Gabriel Smith

 
Neural Basis of Thought Movement
Faculty of Arts
Kalina Christoff
Dartmouth
Canada
 

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

I have always been interested in the way the mind works and finding out what determines our thoughts. Each year we learn more about the mechanics of the brain and how they contribute to different aspects of our conscious experience of the world, and the prospect of being one of the researchers who helps to push the boundaries of our knowledge on this topic excites me.

Why did you decide to study at UBC?

I was drawn here by the research of my supervisor and my lab, which is one of the most prominent labs in mind wandering research. It seemed to me that no one was quite doing the kind of research that they were, and the research interests of the lab cover so many topics that it's hard to get bored. UBC also has excellent research funding, and provides access to an MRI for research, which is of great importance to conducting functional connectivity research into the interactions between the networks of the brain.

What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?

The psychology department at UBC (aside from being routinely ranked first in the country) is tremendously supportive. Despite having well over a hundred researchers in dozens of labs that study very different topics, there is a feeling of community between graduate students, a kind of camaraderie that makes you feel as though you're all in the same journey together, no matter how unrelated your research interests are. If you are struggling with a new method, technique, or subject, odds are there is someone who has been in your shoes, and odds are they can and will give you advice or help.

What was the best surprise about UBC or life in Vancouver?

Vancouver really has so much to offer that it seems like I'll never stop discovering new things. I expected it to be more multicultural than I was used to, but I didn't realize how much I would come to take the shopping and food for granted - between the Thai, Indian, Malaysian, and Mexican food, and Chinese and Korean grocery stores like T&T and H-Mart, having lived here is going to make it hard to live anywhere else. Oh, and the mountains. They're pretty amazing.

What aspect of your graduate program do you enjoy the most or are looking forward to with the greatest curiosity?

I enjoy learning about analysis and statistics, as unpopular a topic as that may be. It seems to me that undergraduate students in psychology are taught a very basic set of analytic tools that are almost never sufficient for an actual research project; real research is messy and imperfect and complicated and nuanced, and our statistics need to be too. We live in an exciting and nerve-wracking time, as what we know about statistics is changing rapidly and I have no doubt that the best practices will not be the same when I graduate as when I first entered the program.

What do you see as your biggest challenge(s) in your future career?

Firstly, the job market for academia is crowded with applicants - too many potential professors, not enough professorships. Secondly, research projects often don't work out the way we wished they would, and while negative results can be interesting, sometimes the results of studies are uninformative or difficult to make sense of. Maintaining motivation during these periods can be difficult, as it is discouraging to put so much effort into something that doesn't bear fruit.

How do you feel your program is preparing you for those challenges?

For the first issue, the program at UBC is very competitive and is well recognized for producing quality students. In addition, while it is difficult for mentors who have self-selected into academia to give perspectives on careers outside of it, there are speakers and workshops on the subject offered both within the department and by the graduate student society. For the second issue, the collaborative and supportive nature of the program does make it easier to weather periods of low motivation, and having multiple projects on the go can help you by allowing you to switch gears and focus on something else temporarily.

What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?

This reiterates one of my points above, but coding and statistics are the two skills that I have helped me the most, both of which I learned the basics of and both of which I'd learned more of. As well, writing ability is something that comes with practice and unlike the two skills listed above is hard to develop simply by putting in more effort. I believe my experience writing fiction was helpful in that regard, simply because I became very used to diversifying my vocabulary, structuring sentences for clarity, and editing my own work.

What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?

I am a lover of board games and video games, and collect both (though I probably do more 'collecting' than 'playing'). I enjoy playing with and walking my dog Digby through the parks in my area of town and along the shores. Finally, I like to write amateur fiction in my spare time - I think that, as a grad student, I find it relaxing to write something that only needs to appeal to me!

What advice do you have for new graduate students?

First, make sure you know how to code/program at least a little. R is probably the closest to a universal language in psychology but python and MATLAB have come in handy for me and I know others use java and C++. People on the outside tend to see grad school as being all about generating new and innovative ideas, but I find that ideas are about 10% - the other 90% is the nitty gritty, and coding is the main nitty gritty task that they don't necessarily teach you in your undergrad. Second, be aware of your expectations. In this day and age most graduate students will not go on to academia, but I would say a large majority enter with the end-goal of being a tenured professor. There's nothing wrong with that, but if that's your only goal in the world, you might get disillusioned and have a hard time staying motivated later in your program.