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?