Top Ten Things I Learned in Graduate School (TRIGGER WARNING: Includes Spiro Agnew)

"It is a duty incumbent on upright and creditable men of all ranks who have performed anything noble or praiseworthy to record in their own words the events of their lives. But they should not undertake this honorable task until they are past the age of forty."

-Benvenuto Cellini, opening sentence of his Autobiography (c. 1558)

  1. Date within your cohort! Or not. Either way, you'll have a great time! Maybe.
  2. If you have more than ten things to say, you can make a longer list.
  3. If you rearrange the letters in the name "Spiro Agnew," you can spell "Grow A Penis." Really? Really.
  4. Think of teaching a class as a PG-13 movie: to keep the class titillated and interested, you're allowed to make slightly crude references without being explicit; and, if you want, you're entitled to say the f-word ("fuck") once during the semester.
  5. When they say, "Don't date your students until the class is over," they mean when the semester is over, not just when classtime is over.
  6. Virtually everyone who throws around the word "sustainable" has no idea what they're talking about, unless it's that water situation in California. Things are seriously f-worded over there.
  7. If you come into graduate school not knowing how to code, teach yourself. Only after getting frustrated and making no headway, only after you have exhausted every avenue of educating yourself - only then is it acceptable to find someone else to do it for you, and then take credit for it. You gotta at least try!
  8. You know you've been doing neuroimaging analysis for a long time when you don't think twice about labeling a directory "anal." Ditto for "GroupAnal."
  9. You know you've been in graduate school too long when you can remember the deidentification codes for all of your subjects, but not necessarily the names of all of your children.
  10. When you first start a blog in graduate school, everything you write is very proper and low-key, in the fear that you may offend one of your colleagues or a potential employer. Then after a while you loosen up. Then you tighten up again when you're on the job market. Then you get some kind of employment and you loosen up again. And so on.
  11. When I first started blogging, I figured that people would take the most interest in essays that I had taken considerable pains over, usually for several days or weeks. Judging from the amount of hits for each post, readers seem to vastly prefer satirical writings about juvenile things such as "the default poop network," and humorous neuroimaging journal titles with double entendres - silly crap I dashed off in a few minutes. Think about that.
  12. The whole academic enterprise is more social than anything. It sounds obvious and you will hear it everywhere, but you never appreciate it until you realize that you can't just piss off people arbitrarily and not suffer any consequences somewhere down the line. Likewise, if you are good to people and write them helpful blog posts and make them helpful tutorial videos, they are good to you, usually. Kind of like with everything else in life.
  13. If you get a good adviser, do not take that for granted. Make every effort to make that man's life easier by doing your duties, and by not breaking equipment or needlessly stabbing his other graduate students. By "good adviser" I mean someone who is considerate, generous with his time and resources, and clear about what you need to do to get your own career off the ground while giving you enough space to develop on your own. I had such an adviser, and that is a big part of the reason that the past five years of my life have also been the best five years. That, and the fact that I can rent cars on my own now.

Have you finished graduate school and are now in a slightly higher paying but still menial and depressing job, and would like to share your wisdom with the newer generation of young graduate students? Can you rent a car on your own now? Did you try the Spiro Agnew Anagram Challenge (SAAC)? Share your experiences in the comments section!

Insights into the Vegetative State Using Humor

A few days ago I stumbled upon an article talking about Adrian Owen's work with vegetative state patients, and in an instant I was mentally transported to my sophomore year of college, when I first read one of his papers. I remember it like it was just yesterday; an unseasonably warm and humid May afternoon in my cognitive psychology class; just outside the window, you could hear the whine of the midges intermingling with the screams of children, and everywhere the Minnesota foliage was pullulating into life, those emerald prairies and celadon canopies of the Arboretum soaking up as much water and air and oxygen as they required. And in front of us at the head of the classroom stood imperious Professor Brockton, his left hand bepurpled with a chemical burn from an unknown wetlab incident, that crazed stain traveling up his palm and disappearing within the cuff of his neatly pressed Stafford shirt, leaving us to wonder exactly how far it went before terminating.

But above all, I remember discussing in class that day how neuroimaging had provided some evidence that patients supposedly in comas and vegetative states could still process information from the outside world, such as being asked to imagine playing tennis, which, to me, was astonishing. It was at that moment I had an epiphany and realized what I wanted to do with my life; I wanted to be - a professional tennis player.

No, wait! I meant, a cognitive neuroscientist. Kind of like a regular neuroscientist, except with an additional term to set us apart and let everyone know how special we are.

In any case, Owen has gotten a lot of press in the past few years conducting these types of experiments on people in vegetative states. Specifically, he uses paradigms where he scans individuals while asking them to imagine doing different tasks, such as playing tennis, going around different rooms of their house, and neuroscience blogging. The results were striking: subjects in a vegetative state, who otherwise have no way of communicating with anyone else, showed similar patterns of brain activity to healthy controls who imagined the same scenarios, suggesting that they actually could understand what was going on around them, even though they couldn't talk or move their limbs. A similar procedure was then used to ask yes/no questions to the patients, and see whether they could respond by selectively increasing blood flow to certain regions of the brain through thinking about specific things; and now, the next obvious step - at least in my mind - is to use this to figure out which part of the patient's body is itchy. (Seriously, think about it; you talk about helping people, this is where you start.)

More recently, Owen has investigated whether these same subjects are able to understand and appreciate humor. For example, he scanned the subjects while presenting them with humor - puns, wordplay, reading Andy's Brain Blog - and observed whether the patients responded similarly to how normally functioning individuals process humor. Elevated levels of activity were found in the frontal lobes and limbic system the funnier the joke was; and once you start throwing around terms like "limbic system", you know it's gotta be true.