Friday, July 16, 2010

Peeking around the corner

"Why has she not been blogging lately?" you may wonder.

It's all the writing I've been doing.
(I submitted two papers since I last wrote here.)

It's all the exercising I've been doing.
(I've been increasing the number of minutes I can run consecutively. Which was pretty much 0 the last time I wrote here. So improvement was really not that hard. But it's improvement nonetheless.)

It's all the studies I've been setting up.
(Two are ready to go and two more are in the works.)

Of course it's all excuses.

And I'm only blogging now because I'm supposed to write this excellent piece of work. I'm so not ready to write intelligent words about these ideas. It all makes sense in my head, but not in words. I somehow can't verbalize my logic. Yes, I'm having a writer's block. Le sigh.

Sunday, June 20, 2010



First draft = done. Was it really that bad? No. Maybe. I sent it to my adviser, who will likely want me to make a fair number of changes. It's possible that it needs to be completely revised, but I don't think it was a particularly poorly written first draft. The problem I experience when writing is that I can't get started. I'm secretly more of an editor than a writer. As a result, everything I write has to get past a quality check. An extensive quality check. But by setting the bar high like that, nothing ever gets written.

This time, it was different. As a way of forcing myself to start writing, I wrote a version I promised myself no-one (but me) would ever get to read. It did the trick. Apparently writing is less intimidating if I know I'll be the only one who will read the piece of crap. It's okay if it's bad, I won't tell anyone.

It turned out to be less crappy than I thought it would be. Surely there were some spots that were unclear and that needed revision. But overall, it wasn't too-too bad. And I actually enjoyed being a *real* editor of my own work.

I think I just found a way to save myself LOTS of time.

Friday, June 11, 2010


It's weekend.

Yes, that's right. I'm taking the weekend off. All of it. For the first time in what seems like forever. Not because I deserved it (while this week wasn't bad in terms of productivity, I didn't really accomplish anything major), but because I wanted it. And there won't be any cheating for sure. I am leaving, my laptop will stay at home, and my friend will prevent me at least from talking about science. Well, that's not entirely true - there'll be lots of science talk, but in a cheerful way. Cool findings, comparison of our schools, perhaps some discussion of future plans. But no evil I-wonder-why-randomization-X-did-not-work thoughts.

My phone and iPod are charged, my (non-academic!) books (for on the road) are packed, and my clothes are in the dryer as we speak. Let the weekend begin!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Signs of a sad life

Not conducive to writing: I made something pretty and now I can't stop admiring it.

More conducive to writing: I made something pretty and now I must stop admiring the stupid thing and start writing this paper. Envisioning a not-so-happy and disappointed former adviser might do the trick.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

On marriage

Today at work, I accidentally got myself into a discussion about marriage. It involved quite a few colleagues (both younger and older) and let's just say that I'm shocked that my opinion was by far a minority one. It almost felt like I was being transported some 50 years back in time.

I'm not necessarily against marriage. It's true that I don't really feel the urge to get married myself, but if there was a good reason to do so, I wouldn't be opposed to it. I just don't consider it as the ultimate confirmation of someone's love. And I most certainly don't see it as a condition for living with your partner. In fact, I would argue that having lived with your partner for a substantial amount of time before getting married is probably a good thing. Seems to me that that would give you the most realistic idea about what being with a specific someone (for the rest of your life?) entails. Surprisingly (to me at least), none of my age peers agreed with me. The only person nodding their head was a 60+-year-old male professor...

In other news, I finally got some writing done. It's just an outline (an approved outline!), but a good outline will do half the job. Now I just need to fill the pages with intelligent words.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Manuscript progress (or the lack thereof)

Meanwhile, I haven't written a single word yet. Ok, that's not entirely true. I have written some instructions for people in the former lab. And I have written something that, with some imagination, looks like an outline of a grant proposal (eh, yeah, completely unrelated to the manuscript, but still, I did write it). I've also completed some practical work for my manuscript on the side and I've read a paper or two.


One of my professors at my undergrad institution used to say that writing a paper should be easy. By the time you're finishing up data collection, you ought to know what you were doing. It's only a matter of telling the story that's in your head. I wish it was that simple.

I know what I was doing and I know why I did what I did. But somewhere between the time that I started this project and now, other people have been working on the same topic. Some of the new stuff is no longer new and some of what I thought was boring turned out to be exciting. Plus, my recent focus on a related project changed the way I'm thinking about some of the underlying assumptions. This basically means that the motivation for the study is going to be completely different from what I envisioned it to be a couple of years ago.

That's fine, that's science, but it definitely isn't easy!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Oh manuscript, when do I write you?

Prior to starting grad school at NAU, I had the opportunity to work in a few other labs in my (loosely defined) research area. The projects I worked on in Lab1 are (more or less) completed and although I do put effort into keeping in touch with my old mentors and colleagues, this doesn't really take up any research time. In Lab2, however, I started a project that I never got to finish. The preliminary results looked promising though and so my adviser and I agreed that we would continue working on this project.

Fast forward a couple of years. After some delay (due to a lack of resources in my former adviser's lab), the project has come to a stage where it can be written up for publication. I would like to see some more follow-up work, but hey, beggars can't be choosers. Perhaps it isn't as nice a story without the extra data, but there's a story nonetheless and any publication would be beneficial to me at this point. So I really should start writing up this paper.

At the same time, I'm working on studies in my current lab. And by working, I don't mean working 9-5, but more like working 9-9 plus weekends. I try taking off at least one day a week to keep my sanity, but I often times find myself putting in a few hours here and there on my (supposedly) free day as well.

So here's the dilemma: when do I write this additional manuscript? Is this something I do on top of all the work I'm doing now? That's virtually impossible would make me very grumpy. But is it fair to cut down the amount of work I'm doing on the things I should be working on for my PhD? As much as I want to get a publication out of this, part of my stipend comes from my adviser, so I for sure can't (and don't want to - there's a thesis to be finished after all) simply drop all of my thesis work. But what is reasonable? Any thoughts on how much (and for how long) my productivity in my PhD lab can decline while working on this paper? Anyone?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

I don't want to be that person...

Every cohort has at least a few of them. Students who will do nothing but complain. Complain about how being a grad students sucks. Complain about how being in academia sucks. Complain about how their adviser sucks. Complain about how life sucks. About how research sucks. The one thing that doesn't suck is their undergrad institution. Though I wouldn't be surprised if they used to complain about said institution while working towards their undergrad degree.

And I get it, I really do. Grad student life can be challenging at times and venting can be a good way to get rid of some of that frustration. I also totally sympathize with fellow students whose data aren't working out the way they had hoped, whose family conditions are far from optimal, or who simply don't get along with their adviser. But those are typically not the ever-complaining students. In my experience, the ever-complainers tend to have no more reason to complain than any other grad student. They almost seem to complain for the sake of complaining. It's what they do.

I'm not saying their complaints are not valid. They may very well be. But if all you can do is complain (and talk about how your everything is so much better at your previous school) without ever trying to improve your current circumstances despite all the advice people give you, then yes, I might get annoyed. Perhaps grad school isn't for you. It's not as if it's your only option. Or perhaps you should change advisers or institutions but that's advice and you won't take it. Or, dare I say it, perhaps you should change your attitude. Because if you decide to finish your PhD, things will inevitably get harder down the road, and feeling miserable all! the! time! isn't going to help. Plus, a nice side effect may be that others won't resist talking to you so much and stop hiding in their offices when they see you leave yours.

While my glass does tend to be half empty and while at times I do complain more than I probably should, I don't think I'm that person. Not quite yet at least. But I should practice what I preach. And that's why I just deleted a very whiny draft I was about about to post. Because things are really not that bad. I do research I like, I have an adviser who cares, and I don't have a two-body problem. Some nice data would be good, but I'm working on that.

Now I just need to continue working on my attitude.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Why higher stipends would be beneficial

Working from home would be so much easier if I didn't share an apartment. Just saying.

Friday, April 30, 2010


It's still early in the morning when I walk into my office. One look at my to-do list reminds me that I *really* should finish Task A. I turn on my computer and start working.

Twenty minutes. Twenty minutes until the first e-mail arrives. My adviser. Important (and Urgent!) Task B. I complete Task B and send it back for comments. Suddenly I remember I was also supposed to take care of Task C today and walk to the lab to do so. Meanwhile, Needy Person notices I am around today even though I haven't been replying to her e-mails and starts talking to me. I agree to send her some information on Subject Z. Right. Task C. I finish it, walk back to my desk and send the information to Needy Person as promised. Meanwhile, my adviser has sent me some comments I need to look at. I revise Task B, but get sidetracked by one of the comments. Have to find some literature to see if the claim I am making makes sense. Interesting articles. Funny that it takes me over an hour just to double check this. I finish Task B. And Task D, E, and F that have somehow come up. Feel good about myself for getting so many things done. Time to go home... Only to realize that the last browser tab I am about to close was opened for Task A.

I did not finish Task A. Oh well, what can I say? The word 'deadline' has slowly evolved into a whole new concept since I started grad school.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Being on campus

I'm sure disciplines differ with regard to how much lab time is involved. And even within the same discipline, some projects inevitably require more testing than others. When I look at my fellow grad students, there seems to be a wide mix. Some work crazy hours, some work 9-5, some work from home all the time and others (*looks away innocently*) shouldn't waste money on rent as they pretty much live in their labs or offices.

The type of work I do naturally comes with being in the lab a lot. While I do occasionally work from home (mainly when I have off-campus meetings that day), I'm on campus for the majority of my working hours. That's fine. What bothers me though is that being in the lab so much creates expectations. As in: "Oh, OA is in, she can take care of that." Yes, chances are that I am in, but no, that doesn't imply that I should fix your problems right now, just because I'm the only one around.

The thing is, I would probably offer to help out. I would just like that not to be taken for granted.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Smart_programming == happy_me

Who knew programming would be so exciting!* I can't believe I used to waste all that time by doing things by hand... Sure, I'm still learning (three languages simultaneously, probably not the best idea) and scripting can sometimes be a challenge (and time-consuming) but so rewarding when it eventually works!

And best of all, I finally feel semi computer smart.

*Except for this afternoon, when I accidentally overwrote some of my files that I had worked on all day yesterday. Oops. I'm hoping the universe will be nice this time and not make me redo them.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Thesis thoughts

I'm at the point in my program where I should have at least a general idea of what my dissertation will look like. According to the official guidelines, I'm supposed to have written a thesis proposal, preferably accompanied by some data suggesting that I'm not a complete failure.

Ever since I started grad school, I've been simultaneously working on multiple projects, thinking that I would stick with the one that would work out best. The problem, however, is that none of the projects have *really* been working. For some projects, I was unable to replicate previous studies, which I had planned to be the baseline for subsequent experiments. For others, results were pretty much uninterpretable and sometimes even contradictory between experiments. I've been trying to find out where things got messy but generally without too much luck.

And so I still don't have a clear idea of where I'm going. I had all these grand plans, but ended up abandoning most of them. I have some vague thoughts about potential studies but they
a. are mainly ideas my supervisor has brought up;
b. still need to be refined;
c. don't connect in the most straightforward way.

There's lots of work to be done and time is slowly running out. Meanwhile, I find myself more and more unable to think analytically (those headaches that keep on coming back certainly don't help either). I suspect I may be hitting panic mode. It's so frustrating to know that I would have been able to handle this situation better two years ago than I am now.

I think that I can do this. I'm just not so sure though that I can do this now.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Will enough ever be enough?

One of the issues I've been struggling with for the last little while is knowing (or rather: not knowing) when to stop. I'm a perfectionist, the worst kind. A super conscientious keener. You're thinking that's a good trait? Yeah, well, I can tell you it's freakin' exhausting.

See, there's this (no longer so) long-term goal of writing a thesis. But then there's also these short-term goals (think TA-ing/general lab stuff/random chores/supervising undergrads/having a social life) that tend to interfere. Ideally, you find the sweet spot on the curve where you manage to do the required amount of short-term work while still moving forward on the "thesis work". That spot must be painfully small though. I have yet to find it.

I always end up doing a lot more of not-so-helpful-in-the-long-run short-term work than I should. Although I do think I'm generally a fast worker, always spotting problems from miles away (and needing to fix them right! now!) does not work out well time-wise. Add to that the fact that I'm a total control freak (yep, having a hard time trusting other people to do work I'm ultimately responsible for) and there's never enough "thesis work" time. Except perhaps there is. I mean, there should be, right? You just have to make thesis time.

So that's what I've been trying to do. I make time by working until late at night. I make time by reading papers rather than a novel during my commute to the lab. I make time by not seeing my friends. But more than anything, I make time by giving up sleep, not doing dishes, not doing laundry, not preparing proper food. Not the most constructive way... which I guess is only proven by my recent tiredness and inability to think (which makes it harder for me to concentrate, which makes me less productive, which makes me give in even more, which...). I know it doesn't work and yet I get tricked into it over and over again.

I need a break, or at the very least a weekend off. And then I need to figure out how I should prevent this from happening in the future. I need to learn to let go. Which apparently is so overwhelmingly hard that it's easier to be completely, utterly burned out for the second time in less than a year than to avert this situation that I'm in right now.

Yes, I sometimes also don't fully understand myself.
And it's scary that this is supposed to be the easy part in my career.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Time spent on campus

It's past 9pm and after finishing up some lab work, I just got back to my office. Sadly, this is not an exception. And that pile of papers on my desk really, really, really needs to be graded.

Summer goal: spend less time on campus (while remaining productive).