When will you finish?

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The other day, I stumbled upon a great academic blog – 100 reasons not to got o graduate school. There, I found Reason 80 – when will you finish. Below is a quotation from that post:

Of all of the awkward questions that you are asked in graduate school, this one is the cruelest. It is also the one that you are asked more often than any other. Whether asked innocently (as it often is) or laced with judgment (as it often is), the question presents the same problem. Other questions are awkward because it is hard to hear yourself answer them honestly, but this question is awkward because—until the very end—you don’t know the answer. And because everyone around you is just as surprised as you are at how long it is taking you to finish (see Reason 4), the question becomes more awkward as time passes. Eventually, what people really mean by this question is: “Why haven’t you finished yet?”

It’s so true, it hurts.

I feel like I’m falling off a cliff each time I get that question. I start sweating cold, feeling sick and like I want to hit something.

Why do they ask it? What do they expect to hear?
a) Next week! I’m so happy!
b) I already finished! I’m so happy!
With these answers the question is acceptable, but how likely are they?

More likely answers:
c) Never. I am stuck and I want to kill myself.
d) I don’t know. I’m stuck in limbo, and I hate it.
e) Next year, and I have a ton of things that have to work out. If they don’t I am screwed and might kill myself.

I suppose they always think they will get a) or b). But I can’t think of a reason why. Especially, since the same people often ask this question every time you see them. And each time, effectively, they ruin my day.

So please. People out there. Dont ask graduate students when they will finish.

And if you do, and they hit you over the face with their tote bag full of articles and post-it notes. I will not pity the fool (you).

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I am not a bad squirrel

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The other day I found the inspiring blog, Escape the ivory tower. There, I found a post about not being a bad squirrel.

The theory is, in short, that the squirrel looking for nuts will not start questioning his abilities as a squirrel, just because he’s not finding any nuts. Then, suddenly, he finds his nut and scurries off, happily.

So don’t chastise yourself about not finding nuts. You are not a bad squirrel.

I agree. I am not a bad squirrel. But, I am a squirrel, who will perish during the winter, if I don’t find any nuts. Soon.

I am a PhD student. I need results to finish my thesis and disseratation, and get set free.

I am a squirrel on a mission. Must. Find. Nuts.

I love the metaphor abour the squirrel, but I’m afraid I’m stuck in the hamster wheel.

It’s not as easy as just quitting. If I got sick from it, like Sickie, of course I would go. But as it is, my life is just miserable, my spare time nonexistent and my job assignments tedious routine. And I’ve come more than half way there.

I have to finish. I will find those nuts. And I will eat them.

I dream sometimes

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I like to dream about my future. One day I will be finished here. One day, after that dreadful dissertation, I will get my diploma, say my goodbyes and leave.

And as tempting as it is, I will not burn my bridges. I will not tell anyone how I really feel. At the scarce times before, when I have unburdened myself, there were  no sympathies for the devil (me).

Once, I came in near tears to my supervisor, looking for some understanding. I had been doing experiments, and labwork like a banshee set free upon the world. I had worked tirelessly, and now he had asked me to do even more. I needed a break. I needed some understanding, or some thanks. What did I get? A cliché about science being hard work, about there coming times with a lot of work, and times with less. A bunch of crap, since I knew that already, My point was I can not take any more. Don’t give me more to bear. Not now.

No wonder Sickie got occupational fatigue. No wonder everyone acted as if they were suprised. They don’t understand, or care to understand, or care for you, in the least.

So sometimes I dream about my future. Hoping that I will get a job somewhere normal. Somewhere I’m appreciated. Somewhere maybe, where I have a boss with actual leadership skills, and a real interest in the employees, and their welfare.

Usually my dreams abruptly end with me getting depressed, and having to think about something else. Because they are so far away, my dreams. And there are many obstacles in the way until I reach them.

But I don’t think they are impossible. Perhaps, not even unlikely.

One day. I will have a real job. Somewhere.

 

What lies beneath

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I worked in the lab today, no joke. And had to ask my co-supervisor, Mr Doit, about some detail in the method I was using. So I walked over to the offices, and found him with my supervisor. Well, excellent, I thought. Now surely I will get a final answer right away. Isn’t that nice.

As you might remember, Mr Feeble is my head supervisor. He is exactly that, a giant feeble head. Mr Doit is my co-supervisor, and the one with something inside his giant head.

So I asked away and got the answer, whereby a short discussion followed. Motivating your actions, and being aware of what you’re doing, and all that. Very good, very good.

So I started back towards the lab, but as I went, I heard a disturbing dialogue. There they were, Mr Doit and Mr Feeble, in the aftermath of the PhD student Question, talking about my results. No. There they were, Mr Doit explaining to Mr Feeble the very basics of the method I was working with. “She is doing this, to get this and with this we can say that, and it’s crucial that”, and so on. Really.

Really?

This man, my mentor. The guy who is supposed to teach me about research, who is supposed to guide me and challenge me and get me all independent. And he doesn’t even know what the RTFM(tm) is. Which we, by the way, learned about in the basic courses way back in the day of undergrad studies.

“An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.”
― Nicholas Murray Butler

There we are, together in a room, talking about the science, and he does not ask me. He does not make it educational, making me describe the theory. He does not ever pretend not to understand what I am doing. What he sometimes does is ask me stupid questions, phrased as assumptions, making me say “No, but…”. No wonder my results end up confusing everyone. The guy requesting them doesn’t even know what they are, even if they do turn out splendidly.

I wanted to laugh, cry and blog about it. At least I could do the last.

The scientific society

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In academia they frown upon the commercial field. It is ugly, hedonistic, and beneath them. Of course they’d think that. It’s not their choice. They opted for government employment in the badly paid anarchy that is academia. And they got it.

The people of the void are ambitious, of course. But what started with intelligence and dreams, has morphed into something else. They are institutionalized by the system. They hunt citations and gig impact factors, accumulate articles and glance across the hallway to see who might be doing better, who is getting more funding.

And they worship hardship. Every obstacle is “just the way research is”. There’s an honor in making do with subpar equipment, that might or might not work, and which might cost you hours time of your life.

Finally, if they make it to the top if the hierarchy, they get minions of their own, to mold into their likeness, into minimes. They plague them and use them indiscriminately, luring them on with the glory of results, titles and promises of better times.

There is complacency at the top. A sad few are brilliant researchers, who will contribute greatly to the scientific society. But most got there by never moving on. And once at ways end they lean back and watch the show. Watch there minions scurry, to wherever it is minions go, to do whatever minions do. They, no longer have a clue.

Oh, academia…

Current knowledge

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So here I am. The only sane person in a cage of monkeys.

My days are composed of mostly lab work. I pipette stuff, incubate stuff, spray ethanol on surfaces, and mark a lot of tubes.

However, results are depressingly scarce. You have five years to complete your PhD thesis. I have a little over a year left, and not enough data to complete it. I am getting pretty frustrated and stressed out.

I need my results, so why don’t I have them? Well, the first set had to be discarded since I lacked a certain simple sample. My supervisor, Mr Feeble, didn’t think of it until afterwards. He had never actually thought about the method, until I handed over my results. That I wasted weeks of work on nothing was never even mentioned.

To another problem, I managed to think of a cause, and now it’s the third time around, and I’m in the middle of the series, which has to be completed before vacation somewhere in July. Blargh.

I also have another project. The problem there is methodical. Not blatant stupidity. That’s just science, and not a problem. Well it is, but it’s expected.

It’s just tjat two projects compete for my time and demand twelve hour days during the series of experiments. And everything must be done now or yesterday, and be finished before vacation. And then there’s months of analysis. And then…

The daily life of the living dead
As a PhD student all that matters is that you produce the results. That it requires unlawful amounts of time each week, in excess of the work permitted by law, is not considered a problem. It’s expected.

Sometimes I work 77 hrs per week. That’s eleven hours a day, seven days of the week, for consecutive weeks. Sometimes, like now, it’s only 55 hrs. There’s this rumor, which states that you will sometimes be able to stay at home writing for a while, but that hasn’t happened to me yet.

You can work until you drop dead, but there will never be any thanks or appreciation for this. Not a single word.

It is all expected. It is what you’ve signed up for. It’s the price of research.

The people of the void

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These are the people I share my time with, here in the void of doctoral studies. The characters, which make my day, or my teeth go numb with grinding.

The first sign of disaster
About the first thing I noticed when I got here, was some drama in the research group. We’re not talking mere tension here. No, there were outright shouting and throwing things, banging doors and storming off.

I had never expected that kind of behavior in any workplace.

Next, I heard that one of my fellow PhD students, let’s call her Sickie, was not coming in, due to occupational fatigue. All right… Then all the other team members made sure to spread evil gossip about her, while she was gone. Ouch.

Finally, I found out that my predecessor Dinah and my supervisor, Mr Feeble, did not get along. This is where I really should have taken a hint, and looked elsewhere.

But I didn’t.

 

The master of disaster
The early days, of course, were still sweet enough, compared to what was about to transpire. One of my peers, Silly – the one doing most of the shouting, banging of doors and storming off – switched her animosity from Sickie, to me. That poor exhausted girl never came back, and I guess someone needed to be the bad guy. That’s me.

Since these beautiful days, Silly has been acting overly cheery from time to time, and at other times downright psychotic. The sudden jumps from false kindness to very real aggression are just another part of the workday.

At times I feel as if she is determined to find something to remark upon. Some material I’ve used. Some glassware that need washing. Things. Anything.

Silly can be possessive of lab equipment. While most of there stuff is used by everyone, she feels that she owns whatever stuff she uses most. The O Machine is hers. Certain pipettes, stopwatches and ice buckets are hers. The Western bench used to be hers, but now she has switched to another to be closer to the music, which she controls fiercely. More about that later on.

She is actually pretty messy and usually leaves there lab benches in disarray, and with lots of stuff lying around. As if it’s her bench and her lab and she’s exempt from the rules. But whenever the mood strikes, she starts cleaning vigorously. If by chance she finds your stuff somewhere, you will hear about it. And then it’s always “been lying here forever”. The tone of voice, the wording, the expression all say the same: “I DEMAND.” She probably needs the outlet. She should probably think about not affecting others with her moods.

Her experiments are always most important, the best and the only thing she wants to talk about. There really is no end to how much she likes to hear herself speak about her many good qualities.

That she has the mental maturity of a nine year old should complete the picture for you. We’re talking stuffed animals, Disney lunch box and pink ruffles.

The good, bad and stupid
Then there’s Wheezer. Wheezer used to be a pretty good friend, and one of the reasons I came to work here. Now, she is pregnant, and hence stupid. All pregnant women don’t go stupid, but most. Don’t bother to protest, it’s true. My friend Wheezer knew this. Before she got pregnant, that is. Now she’s too stupid to understand her own condition. Also, all her annoying qualities are quantified and the good lost to the world. Now, we’re not… socializing, anymore.

Wheezer was never the most thorough of people, never very clean, or very picky with the details. Now it’s the same, but with the temper of a hip hop girlfriend. Or a pitbull terrier. Or a hungry tiger.

The bright side
Luckily the whole mess of a situation is ameliorated by my co-supervisor, Mr Doit. He is the mind behind most of the good ideas that surface in this place. Sadly, he’s not around much.

There are others as well, whom you will probably meet further along the way.

These and other people of interest can also be found under characters in the menu, for future reference.

The meaning of life

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This is the blog of the living dead. The slaves of the state, trudging on without thanks or appreciation, sacrificing their lives to serve.

This is the blog of a PhD student, and damn I’ve got a lot to whine about.

I guess you will need some background…

It all started a couple of years ago, when I did my graduation work here, at the department. The lab is the wet kind, and there is a lot of pipetting and centrifugation going on. For some reason, a professor thought I did some decent work, and asked me to apply for a spot as a PhD student in his project.

For some reason, I thought this was a good idea.

This is where I’ve lost my illusions, and the once-upon-a-time dream of research.

As it is, all I long for is for it to be over, and to get a job at a normal workplace. Somewhere without the people of the void, the ghosts of academia. Those who never left us, never died, though they long ago stopped living.

This is my life without life. My undead existence in the void.

There will be endless whining. Say cheese.