Friday, May 18, 2012

Independence: learn to be a Big Player in the lab

Not who you want to be in the lab. Credit: deepfriar
There's an aspect to lab work and "having your own project" as both a graduate student and a young industrial researcher that's best explained by that literary classic, Ben Mezrich's Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT students Who Took Vegas for Millions. Here's one of the older members of the MIT blackjack team explaining their team structure to the new player:
"A Gorilla is just a big bettor. He gets called into a hot deck, stumbles over like a drunk rich kid, and starts throwing down big money. He doesn't think for himself -- he lets the Spotter tell him when the deck goes bad. He's just a Gorilla, brain-dead. But depending on how high the count is when he's signaled in, his percentage advanatage can be staggering. He doesn't count, he just bets and bets and waits for the seated Spotter to signal him that the run of good cards is over. Then he gets up and wanders off in search of his next call-in." 
[snip] "A Big Player," Martinez said as they crossed the street, "does it all. It's acting and counting and betting, it's tracking the shuffle and cutting to aces. It's the toughest role and the most important. You carry the big money, and you get yourself known by the casino personnel. They comp you the big suites because you're betting a thousand dollars a hand. You get called in by the Spotters, but then you take over the play. You do things the Gorilla can't, like raising the bet as the deck gets better -- but you have to do it with style, so the casino doesn't nail you. You have to look the part." 
Being a Gorilla on a grad school project can be nice -- you're just doing the work, you're not really responsible for any of the results, you're just doing what they tell you to do. It can be relaxing, but it doesn't grow your critical thinking skills. I suspect that at some point, you can't unlearn your Gorilla behavior and you're stuck.

At some point in your project in both graduate school and afterwards, you need to be able to be independent. The best way to learn to be independent in the lab is to become the relevant expert on your topic, such that your professor or (in industry) higher-up doesn't have to offer you day-to-day advice. Their strategic and long-term advice can be invaluable, of course -- so I wouldn't ignore it. But the sooner you can make the transition to being a Big Player, the better. 

15 comments:

  1. Typo Watch: Did you mean "run of good cards is over" (not cover)

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  2. 3 pts for House SAO. Unless I publish some more this week, I think you're the winner.

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  3. "but they you take over the play" seems like it should be "but they let you take over the play" or some variant. If verified, I donate my point to SAO to further the clinch.

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    1. Good heavens. I should just stop touch typing long quotes while having a technical conversation.

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  4. The Big Player is also the guy who ends up in a shallow grave out in the desert with his fingers cut off and a couple of bullets in his head.

    Sometimes being the gorilla is OK.

    Just saying...

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    1. After, of course, having his head squeezed in a vice until his eyeballs pop out.

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  5. "Being a Gorilla on a grad school project can be nice -- you're just doing the work, you're not really responsible for any of the results, you're just doing what they tell you to do. It can be relaxing, but it doesn't grow your critical thinking skills. I suspect that at some point, you can't unlearn your Gorilla behavior and you're stuck."

    I think this is an excellent point. I saw people in grad school, who I didn't think were very good chemists, who were luck enough to get a gold mine project. The project yielded lots of great results with minimal effort, and this resulted in lots of great pub's and rewards for the gorilla. But what did they really learn? You can only get lucky so many times, so I think the people who have to struggle for their results come out better in the long run. There is also a greater sense of self-satisfaction knowing that you overcame difficulties and did it on your own.

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    1. Sadly, I think some whole fields in chemistry attract lots of Gorillas.

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    2. Technically furloughedMay 19, 2012 at 5:04 PM

      "I think the people who have to struggle for their results come out better in the long run."

      You might think they would be better off, but I don't think so. That should be true if they could get a fair break. But I think they will often be washed out of chemistry because they "obviously aren't a very good chemist". Way too much is made of paper counts. It seems to me like very few potential employers actually care about what you're really made of -what you have in your head.

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    3. Companies and employers wont be able to tell the difference between gorilla and die-hard chemists, they only recognize publications. So, the hard working but unlucky chemists might not even get a chance to prove themselves. I think it is better to be lucky than good.

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    4. "I saw people in grad school, who I didn't think were very good chemists, who were luck enough to get a gold mine project."

      I'll take lingering resentment for $400, Alex.

      Luck's important to succeed in anything. I think Gordie Howe was fond of saying that the harder he worked, the luckier he got.

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  6. @Anon182012142 - I agree. I saw some of these same sorts of students in my grad career. Sadly, depending on the intelligence/self-awareness of the Gorilla, he/she might well see his/herself as a Big Player. That sets one up for a rude awakening.

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  7. At some point in your project in both graduate school and afterwards, you need to be able to be independent.

    I knew plenty of people in grad school that failed to ever do this and were given PhDs just for sticking around long enough. Most of them knew it and had no problem with it.

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    1. My advisor recognized that that was a problem with me, and that was why I left. Some advisors do in fact care about that - it was one of my advisor's (decent number of) good qualities. In his opinion, there wasn't much of a point in getting a Ph.D. if you couldn't actually come up with independent research and figure out a way to get something from it (or to recognize that you couldn't and find something useful instead). If you can't do it, but have a credential that says you can, you're going to be a disappointment to whoever hires you.

      It may not always be true, but often "luck is the residue of design". Antisense, for example, supposedly had been done by lots of people as a control, because nobody recognized it for what it was. Once someone did, well it was obvious. Even if a "gorilla" project, you still have to make your own luck sometimes.

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