PhD “Aha” moment: I am the expert

So I’m feeling mighty cheerful for a girl who currently has no data. On the other hand, I do have a bit of a mystery to solve, so that’s probably covering up what should be feelings of frustration.

The mystery is a two-parter: first, the power supply to the instrument is failing for no discernible reason, and with an uninterrupted power supply (UPS, or battery backup) supporting the whole thing. The second part of the mystery is that a pump failed around the time of the most recent power outage-within 30 minutes. Are these two things related? Did one cause the other? Was the pump failure a physical problem or an electrical one? The data doesn’t leave much in the way of clues, and there were no witnesses.

I’ve shared this mystery with a few people, hoping for a bit of enlightenment on the first part-why is the power failing. I haven’t heard any reasons that sound plausible yet, but the responses I’ve gotten have been fascinating, and led me to the “Aha” moment in the title of this post.  I heard “Well, the service technicians will be able to tell you what happened,” and someone else said “Your advisor will be able to help you.”

Neither of these things are true. There is no service tech; the instrument is hand-built by an individual in the U.S. He’s quite helpful in these situations (and is a very nice guy), but he’s not exactly a service tech. In many ways, he’s much more than that, but he can’t tell me what happened. Nor can he fix it for me. I have to take a wrench to it myself. Second, as helpful as my advisor is, I know my instrument better than anyone else in the lab. And since it’s a new instrument, purchased specifically for my project, I’m pretty much the only one who knows anything about it. There’s no one (local) to consult.

When it comes down to it, I am the expert on this machine. In the project, in the lab, at the University. Isn’t that part of the process though? To become the expert about my project, my little corner of the academic universe?

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3 Responses to PhD “Aha” moment: I am the expert

  1. Dad says:

    Well, it’s not really a PhD issue, it’s a “coming of age” issue. In all creative/intellectual pursuits, there comes a point where you are the expert. Take your music for example – you start out struggling to make the guitar do what you want. Then you start playing with other people’s voices. Finally, you synthesize your own voice.
    Now, having said THAT, there are things you can do to get help – it’s just outside of the reach of your advisor and department. Go to the engineering department and ask around about system monitoring. Get another small computer to run a set of sensors for things like temperature, voltages, tank pressures and such and have it write to a thumb drive and then have the local guys pull the drive on a weekly basis and send you the info. Don’t forget to have your prime machine give you a “heart beat” – every minute or so have it send to the monitor that it’s ok and whatever self management info it has.
    I have an adage in design — once is an accident, twice is an issue. This is now an issue and you need to radically expand what you’re monitoring. or you’re never going to get enough info to finish your work.

  2. sn27 says:

    hey I am glad to have landed on your blog. looking forward to all your posts 🙂

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