Grad School Cycles

She only sleeps when it's raining...

She only sleeps when it’s raining…

Grizzly, drizzly weather today. If I’d realised how bad it was outside I wouldn’t have got behind the wheel to brave the freeway. Still, I need the practice of driving in rougher conditions, so I went to pound stress out at the gym, before heading out to the mall zone to get groceries and enjoy a veggie Indian buffet lunch. By the early afternoon I retreated into my apartment and decided to stay put for the rest of the day.

It wasn’t that long ago since my last Crunch Time. Now it is hurtling back at me: the second and final half of my candidacy exams. This time the focus is on my research – what I’ve done and where I’m going. If my written proposal and PowerPoint defence aren’t up to scratch, then I leave the program with a Masters degree this summer.

That said, there isn’t a huge amount of ambiguity or stress here. I managed to prove last semester that I could hack candidacy-level exams: my committee & PI were pleased with how I did, the latter has expressed the opinion that they aren’t “too concerned” about my upcoming exam. At this stage, as long as I put in a solid performance I will be set for the rest of my PhD.

The challenge comes with getting my research polished. I’ve got “results” from the project I’ve been working on since last summer: not good enough for a publication, but good enough to indicate that it will be possible to get them up to publication quality.

When you’re in the middle of a PhD, you are navigating through a dense jungle of research space, only able to see (metaphorically) a few paces ahead of you. You’ve no idea what the bigger picture is, and making progress on your project is often a case of hacking your way through what seems to be the path of least resistance. Except that you switch your path constantly, left for a bit then right.

As such, I’ve amassed a decent quantity of data, but I need to sort out the bits that are useful (a lot of stuff I tried doesn’t add anything to my “results”) and fill in any gaps that I missed. And I want to give the impression that instead of flailing about blindly in the jungle for 9 months, I was actually following some kind of rational agenda.


My research productivity is a cyclical thing. What usually happens is that I will have 1-2 weeks “on” – I get fired up about a new lead, or become particularly frustrated with my lack of progress, and spend a lot of time in the lab, running a near-constant stream of experiments – followed by a week or so “off”. I can’t sustain the “on” mode for very long, and so my productivity eventually ebbs. There are times when I’m staggering about the lab late at night, wanting to close my eyes but pushing myself to at least tidy up and prepare for another intense day tomorrow. There are times when I walk through a wing of the department and it looks like I’m the only person in the building. There are also times like today when I take a full day off or get home in time for dinner.

Part of adjusting to grad school is accepting that I can’t be perfect. I’m not a human being that’s capable of working “on” for the entirety of their PhD. Nor do I think I’m completely capable of working at a flat rate of productivity – it’s something that surges and abates. Even when I’m “off” I don’t think that I can be classified as “non-productive”, I’m just not operating at full capacity.

I’ve become a lot more organised and productive as my PhD progressed. At the start I wasn’t efficient enough to do what I can do now: run a reaction, work it up and purify it in succession on the same day. It used to be impressive when I ran 3 column chromatography purifications in 1 day – now I can run 4 per day without too much undue exertion. Sometimes it’s the silly little things that accelerate or stall my overall productivity – do I have enough clean glassware, for instance.

My strategy in the lead-up to my candidacy exam is to just go with the flow. I can sense that next week will be “on” – it is the final week before teaching resumes, so I have a clear run at the research. I’ll try to avoid burning myself out, or getting too frustrated with the “off” mode.


It took almost half a year from the jolting realisation that I needed a car to the point where I held the keys to Saxon in my hand. Along with the smugness of finally having achieved something that every other adult managed to achieve in their late teens already, I felt a relief that I could finally switch out my deadlocked, trapped existence from something a bit more satisfying.

Quickly, I realised the truth. I’d been too eager to pin my future happiness on a definite object, and I’d missed the obvious signs:


I can take my car to the large supermarket. I leave the campus and pass through a couple of miles of suburban order before hitting the major traffic arteries and the Mall Zone. The vista of malls, superstores, drive-throughs and pokey restaurant strips fans onwards in all directions. Beyond that? Suburban order until we come to the next Mall Zone.

And that is the American heartland.

It echoes back to when I first touched down in the USA and was lodging in an apartment complex in King of Prussia, PA. Heavily jet lagged, I staggered along the road side (no pavements, I had to skirt up the embankments and duck around metal crash barriers) to the supermarket to buy some food. A Google Search had told me that the largest mall on the Eastern Seaboard was located in King of Prussia…that was it. Again: the suburban order of prim little houses followed by the soulless grey concrete of the Mall.

Americans love their shopping malls. I wouldn’t post a status on Facebook explaining that I was “going to the supermarket”, but it would be well within my rights to fore-post about a trip to the mall (an exclamation mark or two is the de rigeur accompaniment). No one of my American friends would consider it untoward if I shared with them a selfie during said mall trip (I’ve yet to see anyone post a selfie from their supermarket excursions). I can tell you with authority that some young Americans – presumably without much life experience – would consider the mall a prime location to (i) take a date (ii) “pick up chicks”.

To me however, there is no soul or personality in these retail wastelands. There is no allure or excitement out here. I turn Saxon around and drive home.

If I had a chance to meet my younger self for a coffee as she pulled together her PhD applications – and I think she was quite open to advice at that time – I’d probably have warned her. “Look, kid. The PhD is going to burn up a lot of your time and energy, so much so that you’re going to be spending almost the same amount of (per annum) time in your beloved Philadelphia during the American PhD as you did when you were domiciled in Europe. Except that instead of being able to spend your weekends people-watching in Edinburgh coffeeshops, cycling around London or swimming down the Rhein, you’ll be stuck on a university campus in the middle of a mall strip non-urban deadzone. For what it’s worth, you may as well just apply to cities all over the States. You liked Austin and Chicago, yeah?”

Which isn’t to say that I regret my choice or fault my reasoning in the application/decision-making process…but it would have been nice to have given myself a better class of choices.

2015 comes with hope, though. If getting a car isn’t enough to escape, then perhaps a chance of address will bring an improvement.


This might be an embarrassing thing for me to confess.
But I’ll do it anyway.
Owning a car is really exciting.

I realise that most people learn to drive between the ages of 16-18. By the time folk get to university (in both the UK & USA) they usually have access to – if not nominal ownership of – a battered old car for personal use. As such, they are used to the convenience of owning wheels, and I run the risk of appearing majorly naive with my mid-20s excitement.


I picked up the keys to a 2005 Toyota Camry last week. It will take a while to sink in: it represents a really big shift in how I conduct life in the USA. Although the bugger is expensive – I’ve had to sink costs for the purchase, registration, insurance, repairs – I think the shift will be profoundly GOOD.

Back in late spring, the downtown supermarket closed. It was my wake-up call that I finally needed to sort myself out with a car: I became severely limited in my eating habits if I couldn’t drive to the out-of-town supermarkets by the malls. At the same time I felt dissatisfied with life on the university campus: I couldn’t escape from grad school. It’s fine up to a point since all I do is conduct research right now, but it didn’t make me happy.

Owning a car called Saxon (yes, that’s his name) feels like such a hefty, adult responsibility. I’ve always been the person who had to rely on others driving me about the place – now I’m capable of driving myself. It felt weirdly exhilarating driving to the supermarket for a grocery shop – I didn’t have to worry about whether I could fit all the shopping into my rucksack to carry home, it all could fit into my boot! If I want to go eat in a restaurant, I am no longer limited to the establishments in downtown New Brunswick. If I want to buy something, I don’t have to play a day trip to NYC (via train) to procure it. I can ask people if they “Need a ride?”, rather than being the one awaiting an offer from others.

I’m a calm driver, cycling through bus lanes in packed cities teaches you how to keep cool under pressure on the roads. Driving at night or on the motorway still intimidates me a little, although I’m getting used to it. With practice I think I will be fine.

My next big goal is to move off-campus for the rest of my PhD. I already have a good idea of the neighbourhood I want to settle in to. If I want a 1 bedroom flat I know it will cost a bit more – I’m hoping that the cost of the car doesn’t prevent me from living in my preferred location. I don’t really want to adopt the American habit of driving everywhere – bad for the environment, expensive – but my lifestyle needs a tweak.

Grad school just got that little bit more manageable.

Midnight in Manayunk

309441-frederikaIn approximately 10 minutes my friend’s birthday celebration would begin. I decided to wait until the SEPTA 61 bus had passed all the way through Manayunk before disembarking and walking back. I used to get off at the Leverington/Flat Rock Rd junction stop all the time. Briefly, I detoured down onto the canal towpath – it was the first step of my regular morning bike ride commute at one point. On the other side of the canal were the old industrial sites that once powered Manayunk. It was peaceful and silent. Making my way into Manayunk I passed all the familiar restaurants, bars and shops that I loved to frequent. Lights adorned the trees, and the pavement was packed with people ready to enjoy their evening out.

Manayunk was exactly as I remembered it.

It is strange that something can make you so incredibly happy but also hurt so much at the same fucking time.

I think that if I had received a PhD offer from my top choice Philadelphian university, I would be living back here in Manayunk – the same district where I stayed in 2009 & 2010. And why not? It’s a fantastic place to stay.

It always comes down to this – did I do the right thing? If the universe turned around again, would I do things any differently? New Brunswick is a depressing, dull town. Although I can see trees from my bedroom window, I feel trapped on the university campus all day, every day. My research project has grown into an overwhelming obsession – I work around the clock on it, pushing to get results. The work is slow – this week the result of one reaction took my project 2 steps forward…another result set me 2 steps back. I second-guess myself – am I working efficiently enough? am I working hard enough? am I mismanaging the project and holding it back? – cycling through all possible emotions within the course of 5 new experiments. I am clearly a person who enjoys this level of obsession, otherwise I don’t think I would be doing it.

Walking through Manayunk reminds me of all the things I have given up in pursuit of this PhD, all the things I wanted to reclaim from the 2009-10 years…but realised that I couldn’t. I’m back on the Eastern Seaboard, back within a 90 min radius of Philadelphia…but I can’t turn back the clock to 2009. And the PhD in all its messy, obsessive, emotive glory is what I want to dedicate myself to.

I sat on my burning desire for 3 whole years – 3 years between leaving the USA and coming back. Another desire burns as I work late on weekends in the lab, or start setting up reactions at 7.30am on a Monday morning. I will pass through whatever Hells this PhD can drag me in to, in pursuit of later payoff. The reason I obsess over my project is because I seek the publication, and that will strengthen my CV when it comes to finding postdocs and jobs. It will give me the freedom to move back to somewhere like Manayunk, I hope.

Eventually there will be progress. I just have to keep the faith.

Fall Dreamings

Fall warmth on the Eastern Seaboard.

Fall warmth on the Eastern Seaboard.

I wonder if Fall is my favourite season in America. Summer is too baking hot, Winter is too cold and biting. Spring is more moderate so I can actually go outdoors and appreciate the season…but Spring has less aesthetic pleasure than Fall. Autumn in the UK is just a layer of slick damp leaves on the pavement; a British Spring always has the beautiful snowdrops, crocuses and tulips blooming into life. Fall in the USA is something else, very different.

This week I passed the first half of my PhD candidacy examination – a presented research proposal on a topic outside my field of expertise. I’m pleased with how the talk went, and very glad to have gotten through the first (more difficult, in my opinion) 50% of the candidacy process.

The build-up was stressful. My body is really good at suppressing stress – I can keep calm even when attempting to drive down the motorway for the first time – but when I am stressed (or angry) I really feel it. My concentration is shot to pieces, I can’t focus, sit still or eat a decent meal. There was some of that behaviour evident over the past month, which is bad of course because if I can’t concentrate to study properly, I’m just going to get more stressed and angry at myself for the poor preparation. The night before my presentation I wrote: “my stomach is a knotted lead pipe.” Fortunately, I got it “calmed” mode on the day.


This has been a bad semester in the sense that I’ve grinded up to this point with very little time to relax, get into NYC or Philly or disconnect from my academic stuff. I don’t think that is especially helpful – it isn’t good for me, nor is it good for my work productivity. I hope to get things a little bit more balanced out again. If you never fully disconnect, you stop being fully connected.

Time to enjoy Fall, while it is still around.

Grad School Dreamings

I look out of my bedroom window and dream – as I always dream – of possibilities.

It is Autumn, Fall, cutting into winter with every new morning. When it is Autumn I find myself thinking of London: thick piles of leaves on the wide boulevards of South Kensington. Perhaps also of those times I went to the Imperial College gym complex on a Friday evening. I’d head directly to the steam room, sauna and jacuzzi. One time I emerged from the changing rooms into a torrential downpour and had to cycle home across the city in the pitch black rain. Yet it neither frustrated me nor caused discomfort: on the contrary, I recall the experience as invigorating.

Or maybe I dream of other times, other places. As I wait for my qualifying exam perhaps I recall the sensation of when a former boss filled the gap immediately after a practice talk of mine. “Now, where to begin?!” And the feeling that comes when you are the only person in a room who is standing, and you are stripped bare in just a few cutting words. And it doesn’t matter if one hundred people will praise those presentations of yours that follow years, decades down the line…you will still always remember what it felt like to be publicly wounded.

Most of my dreams are not of humiliation, but of freedom. For months I have lived within the tightest, most intricate patterns. Trapped. Three multivitamin pills in the morning. Burning pungent incense until it fills my whole room. Walking across the abandoned car park on a 285-degree angle, curving past the white lines. Freedom become the rush and roar of big cities after dark. The nonchalant offering of your credit card in swanky Manhattan stores – I will hardly notice that this money is gone. That feeling when you arrived as a tourist in a new city just that morning, after a day of excitedly exploring you are now settling down at a nice restaurant to eat a good meal. Cheers for this, you want to tell the city.

Perhaps there are other ways to dream, too. When you think about that friend you hung out with one day, in an exotic city many hours away from where you are now. When you did some stuff that wasn’t too extraordinary, but just felt really good, when you left them with stronger feelings of friendship and a general buzz about life. And yet when you dream to yourself you think: it was great to experience a friendship like that…and I’ve found myself feeling those same feelings *again*…many years later…with different people. When you hear that quiet voice in the back of your head, the one that keeps silent for months and years on end, whispering firmly “These people…are *my* people.”


And I know that there will be other times and other dreams to come. Maybe not this week. Many not this year. But they will come. And I will dream some more.

Grad School Grindhouse

The new semester swings right back around. My bike ride to the gym now passes frat houses filled with burly blokes in vests & flip-flops, lounging on their porches to gangsta rap. If I get a craving for bad Mexican-style food at 11pm I only need to walk to the student centre to sort myself out.

This semester will be less hectic. There are no classes that I need to take any more. My teaching assignment is lighter: the lab I’m overseeing is a specialist one that only the more-experienced science students can take.

The main spectre looming on the horizon is my qualifying exams. In the US PhD system the 1st & 2nd year PhDs are more like Masters-level students (in that they do coursework and attend compulsory seminars) – the qualifying exams (AKA ‘Quals’) are what allows the PhD students to advance to ‘PhD Candidacy’. Once you’re a PhD candidate you have done all your coursework and can become a full-time researcher. At our university the Quals are divided into 2 parts, one per semester. They are less intimidating than the Quals at other universities – but there is an oral knowledge exam that can get quite dicey. I would like to avoid messing them up.


My research is humming away at a constant tempo. In previous ‘researcher’ incarnations I have been given a single-stream project: develop 1 new reaction, get to Compound C in a total synthesis, make X series of analogues for pharmacological testing. Right now I’m dealing with a more challenging thesis-esque beast: poke around within the loosely defined parameters of a particular subfield (in this case, asymmetric organocatalysis)…and we’ll publish the nice findings as we uncover them.

At times this can be really frustrating as I struggle to balance up all the threads I’m working on. When do I stop to really sink my teeth into a particular reaction? When do I explore broadly? Can I sense which of my strands is going to yield publishable data quickest? In asymmetric organocatalysis, the watershed for “publishable data” is a reaction with >90 %ee (%ee is a quantitative measure of how asymmetric a reaction is, with 99 %ee being the best possible value). When a reaction gets above 70 %ee it probably means that it is publishable with enough fine-tuning…but getting the %ee up to the 70-90 range is the hardest part.

Project management is a bitch, but I feel that I’m currently focussing on the right things. My big fear is that an asymmetric reaction will resist all attempts at optimisation – that I will get stuck at something like 60 %ee and not be able to break past that.

What keeps me going? The thought that gets me out of bed in the morning, that calms me to sleep at night is that if I work hard I’ll get more publications within the next academic year. A publication is solid proof of scientific competence; the currency of academic research. I would need a minimum of two first-author publications to get my PhD – in my subfield 4 or 5 first-author papers prior to the PhD defence is do-able. I already have one first-authorship, it brought a lot of calm and security with it. I hope to build upon that.

Last academic year was a productive one. I’m hoping the same will be true of this.