Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Have Faith

On days like today, I have to have faith that sooner or later, all the equipment that I need will be back up and running and all my data will come together to yield a fabulous paper, and the basis of a fantastic thesis. Sooner or later, sooner or later, sooner....

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Job Search, Day One

For no particular reason, except that it seemed easier than tackling the other items on my to do list, I took the first step towards searching for a job today. About the future, I know one thing absolutely -- I don't want to be in a long distance relationship with my husband any longer; and one thing with a fair amount of confidence -- I want to work at a small liberal arts college. To these ends, I jumped online and set about looking for any and all colleges within about a one hour radius of the PUI my husband works at. I found 14. I then broke these up into MRUs (3), which might offer prospects for a post-doc position, and smaller colleges (11), which might offer prospects for a visiting assistant professorship, or even an immediate tenure track position. I then looked up all the schools, browsed around their physics department websites, and bookmarked all their associated human resource pages so I can return frequently to look for updated job postings. In the process, I lost one MRU (a medical college) and two small colleges (one turned out to be a two-year college and the other had no physics department!).

So now I'm down to 11 schools total -- 2 MRUs, 4 PUIs, 2 state schools, and 3 community colleges. I'd say my prospects of finding gainful employment -- in terms of a job that will make me happy, boost my resume, and make me money (hey, let's be honest, it's important) -- are pretty slim. I may have a little bit of a leg up at the local MRU, as my advisor completed his PhD there and is a bit of a bigwig in the field now. Also, it's almost certain I can at least get an adjunct position at my husband's PUI, so I shouldn't be unemployed. Still, after 7 years of graduate school, I'd like to have something more to look forward to than merely not being unemployed. I'm trying hard not to get too down regarding my prospects when I'm barely 7 hours into my job search.

My husband and I knew going into this that it would be hard, and we'd both have to sacrifice. In a couple of years, after my husband has successfully passed tenure, we'll re-evaluate, and probably conduct a country-wide search together for a better match for us. Leaving a tenured position will be no small sacrifice on my husband's part. Being successful in this life is going to require a lot of give and take. The question I can't answer with complete confidence yet, however, is: Will it be worth it?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Babies and grants

Last week at lab meeting, my advisor told the group that he had just received word that a third major grant he submitted this year has been funded. We now have more than $2500 to spend PER DAY for the next five years. So, he continued telling us, he won't need to write any more grants for about three years. Now, it's time to get out lots of papers.

Gee, thanks. So glad I could be with you during more than three and a half years of babies and grants. Three and a half years when you were often absent, or holed up in your office, refusing to speak to anyone. Three and a half years with scant guidance because you refused to hire a post doc because you didn't think you could get one good enough. Three and a half years of hanging wall clocks, ordering basic supplies, and building equipment. (Did I mention that I started in the lab just 6 months after my advisor got here?) Three and a half years of being cramped in a too-small lab because we grew so quickly, but didn't have the clout to get more space.

To his credit, I guess, my advisor is now trying to get me interested in a bunch of "side" projects, each of which he expects will take only 4-6 weeks, and each of which will get me authorship (2nd or 3rd) on the resulting paper. But, here's the thing. I'm about to enter my fifth year in this lab, and I am already well into my 6th year of grad school over all. At this point in my career, 6 weeks for 2nd authorship on a paper just isn't worth it. I'm exhausted, spent. I don't want to spend even 5 minutes on anything that isn't going to directly advance me towards graduation.

I'm done. All done. It's time to move on.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


As in all labs, our lab has a lot of equipment that is shared, and for a few heavily-used items we keep a sign up sheet and designate specific time blocks for equipment usage. I had an experiment running this morning that I wanted to continue into the afternoon, but there was a peer signed up for the equipment after me. Hoping to gain some extra time, I asked him if he intended to use his time. (It's not uncommon for people to skip out on their time and not inform the rest of the lab, as they should.) "Sorry," he said to me, "I will be." So, I stopped my experiment and cleaned up all my stuff. It's now 45 minutes into his time slot and he is still sitting NEXT TO ME at his desk, reading online gossip columns. Really???

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Advice for new grad students

One of the best pieces of advice I can offer a new grad student is to find time each week for a non-school related activity -- sports, hobby, etc. This should be something fun and, preferably, something you do without any of your lab buddies. This probably sounds easy, and perhaps obvious, but when the work starts to pile up, it can be very easy to neglect your own self.

I've been dancing since I was six years old, and dance has always been a big part of my life. When I first started at my current university, I was reluctant to seek out dance opportunities because I already had so much on my plate -- trying to navigate a new school, learning to balance two residences (my first house, with my husband, and my apartment at school), and planning a long-distance wedding. About 6 weeks after moving, however, I had a huge argument with my fiance (we've fought maybe 3-4 times in the 9 years we've known each other), and the very next week I came down with the first migraine I'd ever had. We both agreed that it was time for me to to start dancing again.

When I'm at dance, everything else disappears, and I get an hour or so to focus entirely on me. It helps me work out the frustrations of the day; it gives me a chance to express myself in a wholly different way than I do at school; it gives me an opportunity to interact with people with differing interests from my own... This week was my first week back to dance after a one month "summer break." I didn't realize how much I missed it. Already, I'm sleeping better, waking up more rested, dealing better with all the things that are going wrong in the lab right now. It's a wonderful thing.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


I feel as if I've been coming across a lot of blog posts and articles about motivation lately. I just read a piece in Inside Higher Ed which suggested that grad students should find something they are looking forward to at/after graduation to use as motivation.

I am a very non-traditional grad student in the sense that I am married and a homeowner, and in that I'm essentially a commuter student, since I spend my weekends at home with my husband and my weeks up at school. This has made it very difficult for me to cultivate close personal relationships with any of my friends at school, and impossible to even find friends in my home town. After four years, this has become very draining.

Some of my lab mates had suggested in the past that they'd like to visit me at my home and tour the local college town, which is fairly well-known and has some fun activities to offer. So, last week I sent out invitations for a bunch of them to come down, visit the town, and enjoy a BBQ at my house. All but one of them bailed at the last minute. In the end, I guess they were all put off by the hour and a half drive down. I can't blame them -- I have turned down invitations in the past to do things with them over the weekend because I don't want to make the drive back to school an additional time, or lose what precious little time I have at home for an activity that maybe isn't all that exciting to me. Still, my failed attempt to gather friends at my home highlights the fact that the life I'm currently living is out of whack. Really, I'm living two lives -- a life at school and a life at home, and neither one is complete.

So, one of my motivations for graduating is knowing that when I'm through I will finally have the chance to find a local best friend. Someone who is in a similar place in life (married, homeowner, maybe with a kid on the way -- as I hope to have too once I get out of school). Someone that I can go for coffee with, or to dinner, and talk about the things happening in our lives. It will be nice.

Friday, September 11, 2009

iPods and Dance Parties

When my sisters bought me an iPod a couple of years ago I was skeptical that it would get much use. In actuality, it's turned out to be one of the best gifts I've ever received. In addition to helping block out noisy peers when I'm trying to get work done at my desk, it's great for keeping me company when I take data. I'm a microscopist, which means that I spend a lot of my time standing around in the dark, pushing buttons and watching data accrue. To help the time pass, I listen to music and often dance around like a fool. (This also helps me stay warm as the scope room is kept very cold for the lasers.) The "door" to the microscope room is actually just a curtain, which has a velcro strip on the side to keep it closed and to seal out any light. The velcro makes some noise when pulled apart, but I'm almost certain that one of these days I'll have the music up so loud that someone will manage to get inside and catch me in the act of my one-person dance party!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Educating the family

My current home puts me very close to my extended family, and I spend time with them at least every 6-8 weeks. We were together this weekend for my cousin's birthday -- chatting and eating, as is always the way. Talking to my family about what I do is always a bit of an adventure because neither science nor graduate school are things that they have great familiarity with. I've been in grad school more than 6 years now, and it was only last year that they stopped asking me what my plans were for summer vacation, or what classes I was taking the upcoming semester. I should be finishing up this Spring, and one of my cousins (21) asked me, "So, when are you applying to [your husband's] college?" My immediate thought was, why would I apply to another school? Don't I have enough education? Then I realized that she meant apply to teach there. So I replied that I would apply this fall, if there is a position opening, and that's a pretty big if. Later in the conversation, her sister (18) asked me if I would be graduating with a degree in science. Well, not just science, I replied, physics, with a focus on biophysics. So, you wouldn't go teach chemistry?, she asked. No, I said, I haven't taken chemistry since high school, so I'd be a very bad chemistry teacher. Still later, my uncle asked my husband if he should be called "Dr.", since he has a PhD.

I don't say these things to poke fun at my family. Really, I wonder when I became aware of graduate school -- what it means to get a masters vs. a PhD, what (sub)fields are available, what you do when you get out, the difference between an MRU and a PUI (in terms of going to teach at one or the other), what a post-doc is. My cousins are both intelligent women, so I can't figure out why the older one would assume I could just apply to teach at a university whenever I wanted. It's not like applying at Walmart; there aren't always positions open. Also, my husband and I talk about being physicists, and he is a physics professor, so I wonder how my younger cousin could believe I was getting a PhD in general science.

Am I just too far into the process to remember how little I knew about it before I started? Or was I maybe more aware because my father has a Master's and I grew up in a University town? And is that awareness, or lack-thereof, indicative of the scope of a person's aspirations? (My sisters both have Master's degrees, and I'm on my way to a PhD, but of our five cousins on that side of the family, only one seems likely to complete a four year degree.)

Friday, September 4, 2009

Teaching Physics

For those of you unfamiliar with the name David Griffiths, he's a physics professor at Reed College and the author of two (that I know of) text books: Introduction to Electrodynamics and Introduction to Quantum Mechanics. His E&M book is considered the gold standard for undergraduates and his Quantum book is very nearly as highly regarded. His books are clear, straightforward, and even a little humorous. Griffiths is also a highly regarded lecturer. I lived in Portland OR (home to Reed College) for a year and sincerely regret that I never took the time to attend a lecture of his.

In any case, a good friend of mine posted an article on Facebook that was written by Griffiths. In it, he talks about teaching physics. Here are a few of my favorite outtakes:

"ours is a subject the relevance and importance of which are beyond question, and which is intrinsically fascinating to anyone whose mind has not been corrupted by bad teaching or poisoned by dogma and superstition"

"...rolling a ball down an incline is emphatically not tedious and dull. Take a closer look at the classical theory of rolling: why does a sphere roll faster than a hoop, and exactly how much faster?"

"Learning physics is hard, and it can be frustrating; there is no point in concealing this or (far worse) watering it down in a futile attempt to make the subject more marketable. Serious students relish a genuine challenge; they do not like being coddled, patronized or made to feel stupid, and they resent meaningless hurdles – tedious lab sessions, plug-in problems, trick questions, unfair examinations and confusing explanations."

"I believe every educated person should study physics. Why? Because it is interesting – the natural world is a remarkable and fascinating place; because it is liberating – the universe is not arbitrary, but rational and comprehensible; and because physics is unequivocally the most powerful and profound system of thought ever devised."

Yes! Yes! Yes! Every paragraph I read got me more excited. I couldn't agree more with pretty much everything he said. I love physics, and I love teaching it (though it's been more than 3 years now since I was in a classroom). The unfortunate thing about physics is that it has been so susceptible to bad teaching and superstition. K-12 aged students eat science up, but high school students quake at the thought of taking physics, without even knowing exactly what physics is! Those who brave it, and are fortunate enough to have a good teacher, find that physics IS intrinsically interesting and relevant. It can be challenging, but it is not impossible for anyone. And it's not all math. (I actually has someone ask me once if physics could be considered a sub-field of math!) I wish everyone had to take physics. And, I would add to Griffiths' list about why students should study physics something my husband always brings up. Understanding physics (and all sciences) helps us to be better citizens, to make better choices about matters involving science. Stem cells, evolution, the LHC (it's not really going to blow us all to bits!) -- how many people weighing in on these issues really understand what they're talking about?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Humbling perspective

A friend of mine from high school lost his son yesterday. His son was only 4 weeks old, and spent his entire short life in the NICU, with doctors constantly working over him, trying to find out what was wrong with his tiny heart. This friend of mine has already suffered more from death than a young person should, having fought alongside both his parents as they battled, and eventually succombed to, cancer. My friend and his wife kept a blog during this past month, which I read each morning with a heavy heart. Good people shouldn't suffer so much. It was humbling to read about their struggles and the strength and hope with which they faced each day. They lay their son to rest tomorrow. I can hardly imagine a deeper sorrow.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

I love computer geeks

It's true. Computer geeks are great! I have yet to ask Google to find me an answer to a computer query and not found that someone else has asked the same question before, and been answered. Workarounds for weird software gitches. MATLAB files to manipulate plots all sorts of ways. LaTeX tips and templates. And all for free! I'd love to join in the fun, but don't have the time quite yet (will I ever?) to learn all the nitty-gritty programming. Someday. For now, I enjoy hacking together the stuff I find online. So, thanks to all you computer geeks out there! You are very much appreciated.