Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Return to Grad School, the day in detail

“I wish you were around more often,” said YoungerStudent. She had just begun the program as I prepared to depart and I liked her a great deal, though I questioned her suitability for this field of study. “You’re like a bright ray of sunshine.”

I smiled and thanked her, feeling rather accomplished and lovely about my day. And a ray of sunshine is a little like a bubble of happiness. But we should start at the beginning.

I slept well on Sunday night, waking early yesterday morning and wishing desperately for coffee. There was only decaf in my room and I wasn’t sure of the cleanliness of my coffee pot so I decided to wait until I walked to campus to obtain my precious (apparently addictive) beverage. I dressed and carefully arranged my hair into masses of curls, feeling rather proud of the bouncy results. Then I bundled into a large coat I borrowed from my mom and shrugged my bag on my shoulder and set out with mincing steps over snow and packed ice to the entrance to the hospital.

The memories returned - some with greater speed than others - and I found them all pleasant. I walked through the interconnected buildings easily, remembering some of the artwork that hung in hallways, pictures of graduates that were displayed in others. I made turns without thinking, ignoring the signs to follow a path that I once took multiple times each day. I took a set of steps and entered the suite of offices, frowning when I didn’t immediately recall which cubicle had been mine.

I smiled at OlderStudent, the last of those I knew very well from my time here.

“I’m going to get coffee,” I told her. “You’re welcome to join me to chat or I’ll come back after I drink something.” So we set off down a set of stairs to pump coffee into a cup and I barely restrained myself from starting to sip before I’d paid. I made it to a small table and sat across from OlderStudent before sighing with relief and beginning to consume the liquid I apparently require to truly awaken.

She’s doing well - recently had a paper accepted, seems grounded in theory and application and seems to be tolerating the emotional highs and lows rather beautifully. I decided I wanted to learn one of her techniques and she said she would print out instructions and programs that I would require. I now have them tucked in my bag and I smiled at them fondly when she handed them over with detailed explanations and exceptions to various rules. It’s lovely to see her develop into someone with whom I’d happily collaborate. I’m pleased for and proud of her.

OlderStudent introduced me to NewBoyWonder. A triple major for undergrad, he’s now an MD/PhD student just beginning research. I found him to be bright and personable. He had good questions for me and a genuine excitement about the various research possibilities available here. I also know a bit about what he’s trying to do, though my focus was different than his, so we had a good deal of talking to do. But our time together was soon up and I traded looking into his bright blue eyes for the softer, deeper brown of YoungerStudent.

“It’s been hard, Katie,” she said and I nodded sympathetically. She feels alienated by her mentors. They don’t pay enough attention and she finds she’s too polite to demand it. She had questions about how hard to push and how to approach reluctant collaborators and I answered them as completely as I could. We share personality characteristics - enough of them that I empathize with her very easily. Feeling as though you know less than everyone else, that the emotional repercussions of tough meetings or bad performance are more severe for you than they seem to be for others. Missing home and free time and wondering if you’re doing the right thing and making appropriate choices. So it was a pleasure to listen to her speak and I was relieved to hear her describe her projects with authority.

“Look at you,” I grinned, “knowing what you’re doing and explaining it so beautifully.” I found that as a visiting scientist, which is a very good gig, I’m very encouraging. I offer reassurances and pep talks throughout the day, wanting people to feel good about their interactions with me and enthusiastic about their projects. It was, in short, rather delightful. My relief with YoungerStudent, however, was short-lived.

“I’d use a different command line, first of all,” I decided, peering over her shoulder at her computer monitor. “Your method seems reasonable, but it’s really complicated when it doesn’t need to be.” So I shared how I would approach the problem and watched her look terribly confused. “OK,” I said easily, “so we’ll stick with your method until a certain point if it makes more sense to you.” But I wondered if that was the case.

I borrowed a sheet of paper and drew pictures and wrote out command lines. Made notes and watched her do as I instructed and continue to look confused. I would nod patiently after I finished explaining, consider her for a moment and begin again. On my third try of explaining what I felt was a painfully simple concept, she appeared to understand. So we smiled at each other and went into detail of the next step of reorganizing her spreadsheet to reflect this corrected methodology.

“I feel like I’m irritating OlderStudent or other people when I ask for this much help,” she told me. “So I needed you.”

“You might be,” I said honestly. “But it’s a give and take situation. You’ll learn things to teach others and you’ll need some time and effort from more senior students. It’s part of the training process.”

A bus ride and lengthy walk in the cold later, eight of us sat around a table waiting for pasta and pizza to be served. We chatted happily and YoungerStudent smiled at me from the other end of the table.

“I love your command line,” she said and I nodded before sipping soda to avoid my tendency to get overwhelmingly sleepy at lunchtime. “You saved me.”

“I’m glad it helped,” I offered sincerely and turned to face new faces across the table. New&Scruffy spoke slowly and was quite funny. We didn’t talk in detail - simply met at lunch - but I found myself fond of him. He wasn’t nearly as sharp and charismatic as NewBoyWonder, but had his own relaxed charm that I rather enjoyed. He talked about his love for fishing and hatred of seafood. He won’t eat cooked fish, he clarified, but loves sushi.

Next to him sat New&Fashionable. She only removed her expensive scarf for the few minutes that she ate. I found myself admiring her clothes and glasses. Her hair and makeup were impeccable - an impressive trick in the middle of a harsh winter up here. She was quiet but seemed - perhaps because she was pretty - confident. I didn’t get a strong impression - aside from wondering where she got her frames and if they would look good perched on my nose too - until later. Instead, we all spoke casually about conference travel and told funny stories and caught up with personal lives.

New&Political seemed to have selected the right career path, I decided after speaking with him for a few moments. In response to my “Tell me all about what you do and where you’re going. In 15 minutes or less, please,” command (we were running late), he was noncommittal, respectful and very charming in a non-threatening way. He seemed articulate and almost jolly at times, seeming much older than I believe him to be. His patient populations will be difficult - perhaps tremendously so, I thought, though I didn’t share that since I believe there are ways around most problems and prefer to be encouraging in those situations. But we discussed public policy and organ transplants and state versus federal laws in various medical situations. It was rather interesting and while he smiled and shook his head when I asked if he had political aspirations past being involved in scientific policies, he looked thoughtful for several moments afterward. I admire that and hope his passion and personality take him where he wants to go.

New&Formal and I wouldn’t be best friends. She was…not intimidating, though she could have been to some, I suppose. A little too impressed with herself, perhaps, and that doesn’t sit particularly well with me. I actually started collecting the data for her project - it took time and energy. But she did, as we were awkwardly saying our good-byes since we didn’t really click in the time we spent together, compliment me on the documentation I created before I left. I have a file of detailed notes on various software packages and, apparently, those how-to documents have been heavily utilized since I left. This pleases me and I decided that I might like her after all. Perhaps the proximity of our meeting to her prelim exams had made her a bit more formal than she otherwise might have been.

I wrapped up with Sam. I picked Sam as the name for a character in my novel because I had a stuffed koala called Sam when I grew up. He was cuddly and sweet, but always seemed like a wise plush toy to me. The Sam who’s here deserved the name, I decided. He was the tiniest bit goofy - taking off a bright red cap and mussing his hair while he adjusted his glasses and talked about his friends. He’s choosing graduate programs as he finishes his undergraduate degree so we discussed options and classes and possible electives. He struck me as bright and wonderful. He may not be as popular as NewBoyWonder, but he’s a more solidly smart guy. I’d work with him on a moment’s notice.

After I shook hands with Sam, I fetched Advisor and we made our way to the lecture hall. I was hooked up and clipped a microphone to my sweater, feeling my stomach flutter alarmingly. I hadn’t been nervous as I pretended I was wiser in addition to older. I confessed my problem to the seminar coordinator and he smiled easily.

“It’s a big room and large crowd,” he soothed. “Most people are a bit nervous.”

Members of my committee, save Pete (who I didn’t see at all), greeted me warmly. One said I looked wonderful, which was a sweet compliment as I’ve felt rather icky of late. The senior member gave me a quick hug and encouraged me to collaborate with his huge group of students. The last of the three, a man who is sweet as a teddy bear, offered a couple of excellent suggestions at the end of my talk. A couple other professors approached me afterward - some to say hello, others to compliment my performance.

“That’s the only seminar I’ve actually understood,” New&Fashionable offered after the crowd cleared and we stood to talk for a moment.

“I noticed you looking interested, and thought you were terribly sweet,” I noted, smiling at her.

“I didn’t get all of it,” she explained, “but you explained concepts at a level that I could figure out and then when things got complicated, you always summarized it in a way that I felt like I could follow. It was great.” I patted her arm fondly, gave Advisor one last hug and waved to the remainder of the group as they dispersed for the evening.

Only YoungerStudent remained and I insisted she keep in touch if she needed advice or help or a pep talk. That’s when she called me a ray of sunshine before I stepped into the cold, gray evening and retraced my mincing steps made in black flats toward my car in the hotel parking lot. I enjoyed getting impressions of young students. They delighted me when they focused on bits of descriptions they’d clearly memorized and looked relieved when I asked easy questions and expressed interest in them as people more than projects.

As for where I go from here, that’s unclear. I’ll interview up north again for an interesting position that lies somewhere between FacultyJob and IndustryGiant. But in the meantime, I’ll head south again. Battling snowy roads to return to work seems a very small price to pay for the last couple of days. It really has been a wonderful trip.


Anonymous said...

sounds like a great trip

Psychgrad said...

It's nice to get the full details of your day. Kudos to you for really taking time to talk to the students. Just as you said to YoungerStudent "You’ll learn things to teach others", it applies to the efforts you made in your day as well. Not only are you helping with regards to their individual tasks/research, you are showing them how to interact with colleagues. I would love to have someone more senior (other than my supervisor) come talk to me about research.

Wayfarer Scientista said...

Wow. Good for you. It sounds wonderful. I can't imagine going back to my gradschool being like that.

T said...

It sounds like things went really smooth. I'm glad. When I first started grad school here all the senior grad students were getting ready to leave. Before my first year of grad school was over, I have become the default, senior grad student. It sounds like the new members of your old group really benefited from your visit, I think it's a wonderful thing.

Jeremy said...

I'm pretty sure I don't know you, and I don't think I'm very scruffy. However, I live in the Great White North, hate cooked fish and love sushi, and had a conversation about that topic this past week, so I guess I can't totally rule it out. Didn't occur at a pizza/pasta joint, and I'm not a student, but I thought it was a weird juxtaposition nonetheless.

post-doc said...

You offered a glimpse into the panic I feel when I get lazy and offer mostly factual information in posts that clicks with someone else. But site stats assure me you're in a different part of the Frozen-ness up there, so we're good. And I eat cooked fish, but never sushi, so I guess the reverse isn't all that odd. :)

It was a good trip - I'm glad I went.

Thanks. It was actually really delightful for me to focus on what they're doing and how they look at research in their early careers.

I wasn't sure what to expect and felt moderately badly for taking their time on my visit. But it worked out really nicely. I'd definitely do it again in a year or two. It's odd to be able to offer such informed perspective on people and departments, so it made the talks rather fascinating for me.

Thank you. I'm sorry you became the senior student so quickly though. I learned a tremendous amount from the people ahead of me and wish you'd had that cushion as well.

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