Sunday, May 2, 2010

All quiet on the western front...

Things are going...well.

I've been working a lot. Lots of late nights in the lab. Got a megadeadline* coming up in a couple of months, and I think I can make it...if I work my ass off.

Which I have been, and at a rate that I think I can sustain: I'm getting enough sleep and eating well (if repetitively.)**

Plus I've been able to take off and do Fun Things without any guilt at all, since I'm working crazy hours anyway.

It's all been working out quite nicely. Even the news that crucial reagents and data I need are delayed indefinitely have been taken in stride. I'm starting to get suspicious. I'm not supposed to be this well-adjusted. I keep waiting for something to implode.

As well, the lab has summer students coming in that will be working on a project parallel to my own, and I'll be able to use their work to save time on mine. Slight residual guilt about not Doing it Myself, but I think that's probably not reasonable. The only people who are likely to think badly of me are people whose opinions I don't need or care about. And I will continue to be a gracious and conscientious lab citizen. Booyeah.

Now I have to go take care of a few chores so I can spend another week at the lab. Happy Sunday.

* The work sucks (boring and repetitive and just difficult enough to be annoying) and it's not really fun to talk about, but making this deadline will be extremely awesome for me. And it's less likely to encounter delay and failure than most experiments (which is why it's boring), so I can predict how long it will take me to finish.

** I think I maybe keep harping on this sleeping/eating thing, but I know it's going to be important for me to stay healthy long term. What I still need to integrate is some form of exercise, and finding a dentist and stuff in BRUtown.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Schrodinger's Postdoc

I've been following, but not contributing to, the discussion on twitter and sb (and elsewhere) about the question of postdoc salaries and taxation. And also the larger scienceblogosphere* PI-vs-postdoc chatter/discussion/war(?)

Obviously I have no firsthand experience in this matter but my completely unfounded opinion (a blog is a wonderful venue to express opinions for which one has no evidence or experience) is that one serious issue is not the actual monetary compensation postdocs get, or even whether it's taxable income or not, but the fact that at many (most? mine, anyway) institutions, they are classified neither as students nor as employees, which means that not only do they not get the benefits that employees are entitled to, they also don't have access to the services and support set up for students. Things like counseling services, housing and legal advice, occupational health and safety as well as general health services, etc. And many of them don't even have a contract covering their employment.

Most of this stuff doesn't matter most of the time, and changing it probably wouldn't have an impact on the general postdoc disgruntlement that exists, but I'm more worried about what happens to postdocs when things go wrong: when they get hurt, or sexually harassed, or otherwise need support. Many postdocs are non-natives to this country and don't have knowledge of or access to governmental services.

I wouldn't go so far as to call a postdoc "indentured servitude", but it definitely sucks. Overworked and underpaid, yes, but I think that the really crappy part postdocs is that they are undervalued. The PI can and should have an impact on this (in the form of having a contract and just generally not being a dick) but there also needs to be institutional recognition of postdocs as employees.

Science has changed significantly in many ways. One of them is that postdocs are now commonplace rather than rare. The fact that institutions on the whole have failed to adapt to this change is resulting in a general inequality and some of the "horror stories" we hear about.

I have more to say on the issue of whether there are Too Many grad students/postdocs, but I haven't sorted out just what that is yet.

* hey, shouldn't that be 'blogome'? Bwahahaha. Don't worry, I wouldn't do that to you. Except I did.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

4 months in

At the end of April, I'll have been with my permalab (and a grad student proper, as I see it) for 4 months. I know that's not much (I can hear you senior PhDs/postdocs snickering) but a lot has happened (not all of which I've blogged), and I thought I'd do a rundown:

 - I formed a supervisory committee, eventually managed to get them all in a room, and had my first (successful enough, despite one major and a few minor brainfarts) meeting
- Two lab members left (on good terms) and one made the decision to leave, causing a flurry of gossip and other talk
- One lab member returned from leave and several new arrivals are coming soon
- I took a class and learned a lot
- I wrote two reports and gave 4ish presentations
- I went to a meeting with some labmates and it blew my mind (post to come) and my boss wants me to attend another one in the fall
- I've listened to a bunch of seminars and journal club presentations and talked them over with labmates, and I think I'm getting better at looking at results critically. Got a long way to go though
- I've gone from knowing the names of maybe 2-3 people in the (~sub)field to knowing many of the big and not-so-big names, their affiliations, and what they've published recently. I think. Still lots to learn, though
- Our institute got a very shiny new piece of equipment that's sent several projects in the lab (including mine) into overdrive
- I've made a lot of progress in my research (I think it's enough? I wish I knew) and have plans that should give me results (even just negative ones) by the end of the summer
- I went from being hugely intimidated in my dealings with my boss and senior labmates to being more confident that I do know what I'm doing and what the expectations are. Still a little intimidated, though, although I've stopped being concerned that I've had it too easy
- I've worked harder than I ever have before, but I'm getting enough sleep, mostly eating right, and taking time off to socialize, do some new/fun things, and just relax on my own. Getting more comfortable with the fact that juggling this is always going to be a struggle and I will probably never completely banish the I-should-be-working guilt, but that it's important and I can make it work. Hopefully it will be enough.

And, most importantly, I've been pretty happy. Bring on summer!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

On lab meeting

Next week, It's my turn (finally!) to present at lab meeting. Several people in the lab don't know what I'm actually spending my time on, although a few have some idea. Since it's too early for me to have anything I would qualify as a "result", I'll be able to get some good mileage out of background stuff (especially since my project falls under one of the new directions the lab is expanding into...rather rapidly)

However, there is a milestone I want to get finished so I can present it. Due to circumstances outside my control, I haven't been able to perform that part of the experiment yet, but I think I might be able to get to it this week. It takes a couple of days so it might be down to the wire, but I'm going to try to get it done anyway. If not, I'll still have a presentation. I'm going to try and get as many of the slides together ahead of time as I can, and if I can add a couple of hot-off-the-gel scans (does that even make sense?) I will.

One of the senior people in the lab storyboards  his presentations on paper before making the slides. I tried that the last time I had to do one, and it seemed to work out well, but I'm not sure that it wasn't because at the time I was stuck without a computer and had no choice, so I'm going to give it a shot again. I thought a bit about how many slides (approx) I wanted to devote to each section, then sketched out what should be on them. It helped me figure out what figures I needed to make and how it was going to flow ahead of time. Does anyone else do this?

Lab meeting presentations in my lab tend to be more formally organized. By this I mean less of the technical nitty-gritty here-are-the-problems-I-faced and more of the shiny-powerpoint-everything-worked. It's not quite so cut and dry, and there are exceptions, but this seems to be the trend. Although I could wish for more of the former, I think there's probably a good reason for it: my lab is one of those that is held together by the study of a common biological problem, rather than a technique (although we do favor certain techniques and have at least one bread and butter assay.) Because the approaches people are using are pretty disparate (to the extent that I would even label our research "interdisciplinary" *gag*) I know if I get too far into the technical details, approximately ~1/3 of the eyes in the room are going to start to glaze over (if they haven't already...)

I'm not very good at talking to an audience. I just suck. I know it's all in my head, because I think I know what makes a good (or bad) presentation, I just have a hard time pulling it off. And it's horrendously obvious how nervous I am, too. Hoping that over time, more practice (I'm getting lots) will help. My PI knows this is one of the things I have to work on, and offered to go over my talk with me beforehand (which is totally abnormal for a lab meeting) which I am choosing to take as evidence that he is not, in fact, a cold-hearted bastard only interested in publications.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

More about why I think I read too much

I decided I had more to say.

As I've mentioned before, I switched disciplines between undergrad and grad school. And I chose a field that's kind of small and nerdy, but extremely active and full of (to me) fascinating stories. And I guess that's the issue. I've totally fallen in love with my field of research, and I want to understand (nearly) every aspect of it, because I think it's all totally the bomb.

I don't want to have to sacrifice the opportunity to learn all this stuff (by either reading, going to seminars, etc) just to get a few more experiments done. Is that what it takes? I don't think I like that.

In one way it's good because I won't have the problem of missing the big picture? I guess?

I think this is another common new student thing. I don't really care.

Ok that's a lie. I do care. I hate being the newbie, the enthusiastic first year student with stars in their eyes and no freaking clue. I hate when people say something like "I can't wait till you get bitter/jaded/screwed over" or say I'm a huge nerd for actually admitting to liking this stuff. It drives me totally up the wall. But there you go.

This is becoming rather distressingly emo. Drastic measures are required.

Incoherent rambling on time management, etc

Not much to say. Again.

Working hard (sort of? see below) Progress is slow to nonexistent. Scattered thoughts below:

I think I read too much (science-wise). None of my fellow students read anything other than the strict requirements for their projects/classes/journal club. But I don't know anything: how else will I learn? On the other hand, I worry that I use reading as a way to procrastinate when I don't want to do any real work. And I have no idea how much of it sticks. I don't take a huge amount of notes (sometimes I do) Maybe I should?

Like anything else, I guess the solution is to set aside a time and stick to that...

Relatedly, I think I need to be more disciplined with managing my time in general. I can't just work all the time and hope that that's enough, because then my life (apartment) falls apart. And I still don't get any research done. But scheduling everything doesn't work either, because I'm terrible at estimating how long things take. There's a sweet spot of discipline+flexibility that I still haven't nailed.

I also have been making a point of not turning down social events without a really good reason. This was a rule I made a couple of years ago, because I'm pretty shy and I would stay at home a lot because of that. But that (the shyness) seems to be changing (I'd like to think through my own efforts), and I have a larger circle of acquaintances (through work if nothing else). Wonder if I should re-evaluate the rule. Or at least prioritize: like if I'm going out to dinner with people I haven't seen in a while, I should skip coffee + gossip with labmates.

This all seems very obvious. Maybe I'm an idiot for not cluing in sooner, but I guess I thought I was doing ok?

It's difficult to get (objective) feedback about how I'm doing, progress-wise. I just don't know. I guess it doesn't really matter how I'm doing in comparison to your Average Graduate Student, just whether I'm in line with my own goals. Again, obvious.


I find it hard not to question (in my head) senior students who complain that their advisor is crazy/won't listen to them/is proposing totally the wrong experiments. I mean, I don't know any better, but maybe there's a reason for it?

I guess it all comes down to communication. But I'm bad at communicating. And being organized. And taking criticism.

I need to figure out how to fix all these things. They're important, dammit.

Well, ok. The communication thing will fix itself. I have enough opportunities to speak/write/etc. Just need to make sure I pay attention to those and try and do a good job. So that's that.


I haven't been sleeping or eating well. Let alone exercising. Maybe now that the weather's nice I'll try and take up running again? That never worked before, I always got bored. I wish there was a shower at my building, I could run in to work--I think the distance would be about right

On second thought, that wouldn't really work since I bring my laptop to/from every day. Hmm.

Time, time, time. It's all about time. I need to get on top of my time..

First thing's first: GTFOff the internet and do the stuff I need to do tonight. And less navel gazing.

I guess I did have a lot to say. Cookies to anyone who made it this far. I told you I was bad at blogging. I really should just keep a diary.

Monday, March 22, 2010

And now for your regularly scheduled bout of insecurity...

See post title.

Criticism from the boss (on the 'you have no idea what you're doing, if you want to be a successful grad student you're going to have to make major changes' scale)


helpful labmate being told not to spend so much time helping me any more (the last thing I want is to slow anyone else down!!!)


experiments not working


me feeling pretty shitty.

Then I started feeling bad that I was moping over this, and worrying that if I have such a thin skin I'll never survive grad school.

So of course in response I'm avoiding working on the stuff I should be doing, and overeating. Which I know is dumb and stupid because it doesn't hurt anyone except myself. eff.

I'll get over it. Fun stuff happening tomorrow+this week that I can't blog about, but will get me away from the lab a bit and hopefully excited again.

But holy crap I'm a headcase right now. So let me broadcast it to the entire Internet.

Edit: never mind. I'm ok now. Thought my way out of it: instead of seeing 'knowing how to take criticism' as a prerequisite for not sucking, I'm acknowledging it as something I don't yet have but can learn. Take that, psyche.