Have you ever had a tricky situation with your boss that you weren't quite sure how to navigate? Do you have a dilemma that you feel could really use the input of a more senior researcher, but you feel your PI is too directly invested in the situation to give an unbiased answer? Or, do you just want another perspective on career or scientific advice? We're excited to introduce our new feature, 'Ask a PI who's not your PI'. In this week's column, we ask Arjun Raj, a beloved UPenn professor, questions about creativity, flailing, and keeping your prof on top of deadlines. We'd love to
Q: What are the best methods (in your opinion) to facilitate creative thinking with your graduate students?
A: Creativity is a tricky thing. One thing I read about lately was about some research showing that creative ideas come while doing lightly engaging tasks, like taking a shower. I’ve found that taking a walk does the same for me. Some people are more creative when sitting alone, some when engaged with others (I’m the latter). Also, I wrote a blog post with some further thoughts–basically, just don’t settle for uncreative ideas and surround yourself with people who buy into that mindset:
Q: My PI takes a long time to review papers and provide feedback. Is there a way to speed up the process without being rude or pushy?
A: I would figure out some way to make a deadline. Many PIs are simply overwhelmed with a crushing burden of reading and writing tasks and it’s hard for them to prioritize. So make up some reason why it has to get done by a certain day. Like some abstract submission deadline or need to get it to some collaborator who’s going on vacation or you’re going on vacation or whatever. Also, avoid pushing too hard when a grant deadline is approaching. Your PI will probably legitimately just not have time then, and being pushy then is not a good idea.
I knew someone in grad school who would just tell his PI “I’m going to submit on this day, and I would love to get your feedback before then”. Hah! I’m not necessarily recommending that strategy, but it did seem to be effective. :)
Q: What's your advice for a graduate student who feels like they are flailing? What steps are necessary to self-assess and get back on track?
A: Flailing can take many forms. Some flailing is constructive, actually. Science inherently has twists and turns–Uri Alon calls this “the cloud”. Going through the cloud (the feeling that nothing is going right, that nothing makes sense, existential discomfort) is a natural part of graduate school, and in fact learning to navigate the cloud is one of the most important lessons that graduate school teaches. I had serious cloud moments/years during both graduate school and my postdoc, and I learned a lot from them, as has virtually every successful scientist I’ve met. Part of surviving it is to have some faith in the process and in your mentors. From the mentor’s point of view, I have found that one of my jobs (aside from working together to try and steer the science) is to just to say that “we will figure this out” and “this is normal” so that my trainees know they are not alone and that this is a natural process in the course of a scientific project.
So the question of how to “get back on track” in this case is sort of a tough one, because “flailing” is part of the track! :) That said, self-reflection is an important part of navigating the cloud–take a step back and try to figure out why things are not working as hoped. As a concrete step, try writing something. Writing often exposes lazy logic and flawed experiments. Try writing an abstract or a 1 page summary. And/or give a talk at some venue on campus.
That said, sometimes flailing can a sign of something more destructive. Most students that I’ve met who were flailing in a bad way were typically just not getting any real mentorship. This definitely happens, and answering that is really a whole question unto itself. Suffice it to say that if you’re really not feeling like you’re getting any feedback on your flailing, then that’s a real problem and needs a solution.
Check out Arjun's awesome blog with tons of entertaining and informative articles about creativity, the scientific process, and life as a PI.