Working in academic research is considerably different from other jobs I've held (e.g. grocery store cashier, writing tutor, teaching assistant). Research, while dependent on collaborations and discussions with other scientists, is heavily independent. Moreover, research is not a customer service profession, unless you think of the grant-distributing institutions that fund research as a customer.
I got my first real taste of das Leben der Wissenschaft while working at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in summer 2014. Before working at the CfA, I had done chemical ecology research at Dickinson College with my advisor, Dr. Amy Witter, but at that time I was a much younger student who needed direct oversight of my work and my professor to be available to answer an endless list of questions. I had also done radio astronomy research at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) the summer before the CfA, but I was new to the field of astronomy. Between becoming acquainted with what types of problems researchers in the field tackled and working in a room with four other student researchers, I was far from independent.
At the CfA, however, I already had a basic grounding in the computer programming (specifically interactive data language, or IDL) necessary for analyzing the radio telescope data. Between group meetings and meeting my advisor—Dr. Karin Öberg—two or three times weekly, I was on my own. I shared an office with a friendly post-doc who, because it was summer, was often away at conferences or completing observations. There were often several people in the research group missing, taking advantage of freedom from semesterly responsibilities such as teaching. Needless to say, it was often very quiet at the CfA. As a generally introverted person, I enjoyed the quiet, but I had to learn how to balance the quasi-isolation with communicating well with my research group.
Independence for academics does not just come in the form of periods of isolation in their offices. I was never expected to be at the CfA by a certain time (except 10 a.m. Mondays for group meeting), and I could work as late as I wanted. I could even skip the office on hot afternoons, working much more comfortably from air-conditioned corners of Starbucks. My time management skills were tested at times, especially on stormy days where I was willing to do just about anything except tackle walking down Garden Street in bullets of rain for over half-a-mile.
The best kind of independence, however, was my own thinking. As an undergraduate chemistry student, I was always guided by laboratory manuals and overly-helpful teaching assistants; questions in introductory courses were always answered by someone else. Working with Dr. Öberg, however, I often answered my own questions, with some encouraging guidance from my advisor. There is no lab manual for research, only data that causes its researchers to generate—and attempt to answer—them.
While I had begun to recognize these aspects of academia during my honors research project at Dickinson with Dr. Witter following my summer at the CfA, I don't think I really began to appreciate them until I came to the Universität zu Köln with my Fulbright.
With the Cologne Laboratory Astrophysics Group, I am much more independent than I ever anticipated being before holding a PhD, and I am grateful for my experiences at the CfA for preparing me (mentally, especially). Working with the Cologne Database for Molecular Spectroscopy (CDMS), I have encountered a number of challenges. I work alongside a wonderful postdoc—Nadine Wehres—who is the most helpful officemate, collaborator, and mentor I could ask for as a Fulbrighter. She welcomes my input and gives me the confidence to express my own ideas, even though she has experience far beyond her PhD thesis and I have just finished applying to PhD programs now.
One of the first challenges I encountered working with the CDMS involved gathering laboratory data: our experiment did not work. Nadine and I spent weeks trying to puzzle out why we were having technical difficulties, and my suggestions were just as valid despite me being new to the equipment. (We never did figure out what was wrong with our experiment; it just started working well enough to proceed one day). Being given responsibility and a voice so early on in my time at Köln was imperative in making me quickly feel like a valued and confident member of the Laboratory Astrophysics Group.
My understanding of physical chemistry has also been put to the test. As a chemistry undergraduate, I took Quantum Chemistry & Spectroscopy, a course introducing a wide range of spectroscopic methodologies, mostly from a theoretical perspective. The methodologies covered in the course included rotational spectroscopy—the type of spectroscopy I am using in my research—, but only scratched the surface. Rotational spectroscopy is complex, especially when put into practice. Yet I am asked daily to expand what I learned in this course to apply to my research, and it has definitely been a challenge putting the course's theories into practice! No one has given me a textbook to read, no one has automatically explained concepts to me; rather, the group has been great about letting me tackle problems on my own, giving me guidance as needed. Even when I find myself unable to solve a problem, it is rewarding to have people who have enough confidence to think I can.
If I feel half as confident in graduate school as I do as a Fulbrighter, working for my PhD won't be half as bad as everyone says.