Thursday, June 07, 2007

I See the Hook

I have been working on my Physics PhD for 5 years...well not quite 5 years. At this point 5 years ago I was working in Chicago for an engineering company and taking my big fat paychecks straight to our local pub and promptly spending them....that was the beauty of getting paid every two weeks....anyways....onto some history of me....

The first two years of the degree were spent in Bloomington going through the course work needed for the degree. The first year you take the 'core' courses which consisted of Electricity & Magnetism, Quantum Mechanics, Classical Mechanics & Thermodynamics. At the end of the summer following that first year you take a Qualifying Exam. This was a two day exam, 5 hours & 8 questions each day covering the material learned in the first year. At this point I was doubtful that I would pass the test. The test is funny because is a strict failing point and a strict passing point....and then there is a gray area in between. The department looks at how you did the courses, if you had started research and so on. After the exam was over on that second day, Jason and I jumped into the car and drove to New York City. We didn't think we passed and were going because...hey maybe someone would see us walking down 5th Avenue and think, "That girl is fantastic.....I'm going to offer her a job".

We didn't have computers with us but we did find an Internet cafe. We had an e-mail from our advisor saying that we should get together after the department met to talk about what happened and what was said. We sheepishly realized that we didn't tell him we were leaving for the rest of the week and wouldn't be there....we had been studying non-stop for the previous 8 weeks...we were getting out of there as fast as possible. I was about to respond to apologize, when I noticed an e-mail farther down from the Advisor with the word "Congrats......" in the subject. We read it quickly and found out that Jason and I had both passed our qualifying exam.

(The next day we got engaged on the Brooklyn Bridge....but if I go into that story this post will be even longer and since it's about career I'm skipping over it...but....got engaged....then called everyone we knew to tell them....no one was home :-) )

We get back to Bloomington and found out that Jason and I had received almost the exact same score on the test....but got nothing the same correct. We were two students in the gray area and Rick said that the department all stood up for us to pass. We had decided that we would have walked away with our master's had we failed and since we were expecting that, we were a little shocked but excited to be able to stay.

The second year you take classes that are towards your area of interest. For Jason and I this was, Quantum Field Theory and Particle Physics. Field Theory was a joke....well not really. We had a great teacher for that class, but it's a class for theorists and Jason and I were frequently a little lost. Homework sets took up roughly 20 pages per week. The particle physics class was taught by our Advisor which was a really good class. But it was a long year to say the least. The homework room was a second home to us and usually the night before the Field Theory was due, I would be happy to have an hour of sleep.

Towards the end of the second year, we were talking to the head of the department who asked if we were going to Fermilab. We hadn't heard anything but we talked to our advisor who said that was the plan. We figured out that we could count some of our undergrad classes (grad level taken as undergrads at IU) towards graduation and so....we were off to Chicago.

So three years ago, Jason and I came to Fermilab and have been here ever since. We have had good times and very very low times. There have been many tears shed (by me of course), there has been doubt at my worth, doubt at my ability to finish the degree, doubt that finishing was even worth it. But then it happened. After 16 months (the first year and a half was spent on a service project), my analysis came together. I ran the piece of code that has been haunting my dreams for the past many (many) months......and it worked. I have a result! I have a lot of work left mind you...error checks and systematic checks and so on....but I have a starting point. I have a light at the end of the tunnel.

There were so so so many times that I was about to throw in the towel : The core courses nightmares, the qualifying exam, Field Theory homework sets, our first months at the lab when we didn't have an office and were sitting in a high bay area with no phone and no computers and saw NO people, working on a service project that ended badly, starting work on a thesis and working on it for 6 months and realizing a fundamental mistake in the understanding and then coding, having to start from scratch at that point, nasty words thrown at my advisor for maybe some will say a good reason and I will say I am embarrassed about now.

But when I presented my work at the meeting last week, I was proud of myself (I'm never proud of myself). I knew the amount of work that had gone in to just get to the point where there could be that flickering light at the end of the tunnel and I knew that I had done a good job on it and it has made not throwing in that towel totally worth it. Yesterday there was a poster session at the lab and I was able to present the work that I have been working on for so long and it was fun. It was fun talking to people younger than me and laugh with the people that are older than me about the amount of bullshit it has taken to get through.

I don't know what's next. I always worry about that. Jason and I go back and forth between selling out for real jobs to help pay the bills, to staying in and maybe getting a postdoc position here or in Europe at the labs that are located there. We think about the fact that we could get a postdoc, and move to Europe and we get all giddy and excited and then realize...that well....maybe we need to move the party along. Are the skills gained worth the time in...and if we move to Europe..what about the Bears...and the Cubs what would they do without us in town rooting for them.

Maybe the point is we don't know....but these last 5 years have been (in hindsight of course) fantastic. I see the hook and why my advisor loves it and works his ass off at it. There is a nice (for the most part) community here and it makes people want to stay and work harder and make new discoveries. It's an experience that I would never want to give back even if I do deviate from the physics track.

Was this whole post just a cover up for the fact that I haven't been running much this week.......nah.

Tonight it's off to Wisconsin and we'll be GMRing tomorrow!

7 comments:

Laurie said...

It is always interesting to read about someone's background, how they got to where they are today. Thanks for sharing it with us!

I am glad all of your struggles are about to pay off. You have worked very hard and should be proud of yourself!

craig durkee said...

great stuff

Scott said...

Leah-
Great Post. I'm all verklempt and, as usual, so proud of you!
DAd

Firefly's Running said...

Way to go! Nothing like the sense of accomplishment.

Fran said...

that's quite an interesting tale.

Nicole said...

Yay. Congrats on all the hard work. i'm sure you will figure it out - i have to say going to europe sounds awesome though.
good luck at the gmr.

Ryan said...

Excellent post - I think I heard the condensed version after my sixth beer of the night, and reading it had more impact, since I am more coherent and don't have karoake in my ear. You guys will figure it all soon in due time. 'Twas cool hanging out with you guys this weekend. later