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Gus Van Horn blog

Reblogged:What Not to Do in Big Projects

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Thanks to Derek Lowe's In the Pipeline pharma blog, I have come across some excellent advice for graduate students in the form of a do-not-do list at the scientific journal, Nature. I should know that this is good advice: I was a grad student myself many years ago.

Probably more important to many of my readers, I think this advice translates well to other projects with a similar multi-year timeframe, hence the recommendation -- which is also a reminder to myself. The article is pithy, elaborating on each of the below for a short paragraph:
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Image by Plush Design Studio, via Unsplash, license.
  1. Compare Yourself With Others
  2. Blindly Trust Your Data
  3. Suffer Alone
  4. Believe That More Work Is Always Better
  5. Grow Your Records Organically
  6. Get Stuck After One Failure
These are all broad enough that I think almost anyone will breathe a sigh of relief or two about something they can see they don't have to worry so much about (Item 5 for me!) -- and find one or two areas needing improvement (Item 3 for me.). Regarding Item 3, this interestingly wasn't the case for me back in the day: It's something I slipped into after being mostly a stay-at-home parent and/or living in isolated areas for several years.
Graduate school is no easy gig. Failure is regular and often stings. Seek help and advice from those with more experience, such as senior colleagues, postdocs or your adviser. I've struggled with problems that I could see no way out of. For example, when I switched suppliers for a naturally derived polysaccharide, I witnessed unexpected results. I was lost after days of measurements: how could the same polysaccharide give me different signals? When I approached my adviser, he suggested a technique I hadn't considered, and it helped me to uncover a difference in the composition of the polysaccharides that was behind the inconsistent signals. [link omitted]
This list caused me to realize that I have grown out of the habit of seeking out company and advice. I'll be giving that some thought now, for starters.

Moving up a level, this piece has helped me solve a small conundrum I've had for some time: What is the value, if any, of a "Do Not Do List?" I've seen the idea batted around enough that I even have making one of these as a to-do item. In fact, I have had it for so long that I was beginning to see it as a someday/maybe or even as something to prune.

One indeed can't start every day perusing a big list of negatives: That would be overwhelming. On top of that, prohibitions are not positive guides to action, except implicitly, by contrast. Still, they can be useful periodic reminders or spurs to positive actions. In other words, they are useless unless we take encouragement or discover new goals by perusing them at regular (and I would guess, usually widely-spaced) intervals.

-- CAV

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