The Light at the End

March 10, 2008 at 10:18 pm (grad school, random thoughts)

It is almost impossibly to believe, but I am nearly at the end of my career as a graduate student.  That seemingly never-ending sequence of failed experiments, mundane daily tasks, dissertation writing…not to mention missing my fiance like crazy – it will all be over in a matter of weeks.  Like so many other long-term life events, graduate school in some regards has flown by, but in others has seemed to take a life time.  I feel that my experiences here have absolutely allowed me to form my adult self – independent, opinionated, informed, and most of all – knowing that I can make my own way in the world.

Living on one’s own in a new city, away from friends and family for the first time, is a unique and indispensable experience…one that I think too few people go through.  There is a sense of empowerment that comes from creating your own life away from the comforts of home.  That being said, I am returning to my undergrad college town (not far from where I grew up) to start a new job and a new life together with my future hubby.  I don’t know yet if I’ll miss any aspects of being a grad student.  Certainly I’ll miss the people here, to whom I have grown so close, and I will miss the perfect weather runs outside in February and March…but the stress, the ‘dreaded Tucson summer’, and the meager stipend?  I think I’ll get over those things pretty quick!

This is my ode to moving on with my life.  I think when the time comes I will write Tucson a going away letter, but I’ve still got about four and a half weeks to enjoy the cacti, wildflowers and crisp morning air.

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The Blackhole of Laziness

January 8, 2008 at 3:42 pm (grad school, random thoughts)

I have officially fallen into the black hole of laziness.  I have been away from the lab for a while now, a thousand miles away in fact, and I’m supposed to be writing my dissertation.  The trouble is, I’m having some major motivational issues.  First were the holidays.  Who would possibly expect me to work on my dissertation over the holidays?  There was the pre-Christmas weekend out with my family, then the actual Christmas holiday with my sweetie’s family.  Then he had the week off so I again couldn’t force myself to work when we were both at home all day relaxing and being lazy.  Then New Year’s came and went and I have felt myself doing the back-slide into total slackerdome.

What many of you non-slackers out there may not realize is that laziness really does build on itself.  Once you take a week or more off, getting up any time before 10 am really seems like an insurmountable task.  Then once you do get up you’ve gotten used to eating a leisurely breakfast and watching your morning trash on TV, so working before lunch time becomes harder and harder.  So the sweet spot for me has become those couple hours between lunch and when my sweetie gets home from work.  Well, that is unless I feel tired and need to take a nap sometime before 5.  I know what you’re thinking, and yes, I do know how very pathetic that all sounds.

For me, another factor that feeds the laziness downward spiral is that when you have so many things on your plate (for me its the dissertation, wedding planning and job hunting), it is overwhelming to start on any of the projects so I choose to do none.  That makes sense, right?

Jeez, I really need to break the cycle!  And I’m gonna do it this week.  No yearly resolution for me, just a goal for today.  Get my butt in gear at the gym this morning and then get a few pages done on the Beast (what I will henceforth call my dissertation).  No more whining, complaining or procrastinating…although I won’t rule out that afternoon nap!

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I’m Thankful For…MS Word??

November 23, 2007 at 3:34 pm (grad school, random thoughts)

Yes, something that I have realized that I need to be most thankful for is the lowly word processor.  I was talking with my dad last night about writing my dissertation and I started to think to myself, what would that process have been like 20-30 years ago?  I’ll tell you with certainty that it would have been painful!  I pride myself on being ahead of the MySpace generation, ahead of the text-messaging 24/7 generation, ahead of the I-can’t-spell-or-use-punctuation-for-shit generation.  But I do have to admit, ever since I’ve been writing papers of any substance, they have always been on the computer.  This of course dates back to before the internet, but long before the internet we had the lowly word processor.  Sure there were only 2 fonts to choose from and spell-check was a novelty not to be trusted over the dictionary, but I always had the backspace key and the save button.  My dad was telling me how back in the day when he wrote term papers, they would have to attach footnotes to the bottom of each type-written page, and some teachers wouldn’t accept pages with white-out on them.  Maybe that was really the beginning of deforestation, I mean can you imagine the amount of paper wasted?

In addition to lacking the word processor, people writing scientific papers and dissertations years ago actually had to (gasp) plot their own graphs…by hand! Oh the horror!  It is so automatic for me just to take 2 minutes to use Excel or Prism to graph my data that I cannot even fathom having to do this process by hand.  And last but certainly not least, I have to give props to EndNote.  If you are a fellow scientist, I need not expound on the wonders of EndNote.  For those non-dorks out there, basically, it automatically finds and formats references from the internet, then adds them to you paper according to a specific journal’s required format.  It also constantly adjusts the order of the references to allow for the writer to add and delete sections of their papers.  Its amazing and I am COMPLETELY dependent on EndNote now.

So as I start to think seriously about writing my dissertation, I am pausing to appreciate the fact that I have access to the wonders of MS Word, MS Excel and man’s greatest invention (OK, I may be exaggerating, but only slightly), EndNote.

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Piled Higher and Deeper

September 7, 2007 at 3:43 am (grad school, random thoughts)

I haven’t been able to think of anything clever or note-worthy to write lately, and I think its because my brain is going through a total melt down.  More specifically, the brain melt-down that is associated with being in your final 6 months of getting your PhD.  Not only am I in the data slump from hell right now, I also have the added pressure of knowing that I need to (gasp) find a job.  I’ve been in school/academia literally since I was 3 (I’ll have to talk to my parents about that one, but isn’t 3 a little early to start pre-school?)  so I think the idea of getting a real job in the real world scares me way more than writing my dissertation.  Writing is easy, hell – I’m doing it right now!  Finding and getting a job?  That, I’m not so sure about.

I’ve been thinking lately about what I’ve learned about life while in grad school.  Sure, I’ve learned a lot of technical crap which, frankly, I pretty much hate talking about at this point, but grad school is about more than just the specific field you study.  So here, in bullet point form (its easier for my left-brain oriented mind to organize things into bullet points) are the things that you will learn from graduate school.

  •  PhDs are a dime a dozen.  Seriously, you look around and everyone has one.  That’s when those insecurities about securing any sort of meaningful job seep in.  You think, what in the world do I have that is in any way special?  Why would anyone hire me?
  • There really are very few standards for who gets a PhD.  This one has really been a sore point with me lately.  I have seen, within my own program and others, a very wide difference in how much work students have put in towards their PhD.  There are no set exams or other standards that need to be met.  It is all up to your adviser and committee.  And if your adviser is powerful enough they can pretty much dictate when their students graduate.  Its all kind of a sham.
  • Earning a PhD is not so much about intelligence as it is about perseverance.   Grad school will beat you down.  You go through amazing highs and depressing lows and you just have to ride it out knowing that someday, it will all be over.
  • Stress can send you to the emergency room.  I had this wonderful experience after working too many weekends, having too much crappy data and going through the inevitable money woes.  I had a sudden onset of intense muscle spasms in my neck, a real pain in the neck (oh come on, I had to).  Stress is insidious and will sneak up on you if you let it.  I think the best way to beat the stress is to hop on the elliptical trainer and sweat it out for an hour.  Either that or sneak off to a movie during the middle of the work day!

G and I were discussing recently why they call this degree from all fields of study a PhD.  I personally think its called a doctor of philosophy because above all else, you learn to think in graduate school.  You learn how to analyze and solve problems, you learn how to be critical, you don’t learn facts, you learn reasoning.  This is where a PhDs differs from JDs or MDs.  No disrespect intended, but for those degrees, original thinking isn’t really encouraged and you are forced to memorize insane amounts of black and white information.  That is of course necessary for doctors and lawyers, but it is a distinction nonetheless.

Back to the whole “finding a job” thing.  My most despised question that I am asked by everyone I know is “what do you want to do after you graduate?”.  I know its horrible to say this, but I’m still not sure.  What I really want to do is take a year off to let my mind atrophy a bit.  Everyone assumes that since you’re getting a PhD you have this grand plan for your life, but I’ll tell you another secret, grad students are the most confused people around, this may have something to do with the aforementioned brain melt-downs.  Don’t even try to ask me about the future.  I can barely plan dinner.

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And on a lighter note…

August 28, 2007 at 4:07 am (fun, grad school)

I felt I was being too serious lately, because I’m really not a very serious person.  So I have been thinking about getting a new laptop.  Of course at the mere mention of this, G was on it like flies on shit.  He lives for this kind of “project”.  So he found a laptop in my range with the features I wanted – plus its PINK!!!!  My questions about this are as follows:

  1. Would I get laughed out of my own dissertation defense if I came in with this bitchin’ flamingo pink laptop?
  2. Will this undermine all of my feminist ideals?
  3. Can I possibly be taken seriously at post-doc job interviews if I whip this out for presentations?
  4. Would it look even more awesome with some kick-ass pro-feminism decal stickers on it?

I may decide to throw caution to the wind because I just like this thing SO MUCH.

And another completely un-serious thing.  If you’re a TV watcher, you must watch “How I Met Your Mother”, it is possibly the funniest sit-com since Seinfeld.  Seriously.

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Research Funding – a personal issue

August 28, 2007 at 2:53 am (grad school, politics, science)

With this post is about something near and dear to my heart, but I have discovered that too few people know about this issue (and to all my scientist friends that read this, sorry to rehash the same rant, but not everyone is in the trenches with us!).  I wanted to talk about the political issue that directly impacts my life:  federal research funding.  Wow, doesn’t that just grab you and make you want to keep reading?  I know it sounds a little dull, and it certainly doesn’t have the pizazz that topics like gay marriage and abortion do, but it is an issue that is critical to the well-being of our society and our nation, and people need to know what’s going on.

A little bit of background about myself, I am a grad student in a lab which does colon cancer research.  Oh yes, its just as glamorous as it sounds.  We are literally “curing cancer”- to some degree anyway.  People are awfully impressed when they hear this, although to me its just a job like any other.  What many people don’t realize is that federal funding for research like mine and research in general has been absolutely in the toilet for the last few years.  This coincides with, ummmmm, oh yea, that money black-hole on the other side of the world.  I won’t even say it.  Now I realize that “defending our country” (if that’s what you want to call it) is important, but if you really want to play the numbers game, lets look at how many people die of cancer, heart disease and diabetes (just to name 3) compared to how many people die in terrorist attacks.  Not to say that any one loss is less tragic than the other, but I think we’ve gotten our priorities massively screwed up here.

Ask any researcher and they will tell you that the situation is dire.  NIH supported grants have become so competitive that only around 10% of submitted grants are even funded.  That means that 9 out of 10 grants are rejected.  9 out of 10 researchers have to desperately find other means to keep their labs afloat during these dark times.  9 out of 10 potentially life-saving or scientific-advancing projects are not being carried out.  And when the grants are funded (as one of ours thankfully was recently) the amount awarded to the lab is often drastically below the amount promised or requested.  As my adviser always tells us, funding situations like this are cyclical, he rode out a similar one in the late 1980’s.  Hmm, would that mean that whenever a Bush is in the White House we’re going to have to pinch research pennies?

Now I could make my point all day long in the context of how this hurts cancer patients and families of loved ones suffering from diabetes or heart disease, but I will make another argument.  If the United States wants to stay in the forefront of scientific research, this situation needs to change, and fast.  Starting with our severely declining educational standing in the world, we are well on our way to losing our reputation for being at the leading edge of research and discovery.  The top scientific minds will start to look elsewhere, as they already do if stem-cell research is their area of study.

Research can never be put on the back burner.  As diseases and the bacteria and viruses that cause disease evolve, so must our knowledge on how to treat them.  Its a daunting task to keep up with the ever elusive cancer cell on a good day, but take away our labor force and supply money?  Good luck.  I say this now because it will be another key issue to examine when looking at which political candidates to support.  I’m sure a lot of these issues will be moot point whenever the money-sucking black-hole goes away.  We can hope anyway.

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Something Else That Makes Me Feel Old

August 21, 2007 at 1:12 am (grad school, opinions)

I had another one of those moments today when I caught myself thinking, “man, those kids today”, which lead me to feel old and gray haired (which I am, gray haired, not old).  A new young woman joined my work-place today (and by young I mean probably 21, not that much younger than me) and it got me thinking, do young people not even try to make a professional first impression anymore?  This woman was wearing extremely casual cargo-capris with a ribbed very tight, very tiny tank-top, under which her bra was clearly visible.  Am I being a total fuddy-duddy or is this not work-place appropriate?  I’ll be the first to admit that I dress casually, I’m a grad-student for god’s sake, but it seems to me that women in college are taking the “casual” dressing to quite the extreme.  Teeny-teeny shorts, miniscule skirts and tank-tops are everyday apparel.  Granted most guys wouldn’t put up a fight to change this, but does anyone really give these women the respect and credit they probably deserve when they’re dressed like this?  And this applies to not only students, but teachers as well.  I had a professor a couple years back who wore clothing that I wouldn’t even go to the grocery store in while she lectured.  Her paint-stained t-shirts complimented her torn socks and Crocs quite nicely.  Now how am I supposed to show her the respect she deserves when she clearly put no effort into presenting herself in a professional manner?  I firmly believe in the rule that you will be treated according to how you present and project yourself, for better or worse.

It may be shallow of me to judge someone by a first impression, but it is also naive of others to believe that they won’t be judged by how they look.

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