Dissertation Year: Day 66 -- IRB, pilot, RA training, coursework
This is a blog series on my (hopefully) final graduate school year, detailing my dissertation project from beginning (ish) to end.
TL;DR -- I am waiting for IRB and in the meantime I'm training RAs using some pilot data I collected. I'm also in a situation where I may possibly have my dissertation defended before I am done with all my coursework.
IRB under review
My protocol's status changed from "Submitted" to "Under review" a few weeks ago. Best case scenario: approved any day now. Worst case scenario: No IRB protocol until the end of the semester. I feel like I should be more worried about my timeline but I'm not. Perhaps because I know IRB review time takes awhile. Or perhaps I know that since I have participant compensation funds that I'll be able to get participants in quickly for my study once I'm all approved. I should be worried since shoving all my data collection together plus processing and analysis won't be a negligible task. I can prepare for as much I possibly can based on previous pilot studies but I really won't know what I have until all participants (n=60) are collected.
So we wait. I wait.
Pilot for my study
Something people have recently asked me about: how can I run pilot experiments if I don't have approved IRB consent? IRB is really in protection of human participation in experiments where data from an experiment will be disseminated publicly (either in form of a journal article, or presentation, or whatever it may be). So for all the data that exists that is not being presented publicly, what are the limitations for these data? Or why even have them?
A limitation -- an obvious one based on the previous statement -- is that these data can't be used for public presentation. So the time and setup and analysis and everything that goes into running pilot participants are just for "practice". That's the nature of piloting experiments, though. They are there for test runs. I use mine to check for experimental executions of time-locked events (need time-locked markers in order to know when things happen in my experiment) or to start working on developing scripts to process data so when I do have data to process I won't have to code a pipeline before I can start to process data. Also, to generally see if my experiment is executing properly, neurally (for some of my processes, there are very unique signatures that exist if the experiment is actually working).
I have two ace research assistants. They have been awarded grants and have presented at conferences and they both have (at least) another year left at Utah State. I've been training them recently to process data and how to build processing pipelines. The waiting time for IRB is a ripe place to set up a lot of coding pipeline for analysis -- how to filter data, where to crop data, reading other literature related to each experimental event we are interested in analyzing. It's also very challenging. Unlike me, who lives immersed in data and processing and analysis, I see my RAs twice a week. They have plenty of other things to do as students and as people who have yet to choose science as a career. So piece-wise learning code is difficult but they seem to enjoy it when they are in lab. Most days we go over their lab time slots simply because they want to code more or get to a natural stopping point in a code.
Pilot data has really helped keep them ultra-focused. It's one thing to train an assistant to help on projects. It's another thing to see them really start connecting the dots of science together -- how the subtle but specific things in an experimental design influence what brain activity looks like in preprocessing and analysis. I feel like once that link is established, science becomes this ultimate complete feeling. So many seemingly disjointed parts interfacing together. Rube Goldberg would be proud.
My coursework is weird
So it turns out that although I have completed all of my required coursework, I am still a good amount of credits away from my degree. I've been in talks with our department head and my advisor and it seems as though everything (anything, actually) can be changed in the program except for the amount of credits required to earn a Ph.D. For example, if you write a grant and are awarded then you could use that award as a substitute to one of the "academic milestones" we are required to reach before graduating from the program (an academic milestone is our comprehensive exam, conference presentation, submission of an article to a peer-reviewed journal, submission of a grant, among other things). However, the graduate school office, which is responsible for graduate school program oversight, apparently requires all graduate programs to submit a framework for courses to be taken. This framework is quantified by course credit, it seems. For us, it's 70 credits (this is a campus where 12 credits = minimum full time student). I'm about 1 year away from all of these credits if I were to take my maximum load per semester (e.g. 12 credits, because anything over that is not covered by our program).
However, I'm planning on graduating by the summer. That is well-before one year from now. So I'm looking at way to shove all of my credits into the spring and summer and paying the fewest amount of money, if necessary. The final summer of work here would not be so different from what I would normally be doing -- finishing up all projects I have started here, training RAs and new graduate students on what I've done, etc. But it'll be weird since I will also be (ideally) post-dissertation defense. So I wouldn't even be considered "all but dissertation". I'd be... all but coursework? Weird timing, but that's just how my program of study worked out.
I'll try to outline my study in my next post. I think that will help me with some theoretical aspects of my study as well. And perhaps be less of a time gap than... uh... two months.
You can read about my next day here!