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.