Saturday, June 25, 2011

Working too much

There's a certain sort of cocky first year, which both my boyfriend and I were (are? when am I considered a second year?) that starts off thinking that you can work in lab sustainably 7 days a week. As an undergrad, I essentially did that--7 days a week I was either studying or in lab, pretty much constantly working except Friday and Saturday night.

Well there are numerous, copious differences between graduate school and undergrad, most of which won't be touched upon here (like the difference between it being your job to produce results and having research be strictly pedagogical, which is a big one). But one large thing that I didn't factor in was the existence of long winter breaks and summer breaks. Summers I was working in labs, but I always took at least a couple weeks off on either end of the summer, and I generally was working a 9-6, five days a week schedule because I needed someone to supervise me who didn't want to be around on the weekends and evenings. Winter break was a good 5 weeks long, and the only winter I spent most of it working was my senior year (and even then I took a good 2 weeks off around Christmas). So you can sustainably work full throttle, because you are really only doing it for 4 month chunks.

Well in graduate school, I get 2 weeks off for vacation. There are times when I need to work full throttle...when things are going well, or last semester during midterms/finals when stuff started to pile up. There are times when your personal life goes to shit and you immerse yourself in work to escape how shitty your life has become. But there aren't these long recuperative breaks. It's no longer this 4 month sprint, dictated by the semesters (as much...there's still a bit of that); it's continual. You need to work sustainably.

So the older students are right, generally if you take one day off a week to spend doing something not lab-related, you are more productive and happier and more able to work all out during the normal work-week. And it's not because they lack the same enthusiasm for what they do, but just that they know what is sustainable and what is not. And we are not special. Everyone starts out that way. It's just the way things go.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

I got my NSF comment sheets, and it sort of sent me into a set of blues. No, it's not that I'm bent out of shape about not winning an absurdly competitive's about the frustration with myself that I'm good but just not good enough to be excellent. I knew that in applying, seeing my friend who has done teach for America in rural Mississippi, has 2 papers and 2 poster presentations, a Goldwater, and an absurd GPA and reading her essays along with seeing her qualifications that I just am not that awesome. I don't know how to change the fact that I don't have any publications...I don't think this problem will persist throughout my graduate career, but I also don't have a project that's a hit and run with it project right now and it's going to take a little bit of patience to get some of my shit to work. Like maybe a year. I don't know. Maybe things will start rolling this summer after classes are done. But it's just not bam bam bam falling into place for me immediately. Immediacy is rewarded in science sometimes (at least for the $$$), even if some of the most meaningful results are on a longer timescale and you have to fight for them more.

I've never been a fit the mold awesome student, and I've always ridden off of giving people the impression that I am passionate, competent, and possess skills that don't manifest themselves in the classroom but are ultimately the skills a scientist needs. But even this has yet to manifest itself in a publication (in my first year of graduate school) and while I'm trying to keep this all in perspective...well... Perhaps it's the fact that I keep the company of too many over achievers. My best friend is submitting his first first-authored paper to a high impact journal in his second semester of grad school. It makes me feel like, well, WTF am I doing with my life?

For my reviews I got a Good/Very Good and Very Good/Good. I know in this game, Good isn't Good enough; you have to be Excellent and Very Good. Actually, my weak academic record and lack of a publication record wasn't even commented on (although one reviewer commented that I didn't have any abstract or poster presentations). Actually the reviewers really had nothing but nice, even glowing things to say in the comment sheet. The only negative thing (besides the comment about poster presentations) was that my previous research statement could have more details in it (how could I fit any more details in 2 pages?). All the rest of the comments were on how strong and well written my proposed research was; how I had varied research; how my research in natural products carried into my future research; how my personal statement was good; how strong my letters were (and how one in particular said that I had incredible enthusiasm for science and potential for future success); how I demonstrated a commitment to outreach to elementary schools; how I demonstrated a commitment to mentoring undergraduates; how my international research experience is a positive indicator for collaborative networks and broad dissemination in my field; how I explained how my work is relevant to the scientific community at large.

Really these rating sheets are pretty much useless. They say that I'm a good scientist and have a lot of potential, but I am just not awesome enough to be competitive for awesome people fellowships for awesome people who deserve to get awesome amounts of money. I guess I should take it as a complement that I got this far?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Oh my goodness, I cannot wait to be done with classes. It's spring break and I'm finally getting a chance to re-channel 100% of my focus to research, and it is glorious. Even if my experiments aren't working (yet).

Sunday, February 20, 2011

First year graduate student

When I was in Germany, at no point of their education did people ever juggle the way they do in the US.

Take my senior thesis. While doing my senior thesis, I was applying to grad school, taking a few classes, TAing a section of o-chem, and doing individual tutoring at the tutoring center. Take the first year of grad school. I'm TAing, taking 2-3 classes, and doing research. For the past two years, I've had lab as a first priority, squeezed in (in nights, weekends, and mornings primarily) between taking classes, teaching classes, grading, doing homework, and attending meetings. It's only been summers where my whole and entire focus can be dedicated to research.

In Germany, people didn't do an undergrad thesis, but they did do a diploma thesis (sort of like masters). Their diploma thesis was done in 6-9 months after they finished all their coursework. Their PhD was nothing but research. There was none of this frantic racing around, setting up that reaction before you had to run off to TA, sending a text asking a labmate to induce your cells while you're in class.

I suppose some first years handle it differently, making research less of a priority until they hit their second year, mainly just focusing on their classes. That's not why I went to grad school.

And on top of all the trying to get that experiment in, trying to finish your group meeting presentation, trying to stay on top of classes, I also feel obligated (and want) to do all the things I know are good to do. I want to go to at least a seminar or two every week. I want to stay on top of the literature--both in my specific field, and broadly in chemistry. I want to go to lunch with seminar speakers. I did this as an undergrad...I should be able to do this now, right? Right?

I love knowledge. I know classes are giving me knowledge, and I appreciate that. I guess I won't appreciate the influence they have on me until later--in terms of how I think about chemistry as is the pattern with classes. I guess I definitely got something out of both of the classes I took last fall, one in particular. But I dunno, I've been taking classes for so long, and I know that I will never have a chance to take a class in every area of chemistry that I'm interested in. I think I'm ready to pick up knowledge in less structured formats, as I need/want to know it. Luckily after this summer, I will never need to take a class again.

I wonder if this juggling game they put you through in grad school as a first year PhD student prepares you better for modern academia. I watch my PI, and he's split between so many obligations...

And then there's teaching. I enjoy teaching. There was this moment in my office hour last week when I coached someone through an equilibrium expression, and I thought "wow, this is satisfying." I do think it's valuable to force me to recall very fundamental chemistry that I don't encounter day-to-day. But I also see my friends on RA and how much they are able to accomplish in lab without dividing their attention constantly, and it's frustrating.

I don't know which of my (too many) projects are going to hit.

What am I doing with my life, anyway?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

These days I'm a graduate student, and I'm finding that I have less and less time to post.

I'm doing well; my research hasn't made any obvious, tangible progress yet, but I'm slowly getting there...working on it bit by bit. I have a great group and a great boss and really that seems to make all the difference. The classes are going ok and TAing is fine, but I'm just swamped with work to do all the time as is the graduate student lifestyle.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The more I read about the field I'm studying in grad school, the more I realize that my knowledge of this field is so ridiculously small.

It's not that I didn't expect this to be the case. Generally the more you learn, the more overwhelmed you are by how much you just don't know.

But these systems all have a lot of nuance, and it's a lot to wrap my head around. I assume much of the details will become second nature as I dive into projects and am surrounded by the terminology in lab meetings and have been reading these papers for many years...but as it stands I realize that I just don't know much at all.

Friday, June 11, 2010

In the past all my projects have been constrained by time; usually a summer, a semester, or (for my undergraduate thesis) an academic school year. This means that there is very little to loose, because it's obscene to expect that anyone gets results in 3-9 months. If you do, you're lucky. If you don't, you learn from the experience and that's what it's mainly about anyway at the undergraduate level.

Graduate school is going to be different, though. In graduate school, there's going to be time to see through a project to completion. I'm not going to abandon my babies half-finished. Of course, there's the whole idea of never really completing a project...and always having a follow-up project, but there will be five, maybe more years to make it work. And this is exciting and scary, because you never really have the excuse "oh I didn't have enough time to make it work."

It either gets finished or abandoned, I guess.