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.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Milestone acheived. Ten thousand points!

So...I had my first committee meeting.

It went well. I made one major mistake in completely forgetting to talk about an important aspect. I just...forgot? No idea, got to the end of my talk and thought "oh my god! I didn't talk about that at all! Well, someone is bound to ask me about it"...and then they didn't. Oops. And told me that next time I should probably cover it. Yup, sounds about right.

I stumbled a bit on the questions (can't do mental math. At all.) but most of the things they wanted to know, I had ready answers for. It definitely didn't feel like "they will keep asking questions until you don't know the answer," which is what I was prepared for (and dreading).

And it was fast! Over in 45-50 minutes, I think. I guess partly that's due to the whole first-one-don't-really-have-much-data-yet shortness of my presentation, but one of my committee members even commented on how quickly it went.


As much as I'm pleased I didn't fuck it up, I can't help but regret spending so much time (a week, basically) prepping for the meeting and related requirements, and basically stressing like crazy over this.

And I worry a little that not having weathered the difficult questions now will hurt me later on--like during quals, when it really matters. And my committee members are sympathetic to the project. What happens when I meet someone who isn't? It's enough to make me want to ask them to turn it up a notch. I'll wait and see. Everyone says the second meeting is the hardest, anyway.

On the plus side, instead of feeling drained and miserable about my shortcomings, I'm energized and ready to generate some data! Wooo! Yeahhhhhhhh! *fist pump*

Friday, March 5, 2010

Doing it right

My lab can get cowboyish at times--partly as a result of the kinds of experiments going on, partly the culture of the group. Maybe not the best environment for a total n00b like me to be learning the ropes (I'm sure I'm picking up all sorts of bad habits.)

Fig 1. LM's lab commutes in style. I'm the one in the white, near the back. No really.

That's why I'm thankful for labmates who take the time to explain the proper way to do things. Hopefully I can find a way to thank them.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Plays nice with others

In my continual quest for self-improvement (since my science ain't working) I have decided that this week's lesson is:

In grad school, if you're not miserable 100% of the time, something must be wrong with you, and it's just a matter of time before you get screwed over.

I'm all seriousness, it's been a rough week. Some shakeups in the lab means that all the latent frustrations people have have come tumbling out. I guess the only surprise to me is the number of people who are unhappy here. I've heard a lot of people expressing regrets about going to grad school, or choosing to do a phd rather than a masters degree. I've also heard that I'm fantastically and probably terminally naive for a) being interested in the science behind what I'm doing, and b) not looking to fight the faculty tooth and nail at all times.

Doing my best to keep my head down and concentrate on work. Which...isn't working. Fuck.

I was happy, dammit.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Working on Saturdays: a Completely Objective Analysis

Pro: The subway is so empty! I even got a seat!

Con: My bed is more comfortable than the subway seat. True story.

Pro: Ahhhh, peace and quiet. Just me and the pipette. And it's nice and sunny here. And I brought delicious soup for lunch.

Con: No one to eat lunch with. Can't eat at desk since desk is located in lab. Ate lunch while making a todo list to juggle the various experiments I want to do this week.

Pro: Wow, looks like I'll have lots to do this week. Great! I like being busy. And look at how much I'll have accomplished by Friday!

Con: Wait, this whole plan depends on Simple Experiment Gamma working out. Better go check on that...

Pro: Never have to wait to use equipment.

Con: It's that much quicker to find out that Simple Experiment Gamma didn't work. Crap.

Pro: Awesome labmate who helps me troubleshoot Gamma, and will be coming in tomorrow as well and will do a task for me so I don't need to come in.

Con: Awesome labmate also tells a story about student they knew who could never get Gamma, and Gamma-like things, and really anything at all to work, and who ended up switching fields. Nooooooooooooo...crap.

Pro: Well, I still have a few things I can try re: Gamma.

Con: But I'm fairly certain all of this could have waited until Monday.

tl,dr: I went in to the lab on saturday and my shit didn't work, so I came home and wrote a whiny blog post about it.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Fig. 1: My science is totally Xtreem. (Found by Google image searching "science logo")

Is a lab a brand? Should it be?

This was inspired partly by a post by Prof-like substance on what new TT faculty face, and partly by a conversation I had with a grad student friend the other night. My friend's lab is new (<1 year) and the PI is of the opinion that part of making a name for himself and his research involves developing a "brand identity" for the lab, which seems to consist of a) a logo, and b) ....uhhhh, a slide template?

I know some labs have these things and it can be kind of cute if it's well done (and painful if it isn't) However, I'm skeptical that it has any real impact on people's view of the PI/lab/the research. Plus, this kind of thing takes a lot of time, and while we all have our talents, being able to work Illustrator doesn't make you a (good) designer.

My friend's argument seems to be that just having a good research program isn't enough to rise above the crowd, and you have to sell your science. Which I agree with. Where we differ is in the best way to do that--I maintain that it's just good old fashioned conferences, seminars and networking that takes care of the "selling the science". So I guess it's the PI who is the brand? Not visually of course (not sure my boss' head would make very good letterhead), but their name is important. I just don't think putting a lot of effort into this kind of thing is necessary or even has any impact at all. But I could be wrong.

My lab has a bare bones, totally functional (= up to date) website, but no logo or other distinguishing characteristic, but I have been part of labs that do have logos and color schemes. I don't think this is common though.

So, should a lab be/have a brand?

Saturday, February 13, 2010


I'm really starting to feel like I'm following in another student's footsteps. And I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not.

It's not like we're working on the same project. And we didn't come in to the lab from the same direction or background. But we have vaguely similar skillsets, at least in the vector space defined by the skills of students in our field. (Does that make sense? Because if it does I have a feeling it's an awesome analogy. Or just really nerdy. I'm sorry, it must be the viruses talking)

The other student (let's call her Alex) is nearly done her PhD and has been free with advice on all aspects of the lab/department/student experience. And science, that too. We get along socially and people have commented that apparently I'm the replacement Alex, or that the PI must have hired me to fill the void when she graduates.

Alex has also given me some older proposals and written work from years ago (partly as an example of what not to do...) But reading the stuff over gave me a rather creepy sense of deja vu. Switch a few keywords and we could be talking about the same projects. We're starting out taking the same approaches, and are at approximately the same point in our experiments (aha! So my progress is not as glacial as I had feared...)

In some ways this is kind of nice. It lessens the "I have no idea what's expected of me or how to proceed with this" feeling, and it's like I have a ready-made fit into the lab. But that's a bad thing as well: I don't want to just fill someone's place. I don't people will really make that connection though--we're not all that alike, personality wise, and we work on different things. So that's ok.

The only other problem of Alex's initial projects failed pretty spectacularly. She went through a real low point in her research early on before things started to work. And right now, after I've had One of Those Weeks where nothing is working, I can't help but worry that that's what I'm headed for too.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Waiting for spring

Sorry for dropping off the edge of the earth. Been busy, and nothing new or interesting to say, really.

Managed to schedule my committee meeting. Painful. Ow. Anticipate future pain, at approximately annual junctures. Ow ow ow.

Alternately trying to avoid and shamefully indulging in the gossip flying thick and fast around the lab. Yikes! A lot of it tends to be of the "wtf is the boss thinking" type, which...seems obvious, most of the time? Or maybe I've just been reading too many blogs and now have an inside scoop on the PI perspective. Or maybe I'm deluding myself. *cough* Either way, my meetings with the boss have been going pretty well, so as far as I know I'm doing things right. And I will try not to gossip too much. I promise.

Finished one milestone in my work, which means I've switched gears and started working on another aspect of the project while I wait for stuff to happen. There have been several false starts on that front (ie: pretty much all of last week going to waste, le sigh) but this is normal, especially for new students, yadda yadda yadda. I know the drill.

...but there have definitely been times when an experiment goes kablooie and one labmate looks at me funny, "wow, I've never seen data that horrible before," and I mope around for a couple hours before finding out that another labmate had trouble with that technique all the time when they were starting out. Arg.

So far though, I've been able to keep the "gah I suck at this" stress level at a (low!) basal level.

So, question for the Internet! What should I blog about? Why student seminars suck? Why journal club is awesome? What I wish someone had told me when I first joined the lab? Also, what is it with people not using referencing software? Isn't that horribly, awfully painful? Gah! My kingdom for an Endnote license.

Ok, goodnight now. Lots of science to do tomorrow. May your gels have the clarity of a summer brook, and all your reactions run to completion. Minion out.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Grad Student's Creed, Part 1

Fig 1. Creed. No, not that one! Man, the graphics department here sucks.

1. I will not be a smartass towards my PI, even when s/he is oblivious.*

2. I will not get into arguments with my fellow students over technicalities of technique.

3. I will not gossip about others in the department, even if it's toooootally scandalous!

4. I will write.

5. I will write.

6. I will write.

7. I will not procrastinate on sending emails.

8. I will ask for help.

(to be continued...)

* Not admitting anything (...yet), but I need the reinforcement.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Committee Meeting Scheduling Fail!


So I knew that scheduling committee meetings was going to be tricky, but I had no idea just how true that was.

So far there is no time in a 3 week period when I can get all 3 of them in a room together.

Oh well, not an insurmountable problem. Just annoying.

For the record, I'm using to do this (as suggested by some of my fellow students) The name is awful and I hate the emails it sends, but it appears to work.

Now if only the calendar gods will cooperate.

Research proceeds. No complaints.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Grad Student Psychology: I'm a lucky sunnuvabitch, now I have to step up

Warning: I've tried my hardest not to make this post whiny, but it might enrage you anyway. Readers with heart conditions, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems are encouraged to exercise caution.

I have been very lucky.

I got into research relatively early in my undergrad (although this was by my own effort, there was certainly some luck involved in it to working out, especially since I had (have?) no idea what I was doing.) I worked in a variety of fields on some solid projects (and some not so much, but whatever). One of these brought me in to contact with a faculty member from BRU, who graciously agreed to write me a reference letter, which is probably how...

I was accepted into a graduate program I was probably unqualified for. (on paper anyway. As I understand these things though, that may not mean that much, so maybe this isn't that big a deal. But my background is definitely a little odd)

I had extremely positive rotation experiences. One got my name on a paper, and another even produced real data (gasp) that is resulting in follow-up experiments (shock, horror), and none with absolute failures (the one that produced the least, science-wise, was also the one most out of my field of experience, so I learned lots that will probably come in handy some day.)

Finally, I've joined a lab at a time when the larger project I am part of is just taking off, and it's well placed in a context that is relatively less-studied (since I keep running in to questions the answer to which is "no one really knows") but important (judging by some recent reviews. But there's probably observation bias there). And our approach will add a lot. I think. As well, the PI is fair but demanding, and supports his students well. The members of the lab are, nearly to a person, pretty kickass, supportive and helpful, and a riot to work with.

In fact, it seems like everything is perfectly set up for me to do some great work.

Which means it's all up to me now: I can't hide behind circumstances not being optimal or the fact that no one really expects much of me. The science won't be easy, there are some non-trivial problems to solve on every side (as in, I'm still not sure if this is mathematically possible, much less realistically feasible), and parts of it depend on skills that I don't think I'm that good at yet. So I'm really not confident that I'll be able to make this work. Which is kind of scary.

If I'm going to get through the next ~6-12 months with anything resembling success (which does not mean "lack of failure"--I understand that failing regularly is part of the game :) I need to get over myself & my fear of failing. At the very least, I need to stop it from preventing me from getting shit done.

If anything, this is what could most likely trip me up. So that's why this is here. It's my public kick in the pants to (hopefully) prevent me from sabotaging myself. Yaaaay.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Obvious post #267

On the plus side, no one could ever accuse my boss of not being clear about what he wants from me.

On the minus side, he wants an update and I'm not done as much as I wanted.

In the long term I think I'm well off, but right now...FML.

Update: predictably, I was totally overreacting and I apparently know what I'm doing (mostly). Onward! Added 'whine' tag because this merits it.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Lesson learned

Every time I go home for a holiday I feel more disconnected from the rest of my family members. I guess this is what they call "growing up"