Graduate School


Another lapse in posting as usual. A lot has happened since last time. Most notably M. finished her 3rd year of medical school! She is now (unofficially due to a little 2 week ENT elective) a 4th year medical student, bearing down on residency and boards. I on the other hand continue to languish in the most unstructured and non-goal-oriented education system on the planet. Four years ago I advanced to candidacy and was left to my own devices. It’s sort of like putting someone at the start of a big maze, blindfolding them, tying their hands behind their back and expecting them to magically run through without smacking their face against a wall. After many smashed faces and misguided turns I may finally be nearing the end. I held my last (hopefully) annual review a week ago and announced my plans to be done at the end of the calendar year. Everyone was on board and told me to start writing the backbone of my dissertation. Calculations to be added in later. More later…

After a harrowing drive down to Monterey including missed exits, near collisions, and empty gas tanks in the fast lane of CA-I808 I’m here safe and sound. I was fighting to stay awake while presenting the WPI poster last night, and snuck out a little early to get some sleep. Went for a nice run this morning along the boardwalk, listening to crashing waves and NPR. It was a good session this morning with Ara Apkarian giving a great talk on some 4 color 4 wave mixing experiments that were able to highlight some key fundamental features of quantum mechanics such as nonlocality, entanglement, and coherence. In addition they would make a great application of my theory. Off to more lectures.

For the past few and the upcoming several weeks the department has been interviewing candidates for a faculty position in physical chemistry. Aside from the obvious free lunches they are completely without benefit for me. I really couldn’t care less who gets the job if it’s not going to be me, I’ll be long gone (hopefully) by the time their lab gets set up.

After the latest candidate’s talk was done yesterday I witnesses the painful extent we scientists will go to so that we don’t have to talk to each other. We exhibit the complete antithesis to the herd mentality, doing anything we can not to have to interact on a personal level with another of our kind. It’s not that we don’t like each other, on the contrary I’m quite fond of several of my fellow toilers. I think we are just so completely entrenched in the search for objective truth we can’t bear it to engage in semi-false trite conversation.

I watched as 30 or so faculty, staff, and graduate students filed out of the lecture and proceeded down the same hallway, in the same direction and speed, but interspersed at extremely precise intervals so as to inhibit chit-chat. We take up a staggered configuration one, two, and sometimes three bodies wide, but with enough space (approximately 1.5-2 ft) between ourselves and the people in front of and behind us making it impossible to talk to either one. (see diagram at left) No one deviates from this pattern. No one speeds up or slows down. No one talks. At all. Complete silence. This continues while we slowly disintegrate as people go off to their respective offices to continue their work in silence.

Maybe there’s some telepathy going on that only tenured faculty are privy to. Or maybe they really don’t like each other. Either way I’m still sitting here in silence, happily doing my quiet work.

I had a discussion with another graduate student today about overspecializing ourselves into obscurity. She was lamenting her last several years as a spectroscopist and what is has done to her job prospects when I reminded her, she could always be in a worse place. She could be a theoretician.

To the scientific community, and society in general, we theoreticians are very valuable in that we hold a mastery, some better than others, in the knowledge base that our current perception of physical laws is based upon. When someone wants something explained properly they come to us. We explain things. How noble.

On the other hand, we are of almost no use to industry and commerce as we can’t really do anything. We can tell you what is happening, but we can’t make it happen if our tenure depended on it. Even a rudimentary understanding of basic physical concepts can produce a good experiment that outputs data. Whether or not meaningful information regarding the physics behind the data can be gotten is another story, and is where we come in. So in a perfect world every experimental group would have their own in-house theoretician, and every theoretical group would have their own little experimental whipping person.

But alas this world is not perfect (shocker), and experimentalists make stuff. I just think about stuff. Apparently there isn’t much of a market for thoughts these days.

Around lunchtime today my grad senses started tingling. Normally I would go to the old lab fridge down the hall we use to keep our lunches in, get my food and eat in my office. But I had some strange sensation that said I needed a fork (I was having soup?) so I made my way to the atrium of the building with the cafe that I pilfer silverware and cream from. As I neared the balcony I heard the unmistakable sounds of gathered scientists. Then it hit me. Food. Sure enough, as I walked into the atrium a fellow classmate of mine was standing there plate in hand and pizza stacked high, and pointed me in the right direction. I weaved past vendor tables pawning HPLC’s and new fangled micro pipettes to the promised land. I must be getting old because I got the last few pieces, but regardless, I’ve still got it.
As I rode in to work for a meeting with big boss man at the completely unholy hour of 7 AM, it dawned on me that these are the only people awake at this time. The overachievers were out running, walking their dogs, riding to work and all the while looking downright chipper. I, on the other hand, had just finished write a dissertation prospectus not 4 fours before and was feeling zombie-like. In between freshly shaven professionals were bums awakening from the sleep of the dead and looking like it. In the park near my house, they crawl out of every imaginable nook and cranny when the sun starts to hit the horizon. Most of the time their pants are around their ankles and they are shirtless, regardless of how cold it is.

I’m trying to figure out just which side of the line I fall on but for the life of me I just can’t. I guess the reason for me being up so early puts me on the overachieving team, but man, if I didn’t feel like I had just crawled out from under a bush half clothed and semi-uncounscious.

In other news, our union and the university are currently in contract negotiations. The union asked for elimination of student fees for graduate students. We are, after all, the only employee group at the university that has to pay any fees, and we do 30% of the work there. Cheaply. The university’s counter offer was to actually RAISE fees. It’s going to be a long bargaining process. And it looks like we’re going to come out hosed in the end, particularly grad students with families, and even more specifically those with young children.

As I was throwing away a paper towel in the bathroom at school today, I peered into the trash can to see the unmistakable shade of brown that dominates the academician’s uniform: khaki. Someone’s dockers had been defecated in. And they were in the trash. What I didn’t see though (knock on wood) is a tenured faculty member stealthily roaming the halls with no trousers on. I just want to know, why the bathroom? There are better places to disgard soiled clothing. Like your home. Sure it’ll be a hell of a bus ride for everyone sitting in a 10 foot radius around you, and you have to sit in your own excrement for the duration, but at least you won’t have to stalk the halls of higher education pantsless and humiliated.

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