February or March. If you check the time stamp on this post you'll note that I'm writing this in mid June. So we're a "little" off target, needless to say.

The paper is, broadly speaking, a review on niche modeling. Somehow or another it was determined that we should DO a species distribution model to make a figure illustrating some of the points we were making in the paper. The only problem is that no one in our group does this kind of modeling. And I ended up being the one to take on this task while writing and editing continued.

Cut to the punch line: it's been two months, I've sort of learned enough about what I'm doing to be dangerous, but the result thus far hasn't ended up being particularly useful. I'm stubborn as hell and I'm going to do this, but I'm getting frustrated and exhausted fighting with this thing day after day, week after week (month after month). It's been a very steep learning curve, trying to teach myself how to do this thing no one in my lab knows how to do. I would seek out the help of outside people, but I feel like I need a basic understanding before I can even begin to ask them intelligent questions.

And so I've been flailing.

Science is, often, directed flailing. You flail, and flail, and then flail some more. And then sometimes, maybe, you end up somewhere. It's a lot like me swimming. I can keep myself from drowning, and if I point myself in a particular direction I can get from point A to point B. But it isn't pretty to watch.

It's kind of a funny analogy, unless you're the one who's been trying to keep their head above water for an obscene amount of time. And I'm tired, damn it.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Back to Reality

I fully intended to blog about my vacation with my mom, but a lack of reliable internet sort of put a damper on that plan. It is also completely non-academic, and although I have posted about things other than graduate school on this blog, I don't want to make that too much of a habit.

I will say though, vacations are important for maintaining the sanity of a graduate student. We all need breaks, and anyone who tells you any different is a dirty filthy liar. Our trip to Arizona was one of the better vacations I've taken in a long time, and it was nice to finally see the Grand Canyon. It wouldn't be the kind of thing I'd want to do every year; but, sometimes just staring over something so vast and outside of yourself is what you need to bring everything else in reality back into perspective. It's the main reason I miss being close to an ocean, and why I want to see the Pacific some day.

 Hance Rapids. Taken with my mobile, so forgive the lousy quality.

But now I'm back to reality. First, I'm going to do the cliche thing and comment on how I can't believe that it is June already. I'm completely unapologetic about this. Summer intercession is almost over, and come Monday there will once again be college students wandering about. This won't change my working environment much, though. Working in my office over the past few weeks has been incredibly boring. No one is around, and by that I mean I sit in my office for 8 hours by myself, only seeing other human beings when I leave to go to the bathroom or get food/coffee. The PiBBS space is a different world when classes aren't in session. Furthermore, I think a lot of other people are traveling, so it is extra dead.

Another dose of reality came recently when I finally got my rejection letter for a big grant I had applied for back in the fall. The big yellow envelope of depression showed up right before I was going to Arizona, so I put off reading its contents until I got back. I finally went over the reviewer comments the other day. I had myself mentally prepared to get ripped to shreds, but it actually wasn't that bad. I agreed with pretty much everything the reviewers had to say, and they will help me write a stronger proposal for the next go around. Three years of support is just too good to not try again. I didn't really expect to get it this time around, they only funded something like 80 proposals with this particular award.

The reviews I got were also mixed. One reviewer rated my entire application as "fair" and provided the most detailed comments and criticisms. The other two rated it as "good" and "excellent". Even I know that my application wasn't "excellent", so I'm going to just go ahead and average everything out and say that I did "good" on my first attempt. Which isn't too shabby. All three reviewers commented that the whole proposal was really well written. The primary complaints were that I didn't elaborate more on my methods and statistics and that I was vague about the broader impacts. It was only a 5 page proposal, so I'm going to have to really try to fit some of these details in and trim up other areas. I'll also have some publications by the time I try again, so that will also boost my application.

The complaints about my broader impacts section kind of threw me, however. Almost all funding agencies now require applicants to explain how they are going to make the world a better place with their research. Kind of like a Miss America pageant for scientists. I thought I had included enough in this section, but clearly not. Apparently they wanted to know how the specific project I was proposing would be relevant to my community (aka NM). I was more broad about how my activities as a scientist were beneficial to my community. Wrong! Looking back on it, I can easily make my project applicable to NM because it is on the role of large carnivores in communities. NM has a lot of issues with wolf populations and managing their larger carnivores, so this should have been a no brainer. But I wasn't sure what they wanted from me and I gave them the "wrong" thing. Next time I'll know better. These sections are becoming more important and less of a kiss-off, and now I know to put more into it.

The next month is going to be all about me tying up loose ends with projects, and thinking about my comprehensive exams. I'm thinking those will happen in the fall, but I'm kind of on the fence about it. We'll see.