We're a little crazy, about science!

The final year

Well today kicks off the final year of 365 days of academia, this will be year four of my little project and year five of my PhD. There is a chance we may have to extend slightly, but for now I’m keeping my eye on the prize and until the deadline comes and goes, I am planning to do whatever I can to make sure I graduate on time. It’s going to be a challenging year, but since it’s a new beginning let’s talk about how we got here. Three years is a long time after all!

Quick semi-regular intro for anyone just finding me. I’m a fifth year PhD candidate in neuroengineering. My BS and MS are in mechanical engineering and I like to remind everyone, those are two totally different fields. This was by design, I want to build better prosthetics and it’s been a journey! I’ve had lots of lows and some pretty high, highs. It’s been worth it and I don’t regret doing my PhD, but it is some serious work. This last year was big change for me, I started working full-time as a researcher in a hospital (here), won a grant award (here), and got selected as a DARPA Riser (here), which is probably the coolest thing to happen to me to date.

But the funny thing is, that’s all the good stuff. I’m starting my fifth year and I’m only just recently starting to get the hang of what I’m doing. There was a lot to learn, double for someone like me who is trying to bridge two different fields. Since I don’t talk about it often (ever, really) I should probably point out the the 365 days of academia project was born out of failure. Like serious, slap in the face, failure. Frankly the first three years or so of my degree were not easy. But one thing hurt so bad, I realized it was time to write the journey down.

Almost four years ago I came up with an idea, which I call my “super secret technique” or SST for short. We’re still not sure if it works or not, but the funding I recently got? That will help me answer the question and my dissertation is all about if this works or not. It’s high risk, high reward and that’s how I like to go about my research frankly. Three years ago, for my qualifying exam, I performed a trial experiment using SST and the results were great, so good that I still use that pilot data for grants and such. But it wasn’t good news when I defended, at least not the first time.

School-PI told me afterwards he didn’t want to get involved because he wanted to see what I could do. So he had no idea what the presentation was about, how it was structured, or the analyses I had performed. I sent him and my QE (qualifying exam) committee a written report about what I did, what I found, etc. in journal paper form, so no one was going in blind, but I failed.

I mean there’s no lighter way to put it. My committee what very generous about it and the truth is you get another chance if you fail the first time anyway, so it wasn’t the end of the world. But fuck if it didn’t hurt. It was probably the most painful thing I had done and it was the first of many failures. It made me readjust basically everything I did and thought I knew about the work I was doing. Maybe that was the point, but it felt cruel at the time. I had so many people there for that day (more than 20) and failing so spectacularly like that was, well… hard.

And the next day, I decided it was time to document my journey. Thus the 365 days of academia project. It was initially a one year commitment to write about everything from classes I took, to successes and failures. And boy, did the failures keep stacking up. Between four different journal papers all piling up and nothing getting published (here), to even more failures presenting work (here), I’ve chronicled the journey from that first failure forward with as much honesty as I can afford myself and my pseudo-anonymity, which is not so anonymous anymore with all four of the journal papers I’ve had backed up now published.

In a lot of ways though, that was kind of the point of the project. Most of us assume that successful people are always successful. Or at least speaking for myself, that’s how I felt. You hear about the good stuff all the time. The grants being funded, the awards dolled out, the honors received, it’s easy to forget the journey that got a person to that point. It’s easy to think that the person has always been successful. Or maybe that’s just me, but then again, maybe not.

There have been a lot of successes the last year or so for me. I’m very excited by all of it, it was hard fought to get to this point. But I will never forget the failures that got me to this point. I learnt a lot from failing. It was uncomfortable and at times so embarrassing I contemplated just dropping out, but it got me to this point, so I can’t really be mad about it.

To be clear I’m not saying that I’m successful, I still have several things going on that I’ve been working on to address. Namely my citation count is abysmal. That is probably a cross between the fact that most of the stuff I’ve been working on has been published in the last year and because a lot of my early work was somewhat narrow in scope. I can keep publishing, but time is a factor in all this, the older your paper the (hopefully) more citations you’ll have. We’ll see how that plays out this year, I’m hoping some of the work I’m doing now will make a big enough splash to help offset that some.

Still, I would be lying if I didn’t say that things have gotten significantly better or that having my name on an award didn’t make me feel better about myself. There’s still a lot of work to do and a lot of writing I’ll be doing, but this project has been a lifesaver in a lot of ways. It’s hard to see the progress you’ve made without looking back and having a daily account of the stuff going on has been very helpful in putting things into perspective.

It’s been three years and counting, I don’t regret the project or the countless hours I’ve put into it. 12/10 would do again.


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