I think my graduate students are finally starting to gather some momentum for doing work for themselves in the lab. I had an Engineer Blogs post some time ago on momentum and how I think my students transitioned from milling around and watching me to actually being able to do stuff for themselves. Well, this past weekend, they got a taste of what it's like to have deadlines approach and not have things go the way they want them (or I want them) to go.
I thought I wrote a post a while back, either here or at Engineer Blogs, on using conference proceedings as a stepping stone to get results for a journal submission and to set a series of deadlines. I tried looking for it but I can't find it, so let me 'splain myself right now.
I use conference abstract submissions as a good way to set a short term goal (~4-6 months away) to get some results and give you something to work towards. In my field, conference abstracts tend to be a review of the abstract, which is 1-2 pages. The acceptance is based on that abstract and then a 4-6 page full conference proceedings is then submitted prior to the conference. This contrasts to some IEEE conference that I know where there is a full proceedings review process, etc. etc.
Well, we submitted an abstract and were accepted for an oral talk for a conference at the end of June and the proceedings is due next week. Seems like no big deal. However, we've had to borrow some equipment from other labs which needed to be returned by yesterday at the latest. And everything was going smoothly until we saw, shockingly, unexpected results*. This was around Wednesday of last week. This proceeded to send of a panicked frenzy of activity with late nights in the lab, work over the weekend with me aligning components while wearing my professorial robes, and, most importantly, my graduate students thinking independently.
I think they've crossed another threshold in research. They went from just watching me in the lab, to being able to perform prescribed actions in the lab, to thinking of solutions independent from me. That's really awesome. Also, I feel like I can discussions with them on a higher level because they understand a lot more about the field they're working in. The only sad part is that we still haven't figured out the source of our problem in our system and now we're down on equipment to test with it.
* I actually was shocked by the results because the system was designed to alleviate this problem.... :-\