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.