Priorities

So it turns out that grad school is an exercise in self-control. “I can do this,” I tell myself. “I motivated myself through homeschooling high school and through college.” However, in the second year of grad school I have neither parents and siblings monitoring my activities nor (many) deadlines hanging over my head. I find myself going to bed at late hours, putting off productivity. And yet, when I realize that I’m embarrassingly late somewhere, I can shower and pack my lunch in a breeze, though I had previously procrastinated for hours.

(portrait of Gilbert DeBlois by J.S. Copley at Boston MFA. photographed by myself)

But think of all the *other* things I could be doing!

This is probably because in the real world, the what motivates me is what needs to get done. So I suppose what I should be asking myself is “What am I ok with leaving undone?” Am I ok if I never write for fun again? If I do not prepare sufficiently for my oral exams, do not submit grant applications, if I never set aside time to talk to God? Am I ok if I don’t comment on some aspect of my students’ lab reports? Well, maybe I’m ok with that last one.

This priorities-time management thing is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Yet, I can’t help but think that maybe it’s one of the most important things I’ve ever struggled with. I’m not giving up just yet.

(Image is portrait of Gilbert DeBlois by J.S. Copley at Boston MFA. photographed by myself)

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Hulk ANGRY

Sometimes people do thoughtless things. In their glow of righteous judgement, they assume that their listeners agree with them on some issue because it would be unthinkable not to, and they start seemingly consensual bash fests on *other* “stupid” people. But just because I don’t say anything doesn’t mean I agree. I mean, I’ve seen the quality of the bashers’ rhetoric’s and attempting to diffuse it isn’t worth my time. Being angry about this isn’t worth my time, either.

Nevertheless, I find myself increasingly annoyed with people for reasons it isn’t quite politic to explain. As a result, what I really want to do is find someone in this state who has the substance of my values and rant to them about shenanigans. But this makes me almost as bad as the people I’m ranting about because I’m tearing them down behind their backs. Indeed, for all I know, the person I’m ranting to doesn’t share as many of my values as I think they do.

The difficulty with writing about something like this is that it tends to come across overly vague. I have mentioned no issues and named no names because I have lost count of how many times and over how many issues this has happened to me in the past few months. It’s as though I’m a magnet for this behavior. In fact, as irritating as these people are, and as often as it happens, it remains that they feel comfortable enough around me to confide their annoyances and frustrations without fear of judgement. Alternatively, they think I’m a spineless wimp rather than a highly disciplined logic machine.

Either way, I can work with this. I have genuine arguments I can pick apart on my own time, and I have friends to whom I have grown so close that a revelation of my true values wouldn’t destroy the relationship. Indeed, I’d be surprised if most of my friends hadn’t guessed already. More importantly, I have an opportunity to force myself to love people. (Anyone who doesn’t think you can force yourself to love someone probably doesn’t have a great relationship with their siblings.) And that is a skill which will likely save my job for me one day…unless I become the Hulk, an occupation to which my present temperament is much better suited.

Me Hulk

Something You Probably Shouldn’t Ask A College Student

Someone recently asked me whether I felt “victorious” in the context of checking up on my progress through grad school. I demurred, but if you think about it, that’s a really relative question.

victory First off, unless you’re talking about college students who just aced really difficult assignments, I don’t think students generally feel “victorious”. (Maybe your experience has been more special than mine.)  I don’t feel victorious, like, ever. I feel loved. I feel safe. I also feel stressed and , scared. The good news is the answer to that question does not determine how things are actually going.

This is firstly because my feelings do not determine reality and reality does not determine my feelings. Sure, there’s a strong correlation there, but it’s one which (I hope) grows weaker by the day. Secondly, we have to draw a distinction about who’s doing the winning here. If I ace an assignment, but don’t feel I’ve done my best, I’ve lost. If I ace an assignment, but have to work myself to exhaustion, both the teacher and I have lost (It’s not supposed to be that hard). If I fail, but I accomplish what God has me here to do, He’s won. If I do my best, learn a lot, and still fail, I’m not sure if I’ve won, I’ve lost, or I can draw a tie. (Also, who do I win against? Myself, the educational system, or a difficult subject?)

You’ve asked the wrong question, probably because you don’t know what you want to know. Even I don’t know whether I feel victorious. If you want to know how I am, ask directly and expect an honest answer. You probably don’t want to ask about my studies unless you want to hear jargon. I’m not going to tell you my grades. I’d rather you told me you were praying for me. I’d rather you told me about a really hard test you once took (and didn’t fail). I’d rather be a person rather than a collection of grades and feelings.

Why You Haven’t Seen Me in Three Months

There are three stages to graduate application.

1. Anticipation: Around October, I began thinking seriously about preparing my applications. I was in the process of writing fellowship applications to fund graduate school so I already had a lot of the material ready.

The primary barrier to application lay in the personal statement. The personal statement is an important part of the admissions process and commonly contains academic interests, future goals, reasons for pursuing graduate study, a summary of past research, reasons for applying to a particular university, and professors of interest all within 1-2 pages. That would seem straightforward enough. However there isn’t really a graceful way to say “I want to go to grad school so I can learn enough to complete the goals I’ve just mentioned.” (I didn’t say that.) Nor is it very easy to write a gripping narrative when the application instructions ask for details about research dates, results, and impacts: it’s not untoward to ask for such things, but the story turns into a laundry list.

Another complication was the GREs. Due to spending my summer at an REU, I hadn’t had a decent time to study. Then, due to difficulties deciding where I wanted to send my scores, I missed the deadline to sign up for the September 28th Chemistry GRE. That meant I got to take the normal GRE twenty-four hours before the chemistry GRE. What fun!

About the time I had a basic statement ready, I realized that I’d told professors who agreed to write recommendations for me that I’d sent them the request links as soon as possible. But it was also necessary that I tell them *when* the letters were due. Guess what? A lot of applications either don’t have a firm deadline or maybe sorta imply that it’s at the same time as the rest of the application. Unfortunately, some applications won’t send out requests until the application is actually submitted and others won’t let you input recommender names until you’ve submitted some kind of essay.

2. DesperationAbout three weeks out from my deadlines, I realized that most school deadlines fell two days after the end of finals week. To complicate things, the Hertz fellowship folks scheduled an interview in Chicago the week before finals week. So NOTHING was going to get done finals week or the weekend before. That was ok. I’d get everything in on the weekend after my interview. He he. I got stuff in before school offices opened on Monday.

Tweaking the personal statement for each school was also something of an adventure. I had a difficult time narrowing my list of schools in the first place. You see, I hadn’t heard yet of the Directory of Graduate Research through which students can find professors in their area. Instead, I identified the top twenty to forty schools in my area and was painstakingly reading through all the professor bios to find people I wanted to work with. (I also tried searching people who wrote really interesting papers in my area, but a lot of them either lived in China or no longer worked in academia.) Once I had identified target schools, I had forgotten what research went with what name and had to re-read professors’ bios so I could write about where I fit into their research, in addition to tweaking my essay to better fit general application requirements.

Of course, then, each college had these unnerving questions

  • Where else are you applying? To quote Frozone’s wife (the Incredibles) “Why…do you need to know?”
  • Have you contacted any professors at this school? Will I be penalized if I haven’t?
  • What are your potential sources of funding? Why is this an issue? I’m a college student. Of course I don’t have any money. BTW, most fellowships have no firm decision dates.

3. Insanity: I am technically done with all my applications, my recommenders having been very good sports about the entire process. Unfortunately, there seem to be a whole lot of loose ends.

One interesting facet of the application process was the ubiquitous ApplyTexas application. It’s supposed to eliminate the hassle of filling out a lot of different forms for Texas public colleges. Of course, each of these colleges has supplementary requirements, to satisfy which, one must log on to that college’s website. Last week I received an email from an administrator asking me to submit such supplemental documents and inviting questions. I replied with a minor question about transcripts…and got an automated reply.

I began checking my email every ten minutes.

Hoping to stave off some of the minor panic which comes with waiting one to four months for a reply, I logged on to a popular graduate student forum…and regretted it. What with my good GRE scores, GPA, and research record, I thought I had a great chance of getting in at the schools where I applied. There were people online with nearly perfect GRE scores, publications in recognized journals, and steller GPAs from name-brand institutions. What’s more, almost every school I had applied to had already started admitting some of these bright folks, leaving me to wonder whether I had a chance.

On the other hand, academics are competitive by nature. However, what’s really important is doing good science, which isn’t necessarily the same as sounding good on paper. It also helps to realize that most students, even those competing to get into the same program at a university do not want to work with the same professors or do the same research. While I won’t go so far as to say that everyone’s research is equally valuable, researching at a slightly less prestigious university does not mean that research is any less valid or that the person researching is any less of a scientist. At least you made it through the application process. That takes guts.

Runaround

I’ve been working with a NMR a lot lately. It generates a reality all its own. Working with it during the past couple of days has taught me a few lessons:

  • You left something down a flight of stairs in the other lab. Figure out what it is.
  • Murphy’s law says as soon as a professor says this needs to be done today, another student will show up with the same urgency, whose sample should take much less time than yours. In theory. His sample is bigger on the inside.
  • After you insert a sample, you will realize that you forgot to remove your metal watch,  which might have messed up the magnetism of the NMR or your watch. No joke, my watch is losing time, though that might be the battery.

    Poor Watch

  • If you’re counting on getting “done” within a set amount of time, you won’t, because…
  • Shimming a sample never works the same way twice!
  • It may be necessary to pray for the equipment to get it to shim properly.
  • If labels can fall off, they will. Color code the caps of NMR tubes in sequences to make things simpler. (I use green-white-blue for incrementally more concentrated solutions.)
  • Make too much solution. Even if you use a volumetric flask, the elves will steal a few tenths of a milliliter.
  • There isn’t enough time to do homework between samples. Well, maybe like one question.
  • Do the dishes. The dish tray is a queue, not a dishwasher.
  • Things often don’t work out as planned. Keep going. 🙂

Spring Semester Summary ’13

I have been told many times in many ways that sleep is one of the most important tasks. I’ve written about how important it is many times. This past semester I neglected it and became a zombie. That wasn’t good. Beyond that fundamental lesson, I also re-learned some other things in the past few months.

  • Scientific papers are really interesting. But only if you have already read about three on the same subject and just need to skim the introduction. By that point, you know the jargon and can actually focus on the cool discovery. Before that point…it’s a nightmare.
  • Because it is a nightmare to read scientific papers, you should not procrastinate. Indeed, simply skimming the paper is better than doing it “right”, because that way you might pick up some of the jargon. Obviously, however, procrastinators do not learn from nagging (or teacher’s warnings would yield results) nor do they learn by example (or procrastinators would not remain procrastinators), but maybe they learn from other people’s examples. Allow me to mention the twelve-hour take-home test and the night-before presentation of this past semester and the five-hour ODE homework and the two-day massive essay of the semester before as well as the people who waited until the end of the last semester of senior year to write their thesis.
  • Most importantly, try to have fun with it. Because if someone is just in a career for the money/prestige, it won’t pay nearly enough for the headache. And if being in school isn’t somehow a means to an end, where that end is either a dream job (which you will enjoy, and which will use the things you are learning now, no?) or enjoyment of the new found knowledge, then why are you even in school?
  • No matter how many times I learn these things, I always ignore them and end up a frustrated sleep-deprived mess. My professors do their utmost to reassure me that it’s never as bad as you think it is. Or perhaps it is, but freaking out never helped anyone.

I’ll admit that wasn’t a summary so much as a list of un-learned lessons, but I’m sort of trying to learn them. This past semester I took Physical Biochemistry, Instrumental Analysis, Chemical Thermodynamics and World History I. The semester before was actually a bit harder and involved Advanced Organic Chemistry, Analytical Chemistry, Quantum Mechanics, and Ordinary Differential Equations. I will now compare my classes in the fall and spring semesters in excruciating detail.

  1. Advanced Organic Chemistry was meant to be a laid-back sort of class. We could have notes in the tests, but there was a great deal we had to figure out on our own using “chemical logic”. I don’t feel that I was very good at it. Physical Biochemistry was similar, although there were a lot of papers out there we could look up to figure out why proteins fold the way they do. Both also introduced a lot of biology which I had been avoiding since high school. Surprisingly, however, that was really helpful, making both classes really interesting. And from the sound of my Physical Biochemistry teacher’s dark murmurings, I’m going to need to know biology as well as math, physics, and chemistry to do drug delivery research. Maybe I’ll actually be a halfway decent researcher.
  2. Analytical Chemistry was actually taught by one of the most laid-back teachers I have ever met. He flew through the material, and always seemed to assume that we were a great deal smarter than we actually were, so I was exposed to a great many things, but without the depth I would have liked. Instrumental Analysis was like a second semester of analytical chemistry, only it was taught by one of the more detail-oriented professors in the department (who is also the Physical Biochemistry instructor) so we got a focused description of certain aspects of electronics and lasers and spectrometry, it was rather an interesting contrast, especially as the laid-back analytical professor taught the lab in a sort of Socratic-independent-experimental manner. I discovered that I really am rather interested in electron transitions, but I almost felt it should have been much harder. Perhaps that is where independent study comes in. (My Structure and Bonding professor for Fall ’13/ new research PI heard me say this, cackled with delight and gave me the textbook he will be using so I can study over the summer.)
  3. Quantum Mechanics and Chemical Thermodynamics were both taught by my original PI, but they were very different. Quantum exposed me to the math of electron transitions before I actually knew what it was for (but was rather cool in a confusing sort of way). Thermodynamics was very specific about what the math was used for, but it also became evident to me that we were looking at very simplified systems. Quantum was also simplified. The mind boggles.
  4. ODE and History present an interesting contrast. ODE was a pain in the neck. I am positive that it was simplified to fit into one semester, but it was also amazingly awesome and interesting. The professor, who was a good lecturer, made the homework a pain in the neck by using Web-assign, which gives no partial credit whatsoever. And he gave homework for which we were not allowed to use mathematica or maple. For example, we had undetermined coefficients problems involving the third derivative of two or three sets of the cosine and sine of expressions of things like (2x +4)3x. Each time you take the derivative of a term like that, you get an additional term [For cos(2x^2+12x), you get -(4x+12){sin(2x^2+12x)}.] so if you had five terms originally, and derive three times, you get 5*2^3=40 terms if you have not messed up somewhere. Anyway, it was a pain. History, on the other hand was taught by a sweet lady who told stories, always let us out fifteen minutes early, and gave multiple-choice tests. I wish I could have heard more of her stories.

So that was not only my spring semester but my fall semester as well. It’s been fun, if a bit dramatic on my part. And if you made it through that long description of my year without feeling an urge to kill me, then you might be a chemistry major. Come join me!

Social Energy

It’s interesting that I only get the urge to write at midnight, when I have homework, or when I generally don’t have the time to do so. Even so, if I only got the urge to write and followed it half the time I got on the internet to procrastinate, the archives of this blog would be larger, and I would be much better at writing. You see, getting on the internet for long periods when I ought to be going to bed has become a trend, but oddly, it does not relax me in any way, and eats up large portions of the time I reserved for extra sleep by ending my study sessions a few hours early.

I couldn’t figure out why I want to sit at the computer for so long. The hypnotic effect of the blue computer screen light *can’t* be that strong. Then a friend linked to this cartoon on understanding the social life of the introverted.

When I saw this, I gained a sudden understanding of the actions of certain “antisocial” people, and wished I’d seen this years ago. But what really resonated with me was the implication that introverts are responsible for all the new social energy. If this is true, extroverts must sponge off them or survive on some ancient energy source passed down through the ages by socializing extroverts. That *can’t* be accurate. If that were the case, extroverts would be really desperate–and shy extroverts like me would be terminally depressed.

My theory is anyone can make energy–extroverts just happen to be really lazy about it, and would rather sponge off introverts or create new energy by meeting people. I personally create energy by working on an immense number of crafts (a la this summer), praying, and writing. But when I’m drained from studying, the first place I instinctively look for energy is from interaction with other people–on the internet! The only problem with this plan is that everyone else on the internet is *also* looking for validation and attention, and the internet leeches tend to suck more out of me than they put in.

The reason I spend so much time on the internet turned out to be the classical explanation: I’m lazy. However, I’m not lazy for wanting some time off, only for not turning to the right things to get back on my feet. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s knitting that wants doing.