26 July 2010

Slim pickings

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

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

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

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

05 July 2010

Daddy's Angry

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

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

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

19 April 2010

Skills and Drills

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

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

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

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