26 July 2010

Slim pickings

I've been perusing the course schedule for next semester, and I must say I'm disappointed. As an undergraduate, I went to a fairly liberal school with few course requirements --- even classes for my major were chosen based on whether or not they'd teach me things I wanted to know, rather than selected off a list of required courses. Here at my new university, however, I've found a much greater emphasis on classes that fulfill requirements. I've managed to take one or two classes here that were chosen for my intellectual satisfaction, but the majority of courses I'm going to take are simply meant to cover the bases in order to meet the standards set for graduation.

It looks like this next semester is going to have more such courses --- classes in areas I find tedious, boring, or difficult, that rely on strengths in the field that I don't have. I recognize that these requirements are meant to ensure that we develop as well-balanced scientists, and that I should be happy with the opportunity to challenge myself and improve my skills in my weak areas. Still, it's hard to get excited about taking a class that focuses on exactly the part of the field I find most difficult (and don't intend to use in the future), just because I need to meet some departmental standard.

The converse is also a problem: There are plenty of classes that sound interesting that I won't take, because I've already filled the quota for their "type" and I can't justify taking more courses than I need when I should be doing research. Also in that category are classes that fall outside my department but that still hold interest to me. Departmental course requirements are making it hard for me to be interdisciplinary, a high priority for my research.

I know there's nothing I can do to fight this one --- I have to meet the requirements in order to graduate, and I don't think I can cause the requirements to change in the next few years. Sadly, this will mean that my course load is more painful and less interesting than it could be. I'm going to get over this by reminding myself that my research is what's important, and that's the part of my world here I can control. I'll still do interdisciplinary research, I'll still read papers in areas outside my field, and I'll still avoid those parts of my science that I dislike. Just as soon as I pass next semester's classes.

05 July 2010

Daddy's Angry

Introducing a new character: Dr. PI, my brilliant-but-busy boss here at my (not quite so) new school. Dr. PI seems to have it all---a smart wife, three gifted children, a house in the suburbs, an active research group, reporters from prestigious newspapers banging down his door to get interviews. All this fame and good fortune comes with a price, however. Dr. PI is outrageously busy---he's away on travel just as much as he's around, taking its toll on his grad students' productivity. In particular, though he's very kind and generous with his time, getting meetings with him can be a real hassle involving a lot of email and flexibility with plans. I don't mind this so much, becase honestly, I have nothing better to do, but I can see that it's grating on some of my peers.

Today, Dr. PI came back from a weeklong trip evaluating some other group's research with the bad news that a major (and I mean *major*) grant was not funded. He and about two dozen others put hundreds of (wo)man hours into this grant, and it all came to naught. Sure, they received some constructive criticism, but it doesn't seem nearly worth the time. Today in group meeting, Dr. PI was pissed.

You know the feeling when Daddy (or Mommy, but Daddy is appropriate here for the breadwinning, aloof connotations) gets angry and all the kids know to stay out of his way? That's what group meeting felt like. We all reported what we had to and then retreated into our own work. No one bugged him for meetings. No one tried to engage him in our usual banter. Daddy's angry and today's the day to stay out of his way.

19 April 2010

Skills and Drills

I've neglected this blog for about eight months now, but I had a realization today that inspired me to go online to chronicle it.

First, some backstory: Starting grad school has been, on the whole, wonderful. I've made friends, joined clubs, and have generally integrated really well. One aspect of this experience, however, has been difficult: my courses. First semester was challenging, but this second semester, I feel completely swamped by my workload and the expectations in my classes. It doesn't help that I'm being required to learn a new programming language as I eke through the assignments for one extremely difficult and one moderately difficult class (my third class is in my area of research, and it's cake!). For about three months now, I've been considering what life would be like if I were to just get a job. I could go home at night and not worry about my work after hours; I could be making real money; I could be doing things that actually matter. There were some late nights where I was giving real thought to whether or not I will be able to finish the PhD, if I'm having so much difficulty right off the bat. I've been feeling bad about my skills, feeling way behind my classmates (even the undergrads!) and just plain feeling down.

Today, as I was waiting for the elevator after class, it hit me: Right now, I'm being asked to do things I'm not good at (programming, in particular) and that's difficult for me, but that's not what grad school is about! In fact, grad school is about training to be a researcher, which requires much more than programming skills; it requires clear communication for writing grants and papers, a creative mind for designing experiments and working through research questions, and sociability for collaborating and sharing results. Just because I'm struggling with taking classes, does not mean I'm going to struggle through the rest of grad school. In fact, this is just a small portion of the experience, and these skills I have trouble with are not the most important ones for my future in academia. I'm getting better at programming through this experience, but even if I never become an ace programmer (and I'm fairly sure I won't), there's still a lot of hope for my career as a researcher.

Getting to that understanding was a major boost to my outlook. I feel better about myself and my place in a PhD program. And now, back to homework!

07 August 2009

That didn't last long.

Looking over my blog, it took only five months of writing for me to burn out in a blaze of scientific glory. Or what passes for glory in the world of a newbie grad student, at least.

I think my mistake was that I wanted the fame and popularity, rather than the release of writing. I expected instant crowds of readers, and I assumed (as with many things) that creating thoughtful, interesting posts full of insight and personality would be an easy, 15-minute-a-day task. I was definitely wrong there.

This blog is worth something, if only to chronicle my journey through graduate school for myself. Even that, I think, is putting too much pressure on me---I'm not going to commit to five (six, seven) years of blog writing. I'm going to take this one post at a time, writing when something occurs to me and not because I have to provide a post (or more!) a day like some other very talented bloggers. Hopefully, this change in perspective will reduce the blogging burden and spark some excitement again.


For now, I'll write a brief update on my summer, to be augmented (or not) later:

I'm spending this summer at home in my parents' house. All of my siblings are also home. One can imagine the sensitivities required to navigate a living situation that hasn't occurred since I moved out for college.

The beginning of the summer involved a lot of travel: I attended two conferences in my field (my very first ones!), one smaller conference abroad and one large international conference that happened to be held in the US this year. Those two experiences were varied and interesting. I definitely enjoyed the conference abroad, not least of all because they treated attendees really well (e.g., every meal was taken care of and was restaurant quality). I preferred the bigger conference, however, in part because its size meant there were more talks to interest me and in part because I recognized professors and grad students from my grad school interviews, and therefore I felt like I was more in the club. It was fantastic to be able to say hi to students who were so nice to me during my interview process; I got to have dinner with a particularly great group of them, and I really enjoyed it. Approaching this more strategically, I'm also glad I had the opportunity to strengthen my academic social network with the people who will be my colleagues soon.

I'm planning on moving up to New City in a week or so to begin a brand new PhD program in My Science Field. At this point, I'm more excited than nervous; I'm sure the latter feeling will kick into full gear when I'm faced with the reality of more classes, new people and the likelihood that my education is far behind that of my peers. That, however, is content for another post. For now, I'll dream about setting up a new apartment and about all the great times I'll have working with the exciting technology in my new lab.

29 May 2009

Burn out

I seem to be burnt out on science. My graduation is in just a few days, but I'm already well into summertime levels of concentration and diligence. Even when I remember about them, I don't want to read my favorite science blogs, which used to be a daily pastime. I don't want to work, and I've been sleeping and eating abundantly and not doing much else. In particular, I've not been updating this blog, which I meant to do days ago.

All of my classes are over, final assignments submitted and exams completed, and now I just wait until graduation and for the next phase of my life to begin. This summer, for the first time in six years, I'm not working, and in particular, I'm not doing any new research (five of those six summers involved full-time research gigs). It feels very odd not to have plans, a little bit like the summer after my senior year of high school, where I took a low-effort job and hung around with the friends I would lose touch with during our college years.

Of course, I have conferences to attend, including one abroad, in a country where I don't speak the language, which is both exciting and intimidating. And I will be in occasional contact with my research advisor to continue discussing our project, because it's developing too well to drop it now. I'm looking forward to this summer: abundant sleep after my year of sleep deprivation; delicious, well-balanced meals after a year of frozen chicken patties and canned soups; mental relaxation after a year of racking my brain and stressing out over research questions.

This has been a tremendously productive year, and I'm proud of it. I'm also really happy to have it finished.

14 May 2009

Grieving in public

A student at my school recently suffered a very tragic, very public loss. The event affected everyone on campus to some degree, but few people were as involved as this student. A few nights ago, I went to see a choir performance featuring this student's group. I was very impressed when she walked out on stage with the rest of the choir: Though her skin was sallow and her hair matted, she had the brave face of someone staring down impossible demons. To me, her sparkly dress and colorful scarf indicated that she was not ready to give up. She smiled few times during that performance, always in response to some unexpected event, as though the surface of her sadness cracked just enough to let her former happiness bubble through for a fleeting moment.

As I grow up, I become increasingly aware of life's transience. The choir performance reminded me of a post by Average Professor last winter when her graduate student was killed in a car accident; that post brought back memories of last summer when a friend was killed in a sudden, unexpected, bizarre way. I've tried, while reading news stories, to internalize the death counts: Twenty bombing victims means 20 fathers straining to maintain composure at their child's funeral; 100 friends gathered together, saddened and confused; 200 teachers, bosses and co-workers shuffling quickly past an empty desk. The numbers are staggering; they force us to filter the sadness, often by similarity to ourselves (I admit, I feel less sorrow over foreign lives lost than I do over American lives, despite my sincere efforts to counteract this tendency). The magnitude of loss and suffering is too great.

I know this post is personal and very sad, and I've considered keeping it private. I'm going to share it anyway, because it's important to me to have some memory of the brave faces people put on when they're forced to grieve in public.

03 May 2009

House hunting

I am moving to New City in the fall to begin a PhD program. I could (a) find a rental, find roommates, and pay rent every month, or (b) purchase a home, live in one room and rent out the others, and pay off part of a mortgage every month. Because the housing market is so low, mortgage payments would be equal to rent payments on 2 or 3 bedroom apartments (should I be awarded a mortgage by the powers-that-be; my income, though guaranteed, is by no means large). As a first-time homebuyer, I'd also get a nifty tax credit if I choose to buy a home. Weighing all the positives and negatives of purchasing a home, I've decided that I'm seriously interested in going for it.

Yesterday, I drove to New City to scope out potential properties. I saw condos, single family detached homes, and townhouses. I went to every neighborhood in which I'd consider living. I met several real estate brokers, each of whom told me how many years they'd been in the business and how hard they worked. (Does anyone else find it strange that real estate brokers are some of the only people whose jobs are not looks-dependent [to differentiate from models and actors] but who still have their pictures on their business cards and advertisements?) And then, when all that was over, I went home and took a nap. It was exhausting!

The bottom line is that I think I'd like to buy a property in New City. The idea of living in one place for more than twelve months at a time is very appealing, as is the thought of having an investment that will increase in value over time (this market must go up, right?). It's blowing my mind a little that I can actually do this, but I'm very, very excited by the idea. I have to keep reminding myself to finish my schoolwork; it's so easy to be distracted by real estate listings online. But soon, classes will end, and I'll be able to go full swing into home buying mode. I'm looking forward to it!