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.