I received some advice that initially I thought was the worst, but turned out to be some great advice. I was proposing my master’s thesis, which was going to examine the social behaviors of mothers and siblings towards children with autism. A committee member suggested I include fathers as well. I was initially furious at this recommendation because I knew it would add a significant amount of work to my thesis. But, I did it anyway. Three years later, after I submitted my thesis for publication, the reviews I received were that my article was accepted with revisions, at a well regarded journal. I realized that this was in large part due to my inclusion of fathers in the sample (at that time, there were very few studies that included fathers). I’ve never received such glowing reviews since then! So, what I thought was terrible advice turned out to be one of the best pieces of advice I ever received.
My adviser is well-respected in the field of animal cognition, where the subjects can’t tell you how they’re feeling, what they’re seeing, or what they’re thinking. In my first year, I proposed making some really subtle changes and seeing how they affected the pigeons’ perception, and he told me something that I’ve followed since: “If you’re going to vary something, then vary it.” While subtle manipulations are valuable, given the noise in animal cognition research, the first thing you want to do is to make sure that the changes will matter. This means that you don’t go subtle for the first experiment; you test a wide range of conditions initially, and do something more careful in Experiment 2.
To keep it short, the best advice I ever received from a mentor was when I was told, “The purpose of a dissertation is to finish it.” This advice kept me grounded in picking a solid project that didn’t try to include everything in the world. As a result, I actually finished it!
The best advice I’ve heard from my advisor is to let the data teach you. Examine it in every way you can to learn about it, and run with the findings- especially if they are compelling and exciting. Don’t fit your expectations into your data, but let it mold and form your expectations.
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