Monday, May 22, 2006

Grad school, the beginning

“So he dropped me off, and I told him his car smelled really bad. Like gasoline. Gas is highly flammable, you know.” α paused for dramatic effect, and I smiled over at χ. He returned my grin before turning his attention back to α.

“I got out of his car and went back up to the office. And I said, ‘You need to have that looked at. It might catch on fire.’ Remember how I told you when I got back that night?”

χ shook his head. “That was δ.”

“Right…” α nodded, remembering. “So we were working for about half an hour, and the phone rings.” His smile got wider, and I glanced again at χ since I knew the story was about to get more interesting.

“It’s him. On the phone. And he says,” α pauses and switches over to a credible German accent. “ 'Come get me.’ ” Then pauses to huff out some laughter before continuing his story. I started to giggle as well, thrilled to be involved, hearing stories, spending time with my research group.

“So I asked why he needed a ride,” α continued through laughter that I remember vividly. It’s quite distinct. “and he said, ‘The car exploded.’”

I looked at χ, a bit more serious and trustworthy and raised my eyebrows. He nodded, throwing his credibility behind the exploding car story.

“Did you go get him?” I asked, still laughing with them.

“Hell, yes. We wanted to see the car. They had to use fire extinguishers to put it out!”

I actually began research with two groups in the late Spring of 2001. The collaboration was (and still would be in theory) a good one – there was a fit that seemed to work between the advisors, there was a huge gap in the literature that could be filled, and I was excited and enthusiastic about both areas.

It was deemed that Group B would be the more difficult in terms of the initial learning curve, so I would start there. However, the Greek letters asked that I attend their meetings on Wednesday afternoons. It was like Heaven and Hell, and Heaven only allowed me entrance just before noon every Wednesday.

Hell is obviously too harsh. There were facets of Group B that I enjoyed a great deal, but I found the grad students in charge were … well, mean. Ignoring me as much as possible, avoiding direct questions, generally making me feel small and unimportant. I do very poorly in such situations. I’m more productive in friendly spaces, where I feel encouraged and welcome. So going back to the Greek letters after spending time with Group B? I felt like I could breathe, work, learn.

I arrived at work one day to find all my things were gone. Replaced with a larger computer, countless power cords and connecting cables. There were two offices – one with α-δ, and another with some support staff and my desk. But my pretty cup of pens, my little bear holding a flower, the notebook I used – all gone.

Confused, I wandered next door to ask β what to do. She – one of the more impatient women I’ve met – always handled my problems with grace. She would help me, be pleased to see me, I knew. But I didn’t get to ask about my meager possessions. I found them nestled on the desk closest to the door.

“Do I live here now?” I said softly, moving the bear to the edge of the desk.

And α-χ turned to smile at me before α rolled his eyes. “δ got some new computer and spent all weekend trying to run cables through the ceiling." He pointed to the small hole at the top of one wall.

“It didn’t reach.” β and χ stifled laughter, and α smiled before continuing. “There was swearing. But he decided to trade desks with you, so yes. Now you’re in here with us.”

“Yay!” β said. “Sit. Talk. Work.”

I didn’t sit right away. I walked to Advisor’s office and asked if I could leave Group B and stay with the Greek letters full time. They liked me. I adored them. I wanted to do this work, felt I could make quicker progress. Realized I just wasn’t compatible with the training style in Group B. The switch was easy – I was sure it was right. My co-advisor understood – we’d spoken before of my difficulty – and I asked χ to help me move books one day.

So I started to fill the shelves above my desk, would look over α’s desk to see out the huge window, alternately smiled and whined to β as she helped me write loops in Matlab code. I took copies of old homework from α and χ, asked questions, laughed at jokes, learned more stories. I panicked and they soothed. I was sad and they told stories of their own struggles, made me feel like part of a spectacular group rather than the most spectacular of failures.

So there I sat. And talked. And worked.


ScienceWoman said...

Beautiful banner and wonderful story. Thanks for starting my day off right.

post-doc said...

Sweet as always, ScienceWoman. Thank you.

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