We're a little crazy, about science!

The first practice

My dissertation proposal date is fast approaching and I just barely set it! There’s still some work to be done, but today was the first practice presentation in anticipation of the big day. I’m happy to say it went better than expected, but there are a few things I need to change. Since, as usual, we can’t talk about the details of the proposal itself, I can talk about the changes. As an added bonus that’s a broadly applicable thing to talk about, so it may not just benefit me.

What a week and it’s only Wednesday, the tailend of Wednesday, but it counts. I am already exhausted and we’re gearing up to go back into the OR for experiments, which means lots of work ahead for me. With all this stuff going on I’m surprised I have time for sleep, much less blogging, but here we are. So now that I’ve complained a bit, let’s talk about the presentation!

So for my field of study we have an order of things we discuss. I feel this applies to research/presentations in general, but maybe not. First we introduce the background of the topic at hand, give a general overview of the problem, then break into the state of the art. What’s new in the field and what’s the latest thing that has improved whatever it is you’re researching. Then we introduce the gap. What is the thing missing from your field. In my case, the gap is huge, major oversight researchers, come on. Then we get into how the proposal fills (or attempts to fill) that gap. The rest of the presentation goes into the methodology, then pitfalls (things that could go wrong), ways to compensate for those things, and a timeline for the research. That last point is specific to dissertation proposals or any proposal in general I guess.

So for me introducing the issue for the topic isn’t too hard. I study spinal cord injury (SCI), there’s a lot of statistics that aren’t looking good when it comes to SCI, so an overview of the problem at large isn’t hard to do. I accomplish this in three slides and really I could condense it to a single slide if I really wanted/needed to do that. Since I don’t I have three and that’s plenty of slides to talk about the topic in the general sense.

Then we discuss state of the art. In my case, there’s two main ways we study SCI and neither of them are great. It’s not that they are bad, they do what they need to do, but there is a problem with how we’re currently doing the research and that’s why talking about the state of the art is so important. Giving people information on how we do something now is key to showing the path forward. That whole you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been thing, or however that motivational phrase goes. In my case, I cover state of the art in two slides, this is all subject to change of course between now and the big day, but two is enjoy since there are two main ways of doing the research.

Which leads us to the gap. The gap in the research is important to find and depending on what field you’re in that isn’t always easy to do. I’m very lucky because I just stumbled upon a gap when I first started my PhD and that sort of lead me down the long and winding road to where I am now. In just a few short years I’ve learned a lot, published on the topic, using one of the two main ways we study SCI in fact. So I know the gap in the research, I’ve thought of ways to overcome this gap, and I’ve come up with two different ways of tackling this issue. Since I’m in two labs, I’m pursuing them simultaneously, but for this proposal we’re focusing on my “super secret technique” and not “big idea.” While the gap is important, it’s a single slide, with a significant amount of talking, but a single slide nonetheless!

Then we get into the methods. This will be how we fill that gap. In my line of research we call these by a few different names, but I’m calling them specific aims and I have three. Which sounds like a small number, but normally you try to get 2-3 so I’m at the high end frankly. Aim 2 and 3 are related, so it’s more like Aim 2A and 2B. Good specific aims will be independant, if one fails it won’t impact the other. Specific aims 1 and 2 fall in that category, aim 3 will fail if aim 2 fails. So I discuss that in depth along with the how. How will I do this research and what methods will I apply from my field of study. While everything up to this point is mostly non-technical, this is where we get heavy into my field and it involves some equations, pipelines for data processing, things of that nature. This will be the bulk of my talk, so eight to ten slides I think, maybe more, I’m not sure.

With the methodology covered it’s time to talk about the pitfalls. Discussing what can go wrong may sound counterintuitive, but I promise there’s a good reason for it. Understanding what may go wrong gives you a chance to plan solutions to the problems you’re most likely to encounter. Now that doesn’t mean other problems don’t exist or wont happen when you do the experiment(s), it just means that you’ve got solutions to the main issues you think will come up. This shows my committee I’ve given this a lot of thought and let me just say now, I have! This is roughly 3-6 slides. Right now it’s three and I may be expanding to go into more detail.

Then we discuss the timeline. I want to graduate in almost one year exactly. So I’ve given my overview of the aims and the time I think it will take to complete each one. I also leave room for manuscript preparation, and there should be two if all goes well. This is just a single slide with a nice little figure showing what I think (I hope!!) my timeline will look like. The committee’s main job is to tell my I’m an idiot and if I want to sleep I should plan on doing it in more time. Okay not really, but I’m sure they will suggest the timeline is ambitious, because it is, but I’m so very ready to graduate.

Now that I’ve laid out in depth the contents of my talk (and talks our lab gives in general), we can discuss how mine went. I think I’ve hinted at it above, but mostly my pitfalls section needs a little expanding. I talk about the pitfalls and my solutions to them, but school-PI wants me to show more and tell less, so I’ll have to give some examples in the form of figures. It’s a bit of work, but nothing major. I was also asked to elaborate more on my methods in a few parts. Nothing major, but again probably one more figure.

Believe it or not the talk itself went pretty smoothly. I didn’t have too much trouble going through everything and I don’t feel like I stumbled too much. Not bad for a first attempt, but I will probably have one more practice round between now and next Friday. No pressure or anything, it’s just the next year of my life planned out in detail.

I do plan on taking the day before (at least) off from reviewing the slides to just clear my head. I don’t like stressing myself out before big talks like this, so I’ll just let my brain do some of the stuff in the background instead of trying to cram in as much as I can. I think I’m ready, but it’s a lot to keep track of all in my head.

Then again, I did say this year was going to be eventful…


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