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).

Monday, April 5, 2010

Revisiting the academic in me

The decision to start blogging was not hard. Coming up with a blog name and a blogger identity, however, was. When I think of myself (and more specifically of the current stage in my life), I clearly see a grad student. I picture someone who has yet to learn the many conventions in academia, who has yet to nurture independence, and who is far from ready to face the ugly reality of the evil "professor world".

Easy, you'd think. Grad student, it is. But... I'm hoping to stay around for longer than just a couple of months and so any name reflecting the current stage in my career wouldn't be the best choice. Red cross.

If I can't describe myself as a grad student, then what am I?

*identity crisis*

A researcher? An academic? A scientist?

Yes and no to all of them. Yes, I spend my days doing research (among others); yes, I work in academia, and perhaps, if you will, in science as well (I do hold a science degree after all). But no, this of course doesn't automatically render me a researcher, an academic, a scientist. I do not run a lab, I do not attend faculty meetings, I do not teach, and those few committees I'm involved in -- purely voluntary. As others have said before: although I may be learning the science, may be gaining research experience, and may be developing some basic academic skills, it may not be until later that I become a "true" academic (if at all).

And yet, due to the lack of a better term, I called myself an academic. Only one day down the road I start second guessing that decision. I think I may already want to qualify my name.

~Observant Academic-to-be

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Hello World!

Shall I? Shall I not? Shall I? Shall I not?

I shall!

Today, after years of sneakily lurking others' blogs (and incidentally commenting - yep, that "grad student" comment may have been me), I have finally decided to de-lurk and become a more active writer. For purely selfish reasons, I must add. To rant, to be heard, and to (hopefully) gain some perspective on the whole "grad student thing".

I am not a born writer. I'm chaotic and often find myself having trouble wording exactly what I want to convey. I'm the one-liner type of person; I magically link concepts without being explicit about it and expect you to follow me nonetheless. I've become better in recent years, but still have a long way to go. When I ramble or say things that don't make sense (which, believe me, happens a lot - I try not to in professional settings though), I simply blame it on being a non-native English speaker.

I am direct and a huge proponent of getting distractions (grading, committees) out of the way as quickly as I can. I've learned that that's not always the best approach, but find it hard to change. I'm also a perfectionist, but try and be more picky what to be perfectionistic about. I'm generally happy with my position at NAU, although I'm sometimes anxious about how little I've accomplished so far and the amount of work that has yet to be done. The idea of a finished thesis freaks me out, so I'm trying to suppress any thoughts related to the word that shall not be named.

Hi, I go by Observant Academic and I hope to create my own little space here in the blogosphere where I can ponder, sigh, and be naive.