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!

30 April 2009

Still going and going and going...

I officially submitted my thesis yesterday, and I should be relaxing, but I can't stop feeling like I need to get something done. I have more work to do in order to not fail out of my classes this semester, but that should be straightforward. Despite this, I'm still in lab, ostensibly doing work (though not really). I just can't get out of the habit of being here 'til I crash, and then driving home half-awake and crawling into bed, in order to wake up and do it all again. My inner mechanism hasn't yet reset itself from the frenetic pace of this past semester.

I'm of two minds about my current workiness*. On the one hand, this type of work ethic (bordering on pathology, and I know it) will serve me well in graduate school. I'm not the smartest cookie in the batch, but if I work my tail off, I'll be able to keep up. Also, it doesn't hurt to have the appearance of diligence; even if I'm not as productive as I could be every moment in lab, because I'm here all the time, I seem to be very committed to my work.

On the other hand, I'm in lab all the time. That means I have no social life, and the skills I'm building are entirely specific to future lab work, not to, say, interacting with humans. I went out to dinner tonight with some friends, who incidentally work one building over on campus, and whom I haven't seen since late January. At some point, people are going to lose patience and give up on me as a social partner. The ratio of productivity to time is also lower when I'm in lab a lot (though total productivity might be higher) because, in order to not completely burn out, I have to spend a non-trivial amount of time doing non-work things, like surfing the internet, replying to personal emails, writing blog entries, and so forth. Of course, I'd probably do these things at home as well; I don't like being home for reasons that I may or may not decide to blog about eventually. However, time in lab might be more effectively spent if there was less of it and I felt pressed to get stuff done while here.

I don't know how I feel about my workiness. Some of it has to do with home-avoidance, certainly, and that will hopefully be remedied when I move to a new city next year. Some of it has to do with proving my worth, either to myself or to others: I want to know that I can spend lots of time in lab, because that seems to be what everyone needs to do to be "successful" by the standards of academia. I don't think actually spending the time is required for success, but other blog entries I've read suggest that not spending the time can be a hinderance with respect to appearances, regardless of quality of work. I suppose I don't need to buy into the monomaniacal lifestyle, but it's easy to judge myself by the established standards for success. Also, lab-hours gives me some measure to compare myself to other people, which makes me feel better about my position as a trainee scientist.

So, I'll probably stay in lab a while longer before calling it a night. Maybe I'll work on classwork that's due for Monday, but more likely I'll surf the web and get some personal tasks done. Once my supply of Oreos is depleted, maybe I'll think about heading homeward for the night.

* If Stephen Colbert can do it, so can I.

27 April 2009

End of an Era

I defended my Master's thesis today.

It was the moment I've been working toward for many months; the apex of my short graduate career here at OldSchool. And now it's done.

I've been working on the actual talk for about a week now, but the research has taken me more than two years. In that time, I've written two theses and co-authored several academic papers about my work. I've presented my research both formally at poster sessions and informally, to peers and professors, including a million different conversations about my research during my graduate school interviews. This topic has consumed my life for ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day every day for many weeks this past year. And now I can stop talking about it.

Despite my deep understanding of the topic and surrounding subfield (understanding acquired slowly over time and after being asked many questions that---embarassingly---I couldn't answer), designing the talk was hard. A talk is not as easy as being able to recite facts or technical details. The first few versions were certainly too specific; I tried to cram too many (interesting) ideas about my work into too little time. It took me several tries and some critical words from my advisor to broaden the scope and make the work accessible to people outside of my little corner of the field.

I think I succeeded. As my committee congratulated me on passing, one professor told me that it was the best Master's defense he'd ever seen. I'm in a pretty particular program, and this professor hasn't seen defenses every year or even every other year, but wow. I thought I was kind of boring, but thanks!

I'm feeling many different things: there is relief, naturally; there is pride in my work; there is a sense of emptiness now that my central focus is gone. There's excitement for my next step (a PhD program). There's sadness at leaving behind professors (particularly my advisor) with whom I've developed close relationships.

This day feels like a turning point, and at the same time not. I'm still me; my body still feels the same when I move it, my hearing sounds the same, colors have not changed. Still, there's some sense of this being the end of an era, the completion of a long path that has led me to this point and now deposits me here for my next journey.

I can't believe this one is quite finished; I can't wait to start the next.

24 April 2009

New Beginnings

Last week (my, has it only been a week?) I made the Big Grad School Decision. I'm still coming to terms with this, as it finalizes such a large part of my life for the next 5 (....6 .....8.....) years. Today, however, I enabled my new university email address and giggled a little to myself when I saw my name with "@new-gradschool.edu" after it.

Now that I'm going to a new school, I'm going to have to figure out what to call it. MRU is pretty standard, but I want some creative name for this new place. That's going to take more brain-space than I have right now.

Wow, I really thought I had it in me to write a blog entry today, but I'm absolutely crashing from a really stressful day of thesis writing. I'll post this now, and maybe I'll have the energy (or urge for procrastination) to come back to this later.


23 April 2009

Don't work too hard

Yesterday, I was judged for working hard.

The judger, let's call her T, is a student in a different scientific field with whom I have frequent contact. T and I are both defending our Masters theses next week, and we've previously discussed our writing progress with each other. We have very different personality types---I am more confrontational, more explicit and more organized while T seems more laid-back and free-flowing. Yesterday, as I was taking a break from another marathon session in my lab, we had the following exchange:

T: "When is your thesis due?"
R: "Well, I handed in a draft to my committee already, but it still needs a lot of work."
T: "Oh." ::judging vibes:: "They told me to hand in my thesis a week before my defense, so I did that."
R: "Yeah, I did that too, but I'm going to continue working on it."
T: "Oh."

I may be overly sensitive, but I'm pretty sure the judging vibes I felt were real: I was weird for continuing to work on my thesis after I'd submitted it to my committee. Why would I do that extra work, if it wasn't going to be determining my grade?

I work my butt off because if I don't, I feel like I haven't done enough; I'm proud of what I can accomplish when I work really hard. I'm tired of being the odd one for spending hours in lab improving a research method or agonizing over a section of my thesis. I'm so looking forward to going to a school where hard work isn't some bizarre behavior, but is instead seen as an admirable quality. I'm not working hard so that I can be patted on the head by others, but I do care about how I'm perceived, and I'm tired of the subtle judgments that come from friends who mean well but just don't understand.

One of my least favorite phrases is "don't work too hard." I get it all the time---from my parents, from friends, from strangers selling me sandwiches at the deli. I've started to respond with something like "I work hard, but it's because I want to;" I'm hoping this kind of response will make them think about what they're really saying with that phrase. Do they mean "don't achieve at your full potential"? "what you're doing isn't that important"? "don't take pride in your work"? "just be adequate"?

I know most people who use "don't work too hard" are at worst spouting meaningless phrases and at best trying to give me good advice. You know what? I don't want your advice. I want to work hard and be respected for it!

Grad school, here I come!

15 April 2009


I did it. I successfully accepted admission to one graduate school, and told all the others that I was sorry, but I would just have to turn them down. I feel like a huge part of my life is over. For more than a year, I've been thinking about grad programs. I've researched them thoroughly, spent hours agonizing over sentences in my application, submitted over a dozen applications in at least a dozen different ways, visited many, phoned a few, and now, pressed that special "I accept" button on one. Now that I don't have to think about where to go to grad school, what will I do? Write my thesis, perhaps?

Later, I hope to blog about what was involved in my final decision. I definitely didn't select the obvious choice from an outside perspective. But for now, I'd like to get some sunshine and some comfort food before returning to work.

14 April 2009

To My Life:

Woah. Life, you're moving too quickly. I don't have time for all the things I need to get done: writing my thesis, doing my homework, grading other people's homeworks, and making a decision that will affect the next six years directly and the rest of my life (until tenure) indirectly. I just want you to take a break, have some herbal tea, and give me a chance to catch up.


12 April 2009

Far from home

I used to be a culture snob. I've always romanticized travel, going to new places and meeting different types of people. I've always considered it the highest calling to set up in a foreign country, or at least a foreign culture (the coasts in the US can be quite different) and experience life there for a while. I've always looked down a little bit on people who rationalized a decision with "I want to stay close to home."

Always, that is, until I traveled 7,700 miles in 7 days. Turns out wanting to stick with what's known and comfortable isn't such a bad idea after all.

Just to get this out of the way, I never disparaged people who needed to be close to their families because they were caretakers or had other such responsibilities. I did, however, get into tense "conversations" about grad school choices with a lab-mate who was as far in the stay-home direction as I was in the take-wing direction. He thought I was looking for something impossible, I think, and I thought he was restricting his options blindly. If the last month has taught me anything, it's that the right answer isn't quite so obvious.

My long trip exhausted me, and the hours in cramped airplane cabins drove home how inconvenient it would be to return to the familiar. There was nothing wrong with the far-away places I visited, as far as I could tell. It's just that the nearby places felt easier to deal with. It might be a matter of each program's personality---I certainly didn't feel uniformly good about each nearby school, or uniformly bad about far-away ones---but I can't help wondering if culture and lifestyle had some kind of hidden, yet pervasive, influence.

I'm no longer so disdainful about the idea of staying close to home for the sake of being home. I've had my fun moving to new places for a few months at a time, but the thought of setting up somewhere new for five or six years, needing to put down roots while navigating an unknown culture, is very draining. Maybe I'm growing old; I'm certainly growing less judgmental. But I understand better now what my lab-mate and others have said. I want to stay close to home, too.

11 April 2009

How do you say no?

The graduate school decision deadline, by which I must commit to one graduate program and decline all other offers, is April 15, a mere four days away. I've been having many conversations with many different people---parents, friends, advisor, professors---to try to get enough feedback to make the decision well. Some people, like professors, are able to give me advice with the benefit of hindsight. Others, like my parents and friends, are biased in ways that don't necessarily fit with the truth about my field (for instance, a big-name school in general is not always the best school for my subfield of Technical Science), but their feedback has been useful, as well. At least when I speak to these people, with whom I'm comfortable and can be myself, my true feelings about each program come out. I've valued speaking with my friends and family about my grad school decision in large part because it's allowed me to hear myself speak, which exposes insights I don't necessarily see when I'm just thinking to myself.

I've been lucky to have several fantastic offers from a wide variety of graduate programs. At some places, the advisor fit is great, but the research fit would take a lot of work and the school environment doesn't seem to be right. At other places, the school is perfect, but there's no obvious advisor fit. I'm being heavily recruited by two locations in particular that I'm just not convinced would be better than one other choice I have.

Let's call these two schools A and B. Professors at both universities have spent a lot of time and energy trying to get me to join their groups (which is incredibly flattering!). I've had multiple phone conversations with each professor, and I've visited both institutions, where I realize that the environment, while supportive in some ways, is just not better than what I might have at university C. However, it feels like I've built good personal rapport with each professor, and turning them down is difficult. I have a problem saying "no" in my personal life, and this feels like it's become personal.

I'm having phone conversations with both of these professors next week, at which time I have to tell them that I'm just not that into them. This is scaring the heck out of me. I know that these are professionals, and that if I approach them with respect and explain my reasons for choosing another program, that they should understand. I know they know I've received other offers, and that I might go elsewhere. And yet, I've never played this game before, and it feels like they've put so much time and effort into me, and I just don't want to disappoint them.

Ah, well. I guess this is how one grows stronger (and perhaps more self-sufficient). With the stories I've been reading around the blogosphere for the April Scientiae, it seems like this kind of strength, the ability to stand up for myself, is going to be important in grad school and beyond.

02 April 2009

Out of my league

I've returned from my Grand Grad School Tour, exhausted but very well-informed about many programs I will not be attending. I haven't yet made a decision, although I've narrowed down the list significantly. One of the schools in this final round, however, has me totally stumped.

This school, which I've previously referred to as Excellent University, is the most highly-ranked program to which I was accepted. I was quite surprised by the acceptance, to be honest, because I didn't see myself on their level. What threw me even more was a few weeks later when I received an email congratulating me for receiving a small, but apparently prestigious, fellowship to supplement my assistantship offer (the award letter was full of the most enthusiastic superlatives). I had very little idea of what to expect from this school, aside from the stereotypical visions of "major research institution" that students at small universities often develop. These visions mostly involve undergraduates wandering lost for four years while their professors bury their heads in research, and administrative red tape to rival Purgatory. Turns out these characterizations aren't true, for the most part.

What I found most interesting about my visit to EU was how much I felt like I needed to defend myself. Students there were sharp; mentally as capable as the smartest students at my university, but dramatically more self-confident and genuinely intellectually curious. (The "smart kids" in my department tend to be the sort who are truly intelligent but try so hard to prove how smart they are that their actual brilliance is overshadowed by their distasteful attitudes.) The students at EU, including other prospectives, were interested in hearing about my research and asked engaged, insightful questions about my work. Sadly, that's something I hadn't experienced before, even at other grad visits. Unfortunately, the students' intellect made me feel like I wasn't quite up to par. At other schools I'd managed to stay in my comfort zone during intellectual discussion. At EU, other peoples' thoughtful questions made me lose control of the intellectual arc of our conversations, and forced me to answer questions I hadn't thought of and to categorize myself in unfamiliar ways.

Writing this all out, I'm disappointed in myself: am I really so tame and intellectually stagnant that I'm afraid of meeting smart people who might ask me difficult questions?

Perhaps my hindsight is 20/20 through rose-tinted glasses, or however you prefer to mix those metaphors. There was something a bit more contentious in the conversations than I've just described. I think I felt defensive for a reason: perhaps not all of the questions arose from purely intellectual curiosity; perhaps some people wanted to show how smart they were, too. I seem to be consistently bad at judging peoples' motives, and I like to give the benefit of the doubt. What I do know, however, is that throughout the visit I felt like I had to justify myself and my position there. It didn't help that other students had impossible acceptances to the very best universities, and so the "whose _______ is bigger" (insert preferred noun) game always ended up with me making apologies about the other schools on my list.

In other words, I felt totally out of my league, even though ostensibly I wasn't (I'd been accepted, after all). I'm not sure what to make of it, particularly in light of a different grad school visit that went really well and felt very comfortable and nurturing. Do I go to the place I feel a little bit uncomfortable and out of place? or do I stick with what I know, and risk not being challenged enough? Tough questions, tough choices.

24 March 2009

Ada Lovelace Day: Frances Allen

[This post is part of Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to draw attention to women in technology. Over 1500 other bloggers have committed to writing a post about sung and unsung heroes in technology. I've joined them by writing about one of my personal favorites, Frances Allen.]

Frances Allen is (deservedly) one of the most famous women in Computer Science. As the first woman to win the prestigious Turing Award (often considered the "Nobel Prize of Computer Science"), she's been a poster-adult for the first wave of female computer scientists. Allen joined IBM in the late 1950s in order to pay off student loans from her degrees at a teacher's college in Albany and a Master's in math at the University of Michigan. She ended up staying at IBM for a rich career that included revolutionary work in compilers and high performance computing. More about Allen can be found at her IBM profile.

In addition to her work on the technical side of computing, Allen also created a novel product development strategy that involved researchers spending more time with customers, understanding their needs and how they used IBM products. This kind of customer-oriented computing is still a design strategy at IBM today.

To me, Frances Allen is one of the most inspiring women in Computer Science. Her development of a new paradigm for customer-oriented research emphasizes the importance of diversity in the workplace. I don't think it requires a "female mind" to come up with the idea that we should listen to customers, but I do believe that it requires an outsider, someone who is not quite in the club and therefore is not blinded by the "way things are done around here." I strongly believe that the more diversity we encourage---in gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and identification, outside interests, lifestyles, and so on---the stronger our research will become.

I had the honor of meeting Frances Allen during one of her post-Turing Award speaking tours. In person, her diminutive frame belies Professor Allen's soaring intellect and energy levels. These become apparent, however, the minute she begins speaking. Allen is living her life fully, embodying the idea that Computer Science need not be populated by pale-faced skinny programmers with poor social skills. At her talk, she spoke a bit about her mountaineering trips to Nepal and her connection with a young sherpa who guided her group up the mountains. Thinking about this small, brilliant woman summiting some of the most unforgiving mountains in the world, I was reminded of my own grand plans that, only in my early twenties, I have already cast aside for more serious, “realistic” pursuits. I wonder if I will ever get back to those idealistic plans.

I hope everyone gets a chance to meet Frances Allen some day. Her research story is inspiring, but more importantly, she continues to live a balance of brilliance, compassion and adventure that is worth aspiring to.

Happy Ada Lovelace day, everyone!

21 March 2009


Everyone says you don't quite know how much you know about something until you explain it to someone else.

I say to heck with that. You don't know how much you know about something until you have to grade someone else's explanation of it! Because then, you have to muck through all the bizarre reasoning, the sentences that are meant to sound smart but really don't say anything at all, or worse, that don't even parse syntactically. I don't feel like I know much about the assignment I'm currently grading, though I wish I did and I'm working my butt off to get better at it. Happily, it seems the students know even less. Makes my job that much easier.

19 March 2009

Grad school visit

I don't blog when I'm too overwhelmed with work, and I don't blog when I'm recovering from being overwhelmed with work.... when will I just blog?

Now that the griping is out of the way, onto the real topic for this post: my recent graduate school recruiting visit. This visit was to Decent U, further away from home than might be ideal, with an exceptionally charismatic PI with whom I really clicked. The visit was literally wining and dining: every meal for three full days was eaten out, catered, or (get this!) cooked by a faculty member. I was pretty blown away by the level of effort put into that visit, and if any of the next visits are like that, I'm going to need to really step up my exercise regime!

There were some highlights. One evening, the prospective students and faculty went to a very chichi restaurant---the kind that describes the wines as having "fruity and floral notes." Way out of my normal restaurant class. The faculty were pretty easy going, and there were lots of laughs all around (particularly at the expense of one faculty member, but that professor seemed to really hold his own in the group). I've never had that kind of interaction with such a large group of professors, and it was wonderful! After the dinner, I did stop to wonder if maybe I'd been too relaxed and too social; after all, I was still on an interview of sorts, and they were probably still judging me. I expressed my concerns to another prospective student, who'd had the same thought. There was nothing to be done, but I was extra polite to everyone for the rest of the visit.

Another highlight, on the opposite end of the relaxation spectrum, was the one-on-one meetings with professors. I wasn't interviewing, per se, but again, the feeling of being judged did make the four hours very draining. By my last conversation, I breezed into the professor's office, plopped down in a comfortable chair, and exclaimed "You're my last meeting!" He seemed amused, so I hope my presumptuousness (borne of exhaustion) was not taken the wrong way.

I was told when I applied to PhD programs that graduate students will always tell you the truth. (Actually, I was told that by everyone but the one person I trust most in this process, who said that graduate students will tell you the truth within limits, but to never forget that they're advocating for their PI and their lab.) The grad students I met during this visit were absolutely fantastic in hosting us. They showed us all around town, ferried us from place to place, and were always open to conversation and questions. Most importantly, they were happy. I can't imagine going to a grad program where I'm competing against my lab mates for papers. These students clearly cheered each other on and felt like another student's win was a win for themselves, too. It was so wonderful to see such a warm, intelligent, supportive (but hardcore!) grad community.

So, after all these positive descriptions, why wouldn't I cancel all my other visits and overnight my enrollment forms? Unfortunately, the research doesn't fit, and that kills everything. The work they're doing in the lab I would join utilizes aspect Y of my multidisciplinary background, but I'd really like to focus and hone aspect X. In fact, I would be the expert on aspect X in the lab. That sounds very flattering, but I'm really looking for peers in X that can help drive me to improve my skills. Y is very interesting, but I see it as more tangential than central, and I don't want to be defined by it for the next 5 years (and, let's face it, until I get tenure and can change my research area). Despite the Major Research Flaw, the atmosphere at this school was so good that I'm still not crossing it off my list. (That's right, I have a list. It's hanging in my office. I do literally cross schools off of it.)

This coming week, I have three more grad school visits. I'm traveling a total of 7,700 miles in 7 days. I really need to get my frequent flier miles in order! I will report back during or after this week with impressions of the very different institutions I'm visiting, but in the end, I expect it to be a difficult decision.

11 March 2009


A lot has happened in the last week, and I hope to blog about it all. The number one, biggest, bestest event, however, was:

I got my first peer-reviewed paper accepted!!!

This is so exciting to me because it is what I see as the point of my career from now on: to do good research, and to share that good research with lots of people. I love academic research because I'm thrilled by the idea of a group of smart people getting together to discuss puzzles, and potentially helping the world out through their puzzle-solving. It's interesting to me that helping the world out is less motivating than using my brain to solve puzzles, but maybe that's a topic for a different post.

As for the paper: I'm the second of two authors (pretty standard number for my field) on a paper that only begins to explain the research I've been doing with my advisor (first author) for over 1.5 years now. It's great to finally have a publication on my CV, but it's also great to see the work we've done begin to be accepted by the community. I think it's pretty novel stuff---we're building our own methods rather than relying on existing frameworks---so having documentation of our work is important to avoid getting scooped and also to begin sharing our progress with the wider community. I hope we can publish many more papers that really explore the depths of our novel approach.

My advisor and I submitted another paper this past weekend, which had kept me from blogging for longer than I'd wanted. If that one gets in, it'll be a big win for my year of research.

10 March 2009

01 March 2009

Gender descrimination exists

A New York Times article about the wage gap between men and women.

That was very informative. Now back to your regularly scheduled experiments.

26 February 2009

...and taking names

I had a phone call with one prospective PhD advisor this morning. At the end of this week, the total number of such calls will be three. That number seems small, but considering the amount of work that it takes for me to prepare for these calls (mostly involving trawlilng the professor's website and reading their papers), plus time for the actual call, plus nervousness at speaking to these important people who might play large roles in my future, it adds up to quite a bit of mental energy spent.

I think today's call went well. The professor seemed enthusiastic about my joining his program and encouraged me to speak to lots of other professors, which I liked. It didn't come off in a "you should really work with someone else" kind of way, so I feel that he was truly trying to be open and flexible in recruiting me to the program.

There are still seven PhD programs that have not responded. I keep checking my email and logging on to application status sites in the vain hope that one of them will contact me. That's another big drain on mental energy, because I've got this question ("Did I get in, or not?") constantly on seven backburners. It's getting hot back there.

It's not like I have the mental space to spare, either. I have a paper to submit by the end of next week! Onward and upward to experiments!

21 February 2009

Financial Aid

Continuing with the theme of financial matters for postgraduates, I'd like to discuss the financial and social pressures of becoming a graduate student. Specifically, I am repeatedly surprised by how many of my friends' parents undervalue (in my opinion) their children's advanced education relative to traditional employment.

I come from a very education-driven family; my parents both have advanced degrees and see those credentials as important means for success. Growing up, I always assumed that I would continue my education beyond a Bachelor's degree, even before I understood what graduate school entailed. Doubtless, that perspective---advanced education as the norm, not the exception---has shaped my view of what's acceptable after finishing college.

Contrary to my experience, many of my friends' parents do not seem to understand the value of advanced degrees. I've had several conversations within the past few months from friends whose parents are pushing them to "get a real job" rather than to go to graduate school. Notably, I had one friend whose (research-heavy) Master's degree work was moving slowly and had run past the graduation deadline for that year. Instead of understanding that research is finicky and might take a few more months, this friend's parents laid on tremendous pressure to finish the Master's degree and start earning money. In the end, the friend finished the Master's a few months after the deadline and got a "real job," but the stress of being pushed by parents like that seemed to make the process really unpleasant. Similarly, I had a conversation with another friend whose parents had vocally expressed their disapproval about applying to a PhD program instead of to jobs. Apparently, this friend's parents did not understand that they would not have to pay for graduate school in science. I'm not sure it would matter if they knew: Graduate stipends are piddling compared to remuneration from jobs in industry.

Even ignoring my biases, I see these views as short-sighted. Sure, your child might spend a few more years in school, but when they come out, they have more knowledge and can start on a higher pay scale than B.S. people. Additionally, they'll have credentials as part of their reputation, and they may have an easier time earning respect because of that. I become frustrated when I see my friends doing something I consider "right" (pursuing higher education) being told by their parents that it is wrong. Short of lecturing to these adults, however, I'm not sure what to do.

19 February 2009

Congratulations! I'm pleased to inform you...

I received acceptances to two more PhD programs this morning. One is ranked as a reach for me, and the other is a school within the range that I expected to be accepted to, but is exciting nonetheless. All of this recognition from top programs is pretty surprising to me. Perhaps it's a personal quirk, but I really didn't see myself as standing a chance at these top places (see EU in previous post). I think it's significant that I didn't say "my application didn't stand a chance," but instead made it personal. This might be a characteristically feminine view, but that's a subject for a different post.

Selecting just one program is going to be difficult. There are many factors I'll need to take into consideration. Some of these factors are:
  • The relationship with my advisor. Is this person going to be a mentor, as well as a research supervisor? Are they going to expect me to be in lab from 9-5 M-F? Will they understand women in science perspectives? Can they engage in a normal conversation, including eye contact? Are they communicative about what they'd like me to do? Do our ideas about research (including methods for performing research) jibe?
  • The relationship with my cohort and my labmates. Are the people around me so technically-oriented that I just can't imagine having them over for Scrabble parties? Does my lab plan fun activities together, or are people always competing? Is one-upsmanship prevalent? Am I totally below or totally above my classmates academically?
  • The departmental environment. Are faculty friendly to each other and to graduate students? Are there strange politics? Is there a resource for women in science? Do the graduate students seem happy, well cared for, and supported? Are qualifiers intended to weed out students, or are faculty rooting for you to succeed? Is there money? Are the AAs helpful and nice? Can graduate students try research with several faculty members, or are they pretty much tied to one person when they arrive?
  • The school. Is the department well-situated (and well funded) within the larger university? Does the university have a range of people I could imagine befriending? Is the campus pretty/convenient/central to town? Can I picture myself walking around every day for 4 or 5 or 8 years?
  • The geographic location. Am I going to be very distant from my support networks, and if so, what other support can I rely on? Will I deal well with the lifestyle of the place I'm living? (I applied to schools all over the country, so geography is a non-trivial factor.) Are there outdoor activities I might enjoy nearby?
  • The compensation. Am I going to have to TA or RA forever? Will I be on a grant? Am I getting a fellowship (at some places, I already have fellowship offers)?
Oh my, that was a longer list than I'd realized. Interviews are going to be tough!

18 February 2009

Taking Care

This New York Times article on do-it-yourself health care for uninsured young adults hits home as I watch my friends try to find post-graduate jobs that offer them medical benefits or enough money to buy their own health care. In short, the article describes how many twenty-somethings, just starting careers and often freelancing or working for minimum wage, cannot afford (expensive!) medical plans and end up treating themselves: using antibiotics borrowed from friends, finding diagnoses and treatments on the internet, or stockpiling supplies like inhalers and insulin pumps before their insurance policies expire. The behavior is dangerous because without proper preventative care (especially in the case of life-long conditions like asthma or diabetes), and because of misdiagnoses that let the problems grow worse, these people could suffer major illnesses and wind up in hospitals having to pay back even larger debts that they can't afford.

The concern resonates with me. Happily, I can expect my PhD program next year to pay for health care or at least provide me with a living wage and access to cheapo university health care. Unfortunately, a lot of my friends are doing without such support. I've watched one friend commit herself to a poorly-paying, soul-sucking job for much longer than she intended because she needs to be there a certain amount of time to be eligible for health benefits. Others are just forfeiting health care plans and counting on not getting sick.

I believe that health care is mostly wasted on the young: we end up paying for the illnesses of typically older, typically sicker individuals that have the same deductible as us. That said, people should be able to arrange a safety net for themselves if they so desire, and keeping health care out of people's reach because of finances is a major issue that I hope gets resolved. I know I'm not offering solutions, and I believe the situation is immensely complicated. I'm happy to see the New York Times reporting on it; maybe the new administration will focus additional attention to such issues.

17 February 2009

Checking in

My intense week is finally over. I slept more than nine hours last night and still feel like going back to bed.

Last week, I submitted a paper with my advisor. We didn't have much time to prepare the paper, because we found out about the submission opportunity very late, but we somehow managed to get things together in time. It was a grueling process for both of us, because I had to test out some new ideas and he had to synthesize them into very little text, all on deadline. I'm not sure our work will be accepted---it's not exactly what the publication is looking for, although we could argue the case that it's tangentially related and very interesting---but the experience of coauthoring this paper (and a few others in the past) is immensely valuable. I've learned about writing to particular communities, how to create razor-blade sharp sentences, how to cut out extraneous words or ideas, when to repeat things and when to gloss over complicated explanations gracefully. I've learned how much time it takes to understand what you mean to say, and how important that understanding is when composing text for general dissemination.

In addition to working my tail off for that publication, last week also saw some great news about PhD programs that brings some intensely difficult decisions. I had already been accepted to Very Good University, where I'd get an excellent education and be able to succeed wonderfully, but whose lab structure and apparent politics makes me a little bit apprehensive. One day last week, I had a conversation in the morning with a professor at Pretty Good U, where the students would not quite be at the same level as those at VGU, but still within reasonable consideration. The conversation was amazing, and I'm totally smitten with the advisor, but I can't help being held back by the prospect of attending a school significantly lower in the rankings because of some fear about how my degree would be perceived.* That very night, I received an email congratulating me on my acceptance to Excellent University, which completely threw me for a loop. I had not expected to be recognized at the level of EU. This makes the decision extremely difficult: do I go to Excellent U, where I may be at the bottom of the pile (so to speak) and where I might be overshadowed by my excellent, accomplished peers? Do I attent Very Good U, where I am seen as a hot commodity (as evidenced by early acceptance) but perhaps won't fit in to the lifestyle of the place? Or do I attend Pretty Good U, where my cohort might not push me as hard as I want to be pushed, but where my advisor would be a gift and a joy? I've got a lot of talking and a lot of thinking to do. I'm still waiting to hear from a bunch of programs, and those answers might complicate my decisions further or provide an obvious first choice that I just can't turn down. We'll see how it goes.

*This may be an undergraduate mentality, and I'm trying to grow out of it. I know PhD programs are about the research you do (as evidenced by papers published, etc.) but I can't help wondering if my CV will suffer for not having a prestigious name on it.

06 February 2009


Wow, this has been a killer week, and I don't think I'm even overburdened, by "normal" professorial/grad student standards! I've been working frantically to produce results for a last-minute paper my advisor and I decided to submit, trying to keep up in my classes, managing the grad school application process, and watching the pile of student assignments I have yet to grade grow frighteningly. That said, I'm not on any committees, I don't have children or a husband, I have no major presentations or talks to give. This growing up experience is amazing: Every time I think I couldn't possibly stuff another responsibility into my day, I find a way to juggle more.

I keep wondering where the cracks are: just where is it that I'm fitting more time? I am impressed by all of the bloggers who manage full lives with intense work responsibilities and external commitments, and still find time to write. As for myself, I'm composing this while I let an experiment run, just to clear my head before the next experiment. I've come up with lots of interesting post ideas, but haven't had time to actually compose any of them.

I marvel at my professors' energy and stamina. Perhaps when I grow up (i.e., get my ass kicked in a PhD program, learn to sleep less, need it enough) I'll be able to accomplish as many things as they do. I don't think I have downtime now, but I suppose that's like not knowing you have the physical strength to lift something until your dog is trapped under it. I just hope the process of getting there isn't too painful: I don't mind working hard, but I'd like not to run myself into the ground while doing it. Hopefully sometime soon, I'll have the opportunity to post further about what it means to work hard and whether making yourself physically ill is really a good standard for "hard enough."

31 January 2009

Course Credit

I have spent a lot of time this week working on a problem set for class. It is not unusual for first-year graduate students to make some room for coursework in their schedule, but this first assignment felt a little bit out of control. I may be out of practice because I didn't take any courses last semester (due to the specifics of my grad program), but the dozen-plus hours I worked on this single problem set seem out of proportion with the difficulty of the course and its importance to my overall graduate experience.

Everyone I speak to says grades don't matter for graduate students (note: I'm mostly talking about PhD programs here). Only one person has qualified this, suggesting that grades might be looked at for external fellowship applications; everyone else insists that graduate school is about the research you do, the publications you write, the connections and name for yourself you make in your field, and not the grades you get in classes.

So, I wonder, why am I working so hard for this one class? Perhaps it is because this course is more or less remedial, filling in a gap in my knowledge about the breadth of my field, and as such the course is presenting me with a brand new way of thinking that I just need to get used to. Maybe with more practice, the concepts in the class will come more naturally. Or perhaps I am still used to putting courses (and by extension, problem sets) before everything because they used to be the point of my education. The experience has changed, but my study habits are slow to shift.

I'm confident that in the future, I'll become more fluent in the language of the class, and I'll be able to grasp the material more quickly. I also know that my focus will shift from courses to research, just as soon as I stop needing to fulfill requirements and start feeling the push to get moving on a dissertation. That point, however, is a long way off, and so for now, I'll soldier on with problem sets and dream about interesting research questions.

30 January 2009

Social Awkwardness

The semester just started and work hasn't yet overwhelmed me, so I have been trying very hard to have some kind of social life lately, to maintain a work-life balance. Despite this, I've found myself sacrificing social time in very odd ways.

As an undergraduate, Friday and Saturday nights almost always meant plans to attend movies, shows, dinners, or house parties. The M-F week was mostly for working, but because I often saw my friends around campus (or lived with them!), it didn't feel like I was being asocial. Weeks were clearly delineated by weekends, and I rarely lost track of the days because I had to remember to go to class.

As a graduate student, I've found that the definition of a workweek has become flexible. Weekdays sometimes feel like weekends, and weekends are often dedicated to work that piled up during the week. Here I am, on a Friday night, planning to spend a few hours working on a manuscript I'm writing, because I had to put it off to complete a problem set for class. It's an especially bizarre feeling because there was no physical transition to this atemporal graduate life---I stayed at the same institution where I developed my undergraduate lifestyle---and so it feels a little wrong to be in the same place but behave so differently.

I do get out sometimes, but I see friends at different times now than I used to. I have many more lunch dates, and attend many fewer house parties. Often, activities are based around things I would need to take care of anyway, like exercise or food. Facts that used to matter, like that it is a weekend or after 7pm, have ceased to impact whether I am social or doing work. More than once, I've descended from my isolated lab to the main floor of the science building to discover, startlingly, that it is teeming with life.

I suppose my current social schedule is how I can balance my time best, but I do wonder about the loss of significant break time. If humans need hours of continuous sleep to be fully rested, as has been suggested, then perhaps hours or days of breaks from work would lead to less burnout? That said, I'm not sure how to manage my time any better. I'm fortunate to not have many external restrictions (kids or a job other than being a grad student), but I still feel crunched for time fairly often. Perhaps I will need to become better at scheduling time chunks for myself, and sticking to social time when I've planned it.

29 January 2009

Graduate School Applications

I recently applied to a number of PhD programs for next fall (I'm completing a Master's degree at my current institution). A lot of people complain about the application process, and I think their criticisms are fair. The system pisses off students, it pisses off recommendation writers, and it probably pisses off the admissions committees and administrators who have to deal with loads of incoming mail. In short, I'm adding my voice to the chorus advocating overhauls to the application process.

To start, many of the applications are now online. I think this is a major improvement over paper applications, because none of my material can get lost, have coffee drip on it, or be damaged in the mail. On the other hand, online applications require a username-password combination. Some schools assigned my username as an unalterable, random alphanumeric combination. Others restricted what my password could be (requiring at least one symbol, forbidding any part of my name, etc.) so that I had at least four different passwords for online logons. Every time I went to log on to an application, I had to look up the school's username-password combination. (I don't use Firefox's "remember this password now" feature for possibly irrational privacy reasons.)

Next, there's the matter of personal information. You would think that schools on the same network (such as the ApplyYourself network) would share such basics as name, social security number, birthdate and addresses across applications. No such luck. I had the joy of entering my information n-teen times, which eventually came to be a sort of zen-like task.

After the basic information is complete, it's time to notify the recommendation writers. Some schools email writers for recommendations as soon as you enter the appropriate information; other schools request recommendations after you submit your application; still others provide text for you to email to your letter writers on your own. One old-fashioned school even had my letter-writers submit actual (gasp) letters, with pre-addressed and stamped envelopes provided by me. I feel extraordinarily grateful to my letter writers for putting up with n-teen request emails, reminder emails, individual log-ons, and annoying forms. I'd send each of them a giant fruit basket, if I could, but I'm trying not to cross any ethical lines. At least while I'm a student, a handwritten thank you note will have to suffice.

The personal statements were the most time-consuming part of the processes. Some schools wanted one statement describing everything: how I got here, what inspires me, what I want to study, career plans, my underwear size, everything. Other schools made it clear that anything beyond a concise statement of my research interests and career goals would not be acceptable. Some schools wanted one of each essay. Some essays were restricted to a page; others could be two pages, or 5000 characters, or 800 words. Some forms required me to copy and paste plain text of my essays, instead of letting me submit them as PDFs in the pretty LaTeX format I adapted for that purpose. At least two schools required an additional ("optional," but who can tell what optional really means?) essay on how I would inspire diversity at their institution. How do I gently point out that I'm a woman in a technical field, and that should be enough diversity, thank you very much?

One feature of some applications seemed to be designed to enrage students. A few schools required not only official transcripts from the university, but a full manually-entered list of courses, including textbooks used and grades received. I had to call up my parents to go through my bookshelf in my old bedroom to find out what textbook I'd used for Intro to Technical Science freshman year. It seems like a spiteful move on the part of the admissions commitee, in my opinion.

One of the biggest surprises was an inconsistent definition of deadline. While most applications were due at 11:59pm on the day of the deadline, some were due at 5:00pm, and others at 1:00pm. I'm lucky I realized this (the information was not displayed as prominently as I would hope!) before it was a problem.

All this is, of course, assuming nothing goes wrong. If recommendations or transcripts or GRE scores don't arrive on time, there's no guarantee your application will be reviewed. The whole process was like having a part-time job for two months. I'm glad that it's over, and I hope in the future those in charge will seriously consider changes, like a Common Application similar to the one for undergraduate institutions, to save a great deal of hassle for everyone.

27 January 2009


I'm a firm believer in opening with a bang, whether in a manuscript, presentation, or class lecture, so my first entry in this blog got right to the point. The organizational-compulsive in me, however, can't help but set out a few goals for this blog.

What I hope to accomplish with this blog

1. Interactions with other like-minded (and un-like-minded!) people in a safe forum - I'm blogging under the pseudonym RoboFemme almost exclusively for this reason. I'd like to put my blog out there for others to explore (see next point) but I also want a place where I can be a bit more free about what I choose to gripe about, without fear of repercussions in my normal life.*

2. Share my unique perspective and expertise (as it develops) with others - Although it seems like there are no women in technical fields, I know we are out there. I'd love to raise others' awareness about women in technical sciences, and to encourage other women who are following similar paths. I'd like to credit FemaleScienceProfessor with encouraging me in a similar way and inspiring this blog.

3. a) Improve my writing skills - The best way to become a better writer (programmer, artist, etc.) is to keep practicing. I hope this blog helps me improve my writing, both for casual pieces and for science writing.
3. b) Have an outlet for creative writing - Technical manuscripts can be a drag to write. I hope to use this blog as a forum for posting some more casual musings that will help release some creative urges.

4. Hear my own voice - Or at least read it. I mean, let's be honest.

* There are all kinds of rules/guidelines/thoughts about blogging pseudonymically; some of them can be found on Abel Pharmboy's Pseudonymity Laboratory. I am open to additional suggestions and advice. If you have an anonymous or pseudonymic blog, how do you manage it? What rules do you have to keep from revealing too much?

26 January 2009

Teacher-Student Interactions

I am a first-year graduate student at the same institution that awarded me my undergraduate degree, which means that I've experienced interactions with the same professors as an undergraduate and a graduate student. On the whole, it seems that graduate students get a big jump in respect level, just for pursuing an advanced degree. It's not that I was a nameless, faceless undergraduate, either; in my small department, I could hold friendly, often topical chats with each of the professors, and I was an engaged member of many of their classes. Regardless, once I received keys to the department lounge, I was seen as a member of the team, rather than a pesky kid.

It's not that all of the professors treated me as though I was a nuisance, but the differences are striking. Suddenly, professors clam up less when I enter the room; they look less confused when they see me around the department; they're more willing to engage in small talk or offer suggestions on research-y things.

It's not just the professors--administrative staff seem to think I'm worth their time now. Where before, I wasn't addressed at all by the senior admin, as soon as she learned that I was a graduate student, we started having friendly chats about her granddaughter. It was, quite honestly, the day I got my keys to the department lounge (obviously a momentous occasion for me) that she first introduced herself, even though she'd seen me in her office many times before.

I appreciate the respect afforded by the title "graduate student," but I wish my potential could have been recognized as an undergraduate (by everyone except my advisor, who already recognized it), which would have given me more time to perform under increased expectations. I imagine I would have benefited from the sense of colleagueship I now feel. It doesn't seem like I'm so different from eight months ago when I was an undergraduate, but I'm being held to much higher standards now.