Grad School Calm

Sundays are good days. I get to resume my Coffeeshop Hobo persona, breathe in some fresh air and drip a bit of sunlight onto my body.

[Domestic Stability]

I renewed my current apartment lease for another 12 months. I know that I wanted to get off campus and find a 1 bedroom place to really call my own, but at the same time I also really wanted to just stay put for more than 12 damn months at a time. I’m tired of moving my stuff about. I will probably keep saving and try to get into my own place next year, but for now I intend to focus on configuring my personal space to minimise the beige. At present that means tacking up cheap colourful scarves onto my walls, and cutting out beautiful photographs from old calendars as arty decoration.

[Professional Calm]

In the UK it is fairly common for science undergraduates to gain full-time professional industrial experience before they graduate. The penultimate year of studies often involves a 1-2 semester exchange, or else the “Year In Industry”. In the USA I think it is a lot less common: there is more fixation on Grade Point Average (GPA) and fulfilment of a greater number of major/minor/dual major class requirements to complete, so science students slave away on campus for the duration of their degrees. Not all universities are like that – I can think of one example of a newer, more “vocational-orientated” university that had a really thorough internship program for its scientists – but most of them are.

I would strongly endorse any prospective science PhD students to get their asses out of academia for a bit and work in an industrial R&D setting. Even for a single 3 month summer internship. Recently I’ve found myself witnessing a variety of problematic scenarios in the grad school settings and thinking to myself – “Man, that whole situation could have been avoided or mitigated if they’d just had a bit more real world experience.” If the only semi-professional experience a person has is as an undergraduate researcher in an academic lab, then it is hard to bring a more balanced-perspective or alternative approaches to common academic problems. Do an exchange to a foreign country, work in an environment more professional/skilled than your local Starbucks, take up a hobby that gets you off campus – life experience one of the best survival tools you can ever own.

[Academic Calm]

Things aren’t as crazy or as scary as they were.

Last semester I got nervous before teaching. I would pace around the classroom waiting for the session to start. This semester I’ve experienced none of that: I’ve become familiar with the lessons and I know what is coming and what can go wrong. The marking goes quicker. I make fewer screw-ups.

This semester I only have 1 class. The added time difference is significance. Maybe I’m less stressed about course-work too – I’ve got a good idea of what constitutes solid B-level work.

This semester my research project is working. In fact I’m not far off getting a publication out of it. I’m applying to conferences, travel awards and keeping on top of deadlines. I feel like a legitimate academic scholar.

 

It is still hectic and crazy…but in a more manageable way. 

Green Tea & Cupcakes

Winterstorms

Winterstorms

I was told about this in advance. When I applied to various graduate program in Europe and the States, the current PhD students described the typical first year experience: “You work really hard trying to get your project working – once it is up and running you can relax a bit.”

I thought that my first semester was bad. I had to adjust quickly to the teaching, learn how to run quickly from the classroom to the lab, get settled. Then in semester 2 I was handed my research project and told – crack on with it.

In a science PhD, the research projects will make or – mostly – break the grad students. If you have a series of unsuccessful research projects then your graduation could be delayed by a year or more, or  you’ll grow fed up and quit. On the other hand, early success on 1 project means plenty of opportunities for successful projects to grow out of that…then bam, you have your thesis. It also makes life easier when you come to draft the research proposal necessary to advance into PhD candidacy.

Right now, life is composed of stupid-hour days and too much bad food from the student centre. Winter has turned my skin into cracked, itchy parchment. The snow has mostly gone (…for now), but I don’t have much opportunity to enjoy the fresh air and sunlight. I get up early, knock back too espressos before I leave the apartment each morning. I come back late, decompress for a bit on the internet and then go to sleep.

I’m holding up. The research project is actually working. I guess that is worse, in a sense – because I have no excuse to ‘just call it a day’ or ‘try sleeping on that problem’ – but more importantly the reason I’m working so hard is because I want to, not because I’m being forced to. As I prepare conference abstracts, format spectral data and draft journal manuscripts I feel that I’m finally hitting the “legitimate academic researcher” jackpot.

Slowly I’m passing out of the data gathering phase of this particular project and moving into the manuscript prep – the former is labour-intensive and time-consuming; the latter can be accomplished in a coffeeshop whilst listening to Paul Simon albums. I’m also beginning to (re)appreciate that working 7 days a week at a sustained intensity just isn’t productive and not really necessary.

I’ve passed through the worst of the first year craziness – I hope that calmer times are to come.

Dream Breaker

Last week something snapped inside of me. The perspective I held was flipped 180-degrees and I saw that I had been looking at my problem entirely the wrong way.

“Don’t give up on your dreams,” people always tell us. The implication being that if we have a dream, the only socially-acceptable option is to hold on to that dream until you bring it into reality.

Know what? Sometimes are dreams are just bad ideas. We may want to be someone that we are badly suited to being. We may crave something that isn’t actually going to make our lives better, that isn’t good for us. We might not even have thought things through properly to begin with.

 

There was a gnawing dis-sastisfaction within me that has been kicking around for months. I could see the problem clearly enough. I could see an effective solution to the problem clearly enough, too. Yet I left the sense of unhappiness right where it was, because the solution to my problem meant giving up on one of my dreams. And the thought of that hurt like Hell.

Last week was when the problem re-phrased itself to me.

  • That dream of mine? It is going to die anyway. I do not have the time and resources to salvage it.
  • That dream of mine that is going to die anyway? I do not actually want to salvage it. By passively ignoring -rather than rushing to solve the problem(s) – I’m manifesting my gut feelings.
  • That dream of mine that I am passively ignoring? It isn’t the key to my happiness. Happiness comes into my life when I am proactive. It doesn’t matter what I’m being proactive about: it could be acquiring a foreign language, soliciting freelance work (even as I struggle to obtain enough money to feed myself), going to parties to meet new people. I am miserable when Life forcefully happens to me: I am happy when I forcefully happen to Life. The dreams aren’t the most important thing after all.

If I do not have the inclination to salvage my dream (which I don’t believe that I do) I should be proactive about stopping it. That firstly means admitting to myself that my dream has caused problems and made me unhappy. From there onwards it is all about moving forwards.

 

 

 

High Rolling in Manhattan

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA From a business perspective, New York City is a great place for retail activities.

I stood in the checkout queue at the Topshop on Broadway. In front of me were two immaculately dressed girls lamenting that they had forgotten to bring their student IDs. Their makeup was perfectly applied, they were dressed with painstaking fashion precision. I couldn’t believe that these were undergraduate students – weren’t undergraduates the ones who slobbed around in tracksuit bottoms, jeans and bed-head hair? My initial suspicion was that I must be looking at two Art or Fashion majors…except that in NYC the physicists are probably this well-dressed, too.

That’s the problem with New York. Everybody in downtown Manhattan puts so much effort into their appearance, I feel embarassingly scruffy when standing next to them. And of course that only way I can mitigate such an impeding sense of embarassment is to buy lots of expensive clothes. What business owner wouldn’t want to set up a store in that kind of societal pressure cooker?!

***

Now, the immediate question is…why would a scruffy international grad student even care about how the denizens of Manhattan garb themselves?

It’s to do with escapism, I think.

There is the persistent sensation that I am trapped on the campus of this sprawling public university. The staple of the undergraduates’ wardrobes seem to be Ugg/Timberland Boots (gender depending) and university-brand hoodies. If I want to “eat out” on campus it means a choice between the “so inauthentic its good” Chinese & Mexican vendors that cost me less than $8. When I exist solely within the confines of my university and town life is cheap, but rather constrained.

Whenever I board the regional rail I am attempting some sort of escape from being a scruffy international grad student. If I jump on the South-bound train I am escaping the “grad student” part: Philadelphia is where I meet up with my “Year In Industry” friends, 95% of whom aren’t grad students. If I jump on the North-bound train towards New York, I am escaping everything.

Angry Seas and Rooibos Tea

Stormclouds and calm, Scotland.

Stormclouds and calm, Scotland.

Hard to imagine. This time last year I was standing at the edge of the North Sea in one of the quiet corners of Fife, Scotland – watching grey waves crashing violently against the shore, feeling like I was looking back into myself. I was living with my parents, stationary for the briefest lengths of time, unsure of which direction my life was going to lurch in next.

Now I live barely 1 hour away from one of the largest, busiest cities in North America. Landlocked. I look out of my window to the steady glow of streetlights, drawing into silhouettes the smooth outlines of bald tree branches.

I can still hear those waves crashing, though.

***

There is a small ritual I have over here in grad school. On Saturday or Sunday night – whenever the weekly list of tasks has been completed – I will retire to my room and light a stick of incense. As it burns I will drink some green tea or Rooibos – it’s far too late at night to be drinking heavy caffeine – and allow myself to wind down. It is a way of signalling to my mind that I can disconnect from work, from grad school, from my hectic craziness. Even if it only happens once per week, it is still enough.

Am I taking grad school too seriously? Am I worried about the right things? It’s really hard to tell. If I didn’t care,  didn’t take it seriously then that too would be worrying. I read unemployment statistics for PhD-level scientists on the Chemjobber blog or C&EN News trade-journal for American Chemists…and am reminded constantly of just how competitive the international job market will be when I jump into it. If I don’t work hard and advocate for myself in grad school…no one else will. Why would they?

Fear comes and goes. Fear is tied to so many things. I am afraid of and made to fear so many things.

Fear comes and goes.

Waves.

The rituals are essential. Integral. Because there has to be a disconnection between myself and the fear. I have to get to sleep at night. When I was in London I would wake up in the middle of the night and only ease back to sleep when I had written down To Do lists for my research project that I could work on the next day. When I was in Scotland the roar of the winter sea or howling rain outside my bedroom never disturbed me once…but I awoke in sweating, pounding terror at 4am for many nights in a row as I waited for my grad school decisions to come back across the Atlantic. I have 5 years of a PhD – sleeplessness over that period of time would destroy me.

Returning to the Eastern Seaboard of the USA was reclaiming the life I wanted. It isn’t a life if I’m constantly stressed and scared.

The incense stick burns down. I sip my Rooibos tea. And I listen to the sea.

Midnight In Philadelphia

My “top-choice” university for a Chemistry PhD was not the one that I ended up attending. It was a simple-enough reason why: they didn’t make me an offer of admission. In the summer before I departed to the USA I discussed this fact with a friend, who asked how I felt about the choice I went with (now several months after the offers & rejections, and my ultimate decision).

“Well…even if I received an offer from [Top Choice University] I might have visited and seen something that really put me off them…” I reflected. At the end of the day I had made a good choice with the options presented to me, and I couldn’t/wouldn’t know what would have happened if those options had been different. For all I know, even if Top Choice University had made me an offer…I may have ended up in the same place I am now. 

***

In June 2009 as I prepared to depart for the USA, I had a strange fantasy. I imagined that I would board the flight from London to Philadelphia and fall asleep. When I awoke I would still be on a plane…but 12 months would have passed it was flying in the opposite direction back to the UK. I would awaken and have no recollection of what happened in the intervening time: I wondered what emotions I’d feel as I read my diary and searched Facebook: would I believe the things that had happened to me? Would I feel regret or relief for having no memories of what had transpired during that year?

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Time: it happens, I’m OK with it happening, I don’t usually regret what is in the past because there is no guarantee that anything could have changed what happened.

Right now I’m mulling over another time paradox.

In September 2010 I boarded that plane back to the UK. I dozed during the 6 hours, but successfully awoke with all my memories intact. I felt bereft at leaving my friends and an entire life behind. There had been a fundamental change within me during those 12 months and in leaving the States I was partially relinquishing those changes. Knowing that I had to return I applied to PhD programs on the Eastern Seaboard. When I was unsuccessful…I applied again. When I was successful…I filed the application for my visa.

And so nearly 3 years later in August 2013 I boarded another trans-Atlantic plane. Now, I’m thinking of another fantasy:

What if it was September 2010 again and I was once more flying across the ocean. Except this time…I was flying to Philadelphia, not away from it? What if I touched-down on the Eastern Seaboard with my student visa, PhD program admittance letter and 2 cases of luggage with no time gap between my stays at all?

Another fantasy that won’t be coming to life.

A lot of change has happened in three years. Friendship circles have shifted. People have changed. I have changed. I can’t return as is to the same social circles – my outlook on life has changed. Once we get beyond the afternoon coffee spent catching up with a Q&A session, do we actually want to do things together? With the bulk of folk: yes, resoundingly. With a couple of really nagging exceptions however, I’m no longer sure.

The physical distance between my current address and the social circles I wanted to preserve is maddening: at ~90 minutes on public transport it isn’t too far that I can’t regularly visit. Yet 90 minutes is too far away to access on whim – I can’t visit during the week, I can’t “just” swing by to do a spot of shopping (too much time wasted in transit). Philadelphia is just close enough to constantly remind me how distant I am.

While I lament the passage of time…I could never give up those 3 years of change. It would mean undoing the sensation of swimming down the Rhein, cycling across the bridges of London, watching the world from the coffeeshops of Edinburgh. It would mean undoing moments of asphyxiating hilarity, curl-up-on-the-floor-until-the-darkness-goes-away awfulness, punch-the-air-yelling triumph and everything in between.

Nor can I guarantee to myself that anything would have been different had I come back to the States earlier. If I’d submitted my PhD applications in the winter of 2010 while I was still at the University of Edinburgh…would I have been accepted anywhere? If I had broadened my scope in the Fall 2012 cycle…would I have just ended up with an offer from a badly-fitting institution? If I had been accepted into a PhD program 1 or 2 years sooner – assuming I ended up in the desired location…would the program have been so stressful, time-consuming and absorbing that I had no time/energy to socialise outside of my cohort? It may have been – with the benefit of a bit more maturity I’m less concerned with being the perfect scholar, researcher and teacher all at once.

***

There are a couple of obvious strategies for 2014. (1) Spend a lot less time in Philly, in effect admitting that I can’t really “go back” or “be back”. (2) Spend a lot more time in Philly, so that I feel more integrated. (3) Become a lot more judicious in how I spend my time in Philly – should I only return for definite social events, or should I focus more on a smaller number of people?

There isn’t a straightforward answer. The one thing I love about going down to Philly is that I can forget for a day or two that I’m a grad student. Having friends who have either passed through grad school (and lived) or didn’t pursue any postgraduate education (and went on to be awesome) I think is essential to my own mental wellbeing.

At the same time though, grad school is important to me. I don’t want to be struggling through the coursework or staying up until midnight marking. That means I shouldn’t be rushing off somewhere every weekend. Based on last semester, I should be staying put more weekends than I’m day-tripping.

The third option is the best, although how it will work out in practice next semester isn’t clear. My perception might also shift if I take on board some of the thoughts from my last post: vague dissatisfaction in one corner of my life tends to seep into other corners too.

Whatever the choices I make, time will move forward. And I won’t regret that in the slightest.

Grad School – Beyond Survival

Independence National Historic Park, Philadelphia

Independence National Historic Park, Philadelphia

A sensation of vague dissatisfaction has gnawed at me for a couple of months. It has been hard to articulate the reason or the source…so I’ve dealt with it by not dealing with it. I’ve been aware for those couple of months that something needs to change, however.

With the semester over I forced myself to confront the internal nagging.

For the most part I am happy. Stressed to a degree I’ve not been before, but happy. I’m short on time, but optimistic that I can streamline such things as my TA work (having created grading rubrics, I know that marking doesn’t need to take up as much time as it did in my first semester). I like the fact that I’m  being intellectually challenged and learning new things – the desire to become a better scientist through doctoral training has always burned fiercely within me. I’m getting a good quantity of social interactions from various sources.

Take a step back and I’m successfully tackling an important life goal: the American Chemistry PhD. I’m getting what I want.

And yet underneath all this runs dissatisfaction. Like a piece is missing or fitted in wrongly. Where is it coming from?

The language of my blog posts gives a good first guess. “Survival” has been a theme of a lot of my “grad school” posts: the notion that what I really must do is stick my head down and power forward until I bump up against the end of term. That all my energy needed to focus on the bare bones of grad school life – fulfilling my various duties as teacher, student, scientist – and to do attempt else was stupidly over-ambitious.

Upon reflection…stupid over-ambition has served me well in the past. It was probably a mistake getting rid of it.

Because survival isn’t the same as living. It wasn’t as bad as my recent stretch in Edinburgh where I had major cashflow issues to work around…but I’ve neglected a lot of things I enjoy and really the only thing going on in my life right now is a PhD. As a person who likes her mid-to-long term goals, it is no wonder I reached December feeling a bit deflated. I’m also not convinced that only focussing on getting through a PhD program actually helps me do that – becoming fixated on one thing increases my stress about it…but I suspect that added stress hinders me more than it helps.

There are a couple of immediate fixes. I want to get back into running and fitness – they are awesome ways to de-stress, plus I’d like to regain some muscle mass. A driver’s license is something I need – especially to eradicate the sensation of being “trapped” on campus. Working towards passing the test is a good medium-term goal to have. Even simple things like reading more or cultivating an arty hobby should allow me to exist beyond the immediate sphere of grad school.

Survival should be something I take as given in 2014. Finally.