I heard so many scary stories about doing thesis in Wageningen UR. Most of them was about delayed end date caused by mistakes and/or technical difficulties. That’s why, I tried my best to plan ahead, including when I had setbacks. When I can’t plan ahead, I got worried. Especially because I feel like I am clumsy and accident-prone in the lab; I have this deep fear of jeopardizing my experiments, or setting fire in the lab.
And, I do get worried. First, I have no clue what protocols to get what results. Second, I can only progress sequentially; every time I ask about a certain later-stage protocols, my supervisor just smiled and said, “Finish this experiment first, and then we’ll discuss about it.” So, I spend my first weeks doing experiments with available protocols and redoing them when I get less-than-satisfactory results. These repetitions often forced me to stay in the lab outside working hours, and sometimes even in the weekends.
It was until a student asked me something that I started to evaluate my work. He was asking, “Were you staying up late because you enjoy what you’ve been doing, or because you want good grades?” I remembered struggling to make up my answers. It is true that I need good enough grades for my scholarship. But, the real reason I worked so much is that I want to avoid failures which might resulted in my delayed graduation. And working driven by fear; that is not healthy indeed.
So, I began to savor the process, doing my best in every moment. I started getting a kick from each successful results, and I got this nagging curiosity when something didn’t work as planned. I learned to refrain myself from doing unspeakable things when my experiment went wrong due to silly mistakes, and instead calmly evaluate and document the process. It becomes some kind of cycle that fueled my desire, a form of addiction, replacing my fear-derived motivation.
Still, I have no clue on why I did these experiments. I just worked systematically to solve a problem, following sequential steps that had been done with my predecessor. I even asked for help several times. I suppose that’s not how independent scientists work, right?
And then there’s the time when I have to finish. The end date was approaching, while several data were waiting to be collected. A facilitator of my thesis ring group said to me, “There will always data to collect. But, you need to draw a line and say I am done. Then, you can write recommendations about what needs to be done in your report.”
His word stung, but they were true. I called it quit after collecting last batches of data, and started on writing my discussion. Suddenly, the things I had been working on began to make sense. The dots were connected, like constellations in the sky. “Is it bad that I finally understand why I did this when I am almost finished?” I asked my supervisor. She shrugged, “At least it is better than not understanding it until the end, right?”
Probably, that’s how science works. It started with a question, or a desire to solve a problem. Then a thought process was constructed out of available data and literatures. An experiment was formulated to test that thought process. And conclusion was made out of data collected from that experiments. In my case, the thought process was already being thought of by someone else, so I can be excused for understanding it when I had read enough about it. But, if I want to an independent scientist in the future, I need to come up with the thought process as early as possible in my research stages.
Or not. What I noticed during my thesis is that the people working in science needs to have certain degree of flexibility. No matter how thorough I prepared my strategy, there was always one or two things that escaped my attention but turn out to be influencing the result greatly. Things were not always according to plan, and the direction of research might deviate largely from what the researcher had in mind. So, the one in charge needs to allow the change while still allowing the end goal to be achieved. Just like an academia in PhD Movie 2 stated, “Doing PhD is conducting several unrelated experiments and then convince people that they all connected somehow.” I think it applies to MSc thesis as well.
But yeah, it’s finished now. I have submitted my report last week and presented my research this morning. And, I do learn a lot from this experience, which will enrich me both as a scientist and a person in the future.
PS: Special thanks for both my supervisors for helping me finish this journey.