Saturday, August 30, 2008

qual on!

I posted on August 12 about taking the qual early my reasoning at that point. Well, the saga has come to a close: my advisor agrees that I can take the qual early. That means I'll start studying now and really hit it after my poster presentation at the end of September. Until the poster is sent to the printer, I need to get as much research done as I can.

It wasn't a straight path to my advisor's verdict. He was on a field project on the other side of the globe for two and a half weeks, then on jury duty for most of this past week. We'd barely communicated for the past four weeks. I sent him an email with my reasoning attached on Thursday in case we weren't able to meet Friday. He replied that we could meet Friday after our morning class. He also said he was torn on the qual issue. He understood all my reasoning, but was concerned about a grant renewal deadline coming next summer. The email gave me the impression that he was unlikely to agree with me easily.

I was funded by this grant last fall and this summer, with a teaching assistantship and three more classes in between. Due to personal circumstances, I did not get significant research done until the beginning of July. This may make him a bit nervous, but I think he understands all the problems that have kept me from progressing more quickly. Since Independence Day, however, I have made significant progress. I showed my advisor all the stuff I've gotten done, and with a couple more weeks' worth of work, he thinks I'll have a great poster for the workshop at the end of September. I hope he believes that this is a more normal work ethic for me even though he has a short sample.

I understand his concern that the rest of this semester will be relatively low-progress with respect to research due to studying for the qual, but I think that Spring semester and next Summer will be plenty of time to get enough research done to renew the grant. (I tend to make quicker progress than I or others expect.) He apparently agrees. At the end of our meeting, I asked if he had deliberated any more on the qual issue, and he told me he'll support my decision to take it early. I didn't even need to argue the point. After all the effort I'd put into making sure I had a convincing argument... :)

This revelation around lunchtime had one unfortunate side-effect: I was so excited about my advisor's qual decision and positive view of my research that I had a hard time for the rest of the afternoon concentrating on anything that took much thinking. I ended up transferring class notes to the powerpoint print-out, scanning PDFs of the department qual exams since 2000*, and working on other menial tasks. I am still excited about all of it, but I think I've relaxed enough that I can concentrate on programming and reading again.

A couple of my officemates are also planning to take the qual. One section of the test involves answering questions from the elective classes you've taken in the department. The test only includes questions from classes taken by someone who is taking the test, though anyone taking the test can answer any of the questions, no matter if they have taken the class or not. My officemates are not registered for a certain class that I am, but they are sitting in on it anyhow with the assumption that I will ensure the qual will include a question from that class. They've gotten anxious to not waste time attending a class that will not help them on the qual during the first week of classes, so my advisor's decision yesterday pacified all three of us. We are concocting plans for study groups.

*Until now, they've been keeping a single paper copy of every qual--that's it. I decided that was a really bad idea when the copy machine tried to eat a page of one of them recently.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

"Normal" people vs. academics

I've noticed at least a couple of times in the past month that fellow academics sometimes refer to the general populace as "normal people." It carries the implication that we are fundamentally smarter or better than them, not just that we are a minority or odd. It is often a reaction to someone's story about a frustrating interaction with a stranger or non-academic.

This seems condescending, elitist, and narrow-minded. Many people have talents that do not lie in the academic realm. Are all talents created equal? Is a great, dumb athlete equal but different to a smart, ungraceful scientist?

I don't believe the people making these comments completely subscribe to the opinion, but I can't help but internally fight every casual mention of it. I feel a kernel of truth to it in some cases, but I've always tried to guard against blanket statements.

Is this a wider symptom of academia or relatively isolated? What bred this opinion?

I would hope that the majority of academia is enlightened enough to realize that they are only slightly extraordinary people who have chosen a somewhat uncommon career that explicitly pays one to create new knowledge. Many people of equal or higher intelligence or talent choose other careers.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Bike rant

This is related to academia in that many people use bikes for transportation in college towns, which usually involves some riding in traffic. This topic will likely appear again due to drivers' ineptitude and stupidity at handling bicyclists on the road.

I don't care how long you've been waiting at an intersection or how far you (dumbly) pulled your car into traffic. You do not tap your bumper to the back tire of a bike in front of you! Not only is it rude, but it is also a safety hazard. If you accidentally tap too hard and push the biker into traffic, the biker is getting squashed or thrown and likely injured. I hope you have good insurance.

That is all.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

qual early?

The default procedure in my department is to take the qualifying exam after finishing a master's thesis in the January of one's third year. For someone with an undergrad degree in a different field that may make sense. They need time to get used to the new terminology and concepts. It may even make sense for someone who doesn't take a full load of classes through all of his/her first year because s/he hasn't taken enough electives for the choose-four-questions-to-answer-of-more-than-four-options section. However, my undergrad degree is in the same field I am in now, and I took a full load of classes both semesters last year.

In short, I want to take the qual this coming January rather than wait until 2010.

I am working on a convincing argument for my advisor, which will include all my reasons for taking it early, rebuttals or admissions of the reasons to wait, and a plan of how to study for it.

The pros of taking it early include:
  1. the foundation classes from this department will be fresher in my mind
  2. The electives from this department will be fresher in my mind.
  3. I'm only attending one meeting this fall, so I won't need a lot of prep time for posters.
  4. If I fail the first time, my second try will only be one semester after I hope to finish the master's thesis. If I take the traditional route, I may be working on PhD research for a year without knowing if I can even complete a PhD. Talk about motivation issues...
  5. #4 also provides a benefit to my advisor: he will know sooner if he needs to fund me for PhD work. It's less time and money wasted for everyone.
  6. I can study with the only other person in my research group because she's taking the qual in 2009.
  7. It'll be over before I have to write the bulk of my thesis or prepare for my seminar.
  8. The stress of anticipation kills me more than the stress of doing things.

Pros of waiting include:
  1. Studying won't slow down my master's research because most or all of it will be done, so I might finish that a bit quicker. (How much will this really affect my progress? Also, see #4 above. If I'll be here for a PhD anyhow, what does it matter if I take an extra semester but already have the qual done?)
  2. I'd be able to take another couple of electives to widen my pool of optional questions on the qual. (I took classes in undergrad that are analogous to several of the classes here, so I'd have a good chance at answering questions from classes I haven't taken here.)
  3. I'll be taking it with more people from my year? (I don't think this makes a difference, but advisor might. I want to be prepared for any rebuttal he has.)

What do you think? Are there any flaws in my reasoning or anything I should add to either side?

Any tips for studying--how much time it takes, how to go about it, etc.? I know that may vary by department, but there has to be some commonality.

One possible major snag is that the curriculum here has been in flux due to a new undergrad program. I don't know how this will affect the qual.

I think this is a pretty convincing argument. I'm probably being over-prepared for the advisor's unlikely denial of my request, but that's the way I am. Better that than get blind-sided by things all the time.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

August 2008 Scientiae - Transitions

This post is a bit late, though I submitted the text in time for the release of the August 2008 Scientiae.

The topic for August's Scientiae is transitions. God knows I've had a few of those in the past year. Approximately six of them, in fact. Most of them have been life sneaking up on me with little relationship to academia. Some were primarily good, others primarily bad, but none of the major events were wholly one or the other because I learned something from all of them.

The first two major transitions happened voluntarily last August: I moved out of state and began graduate school. This wasn't as difficult of a change as I expected. When I moved a shorter distance from home for undergrad, it was much more traumatic. It was my first time living independently and so far from home. Most of first semester was riddled with anxiety attacks, but I shoved my way through them because I wanted a college degree. This time I had that experience behind me--only the location and distance from home had changed. I still moved to a new town where I recognized nothing and no one. The incentive to stay was much the same, to earn a graduate degree, but staying wasn't as much of a struggle. I started classes soon after I moved into my new apartment, which I'm sure helped the transition by keeping me busy. The classes weren't much different from undergrad and I had no time for research, so it only seemed like the same thing in a new place. I

The next major change was a shock. I got three calls on September 13th from my parents saying that I needed to come home that weekend because Grampa wasn't doing well. In fact, the doctors didn't know if he would live five minutes or five weeks. Of course, I rushed home that night, arriving at my parents' house around midnight. I spent the next five days keeping track of Grampa's medicines, taking care of Gramma, and making sure everyone else was eating. I didn't let my sadness show in front of other people if I could help it because they needed support and someone needed to provide it. I wasn't about to leave my family to fall over. He died September 18th, 2007. This was the first family death I've ever experienced (being the youngest of my cousins, I don't remember my great-grammas' funerals). The following couple of days I helped arrange the memorial. After we all said goodbye, I only had two days at home before I needed to get back to my classes. I'd missed more than a week.

A month minus a day after Grampa died, the universe threw me another life-altering event. I didn't realize it at the time, but I had my first date with the man I want to marry. This was a really good transition. Through all of undergrad I had occasional bouts of loneliness and depression because I felt so alone. I no longer have those. He is far from perfect, but he is all I want.

Transition five was closely related to transition four: the new boyfriend moved in with me. I'd never lived with a boyfriend before. It has been surprisingly seamless in our relationship (moving of belongings is another story). Finances have been a bit rocky because he lost his research assistantship and has had a very hard time finding other employment in our little city, but things are looking up in that department. We plan to get engaged as soon as we can afford it.

Transition six was not so much an independent transition as a reiteration of transition three. In May, my gramma (widow of the grampa who died last fall) was diagnosed with breast cancer. Thankfully she is doing well after surgery, but she still needs to go through many rounds of radiation.

Through all of this, I've seen a counselor a total of three times, two of which were to get help for my boyfriend's depression during unemployment (the third time was not related to any of these transitions). My boyfriend has helped keep me standing through my family's health problems and the general stress of grad school, so he is definitely a good change. I'm not sure what I'd do without him anymore. Even in the mostly bad transitions, like Grampa's death, I learned my own strength. I though I would fall apart when any of my family died. I ended up holding together as well as or better than most of my family. I learn more from transitions than any other part of my life, no matter if they are mostly good or mostly bad changes. I suppose that means I've learned more in the past year than I remember learning in any previous year, and most of it had nothing to do with formal education.

Sunday, August 3, 2008


Welcome to Scientist Rising. I am NJS, a graduate student working on a Master's degree in Earth science at a large research university in the United States. My research is in its childhood yet, but is growing quickly. I still plan to finish the Master's by the end of next summer. That may be a bit of a dream, but it's a nice dream to have.

In my free time, or what's left of it, I enjoy playing string instruments, reading myriad novels and non-fiction, and watching movies. I am addicted to stories of all sorts. Perhaps I'll more seriously try my hand at writing for (non-scientific) publication sometime. My local family consists of an orange tabby, a black tabby-siamese mix, a step-turtle, and my boyfriend. The rest of my family resides several hours away by car.

I plan to become a professor after at least four more years of grad school. Somewhere in the middle of all that I also plan to integrate children and a spouse. How does that balance work? I don't rightly know yet. I suppose I'll make it up as I go along. I hope that between some blogs I read and discussions on this blog, I'll have a few good tips with which to begin.

As my description says, I intend to blog primarily about science, education, and their interactions with a semi-normal life. After all, who in academia has a normal life? There are many issues in science and education that do not get the breadth or depth of discussion they deserve (at least in my experience). This is one of my partial solutions to that.

Regarding discussion on this blog, I am moderating the comments to avoid blog trolls I've heard so much about. If my experience is good, perhaps I'll remove moderation. In either case, I expect civil discussions--that means no antagonizing someone else's views, no matter how off-the-wall they seem, and no yelling at each other (to the extent that is possible in writing). I will, of course, allow tactful disagreement and opinions. Anyone who chooses to not observe these rules risks not making it through moderation. (Rules subject to change.)

Now that all that's covered, I hope you enjoy reading Scientist Rising!