Capricious Gods

It was the week before Christmas when I had to deal with an academic bombshell. Well, I’m exaggerating a bit (as I’ll explain), but it had many of the hallmarks of a bombshell: unsuspecting normality, followed by a metaphorical BOOM! and then a flood of emotions and reactions came roaring in for the aftermath.

All sorts of random shit can happen to an unlucky grad student. Projects fail, successful projects get scooped (sometimes maliciously, sometimes not). Your professional relationships can go tits-up. In this instance, my advisor emailed the group to let us know that they’d accepted a new position in [University of State-at-geographically -the -opposite-end -of -the-country], migrating the lab in Summer ’17. And if we had any questions feel free to come chat.

The BOOM! could have been more unexpected, I admit. I thought they might be on the market – past history and present behaviour (there are only so many reasons a successful faculty member disappears for odd days at a time during the Fall semester without giving specifics). I guess I was expecting an offer – if it were to come – to appear in Spring. But maybe that’s more for assistant professors, not senior poaches.

It took barely 3 minutes for me to compute and triage all the implications. And to be frank, make a decision. This sort of thing happens all the time – professors hop institutions and the stepping stones deal with either those that move or those that stay. As a grad student, you always have a free choice in the matter. Admittedly, sometimes you have to choose of your own free will to leave with a Masters or start over again in a new lab at your current university…but it’s still a choice. My own personal choice equation went something like this:

[Prestige of (prospective) – (current) university] + [Extra time/hassle to get PhD in prospective university] – [Extra time/hassle to get PhD if I stay behind at current university] + [General desirability of (current location) / (prospective location)] =>

==> Stay at current university.

Christmas was decidedly lacking in chill. Although I wasn’t in lab, I was still struggling to get a hold on my new trajectory. I’d been assuming that I would defend my PhD in Summer 2018. Now it could be as early as Summer 2017 (though most likely Fall ’17). If I wanted to aim for a postdoc this academic year I was already behind. There wasn’t an issue of whether I could defend early. I’d hit the bare minimum to defend (in terms of 1st author publications) and my publication pipeline was already in a healthy state. However, I’d need to wrap up several projects in a shorter space of time, and squeeze in another completely new project (which is using well-established chemistry, but still has to be built from scratch) that I’d publish and convert into my final PhD thesis chapter.

Yeah, sure it’s do-able. Whether I can do it without wrecking myself is a separate issue.

A lot of the finer details have not been clarified. Will I have to be fostered in another lab for a semester? Can I really get all these papers out in time? I made lists, sent out long emails, created skeleton Word Document drafts and began to fill them in. I felt the stress lift off me as soon as I created a special Microsoft OneNote file that pulled all my tasks into one e-document (that wasn’t as monstrous as I feared).

The biggest source of stress was “coming out” as staying behind and defending early – both professionally and to my family. I worried that I’d be bombarded with “what are you thinking?!” questions. Such questions if there are being asked, aren’t being asked to my face. As I said, it’s not an outlandish choice (I suspect most grad students in their 4th/5th year would prefer to stay put rather than move so late in the game).

The topic of how I’m going to push my research agenda forward is another, imminent post. It does feel that I’m on the right side of the research gods. I got an unexpected positive result from a reaction I thought was hopeless, which could lead to another paper separate from the ones my advisor predicted for me. My latest paper has been conditionally accepted into a high-ranking journal, subject to some minor edits. I remain guarded about that paper until final confirmation comes through.

2017 will be an interesting, though hopefully productive year.

The Newest Normal

Today was full-on domestic wench business. It’s a Sunday, you see. Sunday is the one day per week where I don’t set my alarm (not that it matters, I’m rolling awake before 7am anyway) and don’t have to kick off my morning with a migration to the lab, or thoughts about a migration to the lab (“C’mon bitch, the sooner you get in and do stuff, the sooner you get to leave”). [1] No. Sunday mornings I can crouch on my balcony with a mug of Nespresso coffee and enjoy a bit of sunlight-through-trees-light, which is one of my favourite kinds of light.

Sunday is the day that I can do my laundry, load my moderately grimy eating things into the dishwasher (the dishwasher!) and clean the place up a bit, perhaps with some music on. I finally got around to boxing my fresh herbs – they were a gift from a friend straight from their garden, I dried them myself using an improvised system of pencils jammed in to window locks. This afternoon I’ll be sweeping the expanse of hardwood flooring, maybe doing some dusting if I remain in the domestic wench kinda mood.

It helps that I think of grad school as a job. In this mindset I’m no longer a student, but a working professional [2]. The fact that I’m no longer in university housing cements that. I’m a professional scientist with my own car and an airy apartment. So I may as well do adult stuff like clean up after myself and make the place look tidy. The responsibility feels nice, and I think it helps me on other levels too. As an introvert, the personal & private sphere is a really important thing – I think that if I take good care of my private sphere it helps me to do well in the public one.

The downside of this domestic surge is that I’m losing the time when I can escape to the big cities. It’s been a while since I was last in Philly or Manhattan. I need to schedule my chores onto the Saturday (once I’m done with the lab) so that I can have a completely free Sunday.

***

Actually, this week was a really good one as far as research was concerned. I finally hit the jackpot known as Publishable Data. In my sub-sub-field, Publishable Data occurs when I get 90 %ee or above. For those not in my sub-sub-field: imagine that you have a scale of 0 to 100 %ee, and any reaction can give you a value somewhere between the two. Most of the struggle, sweat and late nights in my sub-sub-field revolves around improving this %ee value until it reaches this cut-off value of 90. Of course that isn’t the only variable you need to worry about (oh ho ho, there’s plenty of variables to worry about), but ‘d argue that this %ee variable is the one that’s hardest to control. Either you have it or you don’t.

The inside of my brain has been a very boring place this past year. The only thing I’ve been thinking about has been those damn %ee values. When I’ve had a spare moment of down-time? Only 11 %ee to go! Or else Well, when I change X I gain 3 %ee, and when I changed Y I got 2 %ee…so maybe if I change X AND Y I can get a total of 5 %ee. And then it will only be 6% ee to go. This is what graduate-level research does to your brain, by the way. I’ve had a dull year of tinkering with rather minor changes to my reaction conditions and not really getting anywhere. I’ve not lost sleep over it – I tried to leave the stress in the lab office – but the thoughts nonetheless go everywhere.

I’m in a lab where publications matter. There are plenty of PIs who don’t mind if you spend 5 years doing decent research that doesn’t lead to any publications (at least before you defend). But there are also plenty of PIs who will say “You need [number] first-author publications before I let you graduate.” Both I’d consider valid approaches, and I can list the advantages & disadvantages of both. Regardless, I’m in a lab where I need papers, and the thought that I might reach my 5th year without enough papers to graduate isn’t a nice one.

There’s a lot of work to go before I get that paper I want. But to have finally crawled to the Publishable Data benchmark is a nice morale booster, and fills me with a bit more self-confidence (I AM a good scientist, I CAN get Publishable Data). It will make the rest of my graduate school career a bit more straightforward, too.

The celebration was muted. I went home and ate a tub of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream for dinner, along with a partially-eaten red velvet muffin that I warmed up in the microwave. There will be some more treats before too long, I think I owe it to myself.

[1] Friends who read my Facebook and blog posts tend to react to my descriptions of grad school life with “OMG – that sounds so awful/intense/crazy” or sentiments to that effect. Working on the weekends attracts a certain amount of horror even from people within the scientific grad school zone. At this point I don’t think that working on weekends even bothers me. I stopped noticing the week/weekend partition when I was in hospitality and had to work nearly every weekend and take my days off during the middle of the week instead.

[2] There is plenty of debate and differing opinions about just what a graduate student is. At our university the TA/GAs are unionised and in the same union alongside the academics & adjuncts. Coursework is close to non-existent after year 2: we are either occupied with teaching or our research, and we get paid for both. I once drove a visiting faculty member to lunch, and made a comment about how it’s great that the grad students get access to Faculty/Staff parking here. They admitted a bit of surprise that grad students could be considered as staff. Well hon, I sure as Hell ain’t a volunteer. 

Dreams of Never-ending Summer

aEverything has contracted. My life, my whole existence can barely get more compact. A pleasurable respite is when I sit in the car for an extra 30 minutes, listening to the radio. Or perhaps it is the American rain – warmer, heavier and more satisfying than the cold, biting kind you get back in the UK. The kind of rain that soaks you to the skin within seconds of stepping out into it. There isn’t enough rain at the moment – I’m waiting patiently for the thunderstorms.

Right now my challenge is to become a better person. Not a perfect person – there’s no way I can ever achieve that, and I’d rather not waste my energy beating myself up about the impossibility of it – just one that’s kinda better in some ways. There was a recent moment where I was forced to examine myself and my dredged up feelings of guilt. One of those times where sure I could just blame somebody else for their mistakes (100% non-self-blame)…but realistically I knew that there was some portion of blame that could be attributed to me and my behaviour. No excuse. If I can fix my behaviour, then I should. I’m focussing on one relationship right now – putting my energy into getting it right. If the small-scale project works then I need to incorporate more of my positive actions into the rest of my life.

As an introvert I try to conserve my energy. Interacting with people can be draining: if I don’t want interaction time then everybody within a 10 metre radius tends to be aware of that. If I’ve been in a high-interaction setting (such as teaching) for several hours then I will need to decompress for the best part of an hour before I feel socially-functional once more. Fighting against my default settings takes up most of my “personal development”. In an ideal world I think I’d be able to act like a charming extrovert for all of my working hours, then crash and decompress in the comfort of my own apartment in the evenings. Man, that will take some work.

***

In other news: my research project continues to go well. After a year of disappointment and circles it now looks as if I can wind it up soon. The disappointments and frustrating lack of progress has worn me down – I’m almost scared to run several key reactions, for fear that they won’t work and I’ll end up within another dead-end cycle of incremental improvements (that don’t ever become cumulative). However, I’m now at the point where I only need a handful of incremental improvements to pass over the finishing line. I feel excited at the thought of another publication to my name: the academic unit of currency is the publication, with it all our careers and sense of self-worth are tied up.

I’m hoping for a speedy breakthrough.

Release

A ferocious thunderstorm is attacking us this evening. I knew it would have to happen. America, you tried so hard with your baking sunshine and humid warmth – it could only be sustained for so long. The humidity ratcheted up, now it broke.

Sunday is the day for cramming in chores. Laundry. Sweep clothes off bedroom floor. Get to the supermarket. I’m slowly pushing at my limits with the driving. The navigation challenges are getting a little more finicky (no sat nav, remember) and my radius of comfort is expanding. I made it to a swanky diner (kinda an oxymoron) for brunch-food the other day, this weekend I went off in search of a baked potato, which took me to an air-conditioned palatial mall just up Route 1. The elusive baked potato was consumed in the less illustrious food court setting, but was worth the excursion. A 20 minute distance by car equals 20 minutes of NPR. Although it may seem eccentric to claim that you enjoy driving because it gives you time to listen to the radio…my grad school brain is otherwise inundated and endlessly preoccupied with research project increments: it makes a refreshing change to put some other stuff into my brain, too.

Thunderstorms are a release. I love it when they arrive. Driving Saxon when the rain hit, I was amazed at how much rain can pour out of the sky at once to hit my windscreen. American roads don’t appear to have drains – those large, fast roads turned to rivers. Once I reached my apartment I killed the engine – even the radio – and stayed there. Waiting for a respite in the onslaught, watching the pattern of water coursing down the windscreen in near-darkness.

I have no work-life balance. Research is what I do. It’s what I doodle about in coffeeshops, it’s what sits on the edge of my mind whenever I am out of lab. “Oh, once you get back to the lab tomorrow you can do X” “Say, you should probably nip in the lab this afternoon just to sort out Y before Monday.” In industry you will find a disconnect – work is left at work. In academia…work is never left, because nobody really leaves work at the end of the day.

This is not something I mind. I made a pact with myself sometime back about those cursed 12 Hour Days in grad school: I would play that game, and I would play it well. If I wasn’t willing to play it well, I shouldn’t be in a PhD program.

I consider myself lucky. After nearly a year on a tough project, a semi-offshoot is yielding consistently good results. Only 3 or 4 months ago, I was on a knife edge. Developing a new reaction means you have to control a handful of parameters: regulate, understand and optimise them, then you’ve got yourself a publication. Except that I could never control all my parameters. Change A. Parameter B goes up (awesome). Parameter C crashes (blast). Change A and D. Parameter B and C crash. Etc. The main grad school struggle is not the work-hours or the smartness required, rather it is the mental strength to stop a fucking year filled with fucking set-backs and derailments from damaging me on the inside.

So I sweat the poisons from me in the sauna. Bracing against the heat until my body is slick with sweat and I rub the grey dead skin crap off my arms and legs. So I go to Starbucks at 8pm to sip their fruity iced tea drinks and inhale soothing espresso powder scents, just to escape my immediate surroundings. So I take the long way home, to let me push more radio into my head. So I grin and shriek when the thunder comes.

Surviving. Releasing. Surviving again.

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.

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 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.