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."