Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Familiar Place

I’ve been here before. Or at least in a place similar to this.

Here is how a graduate career in physics goes (at least at IU) :

Year 1 : Core courses....sleeping roughly 5 hours a night...doing homework every other minute of every day. Weekends for fun? Uh. No.

Summer between Year 1 and Year 2 : Studying, taking and passing the Qualifying exam, which is a two day, five hours per day test based on the core courses.

Year 2 : Courses focused on your proposed path of research. This is when we started running because we had a bit more time and the pace of things had calmed down a bit.

Years 3-7 : Dedicated research work & graduate.
It doesn’t take everyone 7 years, in fact it rarely takes that long. Jason took 5 years, I will take about 6 years. The most you get is 7 years.

Anyways. That summer between years 1 and 2 was horrible. There was this “thing” looming at the end of the summer. No matter what we did or places we went, it was always just sitting there. Waiting. Laughing. So the summer was spent starting in on research work for the first half and the second half was just studying. All the time. It was up early, think about the test, worry about the test, go out and study for the test, continue to worry about it, go home, eat dinner, try and watch TV although you don’t really know what’s going on because your mind is totally centered on that one thing that comes closer every day.

I said, and other students have agreed, that it was the worst summer of our lives. It was so nice outside and we were all stuck in dark dank corners or the lonely basement of the library or into any other lonely corner we could find. I thought my graduate career was going to end after that test. I didn’t think I would pass it and after the second day of testing, Jason and I jumped in the car with our bags already packed and drove to New York City. I felt so free. We had a great trip in NYC. We didn’t even tell our adviser we were going because we didn’t think it was going to matter after he saw our performance on the exam.

We were sitting in an internet cafe somewhere in NYC and we saw an e-mail from him, saying “Congrats....” in the subject line. We had both passed the test, and he was wondering where we were. Our lives instantly took a new turn as all the planning of finding jobs went out the window. It was the best feeling of all time. There would still be a lot of work to do, but the hardest hurdle seemed to be jumped.

That was five years ago. Since then there have been some hard times, and long hours and weekends spent at the lab, getting a nap in here or there or in the car. But there was never this one thing looming that had to get done. It was more of a "I don't think this is ever going to actually happen" feeling. And now. Now I find myself back at that point. There is this paper I have to write. And it’s due on July 1st and there are no if ands or buts to prolong the time. I am absolutely totally focused in on that. Running has taken the way back burner. I get up at 6am and I’m out the door by 6:50. I go to a coffee shop downtown and work on my publication paper which is also due right about now for about an hour. Then it’s on the train. I’m at work from about 10am-5pm. I get home at about 7:45, and it’s just very very.....not stressful exactly. I can’t think of the word.....intense? taxing? I don’t is what it is.

So I’m back to a place I never thought I would be. However, this time I know that there is no way I can fail and it will all end with a PhD from a Big 10 University. But that doesn’t stop the “thing” from looming, laughing and consuming my every waking thought.


Scott said...

Leah- You have a great perspective on the whole process and how you plug into it. You're a winner now. . . just have to jump through the last couple of hoops (of course they are fire hoops!) :-)


Sailor Sue said...

Your description with words of the life of a phd student are awesome. As vivid as your photos. Keep at it. Soon you will conquer the beast....I mean 'the thing.'

Firefly's Running said...

I have never imagined how difficult a PhD is. Wow!