The confusion sets in before the doctor can even close the door

Any of you guys in academia? I have a question. See, right now, I’m on my third day here at CMU working with some computational linguists (who, let it be said, all seem to be pretty cool folks! I feel like I’m in a good group). I’ve been reading a lot, maybe half a textbook plus a few articles here and there, and most of it goes over my head.

I’m going to abuse a pretty sorry metaphor here, if you don’t mind. Okay. Learning is like eating trees. They start you off in first grade on little saplings, and by high school you’re munching down a few birches per year. Then in college, you move on to the big pines and oaks, and it’s a tough job, but you manage to cram a lot of trees into your stomach. You adapt, and you learn to digest the wood a little better. Hopefully you poop out a couple of good papers in the meantime.

Every so often, though, you climb a tower and realize that you’re on the edge of a big vast forest, full of all sorts of maples, elms, and big ol' redwoods. You think “I can’t possibly eat all this!” And then, maybe you realize, it’s okay, I don’t have to. People will advise you in this direction. You choose. Maybe you say you’re going to become an expert on eating Brazil Nut Trees. Then you think “Great! I can easily eat all the Brazil Nut Trees in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky.”

But someone drops you in the Amazon river basin, and all of a sudden, you have to eat many more Brazil Nut Trees than you bargained for. Even worse, someone has already eaten all the redfoot trees, frimlock trees, grass-leafed ferryapple trees, and gromplings* and if you leave even a couple of Brazil Nut Trees unmunched, you’ll look like a fool.

*Of course none of these exist. Someone ate them all.

Err, my question is: can you ever get to the point where you know what’s going on in your field? When you graduate, do they give you a book that explains everything? Is academia always so confusing?


Janet Jay -

My impression is that A) it won’t always be so confusing but that B) you’ll never eat all the trees because as you’re chowing down, new ones are sprouting up all the time. The trick is loving what you’re doing enough that you want to keep eating those trees, even if you know you may not ever get them all.

ash -

Janet has it reasonably right… also I would say the first thing I found is that you don’t have to eat whole trees, you specialize more – perhaps only certain sized leaves? but are willing to eat some of the entire trees.

And if you’re interested in talking to some PSYCHO linguists (as my department likes to refer to them), many of my friends in the department work in this area and some of them were computer science majors before deciding to do linguistic-y things for a Ph.D. Also this is where da ladies at.

Gerrit -

Yeah… Really, academia is supposed to break new ground, eat trees that have never been eaten.

That is, nobody can hand you a book to explain what you’re doing because you’re writing that book.

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