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Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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My First Year in Graduate School, for vndictivesprite [20051206|16:00]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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I made a mess of my first year in graduate school, starting with selecting a research group too early. I joined a group in July, before the school year started, and began doing work right away. I can't say I regret my choice, but I do wish now that I'd listened more carefully to the advice of one of my committee members, which was to consider doing research that had a variety of commercial and industrial applications since I wasn't certain I wanted to be an academic and wasn't exceptionally passionate about any particular sub-field of chemical physics. Opportunities in experimental chemical dynamics are, shall we say, limited. Most of the people I know with degrees or postdoctoral experience in said field are now working in a different one.

During my first quarter, I took four classes, did research, taught my least favorite subject to my least favorite type of student (organic chemistry lab to pre-meds) and held down a part-time tutoring job to help pay the the rent, against my hastily-selected advisor's wishes. Every time I thought I had a handle on one thing (got all my grading finished on time; ran a successful midterm review session for the class I was teaching), I'd find I'd let something important slip (hadn't studied hard enough for my own mid-terms; missed a tutoring appointment because I forgot). I had visible facial piercings at the time. My appearance attracted a lot of interest. While some of it was positive (my students loved it), some of it was definitely negative. One of the professors for whom I taught treated me with scarcely concealed distaste. I felt inadequate and stupid a great deal of the time, even when I was given tangible proof of success, like the award I won for teaching quantum chemistry.

I also took the opportunity to screw up interpersonal relationships with spectacular bridge-burning efficacy. I ended one long-term relationship. It was already foundering due to my choice of school, but the physical distance put the nail in the coffin. I began another relationship that far outlived its welcome. I drank too much. I smoked a lot. I selected an emotional vampire for a confidante.

I survived because I made some amazing friends, including Dr. Julia and mole6e23, who would be my officemate and a source of support and inspiration for five years. (Also, he taught me how to juggle.) I survived because my advisor had such infectious drive and energy. I survived because I cried a lot, and then I'd get pissed off and refuse to quit though I often said I would. The first year was an emotionally exhausting, intellectually draining experience and you couldn't pay me to put myself through it again. As its humiliating memories faded into the past, as research consumed the bulk of my energy, I started to forget, or rather I didn't have time to think about it since clearly I haven't forgotten.

It was worth it. Just barely, but it was worth it.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: prosicated
2005-12-06 21:20 (UTC)
Egads, it's good to read this. Not because, o course, I'm glad that your first year was rough, but because it provides some perspective and substance to the idea that people really do go through everything to get their PhDs.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-12-07 10:05 (UTC)
Yes. It's a painful experience, not least because you're learning to re-assess yourself in a new framework, with peers who have similar goals and abilities and with professors and other colleagues who have those and twenty years of experience to boot.

I'm a big believer in mentoring programs like the one I participated in at Caltech. Often it's enough for a first-year grad student to have a sympathetic ear in a post-doc. The grad students raved about the meetings, while all the post-docs were slightly bewildered because they'd mostly just listened and not given advice.
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[User Picture]From: vndictivesprite
2005-12-07 00:30 (UTC)
Well, after reading that I suppose things aren't so bad for me. I have purposefully kept alcohol out of the house though, I notice that a lot of the other grad students drink ... A lot in fact. I think if we had beer around I'd probably have at least one a night which I don't necessarily think is a good thing. Luckily I think I've gotten into a really good group, solid synthetic organic chemistry, his students go into industry both large and small and into academia. I've seen him interact with his group and even "yell" at a group member although the group member was being an ass and he didn't even yell at him, he just got upset (I have desk space in his lab). He's my first choice and I'm pretty sure I'll get himj. As far as all the rest goes it's mostly just loneliness, ego and motivational issues for me.

I really do wish I had a friend though, I really don't have anyone I feel I can talk to or trust atm. Not here in town at least.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-12-07 10:23 (UTC)
I'm willing to bet that the ones who stay will end up quitting drinking by the second year. Well, not completely, but certainly a lot less.

As far as all the rest goes it's mostly just loneliness, ego and motivational issues for me.

Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head there. Having to deal with that all at once makes it even more difficult. I hope you find yourself developing friendships with your fellow group members. It helps a lot, especially when you need to grumble about something.

Are you going home for the winter holidays?
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[User Picture]From: vndictivesprite
2005-12-07 16:34 (UTC)
I am going home for the holidays, but only for a week. I'm thinking maybe I should use the free time I have back here not only to study ahead for the semester and brush up on some basic organic (that I still don't fucking know :( ) but also to go out and explore the town some more and attempt to maybe find some friends outside of school. I'm not really sure how to do that other than looking at the local goth scene which I'm really hesitant to tap into based on various factors.
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[User Picture]From: omniana
2005-12-08 15:29 (UTC)
Ah, hindsight. I have a few of those things-I-wish-I-knew-then-and-did-something-about things, like identify what you really enjoy doing day to day. A friend opened my eyes about this with his story. He had chosen a synthesis lab for practical reasons (because it would be easy to get a job or money?) without considering the fact that he didn't like it, until he didn't pass candidacy. He realized he liked analysis, switched groups and was very happy. I did my project because the application sounded great (solar cells) but I really didn't like what I was doing and I was super bored. But I felt an obligation to my boss (silly) and for lack of a better idea, stayed. To contrast the really good advice of your committee member, I think grad school is also a great opportunity to research something completely impractical and fun, if you can find such a thing, because you will have few if any opportunities to do it again.

And I relate to the feeling of just not juggling everything well. I always let one of my classes really suffer (as in, I think I got a C every term, which is equivalent to failing), and research always felt like it was doing a running stumble to (not) catch up. Yup, draining. I think I am a wiser person for it, and I now have a nifty title to my name should I chose to use it, but bleh, lots of bitter lessons.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-12-09 14:21 (UTC)

Light bulb!

To contrast the really good advice of your committee member, I think grad school is also a great opportunity to research something completely impractical and fun, if you can find such a thing, because you will have few if any opportunities to do it again.

Don't laugh at me, but honestly? That perspective NEVER occurred to me before. Thank you. It makes me feel better about my choices. I mean, I'd never found it difficult to defend basic research, which doesn't seem terribly practical to most people. However, I'd found it difficult to justify it to myself, especially after I'd decided that I wasn't going to be an academic. Does that make sense?
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[User Picture]From: omniana
2005-12-12 03:06 (UTC)

Re: Light bulb!

Hey, I didn't figure this out till halfway through my project, when I was unwilling to change things. It does make sense. I also applied different criteria to myself. I guess my reasons were a conscious decision to do applied work, and lack of confidence.

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