Saturday, December 27, 2008

Searching for the Sense of Accomplishment

Alone at my father's house the day after Christmas, I had two choices between activity:

a) Read as many papers on the topic of my comps revisions as my brain would handle, possibly advancing far enough to start writing the new section, or

b) Attack my older sister's former bedroom, which has been used as a storage room for the past five or six years and was knee-deep in assorted junk with not even a clear path to wade through.

I didn't even debate the choice. I went straight to "b", and spent almost the entire day (minus a few hours of television watching during meal times) in physical labor. I didn't have to debate, because the choice was made purely on one criterion, of what I would achieve with my day:

a) A fraction of the reading list read, a page or so of notes on how they might be relevant, some rough attempts at revisions, and the ability to write "Read X papers on comps revision topic" in my upcoming weekly update to my advisor.

b) A disaster area turned into a clean room.

This decision epitomizes the problem I've been having with grad school, which is that it never really feels like I've accomplished anything. There are only ever incremental changes in papers (from the endless rounds to the "submitted pending minor revisions", the only time there is accomplishment is those first few days after a submission is made) and in research (a slow, laborious process whose "end" results are always "here are more questions we're going to be asking in the next research project). There is no sense of "I have taken on this project, I have worked hard for a certain period of time, and now it is done", because it is never done. And I find that I would rather tell my advisor that I got absolutely no research activity of any kind done in the week of Christmas, than tell myself that I managed nothing more than "making progress".

Monday, December 22, 2008

How Low-Priority Can Ethics Be?

My advisor has been sitting on revisions to a brief report for over four months now. Last February, we discovered a mistake in calculations in a published paper, that crossed the level of significance. Results that had been acceptably significant could now only be called "marginally" significant. We found the error in the process of replicating the results, so the effect is probably real, but the editor should still be informed.

First I had to argue my advisor and her co-author into agreeing that the mistake should be reported at all, on the grounds that it isn't up to us (them the original authors, me from the same lab). Then I dragged them through drafting a letter to the editor. Then my advisor decided that it should be a brief report instead, because the post-hoc explanation for why the results were only marginal was "interesting". And then she sat on the revisions for months. And then when I started pushing her to get me the draft back, she said that the delays weren't due to her new baby, but because she didn't consider the project a priority. This was right after she updated our lab's manuscripts page, with this revision right at the bottom, after even the revisions with a deadline in March.

I have said repeatedly that I want revisions by the end of December. I gave her several weeks' warning on this. I have explained that I will write my own letter to the editor if I don't get them, because her concerns about the ethics of cutting out the original authors on this are outweighed by my concerns about the ethics of going almost a year knowing that there is an error in the results without informing the editor, or anyone outside our lab.

I'm preparing to negotiate. I just can't sit back and have this always be the lowest priority, because new projects and manuscripts are always being added that will be higher priority, by virtue of having an actual deadline, but I'm not quite so anal as to demand revisions by the end of the month, as reasonable as that seemed when I first set the date. Perhaps I should be more laid-back about an error when the overall idea is probably correct, and this really should be my advisor's lowest priority. But I can't convince myself of that. It's a relatively minor ethical issue, but I can't help wondering if this is how she would react if we didn't have some reason to argue that the results didn't change that much.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Someone Thinks I'm Accomplished

As I trailed my dad around his office Thursday afternoon, so he could introduce me to the manager helping him with the new company website for which I will be writing content over the next two weeks (I get to add a brief stint as a Technical Writer to my resume, and make enough money to pay for April's conference registration fees), I discovered that I'd given him a whole new realm of bragging rights.

Tuesday afternoon, in my last e-mail check before heading out of town, I discovered the e-mail informing me that the submission of my first real article was "accepted pending minor revisions". I happily informed my dad as we waited for luggage Wednesday evening, and he happily informed everyone at the office who either recognized me or wondered why this tall young woman in jeans was following around their IT person. He couldn't remember the name of the journal, but then, I couldn't really remember the title of the paper (I remember the witty pre-colon part, but not the official post-colon jargon).

It's not quite enough to make up for the comps "passed with conditions", since "accepted with minor revisions" is much the same (the work of trying to coordinate minor changes with 2 co-authors is about the same as the work of trying to rewrite an entire paper by myself). But at least being able to deliver the news in person and hear the bragging makes me feel less of a loser for still being in graduate school and so far from graduating.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Semester Is Over

With the turning in of the final lab grades, my semester is over. All of my papers have been written, all of my students' papers have been graded, and there is not one place I am required to be for school purposes until January. Even all of my research projects, while not finished (because they're never finished) are all in the hands of my various collaborators, and I don't expect to hear back about a single one of them before New Year's.

Not that I get the vacation of the true college student. There is still the comps revisions to be done, or at least half-heartedly attempted. There is revising the lab I will be teaching for the third time next semester (This counts as more fun than work, since it's completely voluntary and I'm doing it because it's fun). There is the creation of the Socratic portfolio, part of my certification process. There are a few little projects I never have time to do during the semester. And, of course, anything my advisor asks me to do in the meantime. But it will be away from the snow (and today's lovely single-digit weather), the time crunch will all be in terms of "before the semester starts" not "next week", and there will certainly be more goofing off than I can let myself get away with here.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Resigning Myself to Comps Revisions

It took an hour-long meeting with my advisor, the numerous distractions caused by spending the school/work week with the gas to my apartment turned off (no oven, no stove, no hot water, and the vagaries of a temporary space heater), and the seemingly productive analysis of new data from two projects, but I think I've resigned myself to spending my winter break reading several dozen papers on new topics and completely reorganizing my review paper to fit them in.

Monday's weekly progress report to my advisor was completely truthful. The first topic listed had the heading "comps", and the details simply stated that I had not yet decided whether to do the revisions or just quit come May. This prompted a rearranging of the afternoon schedule so that we could meet for an hour and discuss what I want to do long-term, and how comps and the dissertation fit in to this. I can't say I buy her argument that the purpose of the revisions was not to have me jump through hoops in order to pass - the committee's take is reportedly that the revisions would make the comps a stronger introduction for a dissertation, but if that's the case they should pass me on the comps and let me worry about the dissertation when it's time to worry about the dissertation. However, I have been swayed that it's worth at least reading the papers to figure out if this could be my dissertation. I have resigned myself to that much.

Frankly, I'm sick of the topic, but I think that would be true of anything I had to work on that hard for that long, and changing topics now would just mean having to write an entire dissertation introduction from scratch. There's only one approach that wouldn't have me starting completely from scratch - I have completed 2 studies with meaningful results along one theme - but I'm not sure I want to bone up on the background or even pursue that research as the focus of my life for the next year or two. I'm hoping this general lack of interest is just due to Post-Quals Slump, and that I'll find any research interesting once the semester is over (one paper to write, one stack of papers to grade) and I've gotten away from the lab for a while.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Countdown to the End of the Semester

Welcome to the last week of class. In the next week, I have only 2 things that truly need to get done: 1) write a 7-9 page term paper for my thankfully nothing-to-do-with-my-major class, and 2) grade 21 research proposals. The term paper is due Friday or Saturday (my professor is lax, as he should be, since it's been over a month since I turned in the last paper and I still haven't gotten it back); the graded papers have to be finished by Monday afternoon so I can offload them to my students at their final exam.

Looking back at the semester does not make me feel in any way successful. Let's review.

Study #1 - At my advisor's insistence, I continued to collect data on a project after the initial data analysis revealed that the manipulation wasn't work. Final data analysis shows exactly the same pattern, and the additional data points didn't make anything more significant than it had been. This project is a complete wash for anything except doing a follow-up, and I probably won't do that because it doesn't fit into my dissertation.

Study #2 - The downside to collaborating with my advisor and her husband is that they both go on baby leave at the same time. Delays in getting responses to emails and a shortage of programming resources in our lab means that I barely managed to program the experiment, and am squeaking out a minuscule amount of pilot data before the semester ends.

Study #3 - My senior thesis student collected all the data for this project. The follow-up to an early (under revision) project is mixed; the replication is only marginally significant (pending massaging of data), but the expansion is significant in ways we don't know how to interpret yet. The thesis data (another of my ideas, with my student's help) turned out to be a wash, just like every other research project I've conceived myself (except my master's, which was just unpublishable).

Comps - Completed the review paper, reading approximately 150 journal articles, writing 10,000+ words (final draft), and answering every question I outlined in my proposal. My committee decided that I should have asked two additional questions, and instructed me to add these questions - which essentially means reorganizing and probably rewriting the entire thing.

Corrections Draft - My advisor has been sitting on this for almost four months, so I have been unable to make any progress. I'm close to losing my faith in research ethics over this; we found out that the published results were inaccurate almost 10 months ago, and still haven't told anyone. I set a firm deadline for getting revisions back, lest I lose all self-respect.

And...that's my semester. There was teaching a class, and some "lead" teaching activities, and helping out my thesis student - but as far as my "real" activities, demanded for research, the only thing I've managed to completed (Study #3) was really completed by an undergrad; I've just had to do the data analysis. I can't even count my two accepted conference posters, because they were submitted in the summer, and it just took this long to get the acceptances.

Yet another semester at graduate school, with nothing to show for it.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Revise and Resubmit

When we submitted my first-ever paper to a second journal, it came back "revise and resubmit", to which a professor in my department offered congratulations. I'm sure I smiled and thanked him, but I was thinking "For what? Is this what my life has come to - Celebrate, because they said your work didn't suck that much?" It took quite a bit of convincing for me to accept that "revise and resubmit" is as good as it gets, because no one gets accepted in the first round. I still don't think it's worth congratulations, though. It may be an encouraging sign, and it's certainly better for morale than a rejection, but what it really means is that thing you hoped you were done with isn't done after all, and it's time to force yourself back into it and go back to work.

I have the same reaction to the end result of my comps defense. There were three possibilities: pass, pass with conditions, and fail. Of the three, the one I dreaded most was "pass with conditions", which would mean not being done at all, but going back and rewriting that paper I had already given so much effort to. Sure, failing would suck, but at least it would be over. Naturally, "with conditions", and with rewrites, is what I got. Do two new literature searches, add two new sections on research the committee has decided would be relevant, and revise the entire paper to fit that research in.

As I returned to my office from the defense, I found two grad students planning on going to a grad school-sponsored happy hour, and I was invited along. I had no idea if I agreed to drown my sorrows or to celebrate. When the other students found out I'd just defended, they tried to convince me I'd done great - my committee members had signed in the "satisfactory" column, and all I have to do is get one person (probably my advisor) to agree that the conditions have been met. Four screwdrivers later, this argument was still not convincing. I won't be spending my semester break completing straightforward projects to get ahead in my work, or planning my dissertation proposal; I'll be spending it reading uninteresting journal articles and revising that [expletive deleted] paper yet again.

I don't care that the changes will let the comps paper serve as an introduction to my dissertation, which the old version just couldn't. At the moment, at least, I'm tempted to just not do it. I just cannot work up any enthusiasm or interest in reading one more paper or writing one more word on this [expletive deleted] assignment. I'm experiencing post-quals slump, and I haven't even finished "quals" yet. Another resurgence of cynicism towards or outright hatred of academia has me seriously considering whether failing comps would actually have been a blessing in disguise.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

One Day to Defense

In a little over 24 hours, I will sit down with my three-person committee, present them with a brief reminder of the key points of my 10,000-word review paper, and let them grill me for an hour. Such is the "comprehensive exam" in my department. I don't feel sick, but my brain definitely feels numb.

I could be lucky, in that there was only a single hour of overlapping availability between the three faculty members. It means my advisor advised against doing a real presentation, like I did for my master's, because her take on the other members is that they'd want to get right into the questions. So I don't have to try to put together a powerpoint presentation tonight. However, I can't shake the feeling that I won't be able to satisfy them all in such a short period of time; they'll still have questions left, and they won't want to pass me.

I just won't be comforted. Having a fellow grad student, who defended her comps last month, tell me that she passed on the grounds that it was clear she had learned a lot, she already had a post-doc set up, and didn't have the time to revise her comps and writer her dissertation by the end of the school year, does not make me feel any better about it. I have no such time pressures, and I really don't want to spend my winter break making any revisions, let alone extensive ones.

I'm just about burnt out on the topic. I'm not even sure I want it to be my dissertation topic. Part of the problem is that there was just too much time between writing the paper and defending it - three weeks. The timing was dictated by graduate school paper requirements and an unfortunate placement of Fall Break, and the effects became apparent in yesterday's meeting with my advisor. Studies that I knew backward and forward at the time of writing are now blurred; I don't know if I can call them all to mind when I need to, and I don't know if I have the willpower to sit down and try to re-learn them all tonight.

At some level I'm convinced it's over with, and there's no point to brushing up. My writing has always been stronger than my ability to think on my feet; I just wish the writing could speak for itself, without all this extra grilling on whatever the weak points of writing are. (This probably sounds really stupid - obviously the writing can't speak for itself if there are weak points to be grilled on. I think that the day-before-defense should be understood to be one of completely illogical and nonsensical thinking).

My advisor was able to pinpoint a few points and papers that I should brush up on, as they are the ones she is more likely to ask, or seem weakest to her (It must be tough, being the advisor. How do you advise the stressed-out student without giving away all of your questions in advance? Or could it be that she doesn't care, because she sees the defense as a formality and is already willing to sign the paperwork?). I've put myself to about five articles (of the 100+ reference list) to review and reconsider. I should just about be able to stagger through those. Then I have one night of recovery, before I start writing one last (mercifully short, at 7-9 pages) paper for the semester.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Finally, Something Was Accepted

Technically, I didn't get much work done over my week-long Thanksgiving break. I responded to some student emails, I commented on my thesis student's end-of-semester paper, I contemplated my future. But, I feel very accomplished, because not one but both of my poster submissions to a major conference in my field were accepted.

This marks my first acceptance in anything (besides the master's thesis itself, I suppose) since I came to graduate school. My first poster, my first "publication" of any type, my first conference. Every other poster submission, workshop application, grant application, etc. has been rejected. So, four years into my graduate studies, and I finally have something with my name on it that can go on my CV. In fact, I have two of them.

One of the posters will be the only form of publication that my master's thesis gets, because I'm still refusing to follow through on anything that would make it paper-worthy. I almost refused to do the poster submission, but my advisor encouraged me to give her some way of citing the research in future. And perhaps the poster will make me feel like I actually accomplished something with that thesis.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Research Drudgery - Programming

When the professor who built an entire program to better suit his research needs says something "shouldn't be too difficult" to program, I can expect to spend several days on the task. It took me an hour and a half yesterday just to figure out how to make an array and a repeat command in the environment we're using (not the one he built, or I'd make him do it), and who knows how long it will take me today to figure out why the program isn't doing what it's supposed to be doing. And this was just the preliminary step to finishing the third part of the experiment; I haven't even started programming that.

I actually like programming, most of the time - it's fun to solve problems and conquer logic. It's just that this experiment has been in the programming stages for the entire semester, due to the scarcity of programming computers (a Windows-only programming environment in a Mac-only department - whose bright idea was that?). It is the hindrance to me feeling that this semester has been a productive success. I now have two days, before I take off for Thanksgiving break (we get the whole week off), to try and finish programming in hopes of getting some data before the end of the semester. Back to the sub-basement for me...

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Trade-Offs on Time: Quantity vs. Flexibility

Whenever I feel overwhelmed with the amount of work I have to do, and begin to wonder why I'm in graduate school and if it's all worth it, I try to remind myself of some of the beneficial trade-offs that come with all that work.

A few weeks ago, in the throes of comps writing, I ran into an undergrad RA at Panera Bread. She was there on a date with her husband (yes, even the undergrads are getting married); I was there as an intermediate step between the public library and Borders Cafe. The undergrad, who is considering going to graduate school at some point, was put off by the seemingly never-ending stream of work we graduate students seem to do. And I can certainly understand that impression; it was a Saturday evening, and I'd done nothing that day but work, would do nothing that weekend but work. During the school year, when research requirements are met with teaching, classes, and an amazing quantity of colloquiua, I easily work 40 hours a week; some weeks, I easily top 60.

On the other hand, there is flexibility here too that often makes it seem worthwhile. Today the weather is an unseasonal 74 degrees - in the middle of November, we're talking record highs. In a "real" job, working 9-to-5, I wouldn't be set free from work until the sun was almost setting and the chill was rapidly returning. As a graduate student, I abruptly decided to take advantage of this weather in the middle of the day, embarking on a leisurely walk to the pedestrian mall downtown to shop for a birthday present. It took a bit over an hour, and it was not my lunch break. I don't know of a "real" job that would allow me to disappear for an hour in the middle of the afternoon because I felt like enjoying the unseasonal weather.

I'm not sure this freedom always makes up for the times when I work non-stop for an entire week. I've never counted the number of weekend days I work or the number of weekdays I slack off. At the moment, however, right after a brief sojourn in the sun, that freedom to decide when I work feels like it completely makes up for the excessive amounts I work.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Comps Writing is Done, Only Defense Left

Three days of non-stop comps revisions later, and I have sent the final no-more-revisions allowed version of my comps paper to my committee. The full paper (including title page and references) weighs in at 51 pages, 14,010 words; the text itself is 34 pages, 10,386 words. I never needed to worry about making the official 10,000 minimum, although I still can't believe that my advisor gave me enough comments to add 1,500 words to an already long paper.

I got a little obsessive toward the end. It turns out that 34 pages takes a long time to scan through checking for typos, and then I needlessly fretted over the formatting of my references section (like my committee cares). This is considerably more vetting than I gave to my master's thesis. It may just be a deep psychological need for stylistic perfection, since this is my one Achievement for 2008 (there might be two, if a paper in its second round of submissions gets accepted, but I'm not holding my breath).

The downside to all this is, I can't quite celebrate yet. I can't say I'm "done", because I haven't "passed". That will be determined three weeks from now, in an oral defense. Which means that as soon as my brain is recovered, I get to start putting together the presentation and re-reading critical papers for any questions my committee asks to test my fitness for Ph.D. aspirations.

And, getting the final paper in on Friday (instead of Monday) doesn't mean that I get to recover over the weekend - it means I get to do all the work I was going to do over the past three days, and didn't. But my brain feels only slightly more functional than after the marathon weekend draft-finishing session, so all that work gets to wait a few hours while I surf the net, eat, and try not to involve anything that requires conscious thought.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Not Quite "Done"

The good news is, my advisor told me it would be okay if I sent the final version of my comps paper to the committee by next Monday instead of by this Thursday. The bad news is - you guessed it - that I need an extension from Thursday to Monday to deal with all the comments and revisions. Or I might not; I sat down to work on this at 5:30 last night, after an early dinner, and got up from it at 11:30. So that took care of the one huge comment (tell the story earlier and keep referring back to it as you introduce each new section) and most of the little "cite something here", "move this point", "explain this study better" comments.

I know, I know: It's making it a better and stronger paper, it's better to do these things now instead of having them come up in the defense proper, it'll put my paper into the proper word count, etc., etc. It's not like I would have had any idea what to do with the work-free weekend I was looking at.I just am really ready for this to be done.

Then I can start working on putting together a formal presentation for the oral defense. That's going to be a fun Thanksgiving holiday.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

To TA or Not to TA

The current and recent economic situation, and specifically the funding climate of the past few years, is starting to put a pinch on my advisor, and thus on her four graduate students and professional research assistant. We are the in the hellish process of attempting to renew her main grant, which has been going on for over a year now. Naturally, they decided to shift from "3 rounds of submissions, and expect to go through all 3" to "2 rounds, and you'd better hope you make it in 1" just as we got back the reviews on round 2. So I was a bit thrown off by my advisor saying it might be better for me to RA than TA next semester. How exactly does that work?

It turns out this is just my advisor's attempt to be equitable across graduate students. It's very likely that this would be the last semester she can put us all on RA-ships, so if I want to have a semester I don't teach for the remainder of my graduate career, this might be it. I explained that I would much rather have all that money set aside for summer, when TA-ships are few and not enough to keep you out of debt. Besides, the department is woefully short of TAs once again.

I'm not concerned if I'm the only of her graduate students teaching; it was a frustrating pain in the neck the first time, when the grant proposal was being thrown together at the exact same time I was throwing together a lab course, but I've since achieved some level of balance. Often I feel like I need teaching requirements, to give me something to do besides the frustrating and sometimes pointless research. Of course, all this positive feeling might not do me any good if I'm assigned to teach stats. At least next semester is relatively light in the formal requirements...

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


I am amused that just as InaDWriMo starts, I have run out of things to write.

The comps paper, although giving me a taste of exactly how hard it is to throw together 50,000 words (coming in at ~8,500, but definitely something like 25,500 if you count all the words that got deleted and/or rewritten), is done. The hellish tyring-to-get-something-published paper (which had a cap of 3,000 words anyway) was submitted months ago and is still under review. The related hellish trying-to-badger-collaborators-into-writing-correction paper has been languishing in my advisor's inbox for just as many months, and is unlikely to return to me before the Thanksgiving break. My honors thesis student finished her Intro/Methods draft and lab presentation in October, and doesn't need to be writing anything else right now. The only other research worth mentioning has been submitted as abstracts to a conference, but even if I hear back from them I won't be in a position to create the posters themselves until January. There is just no research to write.

What I do have, is a 7-9 page paper for my completely-unrelated minor class due sometime this weekend, and two reviews for a grant competition to read (with a one-page writeup review for each). That's it. I might be doing a great many things this November, but writing won't be one of them.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Whose Schedule Do You Cater To?

I never want to have to schedule a committee meeting again. It's been seven months, and I'd forgotten the horror and the headache. I started optimistically thinking that somewhere in a 2-week time slot a full month from now there would be a reasonable time. This was foolish.

Advisor only wants noon-4pm. Member1 shot down Wednesdays and one Monday and Tuesday, and has scattered availability everywhere else. Member2 gave me all day Thursday and one Wednesday and Friday morning. There is one tiny hour of overlap, and Member1 had specified "ONLY if that is the only possibility".

I started with Member2, because she gave me the least flexibility. She was unswayed by my pleading and had no further time to offer. Then I had to weight the options: who do I ask to bend? My advisor, the nurturing-if-currently-absentee mentor of the past three and a half years, and deserves? Or Member2, the most experienced with my topic and the one I know least and am somewhat intimidated by?

My advisor, of course. Partly because she said she could try to be available earlier, and I pointed out that I just wanted to give Member2 some alternative, but mostly because I have taxed myself far too much getting this draft ready too stress about this scheduling option, and the advisor is the less-stress option.

It Is Done

Alright, not quite "done". There is always the chance that my advisor will get back to me with comments, and there was enough new writing in a 12-hour revision session that I'll have to go back looking for typos and inexplicably nonsensical sentences. But if someone told me I had to give my comps to my committee today, I could do so without hesitation, regrets, or concerns. It is what it is, and if that's not good enough I don't even want to be here anymore.

Revisions cut out 1 page (209 words) and 9 references. If anyone on my committee is actually anal enough to complain about being 1,137 words short of the official length guidelines, I shall volunteer to do a global find and replace three letter acronyms are returned to their full, spelled-out glory. After all, I don't have to read the thing.

But the hard part isn't over yet. It's not the defending that worries me, it's the scheduling. I'm still waiting to hear back from one committee member, and I half expect her availability to be "any time before 3pm", because the intersection of availability for the first two is "3-4 pm (three days a week)". Not that I really mind having my defense constrained to one hour on the grounds of my committee's ridiculous offerings of availability, but I have nightmare visions of not defending until January, when I've forgotten everything I've struggled to put together.

If I sound somewhat incoherent, it's because my brain gelled sometime around hour 6 of revisions on Saturday, and is still in the process of resuming normal form. I'm really starting to buy that brain-as-Jello image.

Friday, October 31, 2008

No More Reading

The rough draft is complete. As of 10:48 p.m. last night, my comps paper checked in at 9,072 words and just shy of 30 complete pages. And that's without the 112-item reference section.

Now, nine separate sections of thought written over five months need to be read together, as a sanity check before seeking advisor's approval, and to figure out what on earth the conclusion is (what? was I supposed to actually remember everything I wrote over so many months and be able to tie it together?). I do not know and do not care if these efforts bring the paper to the magic 10,000 limit, or if the word count shrinks as a I strike all the wishy-washy "may", "could", and "possibly" text.

I'm not entirely sure I want to send this to my advisor. Then I might have to read and write some more. I'd rather send it to my entire committee as a fait accompli. Here it is, as good as it gets, and judge based on that. Perhaps I'll feel differently by the time I get comments back, but no guarantees.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Grad Student Budget

Surviving on a graduate student budget has mixed success. I considered being upset with myself when I saw that I'd already spent my entire October paycheck with a week left to go, and then I had Quicken pull up a report of what I spent money on. Oh yeah - a $400 plane ticket home for Christmas. It was purchased in September, but got pushed forward to the October calculations because September already had a $300 plane ticket for Thanksgiving. That ticket was purchased in August, but August already had health insurance and a plane ticket for my grandmother's memorial service.

November will have my brown belt test (hopefully). December will have my annual dental cleaning and X-rays, no doubt with a conversation with my dentist about how I came in to find cavities, but not to fix them at $250+ apiece. January is another health insurance premium (why, when it doesn't cover dentists or optometrists? Because the University requires it). February will be new glasses (1 prescription out of date) and sunglasses (2 or 3 prescriptions out of date, and functionally useless). I haven't gotten out as far as March, but I'm sure something expensive will come up - and it won't be Spring Break.

Throw in the fact that I'm currently overpaying my taxes (payroll adjustments for the August overpay are after-taxes, so I'm paying taxes on that income twice until I get my annual refund), and it's completely understandable that I'm dipping $50 into savings this month. Heck, the fact that this is the only month I've gone over, and should be the last one (as long as I keep the find-not-fix dental rule in place), means I should be congratulating myself. I haven't gone grandiose, I just don't intend to sit in my office and work on holidays, or let my health deteriorate. At least I am not in the ranks of college students applying for food stamps. I can still splurge a little on my organic Honey Crisp apples.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Future

I didn't go to grad school so I could use the degree; I went to grad school so I could get the degree. It wasn't an attempt to lay the foundations of a career, although that was certainly a possibility; it was because it was a challenge and the topics were interesting and I had nothing else pressing to do. I refuse to be trapped by my education. If I decide I want to write children's books, become a police officer, join the peace corps, learn carpentry, start my own dojo, teach kindergarten, work for a non-profit, or run for political office, it is not a "waste" of or disservice to my education. Doing something just because it makes use of my PhD would be a waste of or disservice to my life. I can only assume that anyone who says otherwise stayed on a lifelong path set by a decision made in college and thinks everyone should suffer the same fate.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Real Life vs. Research

For the most part, my real life doesn't interfere with my research - there isn't all that much of it, really; I read, I take pictures, I workout. Recently, as my "workout" karate has progressed closer and closer to black belt (a much more achievable goal than the PhD, since I started karate and grad school at the same time), the risk of injury has increased.

First I sprained my finger. It sounds like a completely ridiculous injury, which it is, but it's been 7 weeks now and it still hasn't healed. The doctor's estimate was six to twelve...months. Fortunately, I only had one week where typing was problematic, so it's more a minor annoyance than a real hindrance to research progress.

Yesterday, I banged up my knee. Karate again - the same person's shin making unfortunate contact with a fleshy part of my anatomy, actually. The knee joint is fine, but a specific portion of my right quadricep is bruised, swollen, refusing to assist in extending my knee, and otherwise whining.

Naturally, this occurred the morning of the day I was going to spend the afternoon on campus programming, and instead wound up spending the afternoon in bed communing with an ice pack. Naturally, this occurred the day before I have three hour-long events back-to-back in completely different buildings on campus, one of which is a teaching presentation to the graduate teacher program that my faculty mentor (not the same person as my advisor) will be evaluating. The facts that I volunteered to do the talk and have it evaluated are not helping, and are in fact making it worse.

I see workouts as a vital means of combating a sedentary research lifestyle, relieving stress associated with comps and the rest of graduate school, and feeling like I do something with my life that doesn't involve staring at a computer. I'm holding on to the belief, completely unfounded (it's not my area of research), that the long-term benefits of my more active lifestyle are worth the short-term costs of injuries that impair my research progress. All the same, I think I should write off any productivity for the rest of the day following a karate workout.

Friday, October 17, 2008


The comps wordcount passed the halfway mark at approximately 9:15 p.m. last night. This is the point where I finished refining a paragraph from disjointed notes into a coherent statement, and Word told me that my cursor came after 5,063 words. The cursor was sitting just over halfway down the 17th double-spaced page.

No, I am not going to force myself to get to 10,000 words, the lower limit of the "expected length" range we were given. I am going to make the points I need to make, citing as many of the 116 journal articles on my reading list as I can. My advisor's inevitable requests for clarification may put me into the proper range, of course, but I prefer to keep to concise statements rather than try to make an arbitrary word count.

The most frustrating thing about a theory paper is that I have no idea whether any of what I'm saying is true, or even reasonable. Have I somehow missed huge swathes of the literature, or misread critical points? I try to take comfort in more senior grad students' assurances that I won't be failed as long as I demonstrate some competence in theoretical arguments, but I can't help but cringe at the potential expectation that this be publication-worthy. I have enough confidence that it's accurate to base my dissertation work on it, but not to let anyone who actually knows this field look at it. Wasn't I supposed to be feeling like I had a good grasp on this topic by now?

Meanwhile, the current status of the paper is 5,459 pages, spread across a full 18 pages. Add all the notes I have on sections that are not ready for proper writing yet, and the word count is 7,234. It'd all be in good shape if it didn't have to make convincing sense.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Can You Really Get A's Without Trying?

On the whole, I'm pleased with the student reactions to their first grades. The class average was a C (median C+, mean C-, or something like that), which makes perfect sense to me because "C" means "average" and I don't expect great things out of the first written assignment - that's why there are three of them, to give students room to improve. I'm very conscientious about marginal and summary comments, with the summary comments being an explanation to them and reminder to myself of why they got the grade.

My greatest fear was of the two students who got F's; the one who barely put together a paper said nothing, and the one who plagiarized the entire summary from the journal article e-mailed me to say she was surprised/disappointed but had reviewed everything I highlighted and understood.

There was, of course, the anticipated line of students wanting me to answer questions after class. This was a 50-50 split. Half of them were on the issue of plagiarism; many students had what I accepted as "accidental" plagiarism that was marked and didn't affect the current grade, but would affect later grades (I declared one letter grade deduction for each plagiarised sentence). I reviewed what counted as plagiarism with each of them. The other half were the "I shouldn't have received such a bad grade". I had no problems sitting down with students to explain why their summaries, critiques, or proposed follow-up studies didn't meet the levels spelled out in the rubric they received with the assignment. I was not moved by the "I've never gotten that grade in my life" or "I get A's in my other classes without trying, how can I get a C here when I did try?" arguments.

Can you really get A's in your other classes without trying? Which classes are we talking about here? I have certain expectations of what a junior or senior taking a lab class in their major should be capable of doing. If you got a C, it's because you just barely met those expectations. People who are about to graduate from a respectable institution with a bachelor's degree should understand the difference between a prediction and a finding, not say that researchers "expected" to find something that wasn't a prediction; they should also understand what a paragraph is for and be able to use it properly. Am I the only person in this university who expects that? Are the standards for writing in our field really so low that we accept vague, unclear, uncritical analyses and give them A's because - what? because the classes are so huge in our popular major and TA's so unwilling that stamping anything with an A really makes sense?

I'm forced to wonder if students think they're paying for an education or if they're paying for a good transcript. On one hand, I feel bad because they signed up for a class with the most entertaining (if not that effective) teacher in the department, and got stuck with me in charge of a third of their grade (and lab sessions didn't start until after the drop deadline, either). On the other hand, I don't think my ideas of what these students should be capable of are unrealistic, and certainly don't intend to compromise on the grounds of some vague student-stated standards.

Wouldn't it be nice if there were some general agreement, with supporting examples, of what students are supposed to be capable of producing? If you want to earn a bachelor's degree, you must be capable of this, and it's not just me who will hold you to that standard, it's other people as well.

Naturally, this whole issue comes up two days before I lead a department workshop on grading and less than a week before I present to the general graduate teacher program on incorporating writing into non-English classes. I practice what I preach, but practice doesn't necessarily show that the preaching is correct...

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Sound of Your Advisor's Voice

Is it a good sign or a bad sign when you don't recognize the sound of your advisor's voice?

My advisor made a cameo at the (mandatory for grad students) department colloquium today, newborn in tow and toddler presumably left at the nanny. I didn't notice this before the colloquium began, possibly because she was not yet there to notice; she and her husband have a history of arriving 5-10 minutes late, but I myself was only just in time and was focusing on finding an empty seat rather than documenting attendees. So when questions began, there was a moment of puzzlement: That voice sounds familiar, but I can't quite place it. Even when I turned around, identified my advisor, and tried to make the connection, the voice sounded just a little off. It's only been six weeks or so since she last came to lab meeting, and I don't recall any such oddity when she returned from her first pregnancy. I had no problem identifying her husband's voice, which I'm much less used to, but then that voice is distinctive (read: loud).

The extremes of bad advising would seem to be when you cringe in fear at the sound of your advisor's voice, and when it is completely unfamiliar. This falls somewhere in between, on the side of unfamiliarity. Am I happily independent, or slightly neglected?

Friday, October 10, 2008

Not Plagiarism Again...

I am a very careful grader. I have only 22 students in my one lab section, not all of whom turn in every assignment, so I can afford to be generous with my time. Prior to coordinating with the other lab TA this afternoon (we give the same assignment, and will review the papers together to make sure students neither gave nor received unauthorized help from someone in the other lab), I was just going to read through the papers once, with no pen or intentions of marking anything. I just wanted to get a feel for what the students had said, and sit on that for a while before starting to mess, however slightly, with their GPAs.

My intentions were lost by the second paper. In the very first paragraph - because I foolishly thought it unnecessary to go over such things as "introductory paragraph" - was a sentence that just couldn't be right. I hadn't even read the journal article they were reviewing yet, for this first pass, and yet I knew it couldn't possibly be the students' writing. It was in the vocabulary, the use of acronyms without explaining them, and a certain sinking sensation. The student wrote three pages of "summary" that are more properly described as "blatantly plagiarised recitation of the methods and results, with a bit of introduction and conclusion added for variety".

After my fiasco with plagiarism last year, in which I decided "they're juniors and seniors, they know what plagiarism is and I can just say 'don't do it' ", I spent an entire lab session on research ethics, including a group activity on plagiarism. So far - I've only read through half the papers - it seems that the only person who didn't get the message was someone I'm pretty sure wasn't there that day. I should be encouraged by this; there's just no way to reach students who don't come to class. But all I can think of is that my careful planning changed nothing, because I'm still caught in the web of figuring out what to do.

Last year's plagiarism fiasco resulted in one student completely pissed off because she got a D (the plagiarism wasn't so extensive, and I was impressed enough with her evaluation that I gave her credit for everything but the summary) and one student who got a 0 with an option to rewrite that he didn't take. I am still sitting on the paper, decided how much credit, if any, to give. I'm inclined to do a 0 on principle. I could give some credit (like 20%) for attempting the evaluation, but I can't decide if that's based on any principles or just on not wanting another student confrontation in my office. I'm also trying to decide if perhaps I should buy a six-pack before I actually grade these things.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Mental Preparation for Teaching

Just as I consider doing a bit of my nascent mindfulness practice before going to teach, I see that PhD Comics has its own commentary on the need for mental preparation before teaching. The sad thing is, abandoning hope isn't all that far off from my goals before setting out to teach, mindfulness or no.

The aim is to be in a state where I am no longer personally attached to whether my students enjoy my class, whether they participate or fall asleep, whether I sound like a knowledgable professional or can't avoid saying "uh" and "um" every few sentences. You might say that I'm just getting rid of the stress that makes "what if I do a bad job?" a self-fulfilling prophecy; or you might say I'm abandoning all hope that the class will go well. It's all a matter of perspective.

Monday, October 6, 2008

What Am I Doing With My Weekends?

Recent posts on ScienceWomen about striving to find balance between work and the rest of life dovetail nicely with my own ponderings this past weekend, about what work I had achieved and whether it was sufficient.

My obsessive time-keeping experiment is over, so the weekends are no longer a push to get up to the theoretically correct hours of work done for the week. Instead I try to focus on accomplishments, starting each day with a short list of things to accomplish and trying to manage it despite whatever comes up during business hours. Still, there is a temptation to see weekends as "wasted" time: time that could be spent in the lab coding on computers that are suddenly free from people, or working on comps in chunks of time uninterrupted by visitors, meetings, and incoming email.

Overall, I have no hard concerns about the balance I am achieving in my life. If I am unbalanced, it's in favor of "life" not "work". This comes of having no ambition whatsoever, a "maybe I'll just join the Peace Corps" philosophy to what I'll do after graduation and what I'd do if I left the program. I have no stress over working on weekends because I know I'm spending a decent chunk of my weekdays on things unrelated to my research - either teaching, which my advisor is not going to see as particularly productive, or doing something completely unrelated to graduate school.

So I spent my weekends not working, and feeling like I should because I also spent some of the weekdays not working, which is an entirely different take on "I didn't get enough done this week!". I could just declare my "weekend" to be Thursday and Saturday - the typical days for getting no work done - but I think the five-hours-a-day, five-days-a-week schedule suits both my ability and my will for getting work done.

The only real question is whether I'm productive enough in my focused time slots. Tick tock; the semester's deadlines for data collection and comps defenses are rapidly approaching.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Enthusiastic Teacher

A fellow TA once suggested I consider the mid-semester check-up. We've gotten this far, now what do you like about the lab, what do you want to see more of, what do you want to see less of? Although this advice is over a year old, I finally implemented it this semester. With any luck, I would get some feel for how the class was going - it's just hard to tell whether silence and the occasional sleepy student are reflections of my teaching or of the general atmosphere immediately before lunch. As an added bonus, hopefully the students would be encouraged by my show of interest in their opinions and progress.

In general the results are about what you expect from an anonymous survey. Actually, as I think about it they must have been relatively good. Everyone in attendance (18/22 students) wrote something. Almost half - 8/18, or 44% - either said nothing needed to change, or left the question blank (which I'm taking as "nothing" in another form). Four people just told me to move the class along faster, five people made specific requests on content and activities, and one person told me to be more enthusiastic.

It's the enthusiasm question that gets me. Everything else is either easy (make some group exercises, no problem) or out of my control (I've made an effort for the readings and topics to be interesting, but I can't guarantee interest for the entire class). It's the enthusiasm I don't know how to change. I received a few similar comments on last year's FCQs - one of my students had no comment other than "smile more!"

I can't say for sure I'm the most enthusiastic TA in my department, because it's huge and I don't see most of them as they teach, but I know I'm somewhere up there. I care about teaching. I asked to teach this semester; I didn't have to, I wanted to. I spend time on my lesson plans, picking topics and readings that I hope will be interesting, planning how to get them involved. If I stay in academia, it will be in a teaching-focused rather than research-focused position. So I know I'm enthusiastic. But how on earth do I convey this to my students?

It's hard to be bubbly and smiling when you're standing in front of 20 pairs of eyes that always seem more jaded or sleepy than bright, trying to figure out what to say next and how to keep their attention. I count myself lucky that I (probably) don't have stricken deer-in-the-headlights look. I'm there; I know what I'm doing is important, I have a point I want to convey, I usually have a specific moment I hope will go well, I devote all my energy to engaging the students in the discussion and making my topic real to them. I even make an effort to make sure I'm smiling. I really have no idea what to do beyond that. All the other things that come to mind that demonstrate enthusiasm, like fast talking, are not conducive to good teaching.

Perhaps this one student is the only of his or her class who thinks that an enthusiastic teacher more like the lecture professor, who jokes non-stop (at the cost of the lecture material, but that's another story). If that's the case, I probably shouldn't obsess over the comment. I've just had assorted mentors tell me about the importance of your students perceive that you actually want to be there, and I'm not sure how to do it.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Where Do Universities Keep Their Money?

The news world may just be determined to help me rethink my position on credit, bailout, etc.

The popular perception is that, with the outrageous pace of rising tuition, universities have more money than they know what to do with, and should spend more of their endowments rather than jacking up tuition beyond inflation every year. I've ignored that argument, for the most part; legislating what universities spend isn't going to take much hold when people are willing to take on such burdens of debt to attend the prestigious places regardless of how little of their endowment they spend.

But where exactly are those endowments? They are obviously not piles of cash in the basement of the administrative building; in fact, they're in a lot of places that seem to be just as affected by the current economic situation as the stock market is. I'm not sure I'm convinced that Wachovia's decision to limit withdrawals from a common college fund is going to do much more fiscally speaking than give assorted payroll & benefits services more than a headache from resource juggling, but in the long run it will be extremely interesting to see the effects on the tuition argument.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

What Economic Crisis?

The latest PhD comic might explain why I don't see a financial crisis and oppose the bailout bill. After all, I have less than a thousand dollars in stock-based savings (quite lot less than a thousand than I had a few weeks ago, I do admit), I'm nowhere near to graduating and needing a new job. I have plenty of reason to take the extremely long view, which says the Great Depression only lasted a few decades and I have four or more to go before retirement.

On the other hand, it's also possible that trying to live on a graduate student budget with a minimum in student loans means that I have a greater appreciation for fiscal responsibility than most 20-somethings or Congress in general. I'm trying to accept arguments that letting go of credit can't happen at once, but it can be very hard to see why people despair of lost credit cards and mortgages when I've manged to live fine (in my single, childless, practically lifeless academic way) on a relatively meager budget with no reliance on and minimal use of credit.

That minimal use of credit does include student loans. I'm trying to figure out if that makes me a hypocrite or not. But student loans, and whether or not they're worth it, are a complex and lengthy matter for an entirely different post.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Advisor Commiseration

Saturday brought both myself and the other comps-writing grad student in my lab into the lab. We're working our way through a joint data collection project, existing entirely because our advisor insists (from her position far from the university) that we be collecting data. As if comps weren't enough. We're both taking our time in this project, because we certainly don't have the time to devote to data collection and the impending time-sink of data analysis.

It was something like a mini grad student dinner, full of casual yet helpful discussion of our advisor. I am not the only one who thinks our advisor is ridiculously firm on the department deadlines given that 1) no one else in the department cares (there's a student who was supposed to defend last year and still hasn't, and has not been kicked out or denied funding) and 2) she usually doesn't know there even are deadlines until we tell her. We agree that it is probably due to her need to not look bad while on maternity leave. I personally can't wait to see how much of a stickler for deadlines she intends to be when she's on sabbatical in a different state next year.

I'm glad I have someone else to check progress and commiserate with, since the only other person in my entering year is on a different track and doesn't have to defend until next year, lucky SOB (of course, I consider him unlucky every time I see the classes he has to take for his double-major). We don't pressure each other about our progress, and it's nice to konw that someone remembers that I'm working on comps and is interested enough to make polite conversation about it. I sincerely doubt my advisor will remember me before December, when she'll remind me that the deadline is here or past.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Getting a Handle on Stress

I am doing a totally weird, new-agey thing. The counseling services center at my school is offering an eight-week "Meditation-Based Stress Reduction" seminar for graduate students, and I signed up.

I probably would have been too self-conscious to participated, but the email announcing the workshop arrived at a serendipitous time. A month before the semester started, my maternal grandmother died unexpectedly. I wasn't that close to my grandmother - I last saw her when I was six, although we were called to the phone to sing her happy birthday once a year - but it was a hard hit. I went to my grandmother's memorial service and saw my slew of maternal aunts and uncles for the first time since my mother's memorial service, a year and a half ago. I spent the entire weekend being struck by childhood pictures of my mom, family resemblance between my mom and my aunts, and generally trying to figure out why my mother wasn't there. The semester got off to a rocky start.

The email notice of the stress-reduction seminar arrived on a morning I was feeling particularly stressed, for reasons which escape me but which can no doubt be accurately summarized as "research, comps, teaching, and classwork". I didn't care how hokey meditation sounded, I felt the need for some way to relieve stress beyond going to the dojo or raquetball court and taking out frustration on inanimate objects.

Some of the seminar is - let's not say hokey; let's say of dubious quality to an extreme cynic such as myself. On the other hand, some of it is interesting. Yesterday we were handed raisins, but we weren't allowed to acknowledge that they were raisins. Ten minutes evaluating small objects as if you had never seen them before was entertaining - and it was an excuse to play with food. It was two hours that could have been spent on comps reading, but definitely made the reading I got to later more managable.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Squishy Deadlines

What is a deadline, exactly? In the program brochure, they seem so strict: Failure to make adequate progress will get you ... I want to say "expelled", but the language is more like "asked to leave the program". In real life, however, they aren't so strict. First there was a general consensus that, due to a probable typo in the guidelines, "by Month" really meant "by the end of Month". Everyone gained a 30 or 31 day extension on deadlines (there are no deadlines in February). Several of the master's students are being granted informal extensions on the grounds that their advisors were travelling during the critical pre-defense period. Only my advisor seems to break the laissez-faire attitude in our department by insisting on keeping deadlines or requesting formal extensions (when she's aware of them, which isn't always).

Now another grad student in my lab and I are in a small dance of deadlines. She started a year before me, but due to extensions granted to those pursuing a double-major PhD (I am not so dedicated), we are both due to defend our comps by (the end of) December. Which of us has a better chance of doing so is a matter for any departmental betting pools. What I do know is that

1) Last year's defenses were all late (I think ranging March-April after the deadline)
2) I assured my advisor additional teaching responsibilities would not delay my comps, so I must stick to the deadline.

This puts my poor lab mate in a sorry position. She doesn't have to really worry about the deadline, in the way that I do. I haven't checked with her yearmates (all of whom are doing the double-major thing; I'm a bit of an underachieving oddball) to see if they'll defend on time or late, but our advisor's measuring stick is more likely to be me than them. Our advisor is the one who will probably care, and just think how bad it would look if I defend (less than a year after I proposed my comps) on time and she's late (closer to 2 years after she proposed).

I sort of feel bad about this. My assurance of on-time performance is stressing out a fellow who has been very helpful on assorted matters over the past three years. I don't have much choice on how to progress, however. If I don't manage to defend on time, my advisor will never let me teach again, which would be problematic as I'm seriously considering finding some magical teaching-only position after graduation. So there will be no dance of unspoken agreement that we can both be late defending, taking advantage of those "holidays".

I also feel bad, after reading assorted mother-faculty-challenges posts on ScienceWomen, for hoping that a semester's maternity leave will be as good an excuse for our late defense as an advisor out of the country was for the Master's students'. It's not that I want people to get a negative opinion of childbearing and lactating faculty members' productivity, it's just that it would be so much easier if the deadline were in January.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Negotiation "Vacation" Time

Making plans for the semester break (also informally known as "Christmas break") can be a tricky business. Graduate students are both students (it's in the title) and employees. Students get non-semester time off; employees get that day or two off when the university is closed.

As as student, especially one who didn't take a "real" job before graduate school, I am accustomed to several weeks at home for the holiday season. I certainly have no compelling reason to be on campus; there are no classes for me to attend or to teach. As an employee, my advisor expects me to be producing research at an increased rate during a period unencumbered with coursework and teaching requirements.

I have had family reasons to be gone for the past three years, but those no longer apply. The student part of me still sees 2.5 weeks at home as a short and entirely reasonable period of time for December/January, but the employee part of me understands it might seem excessive. I've heard from other graduate students that my advisor is does not generally approve of such "excessive" time off.

But, this is the age of computer technology. The only real reason I need to be on campus, in a time when meetings and classes are on complete hold, is for data collection, and my data collection is literally impossible during the holidays when campus is shut down and the population at large is hectic and uninterested in contributing to science. Everything else I need to do simply requires my laptop and, for communication with my group, an Internet connection. This is where going home actually makes more sense.

I do not have Internet at home; the campus bus I usually take will shut down during the winter break; and the "winter" break will almost certainly consist of snow, ice, and below-freezing (possibly below-0) weather not at all conducive to walking to my office. I could stay in the state, but I wouldn't be answering emails more than once a week and I wouldn't be able to do any lit searches. On the other hand, I could go to my father's house, where my productivity would go from business-hours-only to 24/7 high-speed Internet acces. It doesn't matter how many house chores and family events I let take up my time; I would be exponentially more productive in a different state with the world encased in my laptop, than in the home state with myself cocooned away from the snow.

It remains to be seen whether my advisor will buy this. I have no intention of mentioning my travel plans unless the information is specifically requested; it's not as if my advisor can generally tell whether I'm in the state or not, she's on campus so rarely. I can always challenge her to name exactly what it is I need to do over winter break that requires a physical presence on campus.

Besides, it really has the following effect: I have to defend my comps by December 17th, or be late and defend them in the Spring. And then I can go home and recover...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

"Expected" Graduation Date

I don't really need a reminder about the impossibility of predicting an end to graduate school. I think about the technical requirement of gathering a dissertation's worth of research in a year and a half (from defense of comps to expected graduation date) and want to laugh hysterically. But I really don't want to be in higher education for 10 years straight, so it must be done. Somehow. I anticipate a heavy recruitment of undergraduate labor...

Monday, September 15, 2008

We're a Serious Academic Instiution

Of course we are. We're all about the academics, and shedding that party-school image raised by college footbal scandals, drinking deaths, and the occasional riot on the Hill. Which is why the administration is encouraging the academics to completely shut down at 2pm on Thursday. Staff members should be allowed to leave early. Professors can't be forced to cancel classes, but it's strongly encouraged - and in my department's case, you might as well because the building will be locked and your students will have to convince campus security they have a legitimate reason to enter. Why? Because there's a footbal game. A football game will air on ESPN, so the campus must be deserted to make room for the crowds and the media.

According to the notice we received from our department chair, the Chancellor "believes that it will have some long-term benefits to academic side of the campus in spite of the obvious short-term disruptions". To me this sounds like some raging BS - the last thing the academic side of the campus needs is more students who want to come watch football instead of studying. Fortunately, I have no reason to be on campus Thursday - although given the location of my apartment, this won't stop the disruption. If I do go into college teaching, I am job hunting strictly at universities without football mania.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The New Bundle

Being a professor means answering students' emails up to 2 hours before your son is born, between contractions. I'm not kidding; that's when my last email from my advisor was dated, and she specifically mentioned contractions.

I do not get to slack off while my advisor's distracted; there's just too much stuff to do. The list of presentations and class work marches on uniterrupted, and there's no use pretending there won't be an end-of-semester checkup on the research. The real advantage is in the reduction of stress. I have the whole semester to get things done, rather than trying to meet certain checkpoints each week or every few weeks. Never underestimate the effect of being on your own timeline.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Personal Touch

It's not hard to find laments about how online-everything is destorying the social fabric of America, or at least unweaving and reweaving it into a nearly unreconizable new fabric. Today I went back to in-person communication for tasks that, I am sure, some undergraduates are unaware can be done in person.

First was paying my semester bill. A huge salary overpayment and a last-minute addition of a 25% TA delayed my tuition and health insurance waivers. Not wishing to come up with/shell out some $4000 more than I had to, I put off paying the bill until the official due date. I decided taking the time to pay in person would be worth a receipt demonstrating zero balance. Even in the Internet age, there was a line of some 20 people. The wait wasn't all that long, though - and I got candy. Some fraction of a penny of my fees' contribution to the bursar's operating budget was spent on fun-size candy bars at all the cashier's desks.

Second was making an appointment at the campus health center. I was in the vicinity anyway - it's next to the administration complex - and stopping in at a desk seemed more pleasant than coaxing phone signal in a windowless office and probably being put on hold. No candy treats here, just generic pleasantness in dealing with a person instead of a voice on the phone. I'm starting to grow very skeptical of the voice on the phone.

It's almost to the point that I might start using in-person as a matter of course. The option for doing this is so rare, it can't possibly be that much of a drain on my time.

Monday, August 25, 2008

First Day of Class

Suddenly it seems a lot more crowded. The undergrads have returned. An entire summer of a near-deserted campus and uncrowded streets always makes me forget what it's like when 20,000-odd undergrads innundate the town. I've gone from being one of a half-dozen bikes at the spacious bike racks to barely finding a spot to squeeze my bike in.

For me, the "first week of class" is almost meaningless. I don't TA this semester, there are no meetings or colloquiua this week, one of my classes is attending a colloquium series (and writing a paper on it), and the other only meets once a week. There's a certain temptation to hide in my office and only being forced to recognize the presence of undergrads when classes change and the stairwells are suddenly jam-packed and ringing with noise.

Monday, August 18, 2008

New Year Career Crisis

Two weeks ago, I was not entirely successful in my struggles not to cry in the middle of a presentation directly relevant to the current section of my comps paper. For most of the past week, I have had an intense urge to either put my head down and cry onto my keyboard every time I have received the latest draft of four of the five papers I'm co-authoring. Diagnosis can go one of three ways:

1. Depression is rampant in our society, and every member of my immediate family (except maybe one sister) has been on medication for depression or manic depression at one point or another. I msyelf have a dubious diagnosis of depression hanging over from my freshman year of college. Perhaps it is time for professional help in regards to regulating neurochemicals.

2. Workaholicism also runs rampant in society and in my family. The pressure to get two abstracts submitted by Friday, two papers submitted before Advisor's impending delivery, help a student with her paper before that deadline, and get through a huge hurdle of my comps paper before Advisor's impending delivery, while attending two major multi-day conference/workshop sessions in two weeks and organizing the new TA orientation, has created an overabundance in stress. I spent too much of the past week and weekend working (i.e., pretty much all of it, aside from ~2 hours of exercise or leisure reading each day), and have no reserves left from my day at the beach in San Diego. I need to take a day away from campus, email, my work laptop, and reading in general.

3. What the fuck am I doing in graduate school? Progress is stalled on my comps because I have no interest in tackling the huge theoretical debate I have to tackle, but everyone else finds this interesting and worthwhile (it was the participant debate that set me off at the presentation). Endless drafts and post-review revisions and trying to write three papers on the same research is what academia is all about, so I should be thrilled to have so many studies worthy of submitting after the dearth of worthy reserach my first two years. Obviously I'm not cut out for this. Perhaps I should consider a brand new career path, maybe flipping burgers.

Deeper consideration suggests it can't just be #3. I'm giving myself a pass on my comps problems, because the huge theoretical debate is addressed in my comps only as a stumbling block: "if this take is correct, we can look at this cool manipulation; if not, well...". I would be totally into my comps if they would have just let me say #(*% the debate, it's not going to get resolved, and the evidence in favor the useful take is convincing enough to proceed. There are reasons I'm stuck with four drafts on the same idea (revisions to a publication I wasn't even part of are half of them) that are unlikely to repeat at any other point in my career (please!). There has been an ongoing career crisis in that direction for the past year or so, however.

Addressing the work overload is difficult. Thanks to comps, there's always something that needs to be done pressing on the back of my mind, so it's a matter of just ditching work rather than getting to a good stopping place. Re-evaluating assorted commitments means Friday, and probably Saturday, are now Grad Student Skip Days. My newly re-validated bus pass and I are taking off for anywhere not here. I am turning off the computers, ignoring the books, and either getting some sunshine or getting some expensive sugar.

Addressing the career crisis is less difficult. A very timely email has pointed me to a "Turning Points" career workshops just for graduate students. I will totally pay $60 for a six-week course on figuring out what I want to be when I grow up and how to be it. (Mild paranoia that three more people won't sign up to meet the 10-person minimum is adding to my stress load, however). And, I've enrolled in an entirely irrelevant education course I know nothing about (the title is probably Religion, Spirituality & Education, but abbreviations make it diffiuclt to tell) becuase I'd already maxed out tuition and fees anyway, so it's free!. Technically this adds to my workload, but the possibility of having non-optional chores with absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with my research is well worth it.

And, this day is ending early. There is absolutely nothing I have to do that is better off being done today poorly than tomorrow (hopefully) rejuvenated.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Teaching & Technology Conference

My school's teacher program hosted a state-wide conference on teaching and technology, and as lead TA I got to attend free (on a "scholarship"). I also got to run back and forth between the tech building and my department, as my advisor was somewhat inflexible about me attending a conference on our lab meeting day.

As with any conference, the workshops were hit and miss. There were some interesting discussions about Web 3.0 and Students 2.0, and sessions on what a wiki is and how to make use of it. As far as highlights go, there are two:

1. At 8:30 Wednesday morning I was introduced to Zotero, a Firefox-based reference management software. I promptly spent my free time between workshops converting my previous, insane, Excel-based managment. The bibliography export isn't perfect (it insists on including doi information on half the references), but the ability to have all the information, including the abstract, saved by a click of the mouse is more than enough to make up for this. This new productivity should go a long way to appeasing my advisor over my attendance.

2. The lawyers presented on mind mapping software, which looked interesting enough - I'm tempted to check out the freeware. The interesting part, however, was that they were demonstrating their department's product ($$), and had mentioned to the company that it was being demonstrated, and had been given a book, software, and t-shirts to give away. The drawing for the freebies consisted of one presenter throwing everyone's cards up in the air, and the other trying to catch one. It was worth jotting down my name just to watch. (I got a t-shirt for coming up with a use of mind mapping software earlier).

3. An intriguing presentation on using Second Life as an educational tool. One presenter used a Second Life location as a substition for a powerpoint (a kind of distance learning opportunity, I guess), and the other demonstrated NOAA's Island of demonstration tools for teaching about science. None of these seem to apply to my discipline, but it was interesting to watch. How soon will we be fulfilling the science fiction fantasy of sitting at computers instead of attending classes?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Writing Never Ends

I wrote incessantly in high school, in notebooks ranging from letter-size to a little tiny thing I kept in my back pocket should inspiration strike. The challenge back then was in finishing a story. I might start a dozen at once, with no particular plot in mind, and just write aimlessly but interestedly until the interest was lost. There's a very real limit on how much time you can spend trying to write the same thing before it becomes more burden than pleasure.

Fast forward to graduate school. The same problem still applies, only now it applies to more scientific than science fiction endeavors. There's a little thrill when the challenge is handed down: put this experiment in parent-friendly terms for our newsletter, put that experiment in easily comprehended but thoroughly scientific terms for publication. But the same problem as high school applies: there has to be an end product.

You might think experiments would be very conducive to this, because the plot is all there: introduction, method, results, conclusion. With word limits, even, to keep you on track. The plot is anchored by the methods, so the rest can't get too far away from you (although there are certainly plenty of re-analysis and re-interpretations to extend the process quite a bit). And yet...The process still never seems to end.

The problem with the experiment is that now you aren't in control. There are your co-authors, for example. This calls for extensive, sentence-by-sentence, "what if we said...let's change this...". The tweaking process is very helpful, making for a much better paper than the early drafts. Once three people have gone through 20 iterations (I'm not exaggerating. I have all the drafts saved), however, interest in writing has already begun to wane. Dramatically. You want that paper done, the .doc file cast aside permanently in favor of the immutable .pdf.

And then, once the co-authors have been pleased, there's formatting for submission, and rejection, and formatting for submission somewhere else, and NOW there's an editor and two reviewers calling for further modifications. You thought you were done - but no! Now three people have called for a minor change here, an expansion there, convince me you don't need another experiment...all of which have to be addressed in yet another round of drafts.

I should be thrilled to get a revise-and-resubmit response; it's the most favorable of any reaction to my submissions thus far (unless you count the committee passing my master's thesis, of course). My immediate reaction was - hey, that's pretty good! Nice reviews, so we didn't explain that too well, alright. And then I started putting together the list of things we would need to change. By the time I informed the co-authors, I was ready to start banging my head against my desk: I. do. not. want. to. work. on. this. any. more. My head is hardened by many years of martial arts; surely it can handle ten bangs on a cheap plywood desk?

I had the same problem with my master's thesis - too many revisions, get it the hell away from me now! But that had a firm deadline, and rather lower standards than official publication. I did it for the degree, and continued progress towards the next degree, but I'm not sure I can do it just to have my name published.

Graduate School Is Not My Entire Life...I Spend More Time Sleeping

The second achievement of my obsessive time-keeping experiment was to demonstrate exactly how much time each week I have been dedicating to graduate school, specifically my research and my comps paper. This could alternatively be described as "not as much as I should" and "exactly as much as I feel like". The actual number is around 25 hours per week.

Keep in mind that this is time actually spent working on a task, not time spent in the lab but surfing the internet. Still, the number seems a bit sparse, given the usual informal expectations of graduate student time commitments; hence, "not as much as I should". I can come up with various excuses - no time-consuming data analyses to run, assorted stalls in attempts to spend time collecting data, no summer classes - that would explain how the summer has been an aberration. The reality, though, is that time spent is "exactly as much as I feel like".

If I don't feel like working in the evening, I don't work. It doesn't matter if I slept in, and only spent 4 hours of work on graduate school so far today. I have no deadlines; even meetings with my advisor have become "sign up if you want one". I have no significant other breathing down my neck to get on with it already, no parents demanding surcease from tuition payments. The only thing making sure work gets done is my own interest in getting it done.

This provides some excellent perspective. Sometimes it feels as if graduate school eats up my entire life; days where I stay at the office until 7:30, going home only to eat dinner at the desk while continuing to work (last Tuesday, I believe). The constant nag of assorted deadlines, imagined pressures, "I should be doing...", and doing work on the weekends makes it feel like the workload never ends. The workload might never end, and my subjective perceptions might be off, but I'm obviously very good at not spending excessive amounts of time on grad school.

Or, I'm obviously very good at not spending sufficient amounts of time on grad school...but that's all a matter of opinion. There is no exact number for time on task (our lab coordinator does have to keep such track of time, and the random conversations with undergraduates never seem to be made up elsewhere).

There is a lot to be said for working more efficiently, not longer. On the other hand, if I were truly a driven grad student, I wouldn't take that efficiency as a cue to take a break; I'd take it as a cue to excel and get the Nobel prize or get published in Science. Reflections on whether I will start spending more time on work come later.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Uni-tasking vs. Multi-tasking

For two months I have conducted an experiment in obsessive timekeeping: tracking time spent on work (anything relating to grad school) down to 3 minute increments (because 3 minutes = .05 hours, a nice round number). This experiment was probably more successful than any of the research I've done to date, and certainly has a more noticeable impact on my life - or anything, really. I have achieved two things: one, I've trained myself to uni-task; two, I now know exaclty how much of my life I'm spending on graduate school. Today, we look at uni-tasking.

Uni-tasking as a goal was partially instigated by my advisor, who relayed a general faculty observation about graduate students multi-tasking through colloquia, and heavily inspired by "Zen Habits", which has a rather
unique perspective on multitasking.. This perspective seems entirely correct: what's the point of sitting through a seminar if you're only listening to half of what the speaker says? The answer is usually "because I'm required to and don't want my advisor/the faculty at large to note my absence", but this seems to miss the point. There are a large number of seminars that turn out to feel not worth the time spent sitting in an uncomfortable chair, but assuming that the time would be better spent on other projects means not paying enough attention to the current seminar to have any idea whether it would be interesting.

Keeping track of time emphasizes the point of uni-tasking, or rather the lack of point to multi-tasking: in the end, each minute gets counted as only one thing. Two hours spent in a colloquium gets listed as two hours regardless of how much of that time I spend listening to the speaker and how much is spent on other tasks on the laptop. If I just listen, on the other hand, and do the other chores later, more hours get counted and the magic number of "that's enough work for today!" happens much sooner. And, I both have a better chance of understanding the speaker and of making an errorless data analysis that won't need to be redone later.

Keeping such anal track of time also trained sticking to a single task in the face of more pleasurable distractions. This is more than just not trying to do two tasks at the same time, but to not quit working and do something else (check other blogs, for example). The three-minute increments often turned into "alright, I need two more minutes to make the .05", which often turned into 10 minutes or more. The impulse to do something fun is acknowledged and then put off until the current task is actually finished.

The whole exercise sounds like something out of a self-improvement manual, although I came up with it on my own, and certainly took it to an obsessive level only possible in the name of semi-scientific inquiry. One week would have been enough for a "hmm, that's interesting"; two months gave me enough to develop an actual dislike of multi-tasking or stopping a task before it's done (unless I've already spent hours doing it, of course, in which case I'm ready to chuck the laptop against a wall).

Perhaps the biggest effect of uni-tasking is that I don't feel as if I'm spending my entire life on research. I was always in the habit of putting movies or music on in the background while I worked, which made work slightly more bearable but also stretched things out to cover the entire day. I also know exactly how much of my time I'm spending on this work, which helps put the entire experience in perspective. More on this next time.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Job Flexibility

Graduate school has the reputation of being a time sinkhole: 40 to 80 hours a week spent on work despite a 20-hour stipend, Friday nights spent analyzing data rather than going out. To a certain extent, this is true, although I personally don't push my time much past 40 (of real work, not of browsing the Internet from my office). The upside to the time sinkhole is that it doesn't really matter when you work. My advisor doesn't care if I show up to the office at 9 a.m. or at all. There are offices out there that work 10/4, or take every other Friday off, or treat Saturdays as required work time. My schedule can do any of these, depending on my need. It took my advisor three days to notice that my computer clock was accidentally set 12 hours ahead; who notices whether a grad student sends emails at 3 in the morning, unless it's three in the morning tomorrow?

The upshot of this is that informing my advisor that I would unexpectedly be out of town and out of contact for a given weekend is more of a courtesy than a necessity. I'm not entirely sure it would be noticed if all emails went unanswered for a four-day weekend. Normally I'm not in a position to think about, let alone take advantage of, this flexibility. Impulsive trips to Cancun are not in the graduate student budget. At the moment, however, I have reasons to be thankful for this flexibility, as I plan to ditch research to attend my grandmother's memorial service.

My first semester as a TA, I received some advice about dealing with students who request extensions or make-up tests on the grounds of attending a grandparent's funeral. I can't remember exactly what the advice was - I think that it would be okay to request some proof of needing to attend a grandparent's funeral, but to accept a parent's funeral without question as if they're lying they're going to hell anyway. I never experienced the request from a teaching standpoint, although I did have to put up with any manner of other excuses. From a student standpoint, on the other hand, I got to make the request - my mother had a heart attack the last week of classes, so I missed an exam and a term paper deadline. I much appreciated the fact that the teacher didn't request proof. I even more appreciated that my advisor had no problems with me vanishing for a full four weeks; no one else in my family had that option.

Now again, I am the only member of my immediate family with an easy time attending this service. Three can't get out of work, the fourth is trying but has an even tighter budget than I do (yes, it's possible, especially if you have a house and two kids). Any time I think about leaving academia for the "real world", I think about how much more difficult it would be to drop everything; professors can cancel class, or call for guest lectures, but in a business there are bosses to appease and hourly wages to accrue. I have yet to decide whether this time sinkhole-flexibility trade-off would be worth it on a more permanent basis.