Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Crisis averted

My mid-PhD blues have been replaced by frantic experimenting and panic, which is much, much better. I got through that rough patch by taking a mental vacation and just accepting the fact that I wasn’t going to get anything brilliant done for a while. I took a few days off and didn’t do any work. For a week or so after that, if something didn’t absolutely have to get done, I didn’t do it. I’d set myself a few (3 or less) small goals for the day and once I accomplished them, I’d let myself off the hook. If I wanted to do more work, I’d do it, but if I didn’t want to, I didn’t force myself. After about 2 weeks of this I started feeling much less depressed about the state of my research and started thinking about some new ideas and directions I could explore.

The timing for this worked out particularly well- coincidentally my bosses were distracted with other things and I couldn’t get access to the equipment I needed until after I was feeling better. When I feel like I’m not making research progress my instinct is always to try to push ahead as much as I can. But perhaps sometimes it’s better to just coast for a bit instead of getting worked up over things that are a very small part of the overall PhD process.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Mid-PhD Blues

It’s been a while since I’ve written. I was really busy and then I got less busy and more angry. I think for the first time I have actually been contemplating quitting grad school. At this point getting a PhD is not that much more work than getting a Master’s degree would be, so I’m probably not going to quit, but the number of times per day that I’ve been thinking “screw this” has been increasing. It’s a combination of bureaucracy and nonsense (and bad luck) that’s keeping me from getting access to the equipment I need, feeling like I don’t have my own project or support from the people I need to move what could be my project forward, feeling like I don’t really belong anywhere since I straddle two labs and can easily be ignored by both groups, and just plain old fashioned burn-out. On top of that, when I try to come up with a reason to keep going… I don’t know what I want to do when I graduate which means I’m not even sure that I would need a PhD to do it. I like doing experiments, writing papers, and finishing things, and when circumstances or people get in the way of me doing these things I get really depressed.

Luckily I have a short vacation coming up. I was planning on doing some writing during the vacation but maybe I will just completely take a break. Then again, if I take a break then absolutely no work gets done on my project, which will probably not make me feel better either.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Friends and Colleagues

Grad school is a weird time to distinguish friends and colleagues. As an undergrad most of the people I worked with were more or less friends, and when I was working my coworkers were colleagues and that’s it. Now that I’m back in school I have a definite mental divide between people who are friends and those that are colleagues. Friends are people who I have seen or hung out with in a social situation, have had a conversation with about something other than work, and would generally do nice things for, like bring them soup when they’re sick, listen to them complain about their exes for hours at a time, give them a ride somewhere on short notice, or help them move. Coworkers are labmates or others that I work with and may or may not like, but it’s not really too important if I like them or not as long as we can get work done together if we need to. I tend not to do nice things for these people but I also don’t expect that they do nice things for me.

I recently ran into an awkward social situation where a labmate that I consider a colleague and not a friend had something bad happen, and my advisor obliquely suggested I do Something Nice for this person. I thought it was odd, as this particular nice thing is something I would do for a friend but not a colleague, but I just attributed it to the fact that my advisor is a nice person and therefore may assume that everyone does nice things for everyone all the time. I even considered doing this Nice Thing, but thought since the colleague and I don’t get along particularly well, they may not even appreciate or like it if I did this Nice Thing for them. Add to the fact that I live in a different city from my grad school which makes doing this particular Nice Thing complicated, I decided not to do it. And I thought that was that.

Fast forward a few weeks and a friend informs me that apparently some people are annoyed that I didn’t do Nice Thing for the colleague in question. I am amazed, both because apparently the colleague in question would actually appreciate it if I did this Nice Thing, and that other random people are sort of policing and causing drama about whether or not I do a friend-type favor for a colleague. I ended up doing the Nice Thing for the person in question but now I feel a bit unsettled. I don’t know if it’s the tacit implication that I be friends with everyone in my lab, the vague feeling that I’m expected to do Nice Things and take care of people even if I don’t like them because I’m female, or the fact that this points out just how hard it is to keep track of the social climate in my grad school when I live in a different city. It may simply be a difference in expectations between people that have been in school their whole lives and people who have worked for a bit and have developed a friend/colleague divide, or between people who live in the small town my grad school is in and people who live in a big city (i.e. me). I don’t have a good conclusion to this, just the lingering question if I did the right thing at any point in the whole awkward situation.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Agree to Disagree

I work for more than one person in a very complicated arrangement that not even I am sure of the details of. Most of the time this is to my advantage. But recently two people that I consider to be bosses gave me the exact opposite advice on how to run an experiment. Perhaps advice is not strong enough of a term. One boss said that I absolutely must run my upcoming experiment a particular way and started meeting with me to teach me how to do it and providing materials so I could do so. The other boss said that I in no circumstances should run my experiment using the method the first boss was adamant about using. This was really stressing me out. Both bosses could keep me from graduating if they’re unhappy with my work. I feel more loyal to one boss but am more philosophically aligned with the other one. For the first time, I have to make a decision on my own and defend it without being able to just say I’m doing it because my boss told me to, because whichever way I pick I’m going to have to convince a skeptical boss that it’s the right decision.

It’s frightening but exhilarating.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


When I graduate with my PhD I will have taken zero graduate-level courses from women (out of 11 or 12 total courses). I have had a few women in advisory roles, but my thesis committee will also probably not have any women on it. Sometimes I feel like I have an obligation to be a professor, to show young women that it’s possible and help them envision themselves as engineers. But other times I just wonder if the fact that I haven’t personally witnessed it being possible is a warning sign. I have to remember that something being difficult is NOT a good reason to want to do it.

I've heard rumors there are even fewer women in industry, and I don't personally know any with graduate-level technical training. At least on the academic side there are some good female science/engineering prof bloggers writing about their experiences. I haven't found too many bloggers who are women working in industry, or really, women with graduate level training in a STEM field that are working outside of academia. Anyone have any recommendations?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Your advisor is always watching you

Or at least, my advisor is always watching me.  There is an upcoming event on campus and a photo of my advisor features prominently in the promotional posters.  Promotional posters that are approximately every 10 steps along every hallway in my building.  It's no ordinary photo either.  He looks like a convincingly mad scientist who is staring directly into your soul, deciding whether or not you are a worthy next "test subject."  It's impossible to ignore this photo.  The best part?  This poster is also inside every stall in every bathroom in the building!  Just when I think I'm going to take a break and go to the ladies room: Bam!

This event can't happen soon enough.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Oh right, there are industry jobs for engineers.

One of the subtle differences I’ve noticed between science and engineering is that scientists have an “optimal” career path: after undergrad you go to grad school, and then you can get a job.  The best job is of course being a professor, but some other jobs that require quantitative skills are acceptable.  I think chemistry might be an exception to this rule, although at my undergrad I think chemists mostly went to grad school, like the other scientists.  Overall, for scientists there was a lot of support for students who wanted to go on the expected career path, and not very much for students who wanted to try something else.

In engineering, however, there are always opportunities to get jobs.  You can get a job right after undergrad if you want, and get paid real money!  Or you can get a MS and then a job, or job and then MS, or a PhD and then a job, or the other way around.  There doesn’t seem to be as much of a “right” way to be an engineer, and people who work in industry aren’t seen as inferior in the same way as they are in the sciences.  In fact, I have had people high up in the academic structure stress to me the importance of patents over papers, and real world experience instead of staying in academia for my entire career.  I don’t know if I will ever get used to this.  It’s a small thing, but every time someone says, “of course you should spend some time in industry!” it’s like they started speaking a foreign language for a moment.

The other part of this that has been a surprise to me is that the less external pressure there is for me to conform to a certain career path, the more I find myself thinking about what it would be like to be a professor.  I’m not convinced that’s the life I want for myself yet, but it’s become a possibility in a way it really wasn’t when I was a scientist.  I wonder though, if professors generally know that they want to be professors from the time they start grad school.  Do they get to the end and think that being a professor, or post doc on the way to being a professor, is the career they want?  Or did they know all along that was what they were working for?  And do people decide to be professors because they want to run their own lab?  Or they have a strong drive to teach the next generation?  Or their advisor knows someone who would be a great post doc advisor, and then it just goes from there?