Field of Science

This week at the cognition and language lab

I just finished watching several episodes of Scrubs. If you watch enough TV, you get a sense of what it's like to be a doctor or a lobbyist or a policeman or a Mafioso. Some of these shows are more accurate, some are less. But it's very hard to get even an inaccurate sense of what it's like to be a working scientist by watching TV. Even if we go to movies, all that comes to mind is Brent Spiner or Dennis Quaid .

I have no idea what it's like to be a xenobiologist or a paleoglaciologist (though I did once spend a couple days hitchhiking with a pair of paleoglaciologist on Sakhalin, taking tree cores), but I can open a window on a week in the life of a psychology graduate student.

My first year proposal was due Tuesday. I spent last weekend reading papers in preparation to write about my work on pronoun resolution. The purpose of that project was/is to determine whether a particular odd linguistic phenomenon generalized to a large number of words in English, or if it was specific to just a relatively small number of famous examples. That didn't seem like enough to propose as a year-long project, but beyond that I didn't have any particular hypotheses.

Sunday morning I finally thought of something, but at 8pm, I decided I didn't like what I had written, gave up and wrote about a different project instead. Monday morning, I sent the project proposal to my advisor and spent most of the day extending that essay into my final paper for my developmental proseminar class. Monday night, I began our take-home final for the developmental proseminar.

I worked on the final for most of Tuesday as well, finishing in the evening. Having spent all day on a frustrating exam, I wanted to do something fun...which for me meant analyze data. I downloaded the results from the Birth Order survey. Over 2,500 people participated, and the data were the stuff of dreams -- much better than I hoped. So I archived that survey. I don't need any more data, and I'd rather people who visit the site do one of the new experiments.

Wednesday and Thursday were spent writing and testing the code for a new pilot study on a particular type of linguistic inference. There are three versions of that experiment, and I ran all three on myself (one of them more than once) until I was satisfied. I also had two coworkers give it a run-through.

On Friday, I ran 13 subjects on that pilot study. It's the end of the semester, and many of the undergraduate psych students waited to the last minute to participate in the required number of experiments in order to get credit in their classes. This is always a good time to find subjects.

Since my experiments are all computer-based, running subjects is fairly dull. I greet the participant when s/he shows up, explain the procedure, have him/her sign the consent form, and then get the program up and running. When the participant finishes, I give him/her a debriefing form and answer any questions. I spent the time while waiting reading papers about birth order effects, working on the blog, answering email, and working on the one final project of the week I haven't yet mentioned.

The results of the Video Experiment were much more interesting than expected. I don't want to say anything about it, because we may have to run more conditions in the future, but basically, we were doing what was supposed to be a confirmatory study, proving something everybody already knew. Psychologists often get criticized for spending all their time proving the obvious (people who like to eat tend to eat more, for instance), but the Video Experiment was an example of why we run these studies: we found exactly the opposite of what we and I suppose everybody else would have predicted.

My co-author is in charge of writing the paper, but he has been shooting me emails all week asking for additional analyses. I've also read and commented on several drafts. It is looking pretty good -- much better than if I had written it -- but the senior author hasn't read it yet. We'll see what she says. After she's satisfied (if she's satisfied), we'll send it off to a journal, where the reviewers will tear it to shreds and reject it. We'll rewrite it (after perhaps running another experiment or two) and then resubmit it. It's a long process.

And that was one week in the life of a psychology graduate student. There's definitely a TV show in there somewhere!

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