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.