Sunday, August 29, 2010

When the world comes crashing down…

Take a break and marvel as it crumbles around you. Okay, that’s terrible. I tried for profound and wound up with harbinger of doom-ish. At 730 AM this wonderful Saturday morning I rolled out of bed and over to my desk, hastily grabbed my Biochemistry book and settled in with my hot pink highlighter to begin a fantastical journey into the world of amino acids. Doesn’t get any better than that, kids. This is what my life has become and what it will be for the next year or so. I wake up, I go to class. I come home, I do work for class. I “weekend” and by that I mean study. I roll out of bed just to study. We do what we must for the things we want out of life, but sometimes I take it too far. And yes, I am using weekend as a verb. I can do that I’m a grad student.

Earlier in the week plans were made with a few friends to take a day trip. We wound up in Indianapolis, Indiana. I packed the essentials – a sweater if I got cold, comfy shoes for my aching feet, gum for stinky breath, Carmex for parched lips, my biochemistry book for light reading, an article (or two…okay three) for EXTRA light reading and a notebook for question answering. I tried reading on the way to Indy. My brain rebelled like a frat boy the night after a keg-stand binge. It finally dawned on me – my brain needed a break! It was overflowing with the vast world of neurobiology that it’d been forced into. It was crying for release. My temple literally drummed out the beat to “stop dogging me around (please just leave me alone).” I put the work away and had fun. For the first time in days.

We visited the Indianapolis Zoo and petted sharks. We stopped by the Indianapolis Museum of Art and had a “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” moment. We visited a local cultural district and had Mexican for dinner. We laughed, we joked, we took an exorbitant (yes, exorbitant. That GRE prep finally paid off) amount of pictures. I had fun. I gave my brain a break. And, now, as I sit on my living room futon and type this out – my brain feels much better. It absorbed the info, finally.

Moral of the story – don’t spend ALL of your time studying. Leave your books at home, your articles, your highlighters and your notebooks and spend a day in sheer mindlessness. Take a day to not learn. It’s just one day, and, if you’ve budgeted time accordingly and studied as you should, it’ll only be one day. Besides, there’s always tomorrow. At least until December 21,2012….we’ll see about tomorrow then.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

What's that thing where you close your eyes and don't think for a few hours called again?

Today was a long and somewhat disheartening day. I’ve never seen so many papers and had so much information crammed down my throat at one time in my life. And boring doesn’t even begin to cover the quality of the articles I am currently abrading my eyeballs with. Not to mention the fact that I missed my bus, again, after darting out into the street, risking life and limb, and sprinting through a crosswalk only to have the pompous bus driver thumb her nose at me, stick out her tongue, wiggle her fingers and say (and this is a direct quote) “nyah, nyah, nyahnyah, nyah.” I swear….true story.

I arrived home only to discover that I was too lazy to cook. I was unable to convince even myself that the excuse of “having too much work to do” was reason enough order Domino’s Pizza, but I did it anyway. I sat. I stared. I thought about thinking about studying. I stared some more. I watched my computer screen anxiously as the Domino’s Pizza online tracker foretold the arrival of intestinal stimulation. I finally managed to corral the neural troops and focus enough to study cellular neurobiology AND biochemistry. So far this week I’ve received 2 homework handouts forcing me to answer questions about organic chemistry and general chemistry – two courses that I happily buried beneath rocks in my memory graveyard. I’ve received 2 papers for cellular neurobiology that must be read by Tuesday. My prof even gift wrapped them with 15 questions for which the answers must be typed and turned in on Tuesday. I must also prepare for detailed discussion of my answers and my thoughts on the articles….for Tuesday. I start my very first rotation on September 1st. I had a lab meeting about it this morning and everything. As a fringe benefit – I get to read 5 more papers concerning Na+ and H+ antiporter membrane pumps. Fun, fun, fun. I’ve never been this excited…Though, that rectal exam comes in a close second.

I thought time management was for those pansies in med school. I am dismayed at the amount of time I have poured into studying this week only to feel like I’ve accomplished nothing. But I think that 2 hours of cellular neurobiology and 3 hours of biochemistry is pretty good for one 24 hour period. I’ve even put myself on a system of reading 2 article pages per hour. I should be done with all of my current articles by 2015 – just in time for graduation.

In short boys and girls, you will be tired. You will be beat. You will shake your fists at the sky and demand, “why!” You will question what the hell made you choose to pursue a PhD. Take whatever you are thinking about the caliber of work required for graduate studies and double it. Better yet, triple it. Class just started on August 23rd. It’s got to get better right? No, seriously…I need an answer.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

It’s called grad SCHOOL for a reason boys and girls…

Since last entry I’ve managed to navigate the mean streets of south central West Lafayette, IN, watch dumbfounded as my bus passed me by (4 times at last count), and not be murdered by my roommate. All in all it has turned out to be a decent month.

Orientation was last week (all week long) and let me tell you it is not for the faint of heart! It was about as fun as a rectal exam. I don’t know about you, but being up before Jesus is not my idea of a good time! I and my cohort spent the bulk of the week running back and forth from pointless session to pointless session with a few faculty interviews in between. And by faculty interviews I mean meetings with potential labs. If the program you choose happens to be in the biological or interdisciplinary life sciences – there is a very strong possibility that you will have to complete rotations (usually 2 per semester). The PULSe program requires that incoming first year graduate students interview AT LEAST 5 faculty members to determine 1.) if their research is stimulating enough to spend 7 weeks in their lab and 2.) if you like the PI enough to endure being in their lab for 7 weeks. (HEADS UP PEOPLE! ADVICE AHEAD) The whole point of rotating through multiple labs is to make sure you find the perfect home for the next 5-7 years. Rotations ensure that you like the research in the lab you’ve chosen, that you like the people currently in the lab, that you like the PI, and so on. It is a 7 week long interview. TAKE IT SERIOUSLY!!!!! And as a bonus – any work you do that generates scientifically relevant data can be put into an article that you can be a co-author on! HOW FREAKIN AWESOME IS THAT!? Calm down, it isn’t that awesome (please note the sarcastic tone…)

I must say that I have run into some major issues trying to find a home. If you are a senior in college who is hoping to go to XYZ University for its stellar research in XYZ department – do NOT hesitate to ask any professor you are interested in working with about their funding situation. I repeat do NOT hesitate to ask any professor you are interested in working with about their funding situation. PI’s have to pay grad students out of grant money. If there is no grant money, or grant money is running low, you will be unable to work with your PI or PIs of choice. I learned this the hard way. I didn’t have anyone to tell me how to really navigate grad school (recruitment weekends included). Grad schools invite you to recruitment weekend because they want you. They bring out the shiniest of students and the “fine china” that’s always heard about but never seen. They feed you, put you up in pretty hotels, and pay for your flight – the whole gamut. They want you and they will do whatever it takes to get you – including shake their moneymakers. EVERY school wants what they consider to be the crème de la crème. If they invite you to recruitment - you, my friend, are the crème. Recognize your worth and know that you have the right to ask any question you want.

I did not know this. I chose a school that had 3 professors that were actively engaged in research DIRECTLY linked to what I wanted to study and others who I could tolerably learn from. Only one was up front with me about his funding situation. You have the right to ask professors about funding situations – especially if you are picking XYZ University because of them. When you go to recruitment and you meet with the people who will be your colleagues for the next 5-7 years – ask them how their ongoing research projects mesh with rotation schedules. Ask them about money: do they have it, will they be getting more of it, and when will they potentially be running out of it. You don’t want to choose a school and choose a lab only to have said lab run out of money halfway through your project. Ask them what the future directions of their research entails. Ask them about techniques they are currently using in the lab. You should even ask the graduate students how long it took them to generate data that was meaningful enough to give them a paper with first authorship. PhD programs in the sciences pay you for a reason. You are an employee. You have the right to know about where you will be working for the next 5 or so years.

I say all this because I didn’t ask these questions. I didn’t have anyone around me to tell me to ask these questions. Hopefully someone will be able to walk away from this in a better position than I am in today. I would like to state that this is in no way a fault of the PULSe program. My program has no way of knowing which professors have money which ones don’t. There are over 400 labs conducting research on Purdue’s main campus alone. I simply was not educated in the ways of grad school. I am now, and hopefully, so are you.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Living the high life...from the floor...

I’m here! I arrived in Purdue Country after a long and agonizing 11 hour drive across 3 states that turned into 14.5 due to terrible traffic. But we arrived safely, and that’s what counts…right? My boyfriend, his 16 year old brother and I drove across 3 states in his Chrysler – which, let me tell you, is not big on space. All of the important things were left at home, because my clothes, shoes, gaming systems and books come first! My coffee pot, crock pot, my “I got my crabs from Dirty Dicks” coffee mug, the absolutely essential to the Midwest winter coat, and my TV. Thank God for rent-a-center and its $30 television rental or my small (but hopefully growing) audience would be forced to read daily blogs about what video game held my attention for the day (Half-Life 2, thank you very much). My clothing is tossed hither and yon (yes, hither and yon) with no real organization. I know that my shoes are somewhere over there and my clothes are somewhere in here, so I’ve got a good handle on things.

My snazzy new apartment is empty. I can hear my voice bouncing off the walls. I’m sleeping on an air bed that I stole from my mom that was filled with air from an electric pump that I stole from my mom. My kitchen is fully stocked (thank God) due to Wal-Mart credit and money that I got from my parents. And by “fully stocked” I mean replete with peanut butter and jelly, waffles, eggs, pancake mix, Ramen noodles and pizza rolls. But my pots and pans are nice. When I finally I have something to cook in them it’ll actually be worth it. We made several trips to Wal-Mart, and by several I mean 3 times or more a day. Yes, I wrote a list, but obviously I am a terrible list maker; which is exactly why I’m sticking to science and leaving the list making to the professionals.

So, in my quest to single-handedly boost our sagging economy the following was spent:

Trip from NC to Purdue Country: $71

Rent (divided by 2 because I have a super cool roomie): $440

Final amount of money bequeathed to walmart: $450 (at last check)

Groceries: $130

Pizza for starving grad student: $20

TV rental: $30 for the month

TV Stand for said TV: $30

Cable (including self-installation): $30

Getting a speeding ticket right before arriving: Priceless

Because I didn’t get furniture besides my kick-ass TV stand, I’m currently writing this as I sit on the floor of my living room. Furniture I can live without – food (my dangerously addictive cookies included) – not so much. So, what have we learned boys and girls? Party your last year or summer of freedom away, vacation and have a good time – but remember to put money away for your big (and I do mean BIG) move. I thought I had it covered. I didn’t. Methinks I had a little bit too much fun…But shhhh! Let’s just keep that between us shall we?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Party like it's 1999

Note: I discovered this post lurking in the depths of my vast MyDocuments folder. Apparently it was too shy to be posted. It was written July 31, 2010. Enjoy.

T minus 5 days and counting. I never thought leaving would be this hard. Having been a military brat, I’m quite accustomed to moving away and leaving friends behind – but I do not remember it ever being this hard. The less time I have left in North Carolina, the less happy I seem to be. When I got my acceptance letter in January 2010, I couldn’t wait for August to get here. Now, I’m wishing I could roll the clock back at least 2 months. At least.

My boyfriend says that he gets sad every time he looks in the closet. Suffice it to say, I started packing this week. My side of the closet is bare, save a few hangers. My drawers are empty, save two. I’ve got a backpack on wheels full of books to keep my company while I’m all alone in my shiny new apartment. The end is nigh!

Never underestimate how difficult a task it is to create a life for oneself. I know that grad school is where I’m meant to be at this point in my life. I know that it will shape and mold me into the scientist and teacher that I hope to become. But imposter syndrome is kicking in hard. That small child inside me that is craves for a single place of belonging is begging me to stay in NC. That devil on my shoulder is telling me “you can’t do this.” But the lease has been signed, promises have been made and intentions spoken. So, I guess I’d better go.

My friends and I are planning to paint the town red tonight. Dinner, followed by one last foray into drunken debauchery. Yippee. One last night to remember how we met, all the shenanigans we’ve gotten into, the people we communally hate. It should be fun, but, honestly, I want to curl up into the fetal position and not move. I had the opportunity to go to Purdue a full 2 months early and complete some “extra” research – fully funded of course. I applied. I never heard back. Now, I’m happier than ever that I wasn’t accepted into the program. I wouldn’t have had this time to spend with my boyfriend, to see my pregnant best friend and meet her husband, to rediscover my passion for writing. I wouldn’t have had this time to have pizza parties with my GameStop crew.

So, my advice to you dear reader, should you choose to accept it, is to take the last summer before you start a masters or PhD program to have fun. And by have fun, I mean take a trip somewhere you’d never ordinarily go. Read all the books that strike your fancy and play video games until 3 am. Go out with your friends or stay in with them. Drink adult beverages and take random trips to Wal-mart for play-doh at midnight. The most important thing is that you take the time to do the things you love with the people you love the most. Grad school is already difficult, but it is especially hard if you are moving far, FAR, away from home. You want to have memories of “that time when.”

We are all called to do something of significance in our lives. Those calls take us away from the familiar. Don’t underestimate how difficult that is, as I did. The months leading up to grad school should be spent surrounded by family and friends and doing little devious things (like ballooning your significant other’s car for instance…). It should be spent surrounded by those you love and those that love you. It is during this time that you will need them the most. They are the ones that will remind you that you are capable of greatness. They are the ones that will be there for you during those first few socially awkward weeks.

Until next time audience.