Wednesday, November 30, 2005

How to: interview after grad school

So you want to be a post-doc. Or more likely you can't get that faculty
or industry job you've been eyeing and need to work somewhere. I
happen to have a few talents, and one of them is interviewing. I
have a lot of ideas for a post on the grad school admission process, but the post-doc/job interview process is more recent, so I'll do it first.

1. CV These can be long documents, so the chances of someone
reading it carefully right away are a little low. I sent out something like 10 copies when it was in a casual format, then one of my advisors gave me a 15 point list of what needed to change. It was that second batch of 10 that landed me my 8 interviews. So format correctly, make sure all the relevant information is listed (e.g. don't make someone guess you're a US citizen - tell them), and highlight particularly impressive points. If you have funding from the NIH or
NSF, list the title, duration, award amount, start date, etc. My take was that the details weren't so important, but it adding length to that section makes it harder to miss.

Less critical but still important is some service listing - whether you served on committees, taught Sunday School, or randomly mentored some younger students, it's nice to have something in that section. Everyone I interviewed with noticed.

2. Know Yourself Once you have a CV that you and some mentors (more than one if you're smart - everyone picks on different things in my experience) are comfortable with, make sure you know what's on it. Remember that summer research you did, the undergrad internship, how you picked your major, the various projects you worked on, any teaching experience, thoughts on mentoring... You want to be completely aware of everything you've done so you can tackle advice point 3.

3. Mock Interview This was the absolute critical factor that landed me an offer for all but one of the jobs I interviewed for. I worked with a professor outside my field for my first try, then continued to go through possible scenarios with friends, colleagues, in my car, walking to work - all the time. And I got good. I was on the east coast in this gorgeous building, looking out over the Boston skyline and waiting for the next person (she was 6th in a series of 12) to
arrive in my little conference room. She came in, asked me to describe a situation where I struggled to be effective in a situation with little time to prepare, and I knew I had her. I smiled, thought about how much I rocked at behavioral interview questions, and answered. Once you have ideas on what you want to say, you get this easy confidence that can be more appealing to people than your actual answer. But if you're fumbling to think of a situation, and frantically organizing your thoughts, the chances of you looking at all charming, funny or prepared are slim.

If you don't have someone amazing who has helped prep people before, write out a list, and have someone give it a shot for you. I had one advisor act particularly disinterested and stoic in one session. It gives you a worst case scenario on how to continue with your answer in the face of boredom, and when people smile and nod in the actual interview, you feel all that much better.

So, my sub-tips for this point -
* Start with the "tell me about yourself" question. Go through this over and over since I haven't yet seen someone who didn't ask this within the first 2 minutes. Have something ready to recite so that you hit some high points of your CV, mention particular job skills that seem well-suited for the position, and ease your way into the interview so that you can get more focused on your answers than any nervousness you might feel. I can't emphasize enough how much it helped me to be ready for this one.

*Then I went through behavioral interview questions. I read through the STAR method. That also links to sample questions and some telephone interview tips. If you like to be crazy-prepared, read the dress and dining pages too. I like to know all I can about how things went wrong for someone else. So if wearing a pastel suit or putting a napkin in my lap too late at dinner is going to screw me over, it's good to know how to not look lame on something simple.

*I was terribly awkward with the behavioral questions at first. I stared at my first "interviewer" and said
"I can't. I'm so surprised that you asked that, and I'm not able to think of a single situation, let
alone present it in the STAR format."
So she suggested taking my CV and a list of questions. Read the question, the find some listing on your CV that would be appropriate. Make notes on general things you want to talk about or type out entire answers. Even if you don't have to answer the exact questions (or behavioral questions at all) you'll have situations fresh in your mind that give the recruiter some idea of your experiences, how you handle problems or challenges, what you learned, and how you reflect on your past work.

*After you're feeling good about yourself, let someone criticize you. Whether it's someone at work or home, most people can say
"that makes you sound like a jackass" or
"I don't know enough background to understand what you're trying to say" or
"You're talking too long about one thing - I'm bored" or
"Don't talk about that particular project again - highlight another area of work so you can showcase your breadth of knowledge".
I actually found family members to be the most helpful and honest at this stage. They're most interested in doing what's best for you, and none of them were too worried about hurting my feelings.

4. Promptness I had to fly to all but one interview and it bothered me. I despise waiting (and will be all kinds of irritated if I know you personally and you make me wait), so I never want to
make a poor first impression by being late. I liked to have time to do some deep breathing, say a prayer and gather my confidence while I waited for the recruiters to arrive. This was critical for me, while other people would probably be less concerned. My point is that if you can do something small to make yourself feel good before you start, try to do it.

5. Meals I had one 3 day interview that included 10 meals/cocktail events. For goodness sake, it was overkill. So definitely be up on current events - pick up a local paper. Also
have some amusing anecdotes from people you know at work. Like, I almost passed out when I was touring the hospital in my first year of grad school. The professor and TA caught me, and then I realized they had put me in a chair down the hall. The professor told me I should drink some water, though I told him I was fine. He returned with a sopping paper towel, dripping all over the floor, and when I looked at him, confused, he said "you could...wipe your face with
it?" So I took it, my hand filling with water, and he sheepishly announced "I couldn't find a cup." So look - sweet story, it shows you're able to laugh at times when you felt foolish and had some sort of relationship with the professors at your institution.

We also like to talk about each other in this academic/professional world. So read up on people's background and figure out who you have in common. That helps conversation flow too. Pedigree is especially important to some recruiters, so if you can work your contacts, I think it's excellent to do so.

6. Stamina I don't know how everyone else's graduate career went, but whether I was gathering data or processing it, I was alone much of the time (and had headphones on to encourage continued solitude). So being with people all day, trying to be witty and charming, professional and smart, was absolutely exhausting. I blew a whole section of my first interview because I got tired at lunch. This guy with a lovely English accent asked what I had thought of the presentations at the last annual meeting, and I went blank. I was just tired - I wanted to eat my salad, drink my soda and rest for a few minutes. But the questions keep coming, so be ready to draw upon some internal source of energy (or continuously drink Diet Pepsi - that was my strategy) so you can keep up.

7. Presentation I was invited to give a talk at each and every interview. Sometimes with a microphone in front of the whole department, other times you're speaking to 5 of the 10 people who later interviewed me. If there was ever an area where I wouldn't tolerate mistakes, it was within that hour. Know exactly what you want to say, and if you tend toward holy-crap-I'm-freaking-out nervousness (like me), then memorize the sucker. Then you can flip out while automatically going through your slides. I had my group go through my presentation with me - moving around images, changing text sizes and styles, making graphs more clear - so that it was visually perfect. Then I went over it (and over it and over it) until I could allow
myself to think "I can't do this with 70 people watching me!" while starting the talk because I knew it so well.

Oh, and if you're not the memorizing type, for the love of God, NEVER look at a slide and act like you've never seen it before. I've seen many people appear surprised when something comes up on the screen, or actually say "I don't remember putting this here". If you didn't put
the presentation together yourself, at least glance through it before you start talking. Moron.

You can screw up the questions all you want though. My pet peeve is restricted to the part of the talk you can prepare for. So I went with a lot of "I haven't thought of that before, but what an interesting idea", or "I don't follow - could you elaborate?" I'm fine with people confessing some ignorance or taking a guess here - whatever's most comfortable.

8. Personality Everyone has friends, and there's a reason those people like you. I'm polite and kind. I went with that - asked about other people's jobs and how they got started, was interested in their insight into the field, asked about pictures if they had family photos up. That's what's comfortable for me, and it eases the situation. If you're funny, do that. If you're obsessed with sports, try to work that in. If there's art on the wall that you like, mention it. Find a way in which you can be comfortable and move the situation to being subtly personal. You're a cool person outside of the fact that you're smart and educated. Try hard to make
that point.

9. Ask questions People almost always pause to see if there's anything you'd like to ask. If you're smart, you'll give yourself a break and ask some questions. There's a chance that you can move on and just talk about everyday topics should you be less than prepared with a question, but often recruiters will bounce right back into the probing questions for you. So I was always ready with something to talk about in case they let me ask something, then I could rest a little
while they talked. My favorites?
*What qualities or skills do you think would make someone successful in this position?
*What's made you good at your job?
*Is there anything you wish you'd done differently?
*What was the critical information you got out of your interview process?

Then you can go from there and not have to think about a specific time that you conformed to a policy with which you did not agree.

10. End My experience has been that you'll wrap-up with the person who will actually decide whether or not you're right for the position. I liked to express appreciation for everyone who took time to see me, let the supervisor know how impressed I was with people in his group, go over any concerns or questions, save your sanity by asking when you'll hear from them
next, then make your last pitch. Pick up things during the day from questions (or answers to you cool "what makes someone successful" question) that you think are important. Then give a quick review of why you're obviously awesome because you have already shown success
in those areas, are confident you could show success in those areas, or just really like challenges. If at all possible, walk out with people liking you.

Obviously there are different experiences for different people, but I was successful with these ideas. And I'll be looking back over these in a couple years again, so hopefully they'll help me at least one more time.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Paging the Resident

In the world of medical research, PhDs and MDs must often work together toward some common goal. I think I’ve done a decent job of interacting with clinical staff, but sometimes it’s slightly challenging.

I completely appreciate what it took to get a PhD. Shared experiences provide some camaraderie. I read some blogs, and I remember how awful revising the thesis felt – to feel done, only to find that the writing experience wasn’t close to being over. I’ve been mind-numbingly bored in seminars, seriously contemplating throwing my strappy sandal at the idiot who would dare ask yet another question, further drawing out the torturous experience of learning about some obscure facet of useless knowledge. I’ve crammed for a qualifier, experiencing the only nervous breakdown of my life 2 days before the exam. I’ve taken in treats to my prelim so I could persuade my committee that I was able to tackle the research project I planned. I also partially hid behind a chair during the question portion of the oral exam, not realizing until after it was over that I was peeking over a conference room chair while sitting completely behind it. I postponed my final defense date twice, neither by choice, and I’m still trying to rebuild my confidence after the spectacular failure that marked the end of my graduate career. My point? I meet people or read blogs, and I identify with some of the experiences. And whether from empathy or friendship, I’m motivated to help people who have gone through similar experiences.

But medical school…wow. I found graduate coursework to be competitive, but I could barely breathe through the fog of superiority that encompassed some of the classes I took with medical students. Those folks are ambitious, bright and a little bit scary in their focus. They can balance it with a general trend toward being kind, interesting and funny, in my experience. But I don’t know much about how med school goes, so I feel we’re in pretty different worlds.

Now that I’m more firmly in the research world, having escaped being a student only to become a trainee, I continue to see differences. My priorities are more strictly focused than ever. Though I understand many post-doctoral positions involve a fair amount of teaching, that’s always been something I’d rather avoid. I did my share of skipping classes and reading on my own as I found it to be more efficient. Honestly, I haven’t seen many professors who are inspiring as teachers. Actually, I was reading a NYTimes article about teaching in elementary schools. If we, as a nation, can’t figure out how to do that well, then higher education, in my opinion, is a lost cause. (How many commas can I put in one sentence? LOTS – stay tuned.) My point? I do research, and since I’m still getting my projects up and running, I’m doing less teaching and mentoring now than I did in grad school. I’m not serving on any committees or participating in volunteer work yet, so I just need to figure out what I want to know and how I want to know it. Nice, right?

Well, part of what I want to figure out requires a patient population, and I’ve never dealt with getting approval on human subjects and designing a study. That was all done for me before. You know how you answer essay questions? So you’re given a bunch of starting information, you need to have some idea of how to understand it and put it together with what’s in your head. I feel like that’s much of what doing research is about. Getting a sense of who knows what, determining the correct question, and finding a way to coordinate various efforts (hopefully many of which will be personal) to come up with a novel solution. It’s this coordination that I pride myself on – judging people’s strengths and personalities in a way to maximize my benefit to working with them. But I’ve never had to write my own questions before. Honestly, I’m not loving it.

For me, working with MDs has been pleasure. They tend to know a lot about their specific areas, and have ideas on a lot of medical topics that they may not deal with regularly. Also, at the large teaching hospitals where I work, the doctors tend to balance patient care with teaching and research responsibilities. While they do have their own post-docs on occasion, they also consult on a number of projects – providing patients for studies, guiding the study design, addressing problems and confounds as they arise, giving immeasurable insight and edits on drafts of manuscripts. In my short career so far, I’ve decided that if you’re doing research that requires patients, having an MD on board (and excited about your work if you can possibly pull that off) is critical. If the doctors don’t care, you’re screwed for a couple reasons. First, you’re missing all those advantages that I just mentioned, which makes life hard. Second, if they don’t care about your work, it’s likely you’re asking the wrong question or working in an irrelevant area. And whether you’re trying to publish or just finish a thesis, that’s not what you want.

I deal with these people with a mixture of respect, understanding of their hectic schedules, appreciation for the help, and enough confidence to gain their respect. That’s what works for me, and I don’t like to alter a plan. I’ve lived here for almost 6 months, and I know one freaking way to get to work, for goodness sake. So when I needed something from a surgeon, I sent email, made an appointment, and arrived at his office, armed with a list of questions and comments, efficiently made my points and got the relevant information, shook hands, expressed my appreciation, and left. And that’s the way it’s done.

So when I needed a protocol from a resident, I sent my polite email. And waited. Then I was out of town for awhile. I came back, then waited some more. I let 2 weeks pass before sending another email, still very polite. And that was 3 weeks ago (more traveling time in there – I haven’t been sitting at my desk waiting for email all this time). Running out of excuses on why the planning is stalled, I paged him today and I hated to do it. First, my pager startles me when it goes off and that’s unpleasant. And I haven’t gotten a single page that hasn’t immediately triggered the thought of send me an email! I’ll respond as quickly as I can! So I assumed Resident would have a similar response to my paging him, and dreaded it. But I sent email already, so I buckled down and called his pager. Then waited, staring at the phone.

He called me back, but was in a meeting (so I felt badly for disturbing him when he was busy with something else). So we talked later that afternoon and agreed to meet tomorrow so I could get the file I needed. I’m supposed to page him when I have free time. Apparently his pager isn’t the beeping minion of evil that I have to carry around with me. Who knew? The lesson, and my original concept in writing this, is that it’s fine to bother people. For someone like me (don’t interrupt, don’t get in the way, be quiet and polite, show appreciation when people help you out, never make a negative impression), that’s difficult. It’s probably part of the reason I took a post-doc rather than one of the industry jobs I interviewed for. I need to gain more confidence. That wraps it up pretty neatly – I need to feel better about my skills, ideas and qualifications to be truly effective in a field in or out of academia.

Sciencewoman made a comment that made me consider the issue more carefully though. I tend to be self-deprecating, both in writing and in person. I underestimate and understate the importance of what I do and say, my performance in grad school and so far in this position, my manuscript-writing skills (as I’m still struggling to get some graduate work published), and even what I’ve written here so far. If I say it’s not great, then it preempts anyone else’s criticism. And if by chance someone thinks it’s decent, maybe they’ll try to boost my confidence somehow. So it’s win-win. The problem is that I’ve seen many women in science do this – somehow present themselves as something less that what they truly are.

So if this is just a personal characteristic, that’s fine. I can try to be more aware of it and not be so hard on myself. But if I’m working in an environment that tends to make women feel self-conscious and inferior, then that’s a big deal. I was infuriatingly confident in my intelligence and ability when I was younger. I calmed down so people wouldn’t hate me, but the real feeling of being somehow lacking started in grad school. So now I’m trying to remember certain situations, and determine whether this is internal or somehow inflicted through the graduate environment. I guess my feeling is that if there is some external negativity, I was more likely to pick it up and let it affect how I felt about myself.

So I’ll conclude with what I should have done, and what I hope I do now. It’s important to be aware of your environment. I served on committees in order to change some of the graduate training culture, but on a day-to-day level, it escaped my notice on any real level. I didn’t make time to notice how it felt if someone was talking about how I was near the lower end of the grade scale on an exam, or how it felt to be the only person in the group not attending a conference, or what message it sent when we were told that only students who received invitations to talk would go to another annual meeting and everyone ended up going, though I obtained the only oral presentation. Looking back, it eroded my confidence to have everything I wrote criticized so heavily, though I knew the comments were mostly constructive. But when someone you respect places exclamation points after some comments, it’s degrading and unnecessary. And rather than saying what a dick, and moving on, I decided that my work quality was low enough to deserve such treatment. I think if I’d been more aware, asked for more support, let people know that certain behavior was counterproductive, and consciously checked myself when I started being too negative, that I would have emerged from grad school more effective and confident.

So now I’m aware. I’m going to page people when they don’t answer email after a couple of days. I’ll work within my comfort zone – be pleasant, polite and grateful, but I’m bothering people when they ignore me. I think there’s a good place between being nice but useless and effective but annoying. And I will find that place. I need to seek out other women in the field. I talk to W once a week, and we share many of the same irritations and problems, acknowledge that we should do more to support each other, but let opportunities to do so slip by. When I review papers, I’ll continue to look for, and compliment, good points as well as suggesting changes for weak areas. And I’m going to try to make this space something I’m proud of. It’s going to take some time, and I’ll probably be a bit embarrassed as I’m paging through my visitor statistics pages (which has become my new favorite hobby, second only to sleep) because things aren’t quite as good as I want yet. But so far, it’s been good for me. And that’s the point.

Hello out there: some notes to visitors

I’m not really ready for visitors, though I admit to a slight addiction to my sitemeter to see who happened to stop by. I have, however, read over my paltry selection of archives and wonder how redundant one person can actually be. One of my huge problems with seminars and conferences and courses is that many educated people fall in love with hearing themselves talk. So enamored are we with having someone, anyone, listen to us, we tend to ramble on – thinking of countless ways to make the same point, when everyone understood what we were talking about within the first 2 minutes. Also, I’m not funny, so this isn’t great yet. Maybe eventually it’ll get there. I have a whole plan on what I'd like to see included, and I promise I'll back off the recurrent theme I have going here. Send an email and I’ll let you know if there’s ever something you should return to read. In the meantime, you could visit some of the links I put up last night. Some are other academic folks who have apparently escaped the tendency toward pointless, redundant ramble and say interesting, funny things.

Others have no relevance to what I’d say here. I’ve visited some forever, to the point where I can’t listen to Coldplay without glaring at the radio, thinking of the silly boy (I’m so excited she’s moving on though!), am fascinated with the lawyer's insight, sigh with hope and envy over the fledgling love of an actress. I have some experience dealing with waiters, not so much with bouncers, but I know without a doubt that some of the most thought-provoking, profound, entertaining thoughts are happening outside academic institutions. The point is that there are people out there with beautiful voices who have a lot to say. So if you happened upon this site while bored and looking for something to read, those are some of my suggestions. And most of them lead to other favorites, so that’s my contribution to helping you procrastinate.

Oh, and thanks for stopping by!

Monday, November 28, 2005


I’m relatively normal. I’d say I generally fit into the middle of the bell curve, and rarely do anything that would attract notice. I went home for Thanksgiving, helped bake pies, ate turkey, got up at 3:30 AM on Black Friday to go shopping (for goodness sake, what a miserable experience), ate leftovers and watched football on Saturday. I drove back to my house yesterday, fighting traffic of like-minded folks heading home after the holiday.

With great relief to be at the end of my journey, I drove through my neighborhood, which is your average huge suburban development. I noticed that huge displays of Christmas cheer were already proudly presented on various lawns and houses. Nativity sets – not sentimental ceramic like mine, but full-sized mangers for people to play out the birth of our Lord. Then there was the Disney theme the red brick house had going – all the characters had arrived in their cardboard finery, and the spotlights stood ready to illuminate the happiest scene on Earth when evening descends.

The people who had the blow-up ghost at Halloween and turkey at Thankgiving are still preparing. I expected inflatable Santa et al. to be waving in the wind already. But there’s apparently been some sort of decorating delay for them. Little icicle lights twinkle for many of my neighbors. I see my neighbors across the street have lighted reindeer outlines prancing across the roof, and yet another nativity scene in the corner of the yard. I got crushed in the Halloween decorating contest – my 2 plush ghosts in the window and my re-usable foam pumpkin that only sat outside on Oct. 31 weren’t up to the terrifying free-for-alls that occurred down the street. Hay bales? Scarecrows? 100s of pumpkins? Really? Who has the time for all that stuff?!

Following tradition, I drug my artificial Christmas tree out of the attic this morning before work. I put it up when I arrived home this afternoon. Placing it carefully on a table to overcome its short stature, tucking the tree skirt carefully around the red and green stand. I only used one strand of brightly colored little lights. If you push them deep into the branches, there are plenty to go around a little tree. I opened the small box of ornaments Mom and I had put together last year – some I made in school, others Grandma had given my mother, a clear snowman I got in Chicago while visiting a friend from college, otters, kittens, and rocking horse, puppies, polar bears and tiny penguins all frolic around the long-needled branches.

My nativity set, painted by Grandma, gently graces a coffee table by the front window. One of the camels is missing an ear, the paint was faded on the cow’s nose, and one of the wise men has been glued back together at his base. But they’re perfect – used to being stored in hot attics or small closets, but always unpacked and carefully placed somewhere special at Christmastime. I look around and see memories – some old, faded and a little chipped, others more vivid. So as I think about how I always placed all the animals in the manger with baby Jesus and left the people outside in the cold (they had heavy clothes on!), and see how bright the porch becomes when covered in tiny white lights, I feel comforted. These painted pieces of ceramic – Mr. and Mrs. Claus on my mantle, the tiny pink angels on my TV, Mary and Joseph on the bakers rack in the kitchen – are familiar, safe and representative of people I love.

As I drive by all the homes who are once again putting my half-hearted attempts at decorating to shame, I imagine they have memories attached to their decorations too. Maybe someday a man will tell his children that they were late putting up the inflatable Rudolph because the air compressor broke and they had to blow the sucker up themselves. Perhaps a young woman will bring her boyfriend home and play Mary to his Joseph in the life-size manger her parents still construct in front of their house. I read someone’s blog and she says that she has forgotten mu
ch of her childhood, but Christmas memories have remained in her consciousness. So when, during this season, I’m more reminded of the past and thoughtful of what I’ll remember of this year, my guess is I’m pretty normal in that sort of thinking.

I’ve started to notice that the population you study heavily influences the definition of average. While I give to charities, smaller amounts to many groups this year, I don’t see needy people, so in my mind, there aren’t very many of them. I do, however, encounter many sick people and their families. I give a little bit more to those groups – for research, support, programs for children – because part of that pain has worked its way into my reality. I cry when I watch reports on the Towers falling or Katrina victims, but when people tell me I can’t really understand, I agree. I know families who are supportive – if you’re in trouble – financially, emotionally or otherwise – going home to Mom and Dad is my first thought. I don’t always follow-through – I can be relatively self-sufficient. But not having that support system, or having your relatives drain your personal reserves of strength, is foreign to me. I didn’t ask for money for school, but I always knew it was there. I haven’t asked my parents to visit, but they continue to come every other month to fix and install, clean and update.

I watched Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy while I was catching up on bills and email last night. I go to sleep between 10:30 and 11:30, and wake before 6. I believe in God and attend Protestant churches, though I haven’t joined one since I’ve moved. All average characteristics– hitting right around the median behavior of the standard Midwestern people.

So while I didn’t light the bushes that line the side of my house, or drape decorations around my little picket fence, I put up some lights. I can see them through my front window on the porch, and I’m drawn to look at the tree. My house isn’t the nicest in the neighborhood, and it probably wouldn’t get an honorable mention in terms of holiday decorating. But I made an effort – invested time and effort to celebrate something truly miraculous. And in that, I’m wonderfully average. I may not always succeed, or merit any tremendous notice, but the effort to do well, to find happiness, and to make some sort of difference is definitely there.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Weakness and wings

I followed along behind her, my best friend as a child. My darker hair carefully secured in a ponytail, while her blonde locks swung freely behind bangs teased high and sprayed to maintain the pouf. We were walking through a small patch of trees on our way to find a suitable site for a fort. She always lead - the more adventurous counterpart to my cautious spirit.

“Look, P” She whispered.
“It’s a baby bird. It fell out of its nest.”

I remember frowning over it. My love of animals and tendency to nurture warred with my finicky nature as I watched bugs crawl through the tiny feathers. My friend was the one to pick up the tiny bird, so we took it to her house, placed it carefully in an aquarium with a light for warmth, and tried to feed it. It died, she told me 2 days later. We had a funeral service and buried it in the requisite shoebox.

The lesson, I thought, was to stay in the nest until you were sure you were ready to leave. If you tried to fly too early, you might fall, and even the best of intentions from 2 young girls, an aquarium and an eye-dropper full of food couldn’t help you. It was another sign to be cautious, to be sure, to be careful.

I remember being told that I could be whatever I wanted to be. I was a product of older parents, both being in their early 30’s when I was born and having deliberated on having children very carefully. They had saved money for me before I was ever conceived. When I was struggling with completing my PhD, I called a friend to tell her I couldn’t handle the situation. She asked if I’d ever been denied something that I really wanted, and I realized that I hadn’t. There had been disappointments and heartbreaks, absolutely. I’ve lost people I loved, not found the great love of my life, and have had some minor failures, but for the most part, I’ve been blessed with success. I carefully weigh risks before committing to something, so if I don’t feel confident, I opt out. I huddle deep in the safety of my nest - not leaning too far out, always fearful of toppling out and falling to the ground.

I may have some weakness of character from my background. School came easily, so I now expect most life events to fall into place. After talking to my friend, I realized that I was willing to fight for this degree, but also realized I viewed God as primarily benevolent. Though I’ve certainly made mistakes and haven’t lived a life completely pleasing to Him, I expect that He’s going to help me out when I need Him. And if, for some reason, I don’t receive what I feel is appropriate, there must be some reason. He must have something better in mind.

But I’ve made what I believe to be safe choices throughout my life. Instead of going away for undergrad, I took the scholarship and stayed near home. When my first selection of majors became too mind-numbingly difficult, I changed to something I could more easily master. And I dropped a class so I could graduate summa cum laude. I was honest about it – I remember the look on the professor’s face after he told me that I was capable of comprehending Electricity and Magnetism, but would probably end up with a C in the class.

Me: “I’ve never had a C.”
Prof: …
Me: “Ever.”
Prof: … It’s not always about grades. Sometimes it’s about the material, and things coming slowly. You’re not doing poorly. In fact, I don’t know that anyone in the class will get higher than a C. It’s just the way things are.”

But it’s not the way things are for me. I learned to live with a small population of Bs taking up residence on my transcript. But dropping below the highest honor level to take a single class in my final semester was something I couldn’t do. A stronger person could have – one who was more concerned with truly earning an honor, and who wanted complete understanding of the subject matter. I’m not always that person, and I think about that class when I see my diploma. So I don’t have it out. In fact, I’m not sure where it is. I don’t like to be reminded of failures, even when they’re masked by apparent success. It makes the nest less comfortable.

I took a summer research position that I referenced in my last post. I had actually accepted a different one - in New England - when I was offered another. Both were pretty competitive – small programs located at large universities. I knew that entering the first one, and having my initial experience at living far from home, going sailing on a daily basis to do oceanography experiments, biking to work through northeastern woods, would be amazing. But the adjustment scared me – I didn’t know what to expect, and had no contacts there – my support system was located securely in the middle of the country, not on the eastern edge. And I was 20, but, as mentioned, somewhat lacking in personal strength of any great magnitude. So I took the second offer, sending profuse regrets to the donor of the generous initial offer. I knew that performing research at the Big 10 school would likely land me there for a graduate program. I could easily drive home, I knew some people who lived in the city, and I had an excellent idea of what to expect. It was a different nest, but only required a short flight. A tiny hop, really.

I knew when I made my decision that it was a pivotal moment. If I had picked the other path, my life now could be incredibly different. I might be braver, stronger, more interesting. But I made the safe choice, got a publication, secured money for grad school, found my way around one more Midwestern town, then moved in a year later to start studying, exactly as planned. I picked a group, then projects, where I felt success was highly likely. I latched on to people who I thought were both brilliant and kind – who knew enough to help me with concepts that confused me, and who were willing to devote time and energy to enable my progress in research.

I presented a poster at my first big conference. It was the easiest, least stressful way to gain confidence and work my way into the field. Then I gave a talk at my second. I visited Hindu temples that morning, taking my shoes off and walking silently through gardens in Japan. Marvelling over the fact that I was on the other side of the Earth. That it was night at home, but there was daylight here. People walked their dogs, hung their laundry, worshipped, played - but all around us was a different language – people who looked and sounded so different than what I was used to. I arrived at the meeting to find men from my research group, and sat on the edge of the 2 rows we occupied near the front of the exhibition hall. I gave the talk with relative calm, but I read from my notes, too nervous to rely on memory, taking the easy way out even then.

But what I’m reflecting over this evening is that I took the easy job. I wanted the choice of offers to be simple, clear and easy. And it turned out to be. I knew people here, I could afford the house I so desperately wanted, the benefits were good, and the salary was generous. And the people – I work with an exceptionally kind, patient, bright group. They’ve allowed me to fumble through my first months, only offering help, never expressing disappointment that I may not be all my CV and interview lead them to believe. They’re throwing projects my way – allowing me to help with high-level research and asking my opinions, making me feel important and smart even though I know I have ever so much to learn. The problem, if you can call it that, is that I expected this. Interviewing here was comfortable, and I predicted the environment would be friendly and welcoming. I turned down jobs that may have stretched my talents more, made me work harder, learn faster, develop skills that weren’t so dependent on people around me. But my wings are weak, I’m afraid. And I don’t trust them to support me. So I hope that I flap them a little harder while I’m here. Maybe eventually I’ll jump, assuming that I can either fly or float safely to the ground. But in the meantime, I keep finding safe little nests, peeking out of them, leaning over the edge a little farther each time, and wondering what else is out there.

blue graphics

Saturday, November 26, 2005

How to: research as an undergraduate

My dad took one of my new business cards when he visited last month. We were talking today and he asked for another since he had given it to someone at work. This colleague has a daughter who may be interested in entering my particular field of study, and Dad thought I might be able to offer some advice on how to prepare for, then get admitted to, graduate programs.

My first thought was that she should gain some experience in a research environment. I didn’t have that opportunity as an undergraduate, so I did a summer program at a larger institution. But if you’re lucky enough to study somewhere with a diverse graduate population, chances are that someone would be very interested in having you to do some of the tasks we consider repetitive and boring.

I started my graduate study by easing into research doing these very things. But if you can get some experience using the equipment, knowing what to expect, understanding how long certain experiments take, and getting used to the language (and the abbreviations that the scientific community latches on to, uses extensively but seldom define – leaving most people, myself included, heading to google to figure out what people are talking about), you may find something to put on an admission form that may distinguish you from your many fellow applicants.

There was an undergrad doing a summer program when I began my graduate research. I think her name was Laura, and she wanted to go to med school. She decided to “take a year off to do volunteer work”, meaning, to me at least, that she hadn’t been successful on her first round of applications. I watched the senior group members roll their eyes at her constant questions and bids for attention. She had an air of arrogance and superiority that was striking, even in the midst of students and post-docs at varying levels of seniority. She wasn’t particularly productive – nobody wanted to work with her, so it was difficult for her to learn critical skills. We weren’t sorry to see her go, and I never heard what she ended up doing.

There was another girl, Josie, who started doing research during her sophomore year. I believe I was in my second year of study – still busy with classes, but beginning to find my niche in the lab. Josie worked directly with my advisor for some time, which was lovely, so I didn’t see much of her. The problem came when she developed a crush on one of the guys in the group. So I’d come back from a class to find her working at my desk, conveniently located next to the cute boy. I had no problem with her taste – I enjoy a little crush myself - but I’d rather people not mess with my things. I’m polite and accommodating, at least superficially, so I’d just ask her to scoot, and pretend to be productive.

The problem came when she decided to do some searches online, still at my computer, and I returned to find my desktop covered with playful kittens. Disproportional irritation was not the response the kittens were supposed to evoke, but they were quickly replaced and an email composed. The lesson? DON’T be irritating. Do not use my office supplies without asking, and don’t play with my computer – it likely has critical components of my life on it, and should you accidentally remove something, I’d have to plot my revenge, and that takes time I don’t have.

Josie never accomplished much – insisting on taking copious notes that never seemed to help her out much, but that allowed me to say “check your notes” whenever she’d ask me a question. I tried to help her with a couple of projects, but she had a habit of coming in for an hour, messing up 4 different things, then leaving notes to us so we could try to correct her errors. We wouldn’t do it, so she didn’t make progress, choosing instead to continuously work on different projects until they became so hopelessly riddled with mistakes that everyone called them a loss.

I complained about Josie a lot, finally telling my advisor that I needed a break from her. I think there was a large problem in that Josie would overstate her experience and expertise, and I believed her. So my expectations were out of step with reality, which is never a good way to build a working relationship. And she’d always mess with my stuff – stealing my pretty star-shaped post-its, using my pens from Japan. And while that might be irrelevant to some people, she should have known her audience. It bugged me, so I tried to make life just slightly harder for her.

Looking back, and now considering Josie at least a friendly acquaintance, I see that she did a lot of things right. She was a social little creature, and everyone in the group knew her because she’d find somewhere to sit and chatter at you while you were trying to work. If I were giving advice, I’d say not to be irritating. But there’s an interesting dichotomy – grad students always seem busy. Between classes (taking or teaching), reading, at least 2 projects, and some sort of lame attempt at a social life, it’s not easy to get our attention. So you’ll have to be a little aggressive, and making sure that at least a couple people know why you’re around and what you hope to accomplish works to your advantage.

Oh, and you’re going to screw things up – sometimes really badly. I was always paranoid though, and the first thing I taught Josie was how to copy things – notes, move code around, work in her own space – so that when something was ruined, I could at least start from where she did to fix it, rather than recreating everything. It’s necessary to ask for help, preferably as soon as you realize you might need it. Then you can develop some troubleshooting skills early on and gain confidence as you figure things out. If you make a mistake, then compound it exponentially as you try to fix it, it’s much harder for me to help you. I’m likely going to have you start over and watch over your shoulder to catch the initial problem. But don’t expect me to work on your projects while you’re not around – it’s not really my problem (and I have ownership of more problems than I’d like already), and it doesn’t teach you anything about research to just randomly push some buttons, fail, then leave. A willingness to learn and put in the time is critical and will gain you some much-needed respect.

You’re not going to have time to devote to research on any real level. At my peak productivity, I was working at least 10 hours at the office 7 days a week, and taking work home. I had meals staring at computer screens, didn’t ever return personal phone calls, would hurriedly dash off apologetic emails, and lived with a list constantly in my peripheral vision so I didn’t forget anything. When you’re caught up in an undergraduate course load, which is completely different than the graduate class requirements in my experience, it’s hard to manage all your responsibilities, and this research is going to be the first to get tossed aside. I needed to appreciate that more than I did. It’s a time of exploration for undergrads, and putting something on a resume for some abstract concept of applying to graduate or medical school isn’t the same motivation as trying desperately to build a career. So I was harder on Josie than I should have been.

The important factor to gain, from both perspectives, is that everyone needs to be realistic about the situation. An undergraduate with little research experience probably isn’t going to be incredibly useful to a graduate lab. I’m sure there are exceptions – cases where there is an incredible student with amazing insight and skill – but for the most part, students enter labs to get something different to put on an application. A topic of conversation on how they were able to learn something and get some experience that may help in an interview.

So, this is my long-winded way of noting some tips. So when my dad inevitably passes out more business cards, I have a quick reference for people who are interested in grad school.

1. Choose the right lab. Interview with the major advisor, but also ask if you can talk to the students with whom you’d be in contact most often. These are people you’ll need for any sort of productive experience.
2. Show some basic respect to the students (and their property). Understand that we have too much to do in too little time. But…
3. Be almost aggressively friendly at times. You want people to notice you, and hopefully like you. But you’ll need attention, so make sure you get it.
4. Remind me of what it was like to be at your level. Tell me your roommate is evil incarnate – I remember being driven crazy by my freshman roommate. Tell me how you’re so in love with, then heartbroken by, this amazing guy. I’ve been there too, and I can sympathize. I promise I’ll cut you some slack, but if you’re lazy and inefficient without explanation, I’m going to ignore you completely.
5. Pick a strategy. You’re either going to specialize in one project and try to get published, or you’re going to try to get involved with multiple experiments and gain a broad perspective.
6. Communicate your strategy to your group. We like people with an idea of what they want, and the more clear you are, the better we’re able to help you.
7. Keep in touch. If you can’t make a meeting or will be studying for a week, just let someone know. As a rule, grad students understand stress and priorities and will cut you some slack if we can expect you to be absent. If you’re MIA for a long time though, we’re going to write you off.
8. Be hard on yourself. Read journals, attend group meetings, ask to make presentations or submit abstracts to annual meetings or workshops. These things tend to be beyond what is expected of undergrads in research environments (because they're actually difficult), and can make an excellent impression. Plus, if you make a fool of yourself, better now than when it really counts later on.
9. Attempt to see a project through. If someone has set out some reasonable goals for you, make a strong effort to achieve them, or have a decent reason whey they should deal with you again in the face of failure. Fix your mistakes, ask for help and try to develop some ideas. Ask me how I deal with problems – it’ll help you decide if there’s something you can use or if you need to keep asking other people for strategies that work well.
10. Keep your expectations in line. Understand what grad students can help with, and figure out ways to be self-sufficient. Teaching and training are almost unavoidable parts of getting a PhD. And I loved working with enthusiastic people and watching them progress. It’s part of the reason I chose my current position.

Josie entered medical school this year – I wrote her a letter of recommendation and had lunch with her before I graduated. While she didn’t do as well as I wanted her to in terms of actual research, there were plenty of positive attributes to list on my reference form. She didn’t succeed on every point on the list above – probably not even most of them - but I gained a lot from working with her, and as I understood what to expect, and found ways to like her, it bothered me less and less to find my pens at her desk. I guess I’ll close by saying grad school and research environments can be harsh places. If you can find a gentle way to enter one, then decide if your dream of what more education is like matches the reality, you’re much better off than I was. So good luck with that.

Thursday, November 24, 2005


I like cleaning. Perhaps not the most interesting or progressive hobby to enjoy, but I find it cathartic. You see a stack of used dishes, fill the sink, and 5 minutes later, they’re clean. Ready to be dried and put away; checked off the list of things to be done. Same goes with vacuuming, dusting, scrubbing the bathroom – there’s something that’s dirty and with a relatively minor amount of work, it’s clean again. Though it’s a continuous process, and therefore a good hobby since you must repeat it so often, it’s satisfying to know when you’re done, to see progress and enjoy the outcome of your efforts.

I didn’t mow the lawn much growing up – it was a task better left to my brother. I preferred the cool of air conditioning to the heat and humidity of Midwestern summers spent in the sun, cutting grass. But with my own home, living alone, it’s either mow or pay someone. Unwilling to part with $20 for a little over an hour job, I do my own yard work. Surprisingly, or maybe not so much so, I find it equally rewarding. Straight lines, back and forth, front to back, across the extent of this property I bought. Squeezing the handle made my wrists ache at first – it must be an unfamiliar position – but they have adjusted. By the end of this season, it felt natural – I knew why the mower stopped, how high the grass could grow before I needed to raise the deck, how much gas to pour in before the tank overflowed. I like trimming less – you have to carry that tool around rather than just pushing it, and it gets heavy. But still, I make sure to open all my blinds after I finish so I can enjoy the yard. I once missed a spot and it bothered me all week. Not enough to drag out the mower and fix it, but enough to frown over it – glare at it even – as it marred the perfection of the job I had completed over the weekend.

I find definite answers to be the most reassuring. You’re done when the grass is all short and neat, the kitchen doesn’t need attention after the dishes are clean, counters disinfected and floor mopped. I have tasks – clearly defined and easy to understand – and I can do them, knowing with all certainty that I did well.

Research isn’t like that. Definitive endpoints are horrifically difficult to achieve. By nature, the community is critical and questioning – you should have designed the study without this confound; you could have used X’s method rather than Y’s and noted greater reproducibility; these results are flawed; this interpretation is more speculation than fact; your patient population is skewed and doesn’t represent the true status of those who suffer from this disease. There are always problems, and while some are due to inevitable mistakes and can be corrected, some issues are continuously present. I believe if I could design a perfect study – all the right background information, no confounds, perfect patient population, impeccable methods – there would still be some questions, problems and comments about the results I presented.

This is positive – few mistakes slip by the scientific community without comment because we’re trained to tear things apart, play devil’s advocate, question someone’s training and qualifications, and continuously review what is known, how we know it and what degree of confidence we have in the current knowledge. The problem, especially for someone like me, is the erosion of confidence that comes with never being done, never knowing enough, never calling a project a triumph. Because there aren’t any triumphs, really. Steps forward, yes, but always with an eye toward the future path. I think the arrogance – the desire for people to acknowledge our training and the years spent in education, the battle over author order on papers, the need to be Principle Investigator or not involved with a grant proposal at all, the awards, the accolades – stems from never feeling like you’ve done enough. So please reward me for trying, for making progress, though I know there was no overall triumph. It’s like the shower in the bathroom still has that weird soap-scum around the drain, the lawn is only mowed down one side and has a little strip cut through the center, you didn’t trim around the fence in the backyard at all, there are pots and pans still soaking in the kitchen sink…

So I may work all my life, do good work, help people, create an environment that invites new ideas and encourages diligent work, maybe even answer a couple of critical questions in my little niche of cancer research. But I’m afraid that all I’ll see when I look back are those missed spots – the soap-scum, uncut grass, trimming that should have been done, and pots and pans that never quite got clean. It’s discouraging, and I’m noticing even now that I focus on the critical things that didn’t happen, rather than the nice ones that did.

I feel like that in writing too. Clearly, I’m just starting out, and don’t have any training that leads me to believe I have much of anything to say or the talent with which to say it. But it helps me – seeing things on a screen, reading over something I’ve created. And I’m making progress – I like seeing the number of posts counter go up on my blogger dashboard. So I’m content with this little piece hobby in that respect.

But I had a nightmare last night that someone discovered my little site here. A person I will in all likelihood never meet, but whose writing I greatly admire and look forward to reading more of. The thought of such a person – with elegance of words and strength of character – reading what is located here is disturbing. While it’s clear that posts appear online with the vague hope that someday someone might read them, I find it incredibly comforting that nobody has happened to find this. It’s just for me – to find my voice, to spill out words, to be stupid and obsessive and self-involved. And it’s not ready for anyone to see yet – it’s not enough. Not enough content, not enough growth – I’m not even sure what I’m trying to say sometimes.

Will it ever be enough? Or will I continue to see the flaws – the posts that ramble on too long, those that won’t be meaningful to anyone but me, the lack of humor, the babble about abstract concepts rather than real events… Maybe there is a point where you say you’ve done enough – in research, in writing, in life. Maybe I just don’t see it yet, or worse yet, maybe I’m the type of person who will never see it at all. But for now, I’m at the “not yet” stage. Don’t give me a real job yet – I’m still in training - done with the education, but not ready to tackle reality at this point. Don’t read this blog yet – it’s not representative of what I think is important, of who I am, of what my academic experiences have been.

Not yet – that indicates that there will be a time when there’s enough, right? I’m just not quite there…not yet.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Last day

I vividly recall my last day as a student. My defense experience was a battle, one I didn’t expect and wasn’t prepared for. It included a late attack by someone I liked and respected, and remembering the shock of it still turns my stomach. Absolutely sick with terror that my life was being irrevocably ripped apart, I battled back - hard. Email, phone calls, meetings – I tried each to argue passionately over my qualifications, my work, and the fairness of an educational system that seemed to be making an error. It still pains me to know that I lost. While I hope to eventually derive comfort from the final positive outcome, I still look back and cringe – at my belief that nobody would try to stop me from graduating at such a late stage, at my desperate plea for someone to fix the situation as it quickly unraveled, at my 2-day breakdown, characterized by a complete inability to do anything other than sleep and breathe.

But I did get through it, though the details seem unimportant right now. I had actually started my new job while I continued to correct the draft of my thesis, so completing graduate school required one more trip to the town I had called home for 4 years. An early-morning drive through snow and sleet allowed me my first glimpse of winter weather. Stress over traffic – why must you drive in the left lane if you’re not passing? Or going the speed limit? – and a later than ideal arrival time made me rush through printing the final version of my thesis. I needed 5 copies, and for a document that was only slightly shorter than 200 pages, that’s a nice sized stack of paper.

I loaded the color printer with the thesis paper – soft, smooth and watermarked – elegant somehow in its off-white color and silky texture. The way the paper felt under my fingertips is one of the clearest memories. The way the printer slowly marked each page, unimpressed by my silent screams to hurry. Things take time – quality, whether in color images and bold text or in carefully scripted equations and centered tables, takes time – and as desperate as I was to finish, to just be done, the pages slowly floated into the tray, pausing momentarily between chapters.

Finally armed with printed pages, there was a dash to the graduate school, 10 minutes late for a 15 minute appointment – I despise tardiness; being late is a result of poor planning or lack of interest; there’s a reason why graduating is so hard for me – everything is so melodramatic – just do what needs to be done, and do it faster – talking with a lovely woman about my plans, how I chose my department, what I hoped to do after this post-doc. I give practiced answers, though I didn’t know these questions would come at the final interview. I’ve responded to similar inquisitions before though – I know what to say, how to say it, when to smile and the appropriate time to cock my head and frown thoughtfully.

I become distracted as she cheerfully scatters my carefully constructed stack of paper. Does she notice I put the documents in the order in which they appear on the list of things to bring? I used the right paper – the quality is impeccable, see how lovely it feels as you flip through the pages so casually? Those are the pages I sometimes despaired over never being able to turn in. I typed the title page myself – I used the bold option on the typewriter because the ribbon was going bad. I could do it again if that’s not right though… I so want this to be over – I’ll do anything to make things good enough… The signatures from my committee are in blue, not black ink. Those page numbers are a little too low in the corner, I know.

Ending in less than 5 minutes, stamped pages and a bulky clip placed around 4 years of headaches, small victories, hard-won insight and sleepless nights represent the official endpoint of what I spent 4 years trying to achieve. Clutching the packet welcoming me to the alumni association, I shake her hand – she was kind and didn’t make any mention of my material being anything less than acceptable – and take one more look at the papers I left with her. The thesis I had feverishly finished printing only 15 minutes ago – it was probably still warm from the printer and I question the quality of its content even now; the 2 pages my committee signed – 5 men who I respected greatly, who originally told me I wasn’t good enough to graduate, but eventually relented; a survey – my parents completed high school, but have little college credit, I didn’t pay for graduate school, I finished in a little over 4 years, I’m doing a post-doc for a little while after I leave; and an abstract – 4 years of work, 3 papers, 7 abstracts, 8 interviews, and 4 boxes of journal articles condensed into 200 words on a single sheet of paper. Is this it? This is what I worked for, what I’ll leave behind?

Leaving the department was hardly more ceremonial. Signing a form to terminate my fellowship. Leaving more copies of the thesis, carefully placed in a box to avoid wrinkles, so they can be bound. One will go in the library – I used to like to read the dedication and acknowledgement pages when I needed a break from studying. Fascinated by why people did this work, who they needed to thank for helping them through the experience, I wondered what I might someday say. Glancing in the library as I turned to leave, I saw 2 students talking about exam scores, sharing study strategies. If they were to look now, they could find my thesis – dedicated to my family and thanking many people who started out as colleagues and became dear friends – and perhaps remember that I did something in that department, personally and professionally. That I stumbled many times, most memorably near the end of my career there, but I recovered. Perhaps my trip to the finish was completed at a limp, with plenty of furtive glances around, hoping that I wouldn’t be noticed and inflicted with yet another hurdle, rather than a sprint with head held high and smiles all around. But I finished.

But, really, who would think about me at all? Apart from a fleeting glance at 2 preliminary pages of several thesis documents, I didn’t consider those who came before me. Though I wish them well, I was more concerned with the next lab, upcoming deadlines and future plans. So as I walked out of that building for what should be the last time, and headed out the car as the sun was peaking through the clouds, I hoped that things were going well for the authors of all those bound theses on the shelves, and that many more black-bound documents join them as a testament to the value of learning, the ability to see something through despite difficulty and exhaustion, and the hope that in learning and creating new knowledge, we can become better people.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


It’s dial-up here – no cable modems and wireless routers, so my laptop and I sit in the living room, isolated from the world, left with only my thoughts as I listen to nothing. I know of few places outside my parents’ house that pure silence can be found. When I was younger, family would visit with a telescope – there are no city lights to disturb your view of the stars. They found Venus once, but I couldn’t see it – I was either looking in the wrong place or not seeing what I expected to see. I had a friend who said I lived in the darkness outside of town – a place where the lights don’t reach, people never lock their doors, and you know to slow down near the curve in the road so you don’t hit the neighbors' dog. He likes to stand in the middle of the road, wagging his tail as you roll down the window to shoo him away.

Though I remember the quiet outside growing up, the inside of the house has grown silent as well. My parents have aged and shuffle to bed earlier, and I watch lights turn off across the street or next door so neighbors can end painful days and seek the ease of unconsciousness at earlier and earlier hours. Gazing across the street at a pretty red-brick ranch, I remember walking through a neighbor’s yard on the way to school each day – years and years ago. A path had been worn through the yard from all of us who "cut through" as we trudged to and scampered home from school. I’d always stop to say hello on the way home – sometimes pause for some lemonade and to talk. They had ideas of what I should write about, what goals I could have, what qualities in myself I should seek to refine. But they were lovely and kind, and I enjoyed them. He’s gone now – I must have missed the funeral when I was away at school. And she drives to her mailbox rather than taking the short walk. Stooped over – the years of grief and pain pressing her shoulders down – aging far more than I’m comfortable witnessing.

I enter a guest room. My parents used to sleep here while I enjoyed the bigger bedroom. I liked time alone, they reasoned, and should have the most space. They kept it for me until last year – 8 years of a bedroom at home, always the same, a continuous comfort. I helped them paint and move furniture last year – covering the soft blue that eased my mind into daydreams with a darker shade. Moving boxes of books out of the closet and into storage – I’m not around to read them anymore. Taking down shelves that once housed my most prized possessions – 2 stuffed dogs, one from Grandma, the other from Grandpa; the memory box my mom got for graduation; my favorite Care Bears – a large TenderHeart Bear and 2 smaller brown bears with big red hearts on their tummies. I don’t remember what else sat on those shelves – there were 3 and they were long, so there had to have been several items. But only a few remain locked in memory. All were much loved once, but are now mostly forgotten.

There’s a couch where my parents’ bed used to be, a desk tucked neatly in a corner, and toys litter the floor for the baby. She’s so perfect – this little bundle of hope and possibilities that you can lift up and carry around. The lavender and baby powder scent of the lotion makes the dog sneeze – I favor lighter scents and the strong smell of baby must tickle her nose. We sing songs when she cries or fusses – they seem to comfort her, easing the silence into a somewhat disharmonious babble of words as we struggle to remember lyrics.

Down in the bottom of an itty bitty pool swam 3 little fishies and a momma fishie too. Swim, said the mama fishie, swim if you can, and they swam and they swam right over the dam…

She brings laughter, the beautiful little girl who loves to push buttons, smiles during songs and always tries to pet the puppy. My heart skipped at her toddling steps to me when I arrived.

"I know she’s been walking, Mom. I just haven’t seen it before. You’re so good at that, little one!"

Dad says she’s learning to talk and can proudly list the words he’s heard her say, his first grandchild. I’m glad she met her grandpa recently – that she was born after age and a heart attack had mellowed some of the anger and bitterness that used to surround him like the cloud of smoke from his cigarettes.

We painted the walls in the living room last year too. The smoke had stained them, turning them irreversibly yellow. You get used to things appearing to be a little dirty – the walls never looked quite right, but it was never so bad that you couldn’t ignore it. In a house filled mostly with love, support and pride, the stained walls didn’t merit much attention. But after they were painted, they were beautiful – the stain covered with bright new paint, tinted the lightest shade of blue, that my parents and I carefully applied. The baby won’t remember it being stained. While I’m sure she’ll remember other things that aren’t perfect, I hope she’ll remember her grandparents’ house as a sanctuary – a place of quiet, of pure love and extensive hope that she can do anything she wants, smile over every happiness, giggle with each new discovery of joy.

I remember my grandparents that way. One set, anyway - my mother's parents. The cuddles, the stories, the encouragement. Singing songs and playing games, building castles in my sandbox and playing dress up with Grandma’s sheer scarves and ruby lipstick. Pure comfort, pure love…

That house is gone now, as are they, my much beloved, very missed Grandma and Grandpa. I know loss, can recall the sharp pain and know the enduring agony. So I cherish my parents and my tiny niece, wish them sweet dreams as they head off to bed early, and tuck myself into bed long before I’m sleepy. They get up early, and I don’t want to miss any of the noise that tomorrow might bring.

Monday, November 21, 2005


I’ve mentioned already how much I adore sleep. However, I’ve always had trouble indulging in my favorite pastime – thoughts swirl in my head until I'm entangled in worries. Relaxation is difficult to find in the middle of anxious obsessions. I’ve attended seminars and audited classes to find reasons for my inability to let go and rest, and though I have some decent ideas, there haven't been effective resolutions.

I think one of the benefits, if you can call it that, of a mild sleep disorder is frequent memory of dreams. I lived on campus for my first 2 years of undergrad. My room was near the top of a 12 story building, so I’d sometimes opt to wait in line for the single elevator that would carry me to my floor. I can never remember it malfunctioning in my presence. Always absent during early morning fire alarms, I never was forced to endure the climb downstairs, the cold wait outside in pajamas and slippers, then the sleepy trek back up all those steps.

The elevator would often struggle in those times of stress. Overloaded with students who were so eager to return to bed that they would overfill the small space, it would sometimes just stop between floors. I was told that people would pry open the doors and squeeze out to the floor below or be pulled up to the floor above as the elevator hung suspended between.

These worries of a less-than-reliable elevator must have worked their way into my subconscious. Perhaps I wondered if my laziness in not always wanting to take the stairs would be punished. But the risk of being trapped seemed small, so most of the time I’d take my chances, step in, press my button and move to the rear of the car. I’d always hold on to the bar, but never thought much of it.

My recurring dream through those years, even after moving out of the dorm and into a 2 story apartment building, was of the elevator. It wouldn’t get stuck though. Instead, I’d be all alone – returning from class or a much-loved trip to Target – and it would rise for a moment, then begin to spin. Around and around it would twirl, steadily rising upward simultaneously. I don’t mind spinning, though I knew the elevator shouldn’t be rotating so rapidly. But since I was still going up, there was no reason to panic. I’d soon reach my floor, then the spinning would stop and the ride to be over. While unpleasant, the mild rotation was never a big problem.

But as soon as I had calmed myself and focused on the numbers above the doors that marked the progress of my ascent, the elevator would begin to tremble on it’s axis. While continuing to rise and spin, it began to flip end over end. The rotation in 2 directions created a path I was unable to predict. I sometimes traveled diagonally, sometimes upside down – but I was continually pulled in different directions. Unable to adjust, I was scared – out of control, unfamiliar with my ever-changing environment, and not at all sure I was still headed in the right overall direction. I would cling to the bar though. It gave me a way to remain slightly stable so while I was pulled in many directions, only my body was free to move. My head remained near the bar as I wrapped my arms around it to ensure I wouldn’t be torn loose.

I’d awaken, clutching a pillow, frown over having the same dream again, then drift back into sleep, sometimes to dream of the elevator again, but mostly to move on to other imaginary pursuits. Once I gain initial sleep, it’s easy enough to get there again. So I’m used to waking up for a moment, acknowledging a dream or thought, then falling back into the pleasures of sleep.

Interpreting this dream isn’t difficult – the dorm was my first living space away from home, college is a different atmosphere than I had known in high school, I had new friends, new independence and classes in which I desperately wanted to succeed so I could prove myself. My interest in this series of dreams centers around the bar I clung to so tightly. Wrapping around it, sometimes legs as well as arms, it always accommodated me, despite the fact that there was barely room to fit my fingers between the bar and the wall in the beginning of the dream. As the elevator ride grew less controlled, there was more room around the bar to hang on.

I think the bar was God, or maybe just faith in general. I grew spiritually while completing my undergraduate degree, and increased understanding and acceptance required the exploration of different faiths, different ideals, and people who were far from those I had grown up with. I think that threw my subconscious into a tumble of confusion – when you take away the stable feeling of predictability, there’s constant guesswork as to what you accept as truth, what you need to consider carefully and what you want to avoid.

I wish I had saved some of the things I had written then. I wrote for a community paper in high school, which undoubtedly makes me super-cool, so I can glance over some words on a page and remember how I looked at the world. Time has mellowed how I remember my days as an undergrad. I do recall some stress and bad decisions, and how I pursued some poor boy relentlessly despite his lack of interest. While that embarrassment remains sharp, the other experiences are more fuzzy. And while I know I associated the elevator dream with trying to stay safe in the midst of an uncontrollable, scary situation, I’m not sure how much I really considered it in the context of some major life lessons I was trying to learn. Was I too inexperienced or distracted to interpret my subconscious musings, or did I understand things then as I think I do now?

I rely on control. I love predictability and will attempt to set routines that make my life incredibly stable. But there is always some chaotic element - something I don't expect, can't control and may not comprehend. But I have a bar to cling to - a faith which has been enduring and strong, though I don't tend to it as I should; a family who has provided constant support and love; friends, who though far away think of me and wish me well; and faith in the goodness of people. I believe that we want good things for each other, that when I read about someone being pregnant, adopting a child, getting married, finishing school, getting a book deal, or winning the lottery, I, like most people, would smile and congratulate them on their good fortune. Because while scary things happen, they are countered by the amazing and the profound - you just have to hang on long enough to see them.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

I am a statistic

With hopes of obtaining some semblance of organization in my office, I began to file some of my paperwork from graduation. The problem with my filing system is that I become distracted by many papers that I feel require further attention. Case in point: the graduate survey I completed, then never searched for online. So as three boxes sit half full of paper and seven stacks of folders, booklets and yet more paper stand ready to topple, I decided to check up on who comprises the population of folks with doctoral degrees.

So the NORC (National Opinion Research Center) collects data from students finishing grad school. The result is the SED (Survey of Earned Degrees) and was actually quite interesting. The most recent survey is from 2002-2003, but due to small changes noted over time, I’m assuming that my graduation year is similar.

Basically, over 400 (who knew?) universities in the US awarded almost 41,000 doctoral degrees in 2002-3. And women are being highly educated like crazy – we represented 45% of the total degrees awarded (51% of the degrees awarded to US Citizens – so I think we’re winning!), though in the physical sciences, we comprised only 27% of the PhDs awarded, and only 17% of the engineering doctorates. Also of interest was an upward trend of minorities earning degrees – 19% of those awarded to US Citizens go to minority students. 68% of total degrees went to US Citizens, but international students dominate engineering fields. Americans received only 37% of the engineering degrees. Finally, it takes about 7.5 years for people to finish their degrees, and 2/3 find someone else to pay for it. 1/3 of us continued on for additional training through some sort of post-doctoral position.

I have all sorts of thoughts on this survey – women in sciences and how it’s terribly difficult sometimes, the work ethic of many students from Asia who have awed me with incredible brilliance sometimes, how many of us will end up working in our chosen fields and who will burn out and decide to enter a different profession, how many of the international students end up staying in the US permanently, and the worth of paying taxes to fund so many students getting higher degrees. I’d love to know how much we really contribute to society, because some days I feel like this was all wasted on me. I don’t always see the big picture, ask the right questions, obtain the critical skills… Does anyone?

For me, grad school was divided into 2 parts. The first contained coursework, and I shudder to remember the hell of exams, homework and labs. I had never stayed up all night to study in undergrad – I was an expert of time management. That sounds arrogant as I proofread, but I suffered for that conceit, so I'm leaving the expert statement in. Because I never missed an assignment, was perfectly prepared for exams, and never really worked all that hard since I organized things so ruthlessly. My roommates would come in and try to talk, and I would half-listen while I continued to take notes on reading or work physics problems. But I would always sleep.

But in grad school, there were too many nights to count where I caught a 20 minute nap while frantically working through lab reports that took all night. Taking phone calls at 3 AM from students who also couldn’t figure out why some quantity decreased with time rather than increased. More google searches than I can count. Having every textbook I owned out and open, but never finding anything helpful. I pushed myself hard, and while I got through it, I lost a lot of that information I fought so hard to gain. I’m not sure if it resides in my brain with those 4 years of Spanish (I was almost fluent after high school) or if it was purged during the deep sleep that would occur only on weekends.

The torture coalesced in the qualifier – the exam to end all exams – to determine if I was an appropriate PhD candidate, if I could continue on only for a Masters or if it was time for me to find a job, because grad school just isn’t for me. But after that, there was calm. No frantic rushes to start a program that could run through your data while you crammed for a test. There was time to read that pile of journal articles people had continued to give me. Time to look at some data I’d collected. Reasons to talk to your advisor about research, rather than trudging in to tell him that you weren’t cut out for this – it was just too hard. And there was time for sleep. So I slept every night, and I started taking naps during the day to save up for the inevitable time where the luxury of rest would once again be stolen.

But that time never came. I was on my own – able to complete work I felt was important, gather relevant information, write my own code, help with patient studies, work with normal control populations. And in a rush of relief, I realized I was capable of handling life again. There would be no impossible labs that would require 40 hours of effort in 3 days. Just a high workload that could be contained. So I started to date again, I went out with friends on occasion. And I grew more and more productive. Learned who people were in the field and started traveling to meet them. Got new ideas, became more self-sufficient, and worked a lot. After a while, it’s just putting in time – help so many new students, serve on a couple of committees, impress enough faculty members, publish 3 papers, then it’s over. And you get one of the few opportunities outside of getting married to change your salutation.

My remaining question revolves around what good it does. Does it make me better at problem solving? Not that I’ve noticed. Do I understand more of the world? Not at all – I spend a lot of time online taking in all sorts of information, forming my worldview, becoming simultaneously less ignorant and more aware of how very much I don’t know. I think the benefit of grad school, for me anyway, was in confidence. This degree, some extra letters on a business card, allows me some freedom in saying I don’t understand things, in asking for help, in knowing which book to read first. It’s a kind of assurance of intelligence by virtue of extensive education so that I’m free to gather knowledge without reservations. And while I typically take things at face value, I’m learning to question – to wonder what’s true and what’s speculation. I want to know why we’re treating diseases the way we do, why we can’t make use of research faster, what I can find out to make things work better. So it was a struggle to get here, and it’s a different battle right now as I continue to grow. But I like to think the bulk of us represent good intentions. The final page of the survey contains a congratulatory statement from Dr. Carlson at NSF. Basically, she's saying that we have the potential to improve our world. And I think it's that hope that's critical - that somehow the training has provided us the means to make things better. So I'm wishing my many fellow graduates the very best of luck in initiating change, questioning current theories, and making something more clear, more effective or less painful.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

On being single

As I finished grad school, wave after wave of engagement announcements headed my way. And in my experience, it’s exceedingly common that two “intellectuals” end up together. It’s a different set of priorities that lands you in this environment – a willingness to get paid very little to work almost constantly, to continually strive for improvement on a project that has already consumed all your talent and time. Anyway, driven people who are too busy to find social connections outside their departmental circle tend to drift together. And the matches tend to be good. I’m usually much more pleased by the choices of friends I made in grad school than I am with undergrad acquaintances when it comes to selecting a romantic partner.

I decided early on that this particular kind of relationship wasn’t for me though. I grow tired of talking about very specific research, and would rather discuss more interesting topics. Architecture, football, books, television, and families make much more interesting conversation than the gossip that swirls throughout the department. I’ll confess to some interest in who failed the qualifier, people who can’t handle the coursework, the girl who walked out of lab because she was just too overwhelmed… But for me to retain an identity outside the academic world, I knew it would be more appropriate to date men who weren’t involved with large-scale research. I need the escape from these concerns and to remember that some problems I saw as critical were sometimes incredibly trivial – I need a way to touch base with other problems, and ways of life.

Having made that decision, I relied on my network of acquaintances to set me up with men outside the university. And they did – sometimes 2-3 at a time. So I dated a whole lot more in grad school than I did in undergrad, but it was all for naught. Did I learn about myself? I guess I now know that I hate it when someone says they’re going to call when they aren’t. I love men who are chivalrous, though they were few and far between in my dating experiences. Levels of education don’t equate to how smart or interesting a person is. (Unfortunately, that last statement applies to me too.) Dates last forever when all you want is for them to end. I can have a miserable experience, then come home and giggle about it.

I did date someone relatively seriously during my last year of my graduate program though. While he wasn’t perfect, he was really pretty great. And we got along quite well, which isn’t always easy. But something about it felt wrong to me, and I think he felt it too. There was no question of not pursuing opportunities elsewhere when graduation began to approach. Our relationship, over the course of almost a year, had simply not evolved into anything that would require me to stay around. And so I left, without much of an end to what we shared, and I feel badly about that.

What I take from that experience frightens me though. I had been working late one evening, on what I can’t remember, and we were exchanging email. He was funny and smart and interested in what I was saying. We liked each other and things were clicking. I finished up my project, said goodnight, and got ready for bed feeling warm and hopeful. But as I curled up against a mound of pillows, I began to panic. My heart started to beat too fast, and I couldn’t breathe – this sudden terror swept over me and I got up and began to pace.

Normally, before I go to bed, I think about the man I might marry. How he speaks, his priorities, education, experience, political opinions, appearance, sense of humor, whether he likes dogs or cats, if he wants to live in the city or somewhere more rural, his occupation and hobbies, his friends, how much he’ll like my family, how long we’ll date before he finds me irresistible and proposes, how he’ll kiss, how long he’ll want to wait before we make love, the books he wants to read, how it'll feel when we meet, whether he prefers college or professional football…

So I’ve daydreamed myself many suitors, and they’ve evolved over time from physically perfect boys to men who are more sexy than handsome, more thoughtful and deep than educated, quiet and successful, reserved and well-read, and of course, he should watch football of Saturdays – college football is clearly more dramatic and interesting. But regardless of how I see him in my mind, this imaginary man has given me tremendous comfort over the years. I tell myself, over and over, that he’s out there waiting. There will come a day when we’re both ready, then we’ll meet and somehow things will work out so that I can plan a small wedding and we can begin a life together. Getting serious about someone - even someone lovely who cares about me and my work, gives me space when I need it, leaves an important meeting so we can celebrate my birthday – means giving up the fantasy of someone better. And I found that prospect to be incredibly unsettling. Too unsettling, in fact, to make a relationship work.

So as I started to find increasing number of flaws in our budding relationship, I became more distant and was able to turn more to the men in my head than the one in my life. I retained control over my feelings. I know these imaginary men don’t exist, and they’re not out there patiently waiting for me to come along. But I can retain hope and selfishly chase my own dreams while telling myself that it’s just not time to be with someone yet. And that’s comfortable for me.

I want to recall some of my dating experiences in grad school here. Some of them are funny, and some are quite sad. But maybe going over how that felt and how I reacted will shine some light on why I try so desperately to protect myself. I think I do want to be married – to share myself with someone completely – but I’m not positive of that. The choices I've made, my current priorities and how I deal with life indicates that finding someone special isn't very important to me. So if the goal here is self-exploration, this is a major area in need of debugging. Because there’s some glitch in my romantic code, and I seem to be living in this endless loop while the internal program that should be making me want to meet men who are real and flawed and wonderful instead creates variations of the right man only inside my imagination.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Science, academia, and hope

I do love academia. In the week I’ve been typing out thoughts and impressions and posting them here, I’ve been negative about some aspects of my life as a post-doc. Today I was reminded today about what I find so appealing about this world. I think it’s an interesting facet of our society - the academic world. Granted, I’ve been strictly involved in the sciences, then have moved into medical applications, so I don’t have a complete picture. For example, I understand that students outside the sciences sometimes have to pay to put themselves through the miserable experience that is grad school. Hideous. And no compensation for travel expenses? Awful. Tremendous competition for jobs after graduation? Unheard of. My advice to anyone who is interested in delaying real life by completing a graduate program is to enter the sciences. My part of the academic world is a place where paid positions in research are available, travel for conferences is paid for, you get a lovely set of benefits, and where you can at least attempt to support yourself while you complete research that would be necessary to finish a thesis anyway. It’s a beautiful little system.

The job can be stressful, and medical applications, while incredibly rewarding and well-funded (comparatively, of course – nobody’s bragging about how much money they’re getting to do science right now) are sometimes riddled with confounds and problems. But when I look at my world on good days, I see brilliant people who have dedicated themselves to constantly learning. The best professors have told me that they gain a little more insight each term they teach a course. Leading research groups is a constant exercise in keeping up with literature, providing focus and nudging students in the most promising direction. Performing the studies demands careful thought, attention to detail and constant obsession over the question you're trying to answer, and how you can chip away at the problem to get closer to your goal.

Now I’m part of this world. I was talking to a friend today and he told me that it takes a long time to feel like you know what you’re doing. Years until you feel really comfortable, even in your area of expertise. You don’t always notice the mistakes in papers, present your material in the most clear way, design a study so that you answer the right questions in some reasonable way. But we make the attempt. Someone says that a current method is lacking – a group of patients die too soon or suffer too much. There’s something profound about looking at a problem and trying to solve it, most times approaching from many directions and from many disciplines in a struggle to understand, to test solutions, and to progress toward a preferrable alternative.

Disease, and the treatment thereof, is such a huge problem though. I think I get discouraged because I see how far we have to go. I remember being stuck in traffic with my mom on a trip to St. Louis to do some shopping. The arch looked so very far away, and I started to whine. So Mom continued to pick out little goals - we just wanted to get around this corner, then we just wanted to make it over the bridge, then over the hill, and eventually we had passed enough little markers that we reached the destination. I've never been good about seeing the little accomplishments though - I tend to notice how very far we seem from the arch and feel inadequate when I think about how quickly we should be trying to get there. I hear about people who are hoping for miracles, and I want to hurry. Sometimes there's just too much stuff in the way though, and you have to slow down. Going too fast, as satisfying as it is in the moment, can trick you into taking a bad detour. You have this idea, and it’s exciting and promising, but someone’s tried it already or there’s some fatal flaw. So we spend hours upon hours reading about what other people do – how they do it, their successes, their advice, implications for the field, possible problems. And some days all I see is suffering – patients with several alternatives, but none of them good. And it's frustrating to spend time reading the map when I'd rather speed toward something and hope I'm heading in the right direction.

But then I see a speaker who has traveled to be here, who’s telling us all that he can to make our programs more successful, to spark thoughts, to obtain insight into how to improve his own studies. I’ve seen it more times than I can count – seminars, questions, discussions afterward, but today it struck me as being particularly powerful. We’re trying to build careers, make money, support families, but we’re also trying to make the world better. And that effort is completely sincere – for as much as I’d like to be published and get grants funded, I believe that the desire to be relevant for a group of people who might need the help is stronger by far.

So I read the journals, and I listen to the talks. I look forward to conferences, not just for the travel – though I’ve been to Europe and Asia and traveled throughout North America – but to see what’s new and important, to talk to other scientists and discover alternatives to how I was thinking. And I sense the hope that we’re finding some critical element that might contain the answer. Or at least enough of the answer to help someone feel a little better, live a little longer, or avoid dealing with us altogether. So I'm smiling tonight, with some pride and some optimism, because a group of people who constantly strive to know more might someday know enough.