In research labs, senior members such as PI and team leaders face strong need of training new members. Particularly, training new graduate student members is an integral part of the research laboratory both for education and operational stability over time. However, this is one of the most difficult thing to perform in research labs, more than doing research itself.
As one of the most senior member of the current lab I stay (and founding member of the lab), I have trained several graduate students and still doing so. It is greatly time-consuming and cumbersome job, but I kindly agreed to do that as my role in this group is more or less a team leader, and such experience will be essentially beneficial for my near-future independence as a PI of my own lab. In my previous personal view, successful training for the new graduate students consists of three parts: i) helping them to settle down to the new lab both physically and mentally (e.g., assigning lab benches, office place, most basic protocols in the lab et al); ii) training them to perform their 1st research project until its successful publication or near-publication level as a mentor or senior investigator (most commonly by being co-lead author of the paper); iii) helping them to gradually shaping their own expertise and long-term goal in the lab for their remaining graduate study before leaving them to prosper themselves. These tasks look very basic but also dauntingly hard in practice. Unfortunately, my experience in the last couple of years has given more confusion and frustration than satisfaction, revealing the difficult nature of this job.
My first case was kind of good, as the student wrote two relatively decent papers with my guidance and help, and started to do own projects without involving me as a co-lead author after these two projects. However, this was not perfect example still as what I eventually helped was just writing few papers based on my expertise not helping the student to build own self-standing expertise in the group. Unfortunately, I was not helpful at all for this critical milestone for graduate study, leaving it behind as the student's own task to overcome. So, my first experience was half-success and gave more challenges to address.
Like most experiments or life itself, my second case was total failure. Similar to the first case, the student wrote one decent paper in a good journal based on my idea and training. However, the problem appeared as the student started to totally misunderstand the mentor-mentee relationship set during the training period. What I guess is that probably good journal publication might switch on something in the student's desire, which is actually pretty common in academia of all spectrum in ranks and positions. Unfortunately, I couldn't help but to terminate the whole training process, with bitter taste of disappointment. The student seemed aware of the problem but intentionally did so repeatedly, which infuriated me and eventually drove me to decided to let the student pay for the bad behavior in the harshest way.
Most recently, the third case is ongoing. With one half-success and one total failure, it is pretty cautious for me to decide how to do at this time. I got one important lesson from my two earlier cases. Graduate student training should not be dependent upon writing a decent paper, which can give very toxic influence and fail the entire training process itself. Hence, I realized that the graduate student training should more focus on training of skills and daily operations not a tangible outcome (like paper). With this corrected view, I now revised my view on successful training steps for new graduate students: i) helping them to settle down to the new lab both physically and mentally (e.g., assigning lab benches, office place, most basic protocols in the lab et al); ii) training them to get familiar with various skill sets and basic operations in the lab; iii) helping them to gradually shaping their own expertise and long-term goal in the lab for their remaining graduate study before leaving them to prosper themselves.
I will see whether this revised one works out better.
Even after doing many times, it is still not easy to submit, resubmit, revise papers. Interestingly, difficulty is higher when the work is not very strong. Strength or novelty of the work is almost all determined from idea proposal stage, and typically not much change or affected whatever done afterward.
Until yet, I typically just push out even when I feel not very excited about the idea as long as it is not too bad - which inevitably incured shortage of my time and frequently invited unnecessary collaboration to decrease my time investment burden. I nowadays learn that this is a bad strategy. It is better not to spend time on so-so ideas and fully focus on only good things without inviting unnecessary additional labor force. Also, inviting too many people to share work sometimes sends wrong signals and confusions, which is hard to correct later without serious measures.
Maybe this is because of academia's nasty nature. It is easy to criticize others while it is hard to propose something great. Also, it is easy to overlook other people's greatness while overvaluing one's own things.
For a while, I thought my research focuses have been fairly random exploring many sectors of interests without much connection each other, including hydrogel adhesion (mechanisms to applications), 3D printing (mechanical isms to active materials), and conducting polymer hydrogels (materials to fabrication).
Interestingly, I find that all these scattered topics are now covering into one place under relatively well categorized forms. With this, getting new ideas and writing papers become much easier than before - I already submit two papers in the last 3 weeks, two more in next two weeks, one more before this September, and maybe one or two more before this December, all first authored. It is unexpected, but enjoyable development after all. All these laborious exploration and meandering in my early grad school days probably be finally paid off. Hopefully, this converting theme can be long-term one to fuel my curiosity and career in the future.
As my graduate study culminates into its finale, I am spending quite a time to think on my next career steps.
My childhood dream is being professor in university, which now becomes fairly realistic career option with relatively low uncertainty. However, for this career, it turns out to be a much tricker question than my naive childhood dream. Being professor is one thing, but professor of what university is more important in practice. While changing post is more and more common in academia, the first choice is typically irreversible. So, I may need to be patient until I get what I can get best.
In parallel, as an engineer, it is highly tempting to translate my technologies into practical stuffs - or more tangibly speaking, money making company or business. I invented many things along with many academic papers, but not many of them have potential for translation. But, if I am lucky enough, I may get one or two technology that worthy of trying. Really not sure about this option yet, but it is worthy of thinking, particularly because academic career as young faculty is not financially rewarding choice.
In the field, it has been common sense that people have to choose one of career option but not both. However, many recent examples shows that careful career plan may enable to grab both options in highly successful manner. As like always, future will unfold as it becomes reality. Excitements and worries are both dancing inside my mind. But, maybe, this is joy of life.
This year's commencement is few days ahead. This year is not for me, but mine will come next year. Kind of making me of recalling my graduate student life so far, facing my commend a year ahead (actually less that that for defense itself).
I have lived busy life in MIT for last several years. Busy is fairly qualitative expression, but the record also tells that I have been quite busy. Around the end of this year, I may publish over 25 papers and over 15 of them are lead-authored ones for less than 5 years. Probably can be safely said as a busy life.
Many things make my life busy. Being one of the first members of the newly starting MIT lab is one thing. Personality of easily being bored is also critical too. Pressure from life-problems around family counts a lot either.
Probably I will be busier in coming years. Starting a new career as an independent researcher in university will be a big job (also finding job itself too). Still, this busy life gives more of excitement and fulfillment rather than tiredness and frustration. I still feel the growing self every day and weeks (intellectually and experience-wise indeed. My body gets older not growing anymore sadly).
My busy life, I should call you quite rewarding so far.