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.