Thursday, September 27, 2012

In The Darkest Part of the Tunnel

I've been feeling burned out lately. The manuscript finally got published. I don't have a candidacy exam to prepare for, I don't have any talks in the immediate future, no classes or deadlines of any sort. I've looked at the upcoming abstract submissions, and I can't see any symposia my research fits in. And for me, this is a very stressful state.

I know I have to keep my nose to the grindstone, but there's no light at the end of the tunnel right now. I have no real concept of when I'm going to graduate (2 years, +/- 1 is a heck of a window), and there's no date that tells me "if you make it to this date, you'll be *done* with something". My to-do list never seems to get shorter, I just keep finding things to add to it.

My mom and I are going to visit her relatives who live in a very rural area soon, which will hopefully give me a chance to reboot my brain, since there's no feasible way to work remotely from there. I'm also planning on leaving my laptop behind, for good measure. I don't think I've ever been so excited to go somewhere with sub-56kB/s dial-up.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Reading Outside Your Subfield

Right now, I'm writing a review for myself of very related theories in two different materials systems. However, until very recently, there was fairly little overlap between the scientists who studied these two systems, and it shows in reviewing these papers. In one system, they started with empirical fits of data, and drifted to a more precise mathematical approach, whereas the other material started with math and has slowly been correcting to account for experimental results. The most interesting part is when both sides come up with the same result, and just have a different name.

It reminds me of the paper several years ago when medical students rediscovered integration.

Materials science is one of those boundary fields, with significant overlap with a number of fields, so I've always been encouraged to look at papers, even from unfamiliar journals. I've also made an effort to take classes outside of my departmental comfort zone (which has been rather helpful during this review). It also tends to mean I do a lot more reading than my friends in say, EE.

How many times have we reinvented wheels because we only read what we thought was directly relevant to our subfield?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Ignoring Warnings

The semester is ramping up quickly, and the new grad students are quickly sorting themselves out. The only first-year student we got this year worked for the lab as an undergrad, so he had an idea of what he was walking into. Hopefully. More confusing is a grad student looking to switch groups who seems to be seriously considering my group even though 1) there's no secure funding and 2) she's listened to all the stories I've told here and more beside.

On the other hand, when I was a wee little graduate student, one of our former group member told me "Run. Take your fellowship money and run." At the time, I just assumed she was bitter because the equipment never worked, etc., but I realize now that she really was trying to help me. I think stubbornness is really a trait of most graduate students, though, and there's a tendency to assume that we are right until explicitly proven wrong.

What warnings from others did you ignore?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Happy Academic New Year!

The new academic year has arrived at my institution, and it's an odd one for me. I'm not involved in courses at all, I personally have no conferences coming up in the next semester, and The Project That Wouldn't Die has pretty much been killed, unless I can get an Igor to help me resurrect it (which might be worth it for the papers...) For the first time in my graduate career, I get what I've always wanted: time to work on my thesis project without other things to do. Now, I just have to figure out what to do with all that time.

Summer has been tumultuous. We finally submitted the manuscript, and got mostly positive reviews, but the reviews sent us experimental data from a small German society journal which disagreed with our results. That manuscript is accepted, but it's killed 2 papers I'd already written. I thought my abstract had been accepted to the MRS fall meeting as an invited talk, but it turned out my advisor forgot to mention it had been turned into his talk.

I'm just starting my 4th year, in a group that averages 6 years to completion. I've already outlined my thesis chapters, and started writing methodology and introductions as much as I can. My biggest worry is that in a year, my PI is going to completely change his vision for my thesis from what was in my proposal, and most of that will be wasted. He ideally wants the thesis to be fleshed out papers, but I want it to be a coherent and connected story. What makes a good paper isn't necessarily the same thing that will allow me to piece together all of the different aspects of my research.

Happily, my advisor is letting me do my own DFT for this project, instead of getting one of the DFT experts in the group to run it and give me results. I'm actually getting to do most of the major forms of atomistic simulation for this project, which is cool, though occasionally overwhelming.

But, in the spirit of new years, I'm setting myself some goals:

1) Complain less about my advisor. It doesn't change him and it rarely makes me feel better.
2) Get the next two papers onto his desk
3) Go over my thesis outline with my PI
4) Complete drafts of the first three thesis chapters I have planned by this time next year (subject to change according to the results of 3)
5) Write a really excellent letter of recommendation for Minion, who is staying with the research group ze was in this summer which is run by FamousRockstarProf and might actually get authorship on a paper before ze graduates.
6)Find somewhere else to submit my MRS abstract, so I can actually give the talk I wanted to give