Oct 27, 2013

An atypical week in the life of a PhD

Monday: The start of our one-week "break." In Grad School, "break" has no common roots with other concepts you may have heard of, such as "spring break" or "spa break" or "Kit Kat break" or even "Diet Coke break" (congrats to those 30-somethings who caught the 1990s ad reference). No, in Grad School, "break" means "instead of dragging yourself to class at 8:30 you get to spend the week taking exams and writing papers." Wait, what?

I have filled the last three days with comparative statics, joint distribution of functions of random variables and inverse matrices (what crazy mathematician came up with the absurd concept of the inverse matrix? and where did he find whatever it was he was smoking?) I therefore decide to start my one-week "break" by focusing on some research instead. There are no equations in my research. Just people. I spend an hour talking to the happiest, most positive man in the world. I gain much-needed perspective. The week is starting out very nicely.

Tuesday: Exam day. This is when I get to pretend to be a PhD-level economist and mathematician and fail. Fortunately, the exam gods seem to have been kind and I come out of there feeling mildly confident. The trick, I've found, is to squeeze in as many upside-down As as possible.

The remainder of the day is spent in philosophical discussion around zebras, misfits and human connection. The sun is shining. Being a grad student is fun.

Wednesday: Completely unexpected email lands in the inbox, inviting me to read one of my short stories at a literary magazine event. Am bowled over. Curse the fact that all of my friends live in time zones in which they are asleep at this hour, and debate whether it's acceptable to wake people up with news other than impending disaster. Digress into internal musings about why bad news is more important than good news, and why being happy doesn't count as news. Trust me, when you're Res, being happy is news. Decide nevertheless to let friends sleep. You're welcome.

Said serendipitous tidings make it physically impossible for me to start work on the paper I'm supposed to write by the end of the week. Dive into procrastination instead. Sunshine disappears. Whatever. I'm a rock star. I have no need of sunshine.

Thursday: Oh dear. Mired in procrastination like a fly in molasses now. Only one little paper left to write but it might as well be War and Peace. I am prepared to do anything else, like chatting with my banker, wandering the aisles of the supermarket, and contributing to the depletion of the world's forest like any proper academic by printing out reams of psychology articles. Then I decide my time would be better spent re-watching The West Wing. For the fourth time. No, it doesn't get old (although the fashion does).

Friday: Having accomplished next to nothing this week, it's time for a much-needed "break break." What? I did get through three research interviews, not to mention reorganizing my class notes in binders. A break is totally justified. So off I jet to remind myself that in life there is not only coursework and exams but also art, shopping and some pretty fabulous bottles of wine.

Saturday: I don't know if it's the wine, the approaching onslaught of winter or some deep, personal failing, but I will never write this paper. This paper has become my Hades, my Everest, by giant whale with an extra side of blubber. But isn't this what I gave up my career and signed up to academia for? To write thoughtful yet provocative papers on topics I'm pretty sure I found interesting five minutes ago? Trust me, my nugget of an idea was ground-breaking genius until I had to actually commit thought to paper and make it coherent in ten pages of double-spaced size twelve font, bibliography not included. Damn.

Sunday: Do you know what it feels like to actually wrestle a blubbery cetacean to the death? Well now so do I. I'm not going to lie to you folks, it wasn't pretty, but the paper is written. Hopefully I've learned something from the process because next "break" I'll have four of these to do. Sigh. Two months down. Four years and eight months to go. Until I actually get to do this for a living.

And that's a wrap.

(Ummm... There were cookies? I didn't get any cookies. Did the others get cookies? Why didn't I get any cookies? Moooooommmmy!!!!)

Oct 20, 2013


Do you sometimes think back about what you wanted to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a writer. I also wanted to be a singer in a rock band. And a police detective. Shakespearean actress, judge, CEO of a multinational company, teacher, museum curator, military strategist and President of whatever country would have me were also on the list.

I have wanted to be all those things. Note, I'm not saying I have wanted to be any one of those things at any one time. No. I wanted to be all of those things. All of the time. And then some.

When my parents told me I could grow up to be anything, I misunderstood and thought they meant I could grow up to be everything. Like Leonardo.

Can't you picture it? Res Da Vinci - Renaissance Woman.

Sure, you could say this is but another sign of my inability to commit, a symptom of my Dabbler-itis. Heck, that's what I usually think when I decide to take an (uncharacteristicly?) negative view of things. But what's wrong with one little person wanting to embrace all that is remarkable and good about human knowledge and creation? (well maybe not all of it, I'm not so deluded to think I could actually ever learn how to cook). The Renaissance was a remarkable time, credited with dragging our sorry humanity's ass out of the Game-of-Thrones style Middle Ages and into Enlightenment, all thanks to great men (sadly, yes, just men) who knew how to paint, do math and provide excellent political counsel, all before lunch.

Did anyone ever tell Leonardo he should just commit? Like maybe just focus on learning anatomy and leave the painting of mysterious smirking women to someone else? Not that I'm putting myself in the same category, obviously - but maybe there's the rub. If you're the most talented human being of all time, it's fine to mess about a bit. But if you're merely average, then its all David Ricardo and specialization for you (trust an Englishman to ruin it for everybody).

Seriously, though. When did we decide it was a sign of immaturity and flightiness to want to do more than one thing? To want to be more than one thing? When did the Renaissance man go out of fashion? And what can I do to bring him back and turn him into a woman?

Sep 25, 2013


The one thing I have learned so far in Grad School (other than integration and Hessian matrices - which, to be honest, I haven't quite mastered yet) is humility. Humility, from the Latin humilitatem. Meaning "the property pertaining to pond scum." You know what other word comes from humilitatem? Humiliation.

I scoured phdcomics.com for a suitable illustration of this principle but nothing quite captured the true pond-scumminess of the experience: hours of blood, sweat, tears and prayers suitable for multiple denominations, and all you can come up with is: "I don't know. Alpha squared?"

I won't lie to you, despite all my lecturing about how being a "mature" GradStudent provides a safeguard against meaningless stress, (cause baby, I've seen it all before) well... I had a bit of a fullblown meltdown the other day. A "2-year old in the supermarket" kind of meltdown. But alphas and betas and gammas and whatnots be damned, today I am David effing Guetta. As in, walking down the street towards the n-th mathematical modeling class, hands in the air flashing Nixonian victory symbols, and proclaiming to the world that "I am titaaaaaa-neeeeeee-ummmmmm." That's right. Res has become indestructible. Res has achieved nirvana. Res is immune to bullets, fire, disease and whichever Greek letter you see fit to throw at her.

Naturally, the locals see me with my hands waving and my top-of-the-lungs singing and probably think I'm the latest addition to this town's cast of crazies. And who can blame them. I'm the person who actually chose to go back to school. Again. Heck, even I think I'm crazy.

Crazy, yes. But no longer pond scum.

Sep 5, 2013

Older, dummer, hungrier

I’ve been thinking about “age” recently. Age, they tell us, is a relative concept. Well, they’re wrong. As far as I can tell, age is only relative until you hit 35 and join a PhD program full of 20-somethings. Then you go from being relatively old to just plain old. Your fellow students call you “mamma bear,” find it miraculous that you can identify any music pre-1998 and exclaim at the fact that you’re a whole 12 years older than them, wondering if that’s weird for you. Yes, dear, that is weird for me, now be a darling and grab me my knitting while I go find my slippers.

Jesus, Mary, Joseph and other irrelevant biblical characters. What am I doing here?

Mostly, what I’m doing is dutifully copying down incomprehensible mathematical formulas that look something like this:

This is part of the definition for Pareto preference, the easiest thing we’ve done so far. A week ago I didn’t even know how to spell Pareto. Now… Well, now I know how to spell Pareto. The rest, I’m still figuring out. Why my life will be better when I do remains a mystery.

I have learned a few useful tidbits, however. For example, I can tell you that to increase your chances of selecting the best candidate for a job under the totally absurd condition that, after each interview, you can either hire them or reject them forever, you should screen and reject 37% of the candidates and hire whoever is best after that. In this case your chances of actually finding the best candidate are 37%. Yeah, not really useful, actually. I don't think that would have helped me much with my hiring problems at CoolCo Sub.


There is a point to my being here, I know there is. Not to feel as decrepit as Mathusalem or to practice writing squiggly lines and upside-down As, but to do some in-depth research about things that interest me and then (one hopes) to impart my knowledge to adulating crowds.

But that comes later. When? Dunno. Later. After the Pareto stuff and constrained optimization problems and probability solutions to other bizarre hiring practices.

Which is why one just has to put a big smile on one's face and think of cookies.

Aug 25, 2013

You didn't think I'd just abandon you, did you?

Here we are. Well, I say "we," but it could just be me, really. Because after all this time, is there any reason you would still be here?

I do have a good reason for not having written since 2012. Or a continuous series of passable reasons, at least.

First, for a long time I didn't write because I was so very lost that, besides "I am so very lost," I could think of nothing at all to write about (and let's face it, we have a bit of a dead horse flogged there). Then I convinced myself I had (finally) gotten to that point where being a screw-up stops being cute, and everyone wishes you would just keep your existential angst to yourself like proper grown-ups do. I thought maybe I should try to be taken seriously (by anyone who isn't me), and that this might require a dialing down of the online exhibitionism. Which then led me to worry - in today's post-Snowden dystopia (and yes, I'm being ironic) - that I might have whored out my anonymity in exchange for cheap digital thrills and really, I was worth more than that.

And then I got some really lovely comments from readers and thought, screw it, I'm coming back.

Now, at this point, there was going to be a wonderfully uplifting video you could click on to get a subtle indication of what I will be up to starting tomorrow, something to get us all happy again and in the kind of coolly sarcastic but secretly hopeful mood that you have come to expect from yours truly. But sadly the gods of people who make videos were not on my side.

Maybe this audio link will work instead.

And if it doesn't, well, I'm sure you clever clogs will figure it out eventually. In the meantime, I bid you goodnight. It sure is nice to be with y'all again.