Wednesday, April 10, 2013

I'm Not Dead Yet!

Just not in position to vent to the internet and too busy to put together good science posts.

I *finally* heard back from the SMART program, and interviewed with two groups at my top choice DoD facility. Now I get to wait for the budget fairies to tell them whether or not they actually have the money to take on a student. This may create some drama, since I'd already been offered an university internal fellowship for next year, but I suppose it's a good problem to have. I'm keeping my fingers crossed hard: the SMART program would give me a fixed end date I *must* graduate by, from someone who can actually force my advisor to meet the deadline (i.e., the people who fund over half of my research group).

In other news, one of the groups I'm in is working on a proposal for how to change the evaluation of PhD students at my institution, such that there is actually an annual evaluation and goal setting process for all students. I'm pretty optimistic. We've got a new dean who is willing to take this on as one of his pet issues and push the faculty.

The oldest student in my group looks like he will finally defend in August or September, bringing the number of students I've seen graduate up to the number of students I've seen leave.

All in all, I'm feeling more hopeful that I will manage to graduate someday.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sequesters and Other Forms of Stress

Life in my research group is grumpy at the best of times, but recently, it feels like someone turned the stress knob to 11. My advisor has been struggling to write successful proposals for a couple cycles in a row now (for many, many reasons I'm not going into here), and consequently, money is running out fast. There's one student he's basically trying to shove out the door by September, but at least three of us are completely up in the air come September.

I applied for external funding in the form of the SMART scholarship, but 9% cuts to the Department of Defense are probably going to lead to drastically reduced funding rates this cycle. Given that the majority of the group's research funding is also DoD based, this do not look good.

I also really have no idea what my advisor expects to consider me "done". I'm working on so many unrelated projects, it's hard to see a coherent thesis direction. Every time I ask if I can focus on one project, the response is "Let me think about it, but in the mean time keep up with all of them" or if he says I can set aside one project, one month later he'll have forgotten and be demanding new data.

Add to that his general communication problems, and everyone is worried. It feels like the research group is about to collapse at any moment, and we're going to be the casualties. And there's nothing we can really do until we know what's actually happening.

Edit:because I can't spell when stressed, apparently

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Learning From Negative Example IV:

See previous installments: I, II and III

Sometimes, you just have to let one thing go in the name of getting three more things done
When a student has graduated and is completely noncommunicative about a manuscript, and you have another student who is still here *begging* you to read their papers, maybe spend some time on the project more likely to bear immediate fruit?

Tell students about deadlines
Yes, we should all be working hard all of the time. But there is a research equivalent of a sprint, which cannot be maintained for the length of a marathon. If you tell me about deadlines more than a day in advance, I can ramp up effort on the related project accordingly. I can't read your mind.

Don't get so caught up in details you miss the big picture
When you read a paper, read for content first, and then read for style and grammar. If it's not truly awful, give feedback on the science first (since that's what takes the most time for us). Don't be afraid to hand it back and say "Get someone else to read this" or "Reread this and try again" instead of nitpicking every sentence. When you ask for ideas for projects, don't get obsessed on one detail to the point of refusing to listen to further ideas (especially when we're telling you that what you want to do is impossible).

There's overselling, and then there's promising them a flying pink pony 
I get that grants need to be impressive, but when you promise to send someone to the moon with pocket change, the reviewers are going to reject you because you clearly don't know what you're doing.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Escaping the Echo Chamber

Chemjobber and Vinylogous are having an interesting conversation about mental health in chemistry graduate programs, much of which is directly applicable to my own experiences. The comments show I'm certainly not alone in having a neglectful advisor who then occasionally smothers me with attention.   In the comments, there's also a lot of talk of the need for institutional support systems.

I've found that far and away, the most important thing I can do for my mental health is this: talk to people who aren't in grad school. 

Talking to other grad students tends to devolve into pissing matches of who has the worst advisor (with smug thumb twiddling from the few with good advisors). While it can be cathartic on occasion, it gets very dark and depressing to spend that much time focusing on the negative parts of grad school. It's also *really* depressing when other people are complaining about something, and you're just thinking "Wow! They get feedback! I wish I got feedback!".

Frankly, I'm in a much better place emotionally than I was at this time last year. Nothing has really changed about my advisor or the stresses in my working environment. We finally got the first paper out, but reviewer data killed the next three I'd written, so that's a wash.

Now, I have a much better group of friends who have nothing whatsoever to do with grad school. I have a weekly craft night (aka Stitch and Bitch night), and belly dance classes. It really helps me put grad school back in perspective. I have fairly flexible hours, in that I'm not forced to work third-shift. As a computationalist, I can work remotely if I want to (and don't need certain software licenses...) It's also a nice ego boost to be considered smart again, instead of average at best.

I still have stress-triggers that can turn me into a wreck, such as having multiple people ask me "So when are you graduating?" in too short of a time frame, and thinking about how slowly my advisor reads is a good way to get me in a destructive mood. But guess what? These topics come up rather less often when you're not talking about school.

Of course, there are other coping mechanism, like finding other mentors for feedback, and solo hobbies, and whatnot, but sometimes, you just need to escape the echo chamber.