The Adjacent Possible
Notes on meetings, readings and revisiting an old book
The post-coursework period of a Ph.D is an interesting time to maneuver. I only have one class to worry about, and the rest of that time is supposed to be spent “doing” research. I feel like I’ve spent more time thinking about research, rather than actually doing it. Maybe that’s the point though, as I’ve learned from re-reading Cal Newport’s So Good They Cant’t Ignore You.
Becoming a researcher
In one section, Cal notes that many of the big ideas in research come from the adjacent possible, a set of research ideas that are merely “one step” beyond the current cutting edge. This is something I’ve heard repeatedly from other mentors, but it hasn’t quite clicked as much as it had until recently.
A lot of recent feelings of guilt have come from feeling like I really can’t do anything at this point. With the most recent project wrapped up nicely until further notice, there’s nothing concrete to work on other than reading. Reading doesn’t feel all that productive, especially when it’s not super clear what to read or I don’t understand the paper in general.
The book warns against having a to-do list type mentality towards these hard problems because often doing these hard readings is not something that can easily be accomplished in an hour. I think hearing this comes at exactly the right moment because I’m tired of feeling guilty. I need to define a better metric to track my progress with these new research projects.
The notion of using Notion
Reading papers is difficult because there’s sections that lend themselves more to writing out definitions (done faster on keyboard) and writing out formula (faster on iPad). I have no good way of organizing this information in one place, so I’ve decided to try using Notion to journal all of my readings.
The goal right now should be to get to the cutting edge on the topic of micro-randomized trials. This is the only way to know what’s been done and what hasn’t been done. Thankfully, the field is new and niche, so there’s a lot of avenues I might go. Admittedly, I don’t know what any of these avenues look like, but Sonia insists that the ideas will come once I know the topic well enough. I’ll have to take her word for it.
The idea of just adding “one more step” to the existing literature has a paradoxical effect on my thinking. On one hand, it makes it seem like, “Oh, that sounds easy enough. I can do that” , while on the other hand I think, “If it’s so easy, it must be too trivial to be worth a look.” I used to think that research came spontaneously from a brilliant mind, and to an extent I still do. Maybe that’s the impostor syndrome rearing its ugly head.
Being more mathy
For the sake of journaling, I want to make it clear that one of my goals for my PhD is to be comfortable dealing with the “statistics” side of biostatistics. If I want to compete with the pure Statistics PhD students, then I should have a fluency with them by the end of my time here.
A nice gesture for sure, but progress has been slow moving with Jingjing’s project. I still feel like I’m carbon copying the proof from our inspiration paper, and I don’t know the details of the proof enough to be sure that it’s right. With Jingjing teaching this quarter, it’s been frustrating to have to repeat talking about results that we’ve talked about already. I don’t blame her though, the onus is on me to understand the paper and apply it to our new context. Without her guidance, I feel like I won’t progress.
Despite this, Cal Newport’s book offers some helpful advice on this front: go through the process of recreating the proof in the original paper. The proofs are already laid out there, so understand those before applying it to a new result. Another manifestation of the adjacent possible!
Until the next progress report in two weeks!